Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants in northern Michigan

Nancy Ritsema Contributing writer

Legendary Antrim County photographer Emil Johnson’s parents Karl and Mary.  Emil’s Swedish parents emigrated from Sweden and worked and lived north of Mancelona in Wetzell, now a ghost town, and then on a farm where Emil was raised. 


Among pioneer settlers who made their way to northern Michigan in the mid to late-1800s were Scandinavian immigrants from Norway and Sweden. They shed their national identities and emigrated to America because of economic uncertainty, crop failures and famine, wars and disease and to escape religious persecution in their native lands. 

Making their way to the Upper Midwest and northern Michigan to take advantage of the Homestead law, which offered cheap or free land to Americans and those from foreign lands, they used their skills in the logging and mining industries and as Great Lakes seamen. As Nordic people who had lived near the Arctic Circle, native Norwegians and Swedes adapted quickly to the harsh long winters of northern Michigan.  

Leelanau County across from Antrim on Grand Traverse Bay boasts a significant Norwegian immigrant history. As researched by Jeffrey W. Hancks in his book “Scandinavians in Michigan,” in June of 1867 a group of 29 men, women and children set out for America from rural Norway. Traveling through Great Lakes waterways to Lake Michigan, they decided to settle at Northport instead of Chicago, their intended destination.  


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