Jan Hermelin: Meet the Real “Karl Oskar” of Moberg’s Emigrant Saga

January 13, 2011

Jan Hermelin, co-founder of the Andrew Peterson Society. Photo: Anders Gunnar

Vilhelm Moberg chronicled the emigration from Sweden to America in a four-volume epos published between 1949 and 1959. The novels made Karl Oskar and his Kristina symbols of the million Swedes that left the old country for the new, but few knew that a key source to Moberg’s story was a diary kept for over four decades by Andrew Peterson from Östergötland.

We don’t know exactly how Vilhelm Moberg came upon the diary, but we do know that Astrid Lindgren (author of Pippi Longstocking) visited the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, MN, and wrote a long article about Andrew Peterson’s (he had Americanized his name from Anders Pettersson) diary when she returned. Peterson had left Sweden in 1850 and three years later, he claimed a piece of land in Carver County, 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis. He wrote every day while crossing the Atlantic, and took notes every day during his 44 years as a settler. His last entry was two days before his death on March 31, 1898.

Vilhelm Moberg visited the library soon after Lindgren’s article while doing research about the immigration of Swedish settlers to Minnesota. In a letter from July 7, 1948 he wrote that

“I have found the material I need for my work. The diary gives a complete picture of a Swedish farmer’s life in America during the first settlement time – it was exactly this material I was looking for.”

Andrew Peterson in front of his first shanty, a simple log cabin, in Minnesota back in 1855.

His diaries and bookkeeping were later microfilmed and made available in Sweden, where the Andrew Peterson Society have recently completed the  work of digitizing the diary and adding explanations to it.

Vilhelm Moberg wrote about Andrew Peterson’s diary in The Swedish Pioneer in 1966:

“For several months I was sitting in the library of St. Paul to read about this Swedish farmer, to know what he had done, to know what he thought of life in this world. I read about his wife, his nine children, his cattle and his crops, his churchlife. When I had finished reading the diary I had all the information I could use about a farmers life in the first Swedish settlements in Minnesota.”

At the Andrew Peterson Society, we have compared the diaries with Moberg’s novels and found hundreds of similarities. Here are a some striking examples:

  • There were 17 emigrants traveling as a group from Karl Oskar’s parish, and 16 from Andrews parish, both in springtime 1850.
  • 76 passengers travelled on “Andrew’s brig” Minona, which earlier was named Charlotte.78 passengers travelled with ”Karl Oskar’s brig” Charlotta.
  • Both the novel and the diaries relate similar events during the voyage, like severe storms and funerals at sea. Both continued the journey to Chicago via canal boats, trains pulled by horses, or steam engines, and finally on steam boats across the Great Lakes. They continued from Chicago on canal boats, then by horse and carriage to the Mississippi river, where both groups made a five day journey on the Mississippi with a paddle steamer to Minnesota.
  • Vilhelm Moberg wrote about the settlers’ Swedish–American language in Svenska Dagbladet in May 22, 1960: “I mainly base my version of the settlers language on this document (Andrew Peterson’s diary) – here is thus the original source of the American Swedish”.  Here are ten words in “Swinglish” that both Andrew and Moberg used: Grubbade, plantade, votade, claimade, shanty, spikmiiting, lumberbillen, nattjonalpapper, insurenskompaniet och surprajsade.
  • Andrews younger brother Charles went west and found silver in New Mexico, Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert headed also west to dig for gold. Both died tragically young.
  • Striking similarities in The Last Letter Home, in both cases letters written by their closest neighbor, because the children did not write Swedish.

Professor Roger McKnight was the first researchers to focus on the similarities in Moberg’s emigration novels and Andrew Peterson’s life. He wrote his doctoral thesis about this subject in 1974. It was much thanks to McKnight’s research that Hans-Göran Saldner and I founded the Andrew Peterson Society in Peterson’s native County Ydre back in 2003. The society has continued to explore his life and the similarities between his writings and Moberg’s novels.

For me, the Andrew Peterson story has been inspirational, and taught me to focus not on the problems, but on the possibilities in life. He built a well-organized farm and a beautiful orchard, starting out with only two axes and a few simple tools. His determination and hard work can encourage immigrants today, and in the future, and show that hard work is the best way to success. I was also inspired by his work to write a musical – Andrew Peterson the Genuine Pioneer Story. It was first created in order to save one of his barns in Carver County, and the barn was actually renovated 2006.

Ydre Municipality in Östergötland.

In July 2011 this coming summer, the Andrew Peterson Society will hold an American Festival Week in southern Östergötland in cooperation with The Peter Cassel Society. An American – English version of the musical will be performed during the festival. Our society has many friends in in Minnesota, and the link to Andrew Peterson could lead to the Carver County and Ydre County becoming sister counties. I really hope this will be the case as we do have a lot of shared interests in education, business ideas and culture.

The author is the owner of Aggarps farm in Ydre Municipality in Östergötland in southern Sweden. He is active in tourism and forestry.
He also worked in agriculture Minnesota during 1982. On his spare time he is active in the Andrew Peterson Society, where he is Treasurer. He is also a youth soccer coach.

If you understand Swedish, you can watch Den verklige Karl Oskar,  a documentary about Andrew Peterson here!

Here is an article from the Minnesota Historical Society about Andrew Peterson and his diary.

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