A Prarie Dream Recaptured


One of the glories of the United States is the fact that when the established churches and monolithic governments of Europe forced out the sects that they believed threatened the closed pattern of their world, this country welcomed them. Their names are precious in the litany of our heritage—the Moravians, the Mennonites, the Amana Society, the Owenites. They came into our still open society, settled on the land, worked and worshipped in their own manner, and then (like the Owenites of New Harmony, Indiana) dissolved or (like the Amana Society of Iowa) continued in the ways of their fathers. We know of most of these pioneering communities through letters, the accounts of visitors, the writings of their founders. But among them, one, the Swedish Jansonist settlement at Bishop Hill, Illinois, had the good fortune to have its life captured forever by an artist.

Olof Krans was born Olof Olson in Selja, Sweden, in 1838 and was to be linked all his life with Bishop Hill. The first story we have about him relates to the emigration of the sect to this country in the eighteen-forties. In order to finance the emigration, each member was required to sell most of his goods and contribute the proceeds to a common fund. Olof’s father visited a shipwright to find out the value of a boat he owned and took with him some sketches of it. Young Olof, presumptuous as only the young can be, said that the drawings were inaccurate; on the spot, he made better ones. Both his father and the shipwright were impressed.

Olof’s parents were emigrating to the United States because they were followers of one of the most extraordinary men of nineteenth-century Sweden: Eric Janson—revolutionary, prophet, messiah. Born in 1808, Janson early began to preach against the orthodoxy of the established Swedish Lutheran church. He claimed that all one needed in order to be saved was to practice the word of God as it was revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He also possessed that prime prerequisite of all fanatical leaders—unshakable self-confidence. “Since the time of the Apostles,” lie is supposed to have announced, “there has been found no true preacher before me.” Janson’s combination of Biblical knowledge, rhetorical pyrotechnics, and invincible self-assurance soon won him a following of thousands, mostly comfortably-oft farmers from northern Sweden.

But with this success came, not surprisingly, the intense hostility of the Swedish government. Janson was repeatedly arrested, and by 1845 he had decided to leave Sweden and find a place where he and his followers could worship as they pleased. One of his trusted disciples arrived in New York late that year; hearing of good, cheap prairie land for sale near Victoria, Illinois—about 150 miles southwest of Chicago—he went there and looked it over. Then lie wrote his master that he had found the right place. In the summer of 1846 Janson himself—accompanied by his wife and two children and a few close friends—arrived, having dodged the Swedish police by skiing across the border into Norway and then taking a coastal schooner from Christiania to Copenhagen.

Soon after his arrival Janson bought land on the Edwards River in Henry County, a few miles north of Victoria. He named the place Bishop Hill in honor of Biskopskulla, the town where he had been born. By the end of 1846 the colony owned some 696 acres, the nucleus of holdings that would eventually increase to 12,000 acres. New immigrants from Sweden began arriving almost at once; in the years between 1946 and 1954, the end of the period of colonization, 1,500 made the trip across the Atlantic to Bishop Hill. Among them was the family of young Olof Olson, who sailed with a group of eighty in the summer of 1850. Their journey was typical: a three-month crossing to New York with little more than bread and cheese to eat; a steamboat journey up the Hudson River to Albany; a transfer to an Erie Canal boat that took them to Buffalo; another transfer to a ship that carried them through the Great Lakes to Chicago; a train ride from Chicago west to Aurora, Illinois; and then a hundred-mile trip on foot to Bishop Hill.

Life was not easy after the Jansonists reached their promised land. During the winter of 1846–47, when most of them lived in dark, damp dugouts on the slopes of a ravine of the Edwards River, nearly 150 died. Their food, which was served in a large communal hall, consisted of a meager ration of soup, corn, turnips, and cheese. A joke handed down for generations comments wryly on their diet: “I’ve got my eyesight back,” the long-ago humorist is supposed to have said. “Yesterday I couldn’t see any peas in my pea soup, but today I can see the church through my slice of cheese.”