Gustava sat down with her bundle of belongings in an open door of a dilapidated barn and cried as if her heart was broken. It was not easy for the favorite daughter of a nämndemannen (juryman) of Kärda, Sweden, endowed with an independent spirit, to get along in a strange country learning a new language and new customs. She was not used to working for others, and she was sent from place to place without satisfaction. But, in America, the whole family must work and young Swedish women her age were in great demand as live-in servants, so she reconciled herself to her fate and took courage to try again.
It was 1854 when Gustava’s family, consisting of her parents, Bengt and Martha Stina Nilsson, her sisters Inga and Charlotta, and her brothers Anders and Solomon, immigrated to the U.S. In addition, the family traveled with a niece and nephew and two friends.
From their home in Kärda, they traveled by oxen cart to Gottenberg, where they had to wait for five weeks for a boat to America. The voyage itself took seven weeks, and it was very stormy. Everyone suffered from sea sickness, which they treated from a keg of ale they had purchased in Gottenberg. When they sighted land off Boston, they learned that cholera was ravaging the country; luckily, no disease was found on board, so they were allowed to land.
At that time immigrants from Northern Europe were much desired in America, and they were met with a procession, including a band, and a flag carrier, to lead the way to the train station. They took the train to Chicago in a very fine coach. Even though the travelers were offered scrumptious ripe fruit, Bengt wouldn’t allow the family to eat anything fresh. One of their fellow travelers couldn’t resist an apple, and he took sick and died before they reached Chicago, leaving his wife and children behind to face the vagaries of America.
They were on their way to St. Charles, Illinois, where a nephew lived. Since no passenger train traveled to St. Charles, they had to travel from Chicago in cattle cars. Once at their destination, the Nilssons were shown a 40-acre parcel that included large oak trees to purchase, but it turned out they were scammed, and the actual parcel was a swamp. They found another lot eight miles from town and built a small house.
The family purchased a cow and two oxen, but everyone in the family had to work elsewhere as well. Even Martha Stina, the mother, worked for a neighbor shearing sheep. She was very strong and could tie the sheep and cut the wool off very skillfully, shearing as many as 29 sheep a day. At first, she was given 3 ½ cents per pound of wool, but her pay was raised to 5 cents per pound when the farmer discovered how valuable she was.
“I wonder if I could cook some coffee for them”
With no other Swedes living nearby, the family attracted attention. On Sunday afternoons in the summer, parties of young people would drive up to see the little cabin and its people. “I wonder if I could cook some coffee for them,” said Martha Stina to her husband. She served them skorpa (rusks) and showed them how to dip them into the coffee in Swedish way.
They stayed in Illinois for a couple of years before Bengt realized he couldn’t support his family from the land he had purchased, so he sold the timber on the property, and in 1856, they prepared to move to Minnesota.
The height of pleasure and adventure in her life, according to Gustava, was the journey to Minnesota in two covered wagons drawn by oxen, with their cattle following behind. At LaCrosse, Wisconsin, they crossed the Mississippi and traveled to Red Wing, where Gustava was left behind to find work. The rest of the family moved in with other Swedes in Vasa, bringing the total to 17 people in a house with one room and an attic. The Nilssons soon traded their lumber wagon for 160 acres of land, and Bengt dug a cellar and covered it with a board roof where the family lived until a superstructure could be built in 1858 or 1859. Then he sold it to Peter Tilderquist, who married Gustava. Today, the land is still farmed by descendants of Bengt and Martha Stina Nilsson.
After marrying Peter Tilderquist (see Gustava’s Unworn Wedding Dress) Gustava’s life took the turn of many women of her day, bearing 12 children over 17 years, contracting tuberculosis, and dying at the age of 51. She was invariably remembered by her children as a patient and companionable mother with a happy disposition even when ill, who was all that a mother could be to her children and her husband. See Gallery