Dakota Datebook

Swan Peterson’s Swedish/English Dictionary

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

In preparation for his new life in America, Swan Peterson set fire to his belongings.

He burned his Swedish diploma as a Swedish shoemaker. He burned his Swedish furniture, his Swedish clothes, even his Swedish sheet music.
He packed his essentials, and left the rest of his belongings in ashes. Swan Peterson was a young man, eager to start a new life in a new country, and he began this new life by purging himself of his Old Country belongings.

Before his farewell bonfire, Swan had been content in his homeland, Sweden. But when both of his parents passed away Swan was left without land, or a way to support himself.

Using his carefully saved money, Swan bought a ticket to America and embarked on his voyage across the ocean. In celebration of a safe landing in New York, Swan spent his last eleven cents on a curious American delicacy, popcorn.

But being penniless meant little to Swan now that he was in America. It was the beginning of a new century, and he was young and hard working. He took a train west to Hallock, Minnesota where he was greeted by a community of Swedish farmers. It was here where Swan found his first American job.

Swan worked with Swedes during the day, but at night he came home to a bunkhouse full of English speaking men. Swan worked hard, but not understanding English made every day life difficult.

A pretty girl helped to manage the bunkhouse, and one day she greeted Swan with a cheery, “good morning!” Not knowing how to respond in English, Swan stayed silent. Later, he asked a friend what he could say the next time he saw her. Swan’s tricky friend was “kind” enough to teach Swan how to correctly pronounce a nasty English curse word. Eager to impress the pretty girl, Swan sought her out the next morning and happily greeted her with his new English word. He knew immediately that what he said had been wrong. Swan’s friend had a good laugh about it, but learned his lesson when the pretty girl discovered who taught Swan that curse word.

After spending some time in Minnesota, Swan moved to North Dakota where he opened a shoe repair shop in Pembina. With the help of a Swedish/English dictionary and English speaking customers, Swan quickly learned to speak English, but still couldn’t read or write it. A crippled peddler often came through Pembina, and Swan bought The Pennsylvania Grit newspaper from him just to help him out. Unable to read them, Swan piled the newspapers in a corner until his brother convinced him that the Grit was worth reading. Swan sat up at night and studied the paper until he was able to understand the printed English words.

In 1908, Swan moved his family to a homestead near Springbrook, ND. Swan’s farm was so successful, that in 1912 he was able to buy 27 pairs of shoes, enough to last his family three years! He farmed for 13 years, and in 1921, settled his family in Williston, ND. Swan passed onto his children his knowledge and memories from the Old Country, such as wood working and music. He also raised his children speaking only Swedish. After years of trying to put Sweden behind him, Swan was finally able to embrace both his American life, and his Swedish heritage.
By Ann Erling

Sources:
“North Dakota’s Ethnic History: Plains Folk.” Sherman, Thorson, Henke, Kloberdanz, Pedeliski, Wilkins.
“WPA Ethnic History Files.”

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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