The First Swede, Part 1: Scandinavian wanderer settled in St. Croix Valley long before most immigrants

In the early 1800s, Jacob Fahlstrom found his way across the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent to finally put down roots in Afton.

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Jacob Fahlstrom, 1850. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Between 1850 and 1930, about a quarter million people emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota, seeking farmland and freedom. Since then, Swedes have been a significant part of the state’s culture, with about twenty percent of Minnesotans today claiming Swedish ancestry. But, decades before this massive wave of migrants, a solitary Swede first set foot in what would become Minnesota, eventually settling in the lower St. Croix Valley.

Jacob Fahlstrom left Sweden in 1802, spent years at sea and living in and traveling around Canada, and is said to have arrived in Minnesota before Fort Snelling was first established in 1820. When Swedish immigrants began to settle in Scandia and the Chisago Lakes area in the 1850s, Fahlstrom was there to welcome them, speaking his native tongue for the first time in fifty years.

As the Minneapolis Journal recounted in 1914, Fahlstrom, a “waif of misfortune, carved his name indelibly in [the] early history of Minnesota.”

Jacob Fahlstrom and his family are now buried in a small cemetery in Afton, Minn., near where he farmed in final decades of his life. He took an unusual path from his homeland to the St. Croix Valley, and lived an unusual life with tragedy, adventure, and intriguing mysteries that persist to this day. His children could claim ancestry from three continents.

There are several conflicting sources on Fahlstrom’s life, but for the basic details, one can turn to W.H.C. Folsom, a Yankee who settled in the St. Croix Valley a few years after the Swede. He was later described as knowing Fahlstrom well.

“The history of Jacob Folstrom reads like a romance,” Folsom wrote. “He lived a stirring, adventurous life.” (Note: There are many spellings of his name, for a variety of reasons, St. Croix 360 is using Fahlstrom.)

Mysteries and misadventures

York Factory, 2017 (Travel Manitoba/Wikimedia)

How Jacob Fahlstrom ended up in Minnesota was a winding road through many places, cultures, and historical events. He was shipwrecked and lost in the wilderness, spent years living with the Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe) people, traded furs and carried mail, married and raised children, worked as a blacksmith and a farmer, and was ordained as the first Methodist minister in Minnesota.

Fahlstrom’s early years in Sweden are an enigma, with a few intriguing details known, and ample rumors. He was born June 25, 1793 in or near Stockholm. He is said to have come from a prosperous family, but details are scarce. His father may have been a potter, owner of a porcelain works. One source says he had a wonderful singing voice as a boy.

In or around 1802, at age nine, Fahlstrom went to sea as a cabin boy on a ship captained by his uncle. Napoleon ruled France, Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, and a blonde-haired boy left home, never to return.

Whatever marine dreams Fahlstrom may have harbored were not long held, because he and his uncle were shipwrecked on the coast of England. He later claimed it was part of a plot by relatives to rob him of his inheritance. He became separated from his uncle in the ensuing chaos, and found himself alone in a foreign land — a condition that would be his fate for many years to come.

The year of the shipwreck is unknown, and the timeline is fuzzy between his first voyage in 1802 and his departure for North America in 1811. Fahlstrom eventually found his way to the Swedish consul in London, seeking help. That’s where he met the famous Lord Selkirk, an unlikely Scottish noble, philanthropist, philosopher, and colonizer of what would become Canada. Reportedly, the nobleman could speak Swedish, which helped the connection.

In the previous few years, Selkirk had acquired a significant share of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the fur trading business across the vast watershed of the North American inland sea. In 1811, Selkirk received a long-sought land grant in the Red River Valley around present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba, taking control of 116,000 square miles. He was seeking to move poor Scots and retired fur traders to the area, in theory providing a better life for the colonists, producing food for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and securing the frontier. Unfortunately, it was far from Scotland and the sea, and the location blocked a rival’s trade routes.

Seven hundred miles by canoe and portage from the coast of Hudson’s Bay, the planned settlement was in the homeland of the Anishinaabe and the Cree people. While Fahlstrom traveled there under the cause of colonialism, the effect on him would go in reverse, as he assimilated into Indigenous societies.

Across the Atlantic

On July 26, 1811, Fahlstrom took to the sea on board the Eddystone, a lightly-armed vessel owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, with twenty-seven men on board. They crossed the Atlantic and Hudson Bay in two months, sailing just below the Arctic Circle, arriving at York Factory on the bay’s southwest shore on September 25.

Fahlstrom said that, not long after landing, he was hunting with a group when he became separated and eventually lost in an unknown forest. Others say he was trying to desert, fleeing the labor he contracted to do in exchange for his passage. No matter his intentions, he was found by a group of Anishinaabe people, and he began his long relationship with the tribe.

It was these Indigenous people who would become Fahlstrom’s second people, more than the Scots or anyone else. He learned their language and ways of living, and was called Ozawindib (Yellow Head), for his blonde hair.

The next several years are again muddy. W.H.C. Folsom, friend and historian, accounted for the following three decades with a single sentence in his account of the Swede’s life.

“After his arrival he found employment with the Hudson Bay Company for a time, and subsequently came down to the Fort Snelling reservation,” Folsom wrote.

Most likely, Fahlstrom lived with the Ojibwe and worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company to some extent. He is recorded living and working at York Factory for 18 months from February 1813 to July 1814. He did go to the Red River settlement, and is believed to have been there when a deadly skirmish broke out between the Hudson’s Bay Company men and their rivals in the North West Company in 1816.

After about five years criss-crossing Canada, Fahlstrom sailed from Montreal to the western Great Lakes. His party landed at Fort William, in what’s now Thunder Bay, Ontario, on August 10, 1816. He was twenty-three-years-old and a long way from home.


Note: There’s a new historical fiction novel based on Jacob Fahlstrom’s life, titled Wilderness of the Heart, by Jason Bergeron. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but wanted to mention it!


Comments

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9 responses to “The First Swede, Part 1: Scandinavian wanderer settled in St. Croix Valley long before most immigrants”

  1. Penny Van Kampen Avatar
    Penny Van Kampen

    Love this! Thank you.

    1. Hilary Long Avatar
      Hilary Long

      I’m hooked and will keep an eye out for the next installment.

  2. Benjamin R Lewis Avatar
    Benjamin R Lewis

    Great story! Look forward to more.

  3. Julie M Ross Avatar
    Julie M Ross

    Love reading all about history, Actually have visited Jacob Fahlstom grave site

  4. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Looking forward to part 2!

  5. Sarah Avatar
    Sarah

    Fascinating. Looking forward to the next installment.

  6. Laurie J Larsen Avatar
    Laurie J Larsen

    Quite a story! Thanks.

  7. Kate Thomas Avatar
    Kate Thomas

    Thank you for the local history! I hope you’ll include the new research on Jacob’s African-Ojibwe wife, Margaret Bonga. See Mattie Harper DeCarlo, Minnesota Historical Society (April 22, 2020), The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference, “Where is the Bonga Family in Immigration History? Recovering an African, Swedish, and Ojibwe Genealogy, 1820s–1860s.” Dr. DeCarlo spoke at the Afton Museum last year (2023) and presented the whole story of Margaret’s travels and her family’s affect on Jacob’s career. More fascinating details!

    1. elger h lorenzsonn Avatar
      elger h lorenzsonn

      thanx, this led me to wikipedia mbongafa

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The First Swede, Part 1: Scandinavian wanderer settled in St. Croix Valley long before most immigrants