The First Swede, Part 3: St. Croix Valley, Swedish settlers, into the unknown

The final chapter of Jacob Fahlstrom’s far-ranging life found his family settling along the St. Croix River.




8 minute read

While Jacob Fahlstrom never really stopped his wandering, he did slowly settle down. In the 1830s, he and Marguerite lived and farmed near a spring now known as Coldwater Spring, a short distance from Fort Snelling. He was also a blacksmith and woodcutter, and continued delivering mail up the St. Croix River and down the Mississippi as far as Prairie du Chien.

His desire for a place to call home was not reciprocated. The Army repeatedly forced the Fahlstroms and other settlers off the lands around the fort where they were essentially squatting. In 1837, he co-signed a letter to President Martin Van Buren, pleading for consideration in upcoming treaty negotiations with the Dakota.

“[We] were permitted to make improvements and retain unmolested possession of them for many years by the commanding officer of the post, and the other officers of the Government employed here, who believed the land belonged to the United States, and that the settlers were only exercising the privileges extended to them by the benign and salutary laws which have peopled the western country with a hardy, industrious and enterprising class of citizens,” the group wrote. Their pleas were in vain.

Finally fed up with all of it, Fahlstrom reportedly said he was going to find his new homestead by walking east until the sun set — and he ended up near the St. Croix River in what’s now Afton. The land had just opened to settlement after a treaty with the Ojibwe signed in 1837. Jacob and Marguerite finally settled down as much as they ever would by about 1840. When the first Government Land Survey came through in 1848, a house and a field were noted in the general area.

The Fahlstroms farmed and raised their children. Jacob traveled the region to preach. They tapped maple trees on what is today called Manitou Island, on White Bear Lake, which Fahlstrom owned. He supposedly sold 80 acres in what would become downtown St. Paul because it was too hilly. The Fahlstroms’ crowded cabin was always open to travelers, especially other preachers and missionaries, who also held services at the homestead. Fahlstrom finally became an American citizen in 1850.

Lydia Carli, the first white woman to live in Stillwater, arrived on June 29, 1841, according to an interview by Augustus Easton in his 1909 “History of the St. Croix Valley.” That was shortly after the Fahlstroms started farming in Afton. Carli’s inn and stopping place along the river, first called Mrs. Carli’s, later Tamarack House, was an important gathering spot for settlers on the north and south ends of Washington County. Easton and Carli remembered Fahlstrom.

“There was another fellow living in the lower part of this county, Jacob Folstrom, who was a sort of preacher, and he could pray middling well, too, and could be depended upon to do so, providing a good meal was in sight,” Easton reported. “Many a good meal—what were called good meals then, and the best that could be provided—did that old fellow get at the Carli hostelry in return for one of his old fashioned, stereotyped offerings.”

Then, in the last decade of his life, Fahlstrom’s countrymen came to him.

Swedish reunion

By the late 1840s, there were scattered Swedes in the St. Croix Valley. Then, in 1850, three Swedish men staked a claim on the prairie in what is now Scandia, and the next year, a large group of settlers arrived in Chisago County. They were soon followed by hundreds and then thousands of other Swedish immigrants.

It just so happened that more Swedes came to Minnesota than any other state during the period of mass migration, and the St. Croix Valley was one of their first destinations. They found prime farmland, neighbors from their native land, and Jacob Fahlstrom.

Some 40 years after leaving Sweden, Fahlstrom heard and spoke his native tongue again. He was reportedly a little rusty, but the language came back quickly and he enjoyed speaking with the recently arrived Swedes.

Hans Mattson, one of the Swedish settlers who established the community of Vasa, near Red Wing, met Jacob at a wedding in St. Paul in the mid-1850s.

“I also made the acquaintance of one Jacob Fahlstrom, who had lived forty years among the Indians and devoted most of that time to missionary work among them. He was a remarkable man, and was well known among the Hudson Bay employees and other early settlers of the Northwest,” recalled Mattson. “I think he told me that he had not heard a word spoken in his native tongue in thirty-five years, and that he had almost forgotten it when he met the first Swedish settlers in the St. Croix valley.”

Louis J. Ahlstrom, a Swedish immigrant who would later serve in the Minnesota legislature, came to Marine on St. Croix with his family in 1868, then moved to the Trade Lake area the next year — a community founded by conservative Swedish Baptists who walked there from Chicago.

Even though Ahlstrom came to the region after Fahlstrom was already dead, he is one of the best sources on some parts of Fahlstrom’s life, because his telling is based on conversations with the widowed Margaret Bonga Fahlstrom, others who had known the first Swede, and notes in the family Bible.

“After the Swedes had started to come up the St. Croix River in the 1850s, they were visited by the ardent missionary,” Ahlstrom wrote. “In Burnett County, there were no Swedes as yet, but in Polk County, they settled down east of St. Croix Falls and Osceola. In these places Fallström was well-known.”

Ahlstrom also cited the Reverend C.J. Nelson, who had heard Fahlstrom preach at a settler’s home near Horse Lake in Polk County in the winter of 1857-1858, in the final years of Fahlstrom’s life.

“Nelson was then nine years old, and what especially drew the boy’s attention was the preacher’s language. He had a Swedish Bible and spoke in Swedish, but mixed in words sometimes that the boy could not understand.”

The foreign words may have been Ojibwe, English, French, Cree, Iroquois, Dakota, or one of the other languages Fahlstrom was said to speak throughout his life.

In his last decades, new neighbors arrived along Valley Creek, a mile or so from his family’s farm. First, Lemuel Bolles claimed land and built a mill in 1846, and opened a post office in 1852. He was joined in 1856 by his nephew Erastus Bolles and his family. The Erastus Bolles house, which still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built “with the help of nearby friendly Chippewa Indians,” according to Erastus Bolles’ daughter. At that time and place, it’s likely those helpers were in fact the Fahlstroms.

Eternal enigma

Having come to the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi region before there were any newspapers or historians, and possibly illiterate himself, leaving nothing written, Jacob Fahlstrom remains as much a legend as a real person. Few sources exist with firsthand knowledge of his story. One-hundred-and-sixty-five years after his death, the confusing contradictions of various accounts, and the lack of firsthand documentation, leave us with few firm details.

Like the historian James E. Erickson wrote, in a short article for the Swedish American Genealogist, in 1995: “The biographers who have chronicled various aspects of [Fahlstrom’s] life story have generally been long on hearsay and short on facts, and disagreements in their stories abound. Unfortunately, unsubstantiated material, ranging from truths to half-truths to falsehoods, is entrenched in the Fahlström literature as a result of over a century of cursory research and numerous instances of covert and overt plagiarism.”

Jacob Fahlstrom was born, lived, and died — that much is known. More is rumored and reported. There are some fairly reliable dates and places, such as details about his 1811 voyage to Hudson’s Bay, his marriage on the shores of Lake Superior in 1823, declaring himself a citizen in Stillwater on September 2, 1850. But Jacob Fahlstrom is the Schrödinger’s cat of immigrants — the harder one looks, the less any definite truth prevails.

Precision is perhaps not possible, but his life and mythology contain everything about the Lake Superior and upper Mississippi region that existed in the decades before settlement. He wandered widely, knew many, and was known by many. He hunted and trapped, adopted Ojibwe ways and lived among them, broke sod and grew crops, traded and toiled. The facts that seem certain are sufficient for a remarkable story.

One thing that is not in any of the literature about Fahlstrom is that he ever considered returning to Sweden. From when he was shipwrecked in England as a boy to his old age in Afton, he always faced forward. There were surely hard and hungry times. He was said to have escaped violence on numerous occasions. But there was no turning back. Fahlstrom died in Afton in July 1859, and Margaret in 1880. They were buried on their farm.

Atop a wooded hill high above Valley Creek, their graves are unmarked today, but they are surrounded by family, with descendants last buried in the cemetery in the early 1990s. The way there follows a road called Indian Trail, named for the Fahlstroms, and onto Fahlstrom Place, a cul-de-sac with several large homes on spacious parcels. A professionally-painted sign marks a path up the hill to a gate and an iron fence that encloses the burying ground.

The sound of traffic on nearby I-94 makes a constant whine, but it is sometimes accompanied by oak leaves rattling in the wind. That’s the same sound that could be heard nearly two centuries ago, when Jacob Fahlstrom finally found somewhere to stay.

Selected sources:

  • Historical Sketches, Fifty-Five Years in Western Wisconsin, Louis J. Ahlstrom, translated by Inger Berggren, Carolyn Wedin, and Stefan Sylvander (2010)
  • “The Jacob Fahlstrom Challenge,” Barr, Elinor (2005), Swedish American Genealogist: Vol. 25 : No. 4 , Article 3.
  • “The First Swede in Minnesota,” Norelius, Theodore A., Swedish Pioneer Historical Society (1957)
  • “Jacob Fahlström’s Declaration of Intention,” Erickson, James E. (1995), Swedish American Genealogist: Vol. 15 : No. 2
  • The Pioneer Swedish Settlements and Swedish Lutheran Churches in America, 1845-1860, Eric Norelius (1984). Augustana Historical Society Publications
  • “The ‘Swede-Indian,’” Esther Chapman Robb, American Swedish Historical Museum: Yearbook 1960


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7 responses to “The First Swede, Part 3: St. Croix Valley, Swedish settlers, into the unknown”

  1. Andrew Kramer Avatar
    Andrew Kramer

    Bravo and thank you for such thorough, authoritative, and entertaining historical research

  2. elger h lorenzsonn Avatar
    elger h lorenzsonn

    thanks for all three parts;?more info about wife marg bonga?

  3. elger h lorenzsonn Avatar
    elger h lorenzsonn

    thanks,part 1 comment led me to wikipedia re margaret bonga fahl

  4. Laurie Schmidt Avatar
    Laurie Schmidt

    Fascinating for those of us here with Swedish heritage! Thanks for covering this so well. Would love to see/read more of this historical perspective of our river valley- especially details of the lives of the native peoples we stole the land from.

  5. Troy Howard Avatar
    Troy Howard


    Troy H.

  6. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Excellent, Greg.

  7. Penny Van Kampen Avatar
    Penny Van Kampen

    Thank you! Great story.