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From the Editor Q13-2


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Gunnar Damström

What prompted the Swedish exodus of the 1100-1200s? Was it overpopulation? Or was it resentment over government infringement on personal freedom, ever-increasing taxation, and military conscriptions?

In the 1300s, Swedish colonists settled on the islands of Dagö and Ormsö on the Estonian coast. In their book "Gammalsvenskby," Jörgen Hedman and Lars Åhlander claim that the Dagö and Ormsö colonists came from the eastern part of the Finnish province of Nyland, likely after 1343. What prompted the colonists to again pull up their roots when they had settled in Nyland less than a century earlier? Nyland offered plentiful fertile soil and the risk of Russian aggression was not a major concern in those days. However, the Swedish tax bailiff and military commissioner became increasingly frequent visitors at the Nyland colonists' homesteads. The Swedish army made crusades to convert the pagans of Ingria to the Catholic faith. On the road they "lived by the land."

Dagö and Ormsö, out of reach of the Swedish Crown, must have appealed to many freedom-loving colonists. But fate kept pursuing them. In 1563 Sweden conquered Estonia. The Swedish tax bailiff wasted no time preparing tax levies for the conquered territory. Initially, the Swedish crown bailiffs honored the rights and privileges of the Dagö and Ormsö Swedes, issuing letters of privilege and other protective documents. However, in the beginning of the 1600s the atmosphere changed.

The Swedish government had financed its many wars by taking huge loans. The creditors were mostly Swedish warlords who had enriched themselves robbing the conquered lands. Thus it came that Gustavus II Adolphus in 1624 sold Dagö to nobleman Jacob de la Gardie to cancel a debt. The Dagö Swedes, who until then had been free peasants, became fiefs that the landlord could evict, sell as cattle, or forcibly relocate. Many homesteads were demolished to make room for smart mansions. The landlord was entitled to collect tax from the peasants and force them to provide farm labor.

In 1721, after the Great Nordic War, Estonia became Russian territory. The Russian emperors aiming to please the ex-Swedish nobility gave Dagö to heirs of the de la Gardie family in 1755. The landlady, Ebba Margareta Stenbock, mistreated her fiefs as her ancestors had in the 1600s, selling them or swapping them for cattle or dogs. In 1781, most of the Dagö Swedes, fed up with the persecution by Swedish landlords, decided to emigrate to Gammalsvenskby in the Ukraine, where Czarina Catharine the Great had promised them sanctuary.

Two thousand Dagö Swedes set off on the exodus. About half perished on the road. At Gammalsvenskby the survivors and their descendants lived in oblivion until the 1840s when they were "discovered" by German and Swedish ethnographers. The colony survived persecution and the turmoil of WWI. A number of the inhabitants emigrated to Sweden and Canada between the world wars. In 1941, Ukraine was occupied by Germany. In 1944, as the Red Army was advancing, the remainder of the colony was evacuated to Germany. All able males were forced into German uniform under the threat of being shot. After the German surrender, the Americans in accordance with the Yalta agreement repatriated any Soviet citizen caught wearing a German uniform to the Soviet Union, where most were executed or were sent to prison camps in Siberia.

In this issue of the Quarterly we feature articles by Valentin Tinnis, who recently visited his father's birthplace, Gammalsvenskby, and Axel Lindström of Gig Harbor, Washington, who was born and raised on Ormsö. Their stories are fascinating.

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