Tuesday, April 1, 2014

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: #13 Gustaf Ekstrom Comes to America

"Grandma Beth, why did our family come to America?"

I mentally flipped through my immigrant ancestors for a story that would be simple for my eight-year-old granddaughter to grasp. My great-grandfather, Gustaf Emil Ferdinand Ekstrom, is my most recent immigrant ancestor and the one about whom I know the most. He came to America in 1891, from Sweden, a country with fabulous records for genealogical research.

Sweden in the 19th century had a problem with growing enough food for the growing population. The soil was depleted and there just wasn't enough good land to grow adequate food. Gustaf and his younger brother Ernst made the difficult choice to move to the rich land that was America, leaving behind their parents, siblings and their homeland.

Gustaf was born at a place called Kristineholm. Holm means a small island, and so it seems the family lived on a small island in Lake Risten in Östergötland. Adolph Ekstrom and Anna Charlotta Svensdotter had seven children, of which Gustaf, born on May 09, 1862, was the fourth.

Adolph was a skräddare, a tailor, and he raised two of his sons to also be tailors. Gustaf moved to the nearby city of Linköping to practice his trade, while Ernst stayed with his parents in Kristineholm.

On September 29, 1883, Gustaf married Johanna Sofia Pihltrad Gustafson at the Linköping Cathedral. Of their three children, two died before their first birthday. Johanna died just a few days before the third child, in January, 1887.

Left a widower with a toddler, Gustaf remarried on May 20, 1888, to Agnes Emilia Fors. This marriage was celebrated in a Methodist church, an unusual choice in a time when the Swedish state religion was Lutheran. However, this change from Lutheran to Methodist has never been mentioned in the family as a reason for leaving Sweden. The family believes that famine was the only driving force.

The first child born to the new marriage was in 1889, with the second child, born in May, 1891, dying within three weeks. Picture Gustaf and Agnes grieving over this tiny baby. In the span of eight years, Gustaf had buried three babies and a wife. In addition to those family members, he also had lost an older sister to an early death. Agnes had also lost a young sister. I imagine them thinking that there had to be some way to have a healthy and well-fed family. Their thoughts would have focused on America.

Ernst had already left Sweden, emigrating to Chicago in 1889. He would have written to Gustaf about the wonders of America and the opportunities for a skilled tailor to make a good life. Agnes had also traveled to America as a teenage servant. Gustaf and Agnes must have talked at length about America during the spring and summer of 1891.

With their two children, Gustaf and Agnes left Linköping in mid-August, sailing first to England. From Liverpool they sailed in steerage on the ship Alaska, landing in New York on September 14, 1891.

Template and elements from Destinations digital kit by ClubScrap

Gustaf and Agnes settled in the Lakeview area of Chicago to raise their family of two girls and three boys. They lost another little girl to an early death and their second daughter died at age 28, due to complications of diabetes.

Gustaf opened his own tailor shop in the suburb of Evanston and Agnes assisted him, as did one of his sons. He did well, buying a small apartment building. Gustaf and Agnes were also able to travel back to Sweden for a visit in 1924, this time sailing in second class.

Gustaf was remembered by the family for being a strict disciplinarian, for being very hard of hearing, and for being a very fine tailor. He died before the Great Depression impoverished his family. His death notice was carried in the Swedish newspaper.

Svenska Amerikanaren 
Torsdagen Den 14 Juli 1927
Dödsfall i Chicago
Gust Ekström, 1469 Winnemac ave., make till Agnes, fader till Gertie Johnston, Fred, Edward och Alver Ekström, afled den 4 juli.


Gustaf was buried, along with his wife and daughter, in the historic Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.

I've recently finished researching all of Gustaf's siblings and have discovered that there are no living descendants of any of his siblings. Those who stayed in Sweden continued to experience high rates of infant mortality and low numbers of pregnancies. His brother Ernst had two healthy daughters born in America, but neither had children. I truly believe that Gustaf's decision to immigrate to America was critical to the survival of his branch of the family. In my generation there are over twenty cousins descended from this one Swedish tailor.

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