Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jonas Nilsson and Gertrude Svensdotter - Settlers of New Sweden in America

1 Jonas Nilsson, 2 Judith Jonasdotter Nilsson, 3 Johann “Jonas” Yocum4 John Yocum, 5 Mary Yocum, 6 Margaret Bell, 7 Isaiah Custer, 8 John William Custer, 9 Corda Bell Custer, 10 William Frederick Franklin, 11 Edna Bethel Franklin, 12 Judith Ann Hayward 

Children taking American history classes today learn, of course, about the Revolutionary War and, to some extent, what led up to it.  But their lessons might lack details about  the brave people who left their friends and family behind in order to build a new future in a new land many years before the defining Revolutionary War began.  

These brave souls didn't have the benefit of fancy printed brochures, Facebook or TV to give them a "heads up" on what to expect once they reached America.  And they couldn't have begun to picture the primitive living conditions they would experience on these  fragile ships which were either paralyzed because of lack of wind or were thrown around while being buffeted by heavy seas.

Some of these early travelers did know that their future would hold years of slavery after  having been convicted of crimes and transported across the vast sea as punishment. Or, lacking financial resources at home, passengers often sold themselves into indentured servitude in the hope that their masters would treat them kindly and they would eventually be able to earn their freedom.  

Complicating matters even further was that this lush land was already populated by tribes of Indians who not only had a completely different culture and language than their own, but weren't always thrilled – with good reason – to share the land on which they had lived for countless generations with these odd looking, sometimes aggressive strangers. 

After coming face to face with these and other perceived realities, it's amazing that the travelers didn't “come to their senses” and jump on the next ship heading home!

Flag of England
Our family history has been enriched by some of those early settlers who (luckily for us)  survived the journey and the hard years that followed.  One was Henry Adams (great great grandfather of John and Samuel Adams and featured in an earlier post), who sailed from England and settled in Massachusetts in 1638 (only140 years after Christopher Columbus had made his discovery).
Flag of Sweden
Around the same time, shiploads of Swedes were sailing into the Delaware Bay where they became the first white men to claim southeast Pennsylvania. One of these men was Jonas (Joen) Nilsson, a former tailor, who had been born in Skaraborg, Sweden in 1620 and was said to have been over six and a half feet tall. 

As a restless teen, Jonas soon tired of the career that had been chosen for him and enlisted at age 17 in the Royal Swedish Army - a decision that was to change his life forever.  It isn't known whether he continued as a tailor for the Army, but what is known is that  a few years later, he was assigned to support and protect Johan Bjornsson Printz, who had been granted a charter by King Gustavus Adolfus (aka the "Lion of the North"), and given the title of "Governor of New Sweden".  As such, he was tasked with recruiting future settlers, transporting them and establishing a viable Protestant settlement in “New Sweden".  

It was while Printz was organizing his fourth expedition that Jonas Nilsson came on the scene.  No one knew at the time that this would be Prinz' final expedition because, after the death of his sponsor, King Adolfus, who had been killed in battle, his successor, Queen Christina, was much too young and immature to oppose the wishes of Sweden's powerful ruling party.  It wasn't long before interest in this ambitious project had waned, financial support was withdrawn and there was a strong push to withdraw completely from the project.  

Fortunately for us, there are still readable records which describe this last expedition which left Sweden on August 16, 1642. There is no way of knowing which of the two ships, Fama (Fawn) or Svanaten (Swan), became Jona's home during the trip, but we do know that the journey was neither swift nor easy!! 

Soon after setting sail, the ships' navigators had become concerned that the ships might get stuck on the sand banks around Newfoundland, so they altered course and sailed south along the coast of Portugal before finally crossing the Atlantic (which was called the "Spanish Sea" at that time). After passing south of the Canary Islands they arrived in Antigua - just in time to celebrate Christmas.  

But this, of course, was not expected to be their final destination so, after the Holidays, they continued their journey north (not a good time to travel on the Atlantic!). During that last leg of their journey, they experienced such heavy rain and snow that one of the ships became severely damaged. Finally, despite their condition, both ships managed to make it to Fort Christina  on February 15, 1643 – six long months after the journey had begun. This fort in the Delaware Bay had been built just a few years before and was located near what is now Wilmington, Delaware.

Governor Johann Printz

Documents of that time reported that Governor Prinz was a very large man (at least 6 feet tall and thought to have weighed over 400 pounds). In fact, the Native Americans called him "Big Tub." He was hotheaded and sometimes pompous. But on the positive side, he had a lot of energy and a talent for getting things done. After dropping anchor in the Christina River during  his first expedition, he had explored the territory, built forts, assigned land to settlers for farming, established trade relations with the Native Americans, the English, and the Dutch, and strongly upheld Swedish claims to the land; and he built on those successes during his next 3 expeditions,.  

Ft. Elfsborg
While serving in the Royal Swedish Army and stationed with the Swedish garrison in Fort Elfsborg, Jonas threw his energies into building a fort in a very swampy area near the mouth of Salem Creek in New Jersey, which soon was  nicknamed "Fort Mosquito".  The atmosphere was definitely not "people friendly"!  In fact, one commander even wrote the following to a friend:  "From the continued stinging and sucking of the mosquitoes, the people were so swollen, that it appeared as if they had been affected with some horrible disease."  Fort Mosquito was finally abandoned.

Three years later, Governor Printz was ordered to return to Sweden and, without his strong hand or the support of the Swedish ruling body, New Sweden remained  independent for only one year before it was incorporated into the Dutch "New Netherlands" and then taken over by the English in 1664. And Jonas?  He might have begun his life as a tailor, but it is obvious that he had developed additional skills over the years, and although remaining  loyal to the overbearing Governor, his loyalty did not extend to accompanying Printz back to his homeland after the recall.  

Armegott Printz
Despite that decision, however, Jonas continued to have close ties to  the Governor's family, even serving as a protector and business adviser to the Governor's daughter, Armegott Printz.  Armegott was described as a "blonde giantess, haughty, domineering, willful and quarrelsome" (obviously her father's daughter!), who later married her father's successor.  Over the years she became the best known woman in New Sweden and was responsible for managing her father's extensive holdings in New Sweden.

It had to have been a heart breaking time for this Swedish tailor/soldier when everything he had worked for seemed to fall apart with the downfall of Governor Printz.  But after all those years of assuming leadership roles in America, he was able to set a new direction for himself by first applying for a discharge from the army and then becoming  a "freeman" (which meant he could own land and even become a member of the governing body which made and enforced laws, as well as passing judgment in civil and criminal matters).

About that same time, he married 17 year old Gertrude Svensdotter, who had been only 2 years old when she was brought to New Sweden aboard the ship Kalmar Nyckel by her father, Sven Gunnarsson. Sven had been convicted of committing a minor crime, and had been "relocated" to the colonies to serve out his sentence. Finally, after earning his freedom, he was one of 22 signers of a petition of grievances against Governor Printz, which served to strengthen the case for recalling the governor.

Prototype of a Swedish cabin in the 1600s
Jonas did eventually return to Sweden to collect back wages due him from the Swedish Royal Army. After two years of getting caught up with his family and friends in Sweden, he returned to Gertrude and the baby who had been born shortly after he'd left. They now had enough funds to build their home in what is now West Philadelphia, (interestingly, there is a story saying that they lived in a cave for some time before their home was built).

He built his wealth by trading for furs with the Minquas Indians, while running a storehouse and trading post from his home. They were an interesting couple who were not known for keeping their opinions to themselves. For instance, after Gertrude honestly and openly criticized defamatory remarks made by the English against the Swedes, she became the subject of a court notice at least once. Jonas also had his day in court when he testified how he'd had to bury two servants of Peter Alrichs, a neighbor who had been murdered by Indians.

Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church

 As adults, Jonas and Gertrude's seven sons originally carried the surname “Jonasson” in the Swedish tradition for several years until eventually Americanizing it to Jones. Their four daughters, however, kept Jonasdotter in their names. Jonas died in Kingsessing (the Southwest section of Philadelphia) in October 1693, and Gertrude died a couple of years later. They were buried at Old Swedes (Gloria Dei) Church in Philadelphia, which is still standing and now a national historic treasure.