Little has been known about Swedish immigration to Florida in the 1800s.
In early 2005, I came across a large number of letters written by my great-grandfather’s brother, Josef Henschen. He immigrated from Uppsala, Sweden, to the Sanford area in Florida, in 1871.
The letters were addressed to his dear friend Knut Ångström in Sweden, and spanned several decades. Knut was a well known scientist, son of the famous physicist Anders Jonas Ångström, after whom the unit “angstrom” is named. About a hundred years after the letters were written, Knut’s grandson found them in his father’s attic.
My mother’s maiden name was Henschen, and we belong to the Swedish part of the family. I was born and raised in Stockholm, but moved to America in the 1990s. Through some twist of fate, I ended up in Florida, not far from where Josef Henschen lived most of his life.
Josef’s letters were personal and intimate, but also contained practical, financial and political information that you don’t find in the usual Florida history books. They moved me deeply and I started to do some research about him. In the archives at Uppsala University I found more of his letters, equally fascinating. These were addressed to his father and brother, and were somewhat different in style.
Then I was lucky to meet Christine Best, a historical researcher at the Sanford Museum. She had written a small book about the Swedes in Seminole/Orange Counties, and had partial information about Josef and his brothers. Chris and I started a regular and fruitful correspondence.
My maternal great-grandfather was Salomon Henschen, professor of medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and a member of the Nobel Committee of Medicine. His three brothers, Wilhelm, Josef and Esaias, all moved to the United States. Only Salomon remained in Sweden.
Wilhelm (William) Henschen was the first to go, in 1870. He free-lanced as an agent for Anchor lines, a shipping company whose transatlantic steamships brought large amounts of Swedish immigrants to America. Wilhelm lived mostly in New York, but spent time in Florida, and bought some land by Lake Jessup. In 1874 he wrote an instruction book for prospective Swedish immigrants. Chris Best happened to locate the only existing copy of this book at the Augustana College, and managed to get photo copies of all its pages. It was in Swedish of course. I translated it to English, and it became another valuable source of information.
In 1871, General Henry Shelton Sanford owned 12,000 acres of orange orchards in Seminole County in Florida. The town Sanford is named after this man. Sanford was not happy with his local employees and was looking for a better work force. Wilhelm heard about this, and made a proposal to import Swedish workers for Sanford. Swedes were known to be hard working, honest and able, and Sanford became interested.
Wilhelm would go to Sweden, recruit a large number of workers and bring them over to the Sanford plantations. They would work there one year, without salary. In exchange, Sanford would pay their trips to America. Wilhelm also bargained to get some of his own family members over for free. He returned in April 1871 with his brother Esaias, his aunt Sofia, and about twenty-five Swedish workers, most of them from Uppsala.
A few months later Sanford realized that he needed more workers, both men and women, and he again turned to Wilhelm. This time Wilhelm was unable to go to Sweden, so he cabled his brother Josef who was still there. Josef was a medical student at the Uppsala University, but agreed to take a break in his studies. He recruited thirty-six workers, also from Uppsala, and brought them over toAmerica. In November 1871 Josef and his group arrived in Sanford.
The Swedes founded the New Upsala settlement, which is the first and largest Swedish colony in the history of Florida. (At that time it was still spelled with one “p”) Many Swedish descendants inFlorida and other states have their roots in this group. Today this settlement has become part of Sanford, but there is still an Upsala Road, a Swedish Presbyterian church built 1892, and a Swedish cemetery. Every year in December there is a big Lucia celebration in Sanford, organized by the two historical museums in the area. It always gets hundreds of visitors.
In early 1872, when Josef had delivered the Swedish workers to Sanford, he made a journey by foot down the Atlantic coast, to the area which is now Miami. During this dangerous trip he nearly died of thirst and exposure. He had to run from bears, panthers, alligators and large, poisonous snakes. In the Everglades he visited Seminole Indians and befriended their chief who was a hundred years old.
Josef had planned to return to his medical studies in Sweden, but he fell in love with Florida and stayed there for the rest of his life. He started his own orange orchards, and made a fair amount of money. Some years later he married a Swedish immigrant girl, Carolina Svensson, and they had five children.
In the mid-1880s, Josef was approached by four men - Demens, Sweetapple and Taylor. They wanted to build a railroad from Sanford across Florida to Pinellas County on the west coast. Josef became partners with these men and invested all his savings, as well as years of work, into the project. It was named the Orange Belt Railroad.
There were many problems and miscalculations with the railroad, and Josef lost all his money. This was a terrible blow for him, and it took him at least a decade to become financially stable again. But because of the railroad, a city grew up at the southern point of Pinellas County. Josef was asked to give it a name, and he named it Saint Petersburg, to honor his Russian partner Demens.
In the first years of the Orange Belt, when it was still doing well, its headquarters had been established in Oakland, by Lake Apopka. The town boomed because of the railroad. Josef moved toOakland in 1886 and resided there with his family for the rest of his life. There is still a Henschen Avenue there, named after Josef.
Josef lived in Florida for six decades. He was a leader of the Swedish colony in Orange and Seminole counties. Nobody made any major decisions without first getting his advice – whether it was legal, financial or medical. Josef always helped anybody who came to him, and he was known as a wise, kind and generous man. For many years he served as the Oakland Postmaster, and as Justice of the Peace.
Two of Josef’s grandchildren still live in Florida. One of them is Doctor Joseph Raymond Henschen, now in his 80s, who like his grandfather is a kind and generous person. He and his wife Lois were very helpful when I did my research.
Wilhelm Henschen became a Methodist preacher and moved to Chicago in the mid-1870s. He was the editor of Sändebudet, the organ for the Swedish Methodist churches in America. He may also have been involved with Nordstjernan. Wilhelm and his wife Hanna Lilljebjörn had seven children and many grandchildren.
Esaias Henschen also married a Swedish girl, Emelia Magnusson. They lived a few years in St. Augustine, Florida, where Esaias was Justice of the Peace. Then they returned to Sweden where they had children and grandchildren. Their great-granddaughter, the author Kristina Lugn, was recently elected to the Nobel Committee of Literature in Stockholm.
Written by Rebecca Weiss
Copyright 2006 by Rebecca Weiss
(Rebecca Weiss is a Swedish artist and writer who lives in Florida. She has published two books, the autobiographical “Journeys in Darkness and Light” and “A Florida Pioneer” about the life of Josef Henschen.