Swedes settle Iowa: Land maps, a railroad, and a minister

On April 9, 1868, Johan Fredrick Höglund, his wife Mathilda Carlsdotter Envall, and their baby son Carl Johan departed their home in Linköping, Östergötland, Sweden for the long journey to America. They were part of a growing migration of Swedes leaving their country during that decade, spurred in large part by food shortages and famine that afflicted Sweden from 1867 to 1869. Sixty-thousand Swedes left in just three years alone and were part of the estimated 1.3 million Swedes who immigrated to America between 1850 and 1930.

Their destination was Burlington, Iowa, where they eventually Americanized their name to Hoagland. In Burlington, a Swedish Lutheran minister named Bengt Magnus Halland had been working to establish model Swedish communities in Iowa. “Assigned to shepherd a flock of Swedish Lutherans in Burlington, Iowa,” a researcher writes, “Reverend Bengt Magnus Halland in 1864 envisioned an Iowa homeland for his countrymen: an opportunity for Swedish immigrants and descendants of immigrants to own land, become prosperous American citizens, and yet maintain their cultural and spiritual identity.” (1)

Here is where the needs of the U.S. federal government, the state of Iowa, a railroad company—the Burlington & Missouri (B&M), and Reverend Halland intersected. “The fantastically fertile, rolling lands of Iowa were a fitting arena for the saga of railroad building,” wrote scholar Ann Legreid. “In May 1856, following years of lobbying by the Iowa delegation, the United States House of Representatives approved a liberal land grant to the B&M to aid in its construction across the West, with one of the largest subsidies in southwest Iowa. Land was granted directly to the state of Iowa, with the donation limited to a maximum of alternate sections for six miles on both sides of the line. If those properties were already claimed, lieu lands could extend out as far as fifteen miles.” (2)

In other words, railroads made money to finance rail building by selling land grants from the government to prospective settlers, agents, and speculators to spur settlement, and hence commerce, along the roads. Advertisements such as this enticed would-be settlers to buy-in to the fruits of the rich lands out on the prairies.

Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Co., 1872, via Wikimedia Commons

Reverend Halland, noted Dr. Legreid, was then serving as pastor in Burlington, “when he conceived a plan to organize a colony of Swedes. He was passionate in his desire to bring Swedes together into the Lutheran fold, to save them from the vice and temptation of American cities. The reverend scouted southwest Iowa for a suitable spot, finding a four-township area in the notch between the Nodaway and East Nishnabotna rivers.” (2)

Land could be purchased from the railroad, settled, and improved for a price between $7 and $12 an acre, payable over 10 years at 6 percent interest, or in two years at 10 percent. As Dr. Legreid noted, “it was cheaper to buy land from the railroad on credit than to borrow and buy on the normal market.” (2)

In July 1870, the Hoaglands resided in Burlington, where John worked as a carpenter. Sadly, their son Carl had died sometime between leaving Sweden and settling in Burlington (family correspondence suggests the Hoaglands lost two baby sons during this time). But in May, a daughter—Nellie—was born. (She would later meet an Englishman named Robert Dews, marry him, and raise a family in Chicago, which included my grandfather.)

1870 U.S. Census, Ward 3, Burlington, Des Moines County, Iowa. Via Ancestry.com

Then, in the “early spring of 1870,” explained Dr. Legreid, Rev. Halland “led a contingent of Swedish immigrants, many from his Burlington congregation, to the rich loess hills of Page and Montgomery counties of southwest Iowa. Halland founded Stanton Village in Montgomery County, laid the groundwork for its first congregation, Mamrelund, and in short order established the Stanton (Augustana) Children’s Home. The fledgling colony spread like prairie fire, quickly encompassing much of nine townships, attracting Swedes from old, established communities throughout the Midwest, heavily from eastern Iowa and western Illinois. Most had ties to parishes in southern Sweden.”

(Stanton today retains a strong Swedish cultural vibe, and features the largest Swedish tea kettle in the world, which is really the town’s water tower.)

The Hoaglands were not part of this early spring migration west—Mathilda was pregnant with Nellie, and maybe family wasn’t ready to leave Burlington. They did make the journey eventually, as Nellie’s first sister—Alida Whilhelmina, aka “Ida”—was born in Stanton in November 1872. A third daughter, Maria (aka “Mary”) was born to the Hoaglands in September 1875.

In 1880, the five-member Hoagland family was enumerated in Frankford Township, in Montgomery County, Iowa, with John named a farmer, but the U.S. Census is not specific on land allotments. The Iowa Census of 1885, however, was very specific about the land allotment, according to the Public Land Survey System established by the Land Ordinance of 1785. A township is generally a six-mile square parcel, with each section approximately one mile square. Each of those squares is then divided into quarters (NW, NE, SW, SE), and each of those quarters further divided into four quarters of about 40 acres each. (here’s a primer on how to read these details).

1885 Iowa Census (combined image), via FamilySearch.org

Thus, based on the details on the 1885 Iowa Census above, we can pinpoint where the Hoagland family lived at the time: in township 72 (Frankfort), range 37, section 31 (lower left, or far southwest, corner), in the southwest quarter (yellow box below) of the northwest quarter (red box) of that section.

Detail from a Frankfort Township, Montgomery County Iowa, map, 1907, Historic Map Works

The town of Stanton lays in Scott County, just south of section 33. A wider view of the region from an 1875 map shows (yellow box below) where the Hoagland’s land would have been in relation to Stanton and the larger community of Red Oak to the west. In this map, the route of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad is clearly seen cutting through the area about one mile to the south of where the Hoaglands lived, although I believe this is an incorrect position compared to the 1907 map above.


Later plat book maps of Frankfort and surrounding townships, such as the one below from 1930, also show the railroad line cutting through section 31 itself:

Iowa Digital Library

We can see where this farm was located in today’s space on a Google map, as shown here:

Google Maps

The town of Stanton is to the east; you can see the B&M railroad line cutting diagonally through the area just to the south of where the Hoaglands had their farm in the 1880s. Without a doubt, the landscape of this part of Iowa has changed substantially since 1872, when the Hoagland family arrived there. But you can still see the traces of the PLSS grid in the landscape today, even in the image above where the horizontal and vertical roadways align with the section boundaries. You can plot your own location using PLSS coordinates here.

Unfortunately, I did not have this information about where the Hoaglands lived when I and my wife visited this part of Iowa in the summer of 2005. I would have liked to have driven past the farm’s location, and visited the county courthouse in Red Oak, where there is no known record loss (such as fire) to look at the land books from the 1870s. I do not know what crops John Hoagland grew, either—maybe corn or wheat. John, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1879 (I have his original certificate) died in the town of Red Oak on March 25, 1886. He was fifty-one.

Rev. Bengt Magnus Halland died in 1902 in Stanton, aged about 65. The scholar Dr. Legreid described his impact as “profound and lasting … a liaison, a bridge between the Old World and the New, between farm community and corporation. His vision affected B&M policies; his leadership and determination gathered Swedes into the fold; his colony emerged a golden example of the synod’s successes in the field. The volume of the acreage he sold was great; he was an able, organized man who was adept at business details and made vast sums of money for the company.” (2)

In 1893, Nellie and Mary—then about 23 and 18 years old respectively—were living on their own in Omaha, Nebraska, working as dressmakers. It was here that Nellie met the Englishman Robert Dews, who was selling insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company based in Hannibal, Missouri. They married in Chicago in January 1895; their third child was Fred Dews, my grandfather.

Mary returned to live with her mother and sister Ida in Red Oak, Iowa, the farming days long behind them. The trio lived together on Knuckols Street for the rest of their lives—Mathilda died April 28, 1921 in Red Oak, at the age of 83. Mary and Ida worked for the Murphy Calendar Factory in the town until they retired, and Mary was at one point the “forelady.” My dad and his brother received a poem and a dollar coin from their great-aunts every year for their birthdays. My dad remembers visiting them once when he was a kid in their little house in southwest of Iowa, a long day’s drive from Chicago. My wife and I drove past the house during our visit in 2005.

Ida Hoagland died on August 16, 1963 in Red Oak, aged 90. Her younger sister Mary followed just three months later, on November 21, aged 88. I plan to say more about them in an upcoming post on sisters.

— Fred Dews

  1. Iowa’s Swedish Heritage,” Prairie Roots Research, by Alice Hoyt Veen, CG (September 15, 2020)
  2. Plats, Deeds, and Odd-Numbered Sections: A Case Study of Community Building along the Burlington Line,” by Ann M. Legreid, Swedish-American Historical Society (July 1998)

This post is for Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge on week seven’s theme, “Landed.”

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