The History of Bishop Hill

Bishop Hill was a settlement of a Swedish religious sect that immigrated to America in search of religious freedom in 1846. Its leader, Eric Jansson was unpopular in Sweden because of his religious beliefs.

Eric Jansson, was born in Biskopskulla Parish in Uppland Province.The son of a farmer,Jan Mattson and his wife Sarah Eriksdotter. Believing that he had been cured of rhuematism, he became devoutly religious. But many of his beliefs and activities were against the teachings of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Several book burnings by the Jansson followers didn't also caught the attention of the Church ofSweden. His followers also were known to gather outside the homes of pastors of the established church and pray for their salvation. Eric Jansson and his followers found themselves as unwanted troublemakers, subject to abuse and being arrested.

On December 16, 1845, Olof Olsson, a trusted follower of Jansson arrived in America. Olsson’s job was to find a suitable site for Janson and his followers for their new settlement. He was to investigate America as a possible site where Jansson and his followers could practice their religion without interference from others. Olsson met Olof Gustaf Hedstrom. Hedstrom, a Swede, had arrived in New York earlier and had established a Methodist Church on a ship anchored in New York Harbor. He advised Olsson to travel west to Victoria,Knox County,Illinois where Hedstrom's brother lived. Once there, Olsson would get help from Hedstrom's brother.

Olsson took the advice and traveled to Victoria, Illinois. He met Jonas Hedstrom. He investigated the land . In 1846, Olof Olsson wrote back to Sweden, reporting that this was the place to buy land for the new colony. Olof bought 80 acres of land and then later bought additional land. Communal money was used. The colony was named "Bishop Hill", after Eric Jansson's birthplace, Biskopskulla.

It wasn't long before ships were leaving Swedish ports carrying large numbers of Swedes from parishes like Alfta, Bollnas, Delsbo, Forssa, Ofvanaker, Soderla, and Voxna. They were devout Janssonists, who had sold all they owned or left everything behind, to come to America, following their religious leader. This Swedish emigration, driven by religious fervor drained populations of some small rural parishes in Sweden.

The earliest followers who arrived at Bishop Hill had to live in crowded dug outs dug into the ravines.. Some were fifty to a dug-out. Mortality rates were high the first winter for the new settlement. Nearly one fourth of the immigrants died 96 out of 400. Reportedly, 50 were buried in a mass grave in Red Oak Grove. There is now a marker there.

Despite hardship and death, the survivors worked hard. Buildings were constructed and settlers made a life for themselves. Bricks were made by hand, one at a time. Some bricks were marked with names and initials. Some of these bricks can still be found at Bishop Hill today.

The Colony initially flourished through communal work, and stark living conditions. In the mid 1850's the Central Military Tract Railroad (later to be part of the CB&Q) provided an opportunity for Bishop Hill. Its track was being built and Bishop Hill had a contract to perform some of the track bed construction. Bishop Hill needed the money. Bishop Hill also needed an outlet to ship the surplus goods that it was producing. The shipping point was to be Galva, Illinois. Galva was laid out along the railroad track, with the help of Bishop Hill trustees. Galva was named for the east coast Swedish seaport, Gavle (Gäfle). Gavle was where many of the Bishop Hill residents had left Sweden. Bishop Hill invested heavily in Galva, at one time reportedly owning more than 70 lots. The colony also constructed a brick building along the south side of the railroad and at the west edge of the town square. It was used as Bishop Hill's warehouse. It is reported that this was Galva's first brick building, being built in 1854-1855.

In time, the colony fell on hard times. Eric Jansson hand-picked nine of his most trusted followers and sent them off to California in early 1850. Their task was to find wealth for the Bishop Hill Colony. However, shortly after their departure, Eric Jansson would be dead.

. On May 13, 1850, both Eric Jansson and John Root were in Cambridge dealing with legal issues. Jansson was a defendant in several cases involving Bishop Hill finances. Root was a plaintiff in a trespass case. Although details vary, what is clear is that John Root shot and killed Jansson with a pistol at the courthouse.

Andrew Berglund upon hearing of Janson’s death returned from California.

After the murder of Janson the property of the colony, which was in the leaders name, became his widows. Mrs. Sofia Janson knew more about the colonies affairs than any other person and took control of governemtn. But women weren’t allowed to speak in public, therefore Andrew Berglund was appointed the spiritual leader as well as guardian of Erik Janson’s young son, who according to the expressed wish of the profet, was to become his successor.

At the funeral Mrs. Janson stepped forward and placed her hand on Berlund’s bowed head, creating him guardian to the leadership of God’s chosen people until the boy should have attained his majority. Berglund thus became nominally both temporal and spiritual leader of the community, but in matters of business no important steps were taken without the knowledge and consent of Mrs. Janson.

The colony was still in financial trouble but the situation was somewhat relieved when Olof Johnson and Olof Stoneberg returned from Sweden with $6,000 in inheritance collected.

Andrew Berglund was not permitted to stay leader for long. Upon learning of Janson’s death Jonas Olson returned from California and claimed that it had been himself that had run day to day operations. He had been the chief agent in bringing about the immigration.

A democratic form of government was established. With seven trustees appointed they were : Jonas Olson, Olof Johnson, Jonas Erickson, Jacob Jacobson, Swan swanson, Peter Johnson and Jonas Kronberg. Even though there were trustess it was clear that Jonas Olson was still the leader.

For a time the colony prospered. But in 1857 the colony fell on hard times with the 1857 financial crisis which was nation-wide. Eventually charges of mismanagement against the high council of the colony was made by unhappy members . Also in that year a plan was made up for the division of property and the payment of indebtedness. Johnson retaliated by filing a court injunction against the Bishop Hill colony by having himself and three other men named receivers. In taking procession of the colony’s assets. Johnson retained control of the 265 shares held by the Olson party,in addition to his own party.

The distribution of the property to the members continued but it didn’t solve the problem. In 1865as receiver, Johnson leveled an assessment of $10 an acre to help retire the colony’s debts and three years later levied another assessment of $11 an acre.

Court action followed the latter levy and a committee of six colonists filed a complaint in Henry County Circuit Court charging that; among other things that two sets of books were kept. A special Master in Chancery in this case issued a finding that there was a difference of $42, 759.33 between the two sets of books.

The plaintiffs in the case were: Eric U. Norberg, Eric Johnson, Olof Olson, Andrew Norberg, Lars Lindbeck and Andrew Johnson.

The defendants were: Olof Stoneberg, Olof Johnson, Jonas Olson, Jacbo Jacobson, Jonas Erickson, Swan Swanson and Jonas Kronberg.

The famous Colony Case was not settled for nine years. A compromise was reached in 1879.

After the dissolution many Jansonist left Bishop Hill and settled elsewhere. In 1896 the 50 th anniversary was commemorated with over 2,000 people in attendance.

A Granite monument had been erected bearing this inscription:


Dedicated to the Memory of the Hardy Pioneers who, in order to secure RELIGIOUS LIBERTY,

left Sweden, their native land, with all the endearments of home and kindred, and founded BISHOP HILL COLONY on the uninhabitable prairies of ILLINOIS.

Erected by surviving members and descendants on the 50 th Anniversary, September twenty-third 1896


From; History of Swedes in Illinois-1908

Pages on this web site may be printed out for personal use only

Copyright 2006 Wini Caudell and all contributors

All rights reserved

Illinois Ancestors