Immigrants to Land of Opportunity Include Dahlgren Family

New York port the starting point for many immigrants, and the Dahlgren family starts its journey in vast land of opportunity.

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It seemed cold that early spring day in 1882 as the ship from Sweden nosed into the New York port of the land of opportunity. The ship's rail was lined with immigrants, including the Dahlgren family: a father, mother, two sons and two daughters. This was Anders John Dahlgren, his wife, Mathilda, sons John Hjalmar and Carl Amil and daughters Ingrie and Carlotta Eugenia. The youngest girl, called Genie, was barely 1 year old and looked almost transparent. With their few belongings it was easy to get through customs. They had the papers and the money to get them to Chicago where Anders' sister lived.

In Chicago it was not hard to find living accommodations that were within their means, but they were not the easiest to live in. An upper-story flat was found; by walking through the door the family had moved in. There were no modern facilities, but it provided them with a roof and shelter in their new surroundings, which seemed so strange. The flat was several flights up, and all of the water had to be carried up those steps. But dirty water did not have to be carried down, for they were told to just open a window and fling it out!

Days passed before Anders got work. People did not understand his Smoland Swedish, and he knew no English. Finally a construction boss hired him to carry bricks for a building in progress. The staging was slippery and not very solid, but it was a job to be taken gratefully. The workday lasted from dawn to dusk. The work was hard on the back and hands but Anders did not complain. The wages would pay the rent, plus food and maybe some medicine for Genie, who wasn't doing well. At mid-morning each day one of the workers was sent to a nearby saloon for a bucket of beer for the men. One worker always wanted to be sent, but he took a long time to return and drank several big swallows of beer on the way. He was not allowed to go often. The foreman noticed that Anders was truthful, honest and could be trusted, so he regularly got the beer. Once the street was muddy and Anders fell, spilling the full bucket! There was nothing to do but go back to the saloon for more beer, and this pailful had to be paid for out of his own pocket.

The boss was helpful to Anders, carefully teaching him English and showing concern, often asking how Genie was getting along. Then the worst happened: After a few days of terrible, feverish illness it was over; Carlotta Eugenia Dahlgren was dead. The funeral, which took place in the depressing heat of August, was awful for the family.

Soon they heard that land was being given as homesteads in Dakota Territory. They saved money for the train fare and moved to land west of Athol, South Dakota. There were no buildings on the land. Friends let them dig a cavelike house in the side of a small hill. Anders was careful to shore up the roof. Buffalo grass roots gave a fuzzy look to the ceiling, which was just high enough for the parents to stand erect. A hole was made in the sod for the stovepipe, which went straight up from the stove.

Four upright poles made the corners of a bed frame; a rope spring and a bag of cornhusks for the mattress were added to make it a luxurious sleeping place. The bed, a packing-box table and the stove were the only furniture. The two boys slept on quilts on the floor, and the girl slept with her parents. The mother's last chore at night was to prop the spade or the stove poker against the edges of the blanket that covered the doorway – anything to keep out the ever-present wind. Field mice joined the family in their snug abode, and it became the boys' job to catch them or drive them away.

As spring came to the prairie, the home was more comfortable. The mother would sprinkle water on the dirt floor when the boys scuffled and raised the dust. On June 18, 1883, another baby, Edwin Gustave, was born. City records verify that he was the first white boy born in that part of Dakota Territory. He weighed three pounds at birth. His parents did not have a scale, but the mother rigged one up with a cross-beam. Placing the baby on one side and a small pail on the other, she put lard in the pail until the beam was even. Later, when visiting folks had a scale, she weighed the pail of lard. It was three pounds.

For a short time the family moved to Farmingdale, South Dakota, where Anders raised cattle and was a horse trader, but they soon moved back to the farm near Athol. Other children born to the family were Arthur and Edith. Anders ran the farm, and at times his son, Edwin, farmed with him. Anders was also a trapper. At one time he raised skunks and sold the furs. His house was on the Nixon River, and he caught fish and turtles to feed the skunks.

When Anders was 80, he was converted during a tent meeting and joined the Calvary Wesleyan Methodist Church. He remained active and alert until a week before his death at the age of 89 in 1937.

Eunice Hoien Dahlgren
Sweet Home, Oregon

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.