BISHOP HILL REFRAMED-VOICES FROM THE PAST written by Lilly Setterdahl and designed by Stephen Setterdahl; Introduction by Todd DeDecker, Bishop Hill Heritage Administrator; Published by the Bishop Hill Heritage Association, May 2021
Funds for the printing were provided by Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation
Review by Jordan H. Murray
It is an honor to write a review of this book. I was brought up in the nearby town of Galva and went to school with many of the Swedish descendants of the Bishop Hill pioneers. Through most of my life, I wondered about the development of Bishop Hill as I was given just a taste of its history in junior high school. During my childhood, I slowly picked up small details through books and documents of which I gradually put the pieces together. Having matured, I had more questions as I returned to my childhood home after 30 years. As Lilly points out, this book was written, not only to celebrate Bishop Hill’s 175th anniversary but also to shed light on why a large group of Swedish immigrants decided to pool their resources and leave their native country to found a new settlement in Henry County, Illinois. I continually re-read her book and find more details than before¬¬—too many interesting ones to list in this short review.
This 8-1/2” x 11” hardcover book’s front cover is a favorite, colored photograph of mine as it shows the Bishop Hill dugouts and related buildings that were painted by Olof Krans. The artist arrived in the colony in 1850 as a 12-year-old boy. Nonetheless, the dugouts were gone by then. With the help of an eyewitness, Olof was able to produce a large painting based on the old timer’s description. The back cover shows Krans’ stage curtain painting of Bishop Hill in 1855 as seen when entering the village from the north. Both paintings are on display in the state-owned art museum in Bishop Hill. In 1988, Sweden produced a postage stamp with both Olof’s portrait and the 1855 Bishop Hill image and this too is shown on the back cover.
An important section of this book gives some insight into the religious prophet’s life and gives the reader Eric Jansson’s Farewell Address (to Sweden). This translation explains why Jansson (in his words) left in haste as his purpose was to search for his New Jerusalem and to take the place of Jesus “to save everyone who was willing to accept the atonement” (a doctrine that describes how one can be reconciled (reunited) with God. Jansson thanked those who believed in him and wanted forgiveness for his departure. (At that time, he didn’t know where he was going.)
As with most endeavors, people make things happen and in the case of the founding of Bishop Hill in 1846, pioneering tenacity and grit made good things happen through grace, hard work, and faith. Even though there were deplorable conditions and an untimely murder of the colony’s founder and leader, things gradually improved. After that the trustees had taken over the governing, corruption was uncovered which eventually led to more greed and collusions., resulting in dissolution and division of the property.
It was fascinating to learn how much the women’s work contributed to the development of the colony. There were many more women than men in the beginning but there was a period when the gender numbers somewhat evened out. Nonetheless, later there were still more women than men. Both women and men had left close family behind in Sweden in order to follow Eric Janson to save their souls. Their hard work helped Bishop Hill grow into an economic success story.
The book contains about 30 letters written by colonists to relatives in Sweden. Translated by Lilly, these letters describe “a better life” in America as compared to the life they had left in Sweden. Letters written by former colonists, who had left Bishop Hill, are critical of life in the colony. The book contains several articles describing living and visiting accommodations in the colony, as well as articles written by Lilly about Eric Jansson’s relatives and conversations with descendant. Pertinent high-quality photographs are sprinkled throughout the book for reference. This work was sorely needed because it proves that “a frenzy” of chain emigration of other Swedes followed. (In my opinion, Eric Janson should be given credit for opening up immigration from Sweden that eventually turned into a mass migration. This event resulted in economic benefits for both America and Sweden.
The personal letters, including the Civil War letters, are important primary sources which are highly collectible and sought after by scholars. Lilly Settedahl and the Bishop Hill Heritage Association have given us a remarkable gift. The author has written 24 previous books but BISHOP HILL REFRAMED has to be her Magnum Opus.
The book is available at the Colony Store in Bishop Hill.