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Nils William Olsson

Nils William Olsson
June 11, 1909 - March 20, 2007


Dating back to the centennial celebration of the beginnings of Swedish immigration to the U.S. in 1948, when he served as Executive Secretary of the celebrations, Nils William Olsson was one of the major figures in both the study of Swedish immigration to the United States and in the Swedish-American community. Born in Seattle in 1909 to Swedish immigrants, he spent part of his childhood in Skåne in southern Sweden. Upon returning to the U.S. he was educated at North Park College and at Northwestern University, and in 1949 he received his Ph.D. in Scandinavian studies from the University of Chicago. Uppsala University bestowed a Ph.D. honoris causa upon him in 1968. He also received many honors in Sweden and America.

In 1950 Nils William Olsson entered the diplomatic service, and served at the U.S. embassies in Reykjavik, Stockholm, and Oslo. In 1967 he became the director of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, and in 1973 he took up the position as director of the newly formed Swedish Council of America.

The Swedish Pioneer Centennial in 1948 prompted the creation of the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society (today the Swedish-American Historical Society) and its journal the Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly (today the Swedish American Historical Quarterly). This organization became a life-long interest for him, and he served as president and board member, as well as a frequent contributor to the Quarterly.

(click on images to see larger versions)

Another labor of love was Swedish American Genealogist, a journal devoted to Swedish American biography, genealogy, and personal history, which he founded in 1981. SAG is the only journal of its kind, and is today published by the Swenson Center.

Nils William Olsson published extensively in the field of Swedish-American studies, with a special focus on biography and genealogy. In addition to his manycontributions to Swedish American Genealogist and Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly and many other journals and books, he edited the two volume A Pioneer in Northwest America, 1841-1858 by Gustav Unonius and Partners in Progress. A Chapter in the American-Swedish Exchange of Knowledge.

Special mention must be made of his major contributions to the history of early Swedish immigration to the U.S. in Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York, 1820-1850 (1967), Swedish Passenger Arrivals in U.S. Ports (except New York), 1820-1850 (1979), and Swedish Passenger Arrivals in the U.S. 1820-1850 (1995). Tracing Your Swedish Ancestry (1974) which has been reprinted several times, is a classic introduction to doing Swedish-American genealogy.

Nils William Olsson served on the Swenson Center Advisory Committee from the inception of the Center in 1981. In 1990, the Center acquired both his library and significant archival materials, which have greatly enhanced our collections and become a major and very useful addition to the Center's book collection (see below). Nils William Olsson was a true friend of the Swenson Center and we mourn his passing. - words by Dag Blanck, Swenson Center Director

In 1990 the Swenson Center acquired the Nils William Olsson Collection consisting of a large library and archives.

The unique and very extensive library collection contains some 6,000 books on:

  • Swedish immigration to the United States
  • Swedish history
  • Swedish genealogy
  • Swedish topography and regional history

Some of the highlights of the archives include:

  • over 5,000 index cards documenting Swedish immigrants arriving in the United States, 1820-1850
  • 15 linear feet of correspondence reflecting his commitment to genealogy and personal history
  • 6 linear feet of collected articles and documents on Swedes in America
  • a four volume scrap book collection of photographs and clippings from the 1948 Swedish Pioneer Centennial
  • a card index to Swedes naturalized at the District Court of Boston, 1802-1906
  • a complete card index to the records of St. Ansgarius Church in Chicago, 1849-1880
  • a variety of small letter collections of Swedish immigrants
  • a collection of occasional writings in Swedish, Latin and French from 18th century Sweden.

In 1947 Nils William Olsson became Executive Director of the Swedish Pioneer Centennial which became a year-long celebration in 1948 commemorating Swedish immigration. The year culminated with a visit from Prince Bertil and an official Swedish delegation. To the left is a photo from the Allan Kastrup Collection of the Swedish delegation visiting Denkmann Memorial Library on their visit to Augustana College.

Nils William Olsson produced a four-volume scrap book of clippings, photos and correspondence based on the 1948 year long celebration of the Swedish Pioneer Centennial and the travels of the Prince Bertil and the Swedish delegation through twelve Midwestern states. The original correspondence and papers are housed at North Park University.

Great Swedish Heritage Awards is a celebration of Swedish heritage held by the Swedish Council of America. The council seeks to function as an umbrella group for all Swedish American organizations. Nils William Olsson became Director of the Swedish Council of America a year after its founding in 1972 until 1982.

These 5 X 8" index cards are the backbone of the research conducted by Nils William Olsson. There are in excess of 5,000 cards documenting this early phase of immigration based on archival research in the United States and Sweden. A compilation of this research which lastedseveral decades resulted in the publication of Swedish Passenger arrivals in New York 1820-1850, published by the Royal Library, Stockholm and the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, Chicago, 1967. A second volume covering passengers to American ports other than New York was published in 1979 and a combined edition with corrections and revisions came out in 1995. The Swenson Center proudly houses all of the cards that Nils William produced in this decades long project.

Photographs of the passenger ships from the Nils William Olsson archives. The Orlando and the Ariosto were among ships that brought Swedish immigrants to New York.

Three tributes to Nils William Olsson.
Nils William Olsson was celebrated in 1969 when he was named Swedish American of the Year by two Swedish District Lodges of the Vasa Order of America. The book (above center) Swedish Americans of the Year was published in 1982. The Swedish-American Historical Quarterly came out with a special issue (above left) in 1984 to commemorate the seventy-fifth birthday of Nils William Olsson. The issue was entitled An Ancient Folk in a New Land (above left). In 1999 Swedish American Genealogist published an issue (above middle) celebrating his ninetieth birthday. Both issuesfeatured essayswritten by friends and colleagues of Nils William, prominent scholars in the field of Swedish immigration studies and genealogists.

Tracing your Swedish Ancestry by Nils William Olsson first appeared in 1962 in the Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, vol. XIII, no. 4 and was reprinted by the Royal Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1963. Since then it has been reprinted seven times enjoying wide circulation especially in North America. Above is the 2000 version published by the Swedish Information Service in New York. This outstanding resource for Swedish genealogy has moved with the times and is now even available for download on the internet.

Swedish Voters in Chicago 1888 was published by SAG publications in 1999. In the introduction, Nils William Olsson explained that the study was based on a sensational genealogical find [that] was made in Chicago by an amateur genealogist… who found a complete alphabetical handwritten list of several hundred thousand Chicago voters from the years 1888, 1890 and 1892. These original and unique records were subsequently preserved on microfilm. Nils William Olsson performed painstaking line by line research of the records, deciphering handwriting and distorted information and compiled an index of all Swedish-born voters in Chicago in 1888. His book has proven to be an invaluable resource for genealogists.