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Those Exotic Swedes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

William F. Cody spent his childhood years in LeClaire, Iowa, just upstream from here, but he wandered eventually to Kansas, where he discovered the exotic Wild West full of buffalo, cowboys, Indians, heroes and outlaws. He changed his name to Buffalo Bill and made a good living for twenty years bringing his Wild West Show to Eastern audiences. Then, in 1902, he announced that he had abandoned show business. He had discovered something even more exotic than cowboys and Indians: Swedes.

In March of 1902, at a press conference in Chicago, Buffalo Bill outlined his change of plans. He had formed a syndicate whose purpose was to increase Wyoming's population by a settlement of 5,000 Swedes. The Syndicate would form a Swedish colony in the valley of the Big Horn, east of Yellowstone Park, near the site of Custer's Last Stand. He hoped to have the settlement completed by the end of the coming summer.

Half of the colonists would come from Swedes already living in the United States. Indeed, ads appeared that spring in Moline newspapers inviting Swedes to come west. The other half would come from Sweden itself.

The colony would be entirely Swedish, and Swedish would be the only language spoken. There would be one central town, surrounded by farms. The colony would be self-governing, with its own constitution and laws—as far as permitted by the state of Wyoming. Buffalo Bill was not worried that his colony would turn out to be socialist or communist. "Swedes are not much given to ventures of that kind," he said.

Why did the syndicate single out Swedes for this venture? Because they were solid, moral, hardworking, as John Deere had found out in Moline? No, said Buffalo Bill, it was because they had shown an amazing ability back in Sweden of taking the most barren, godforsaken, unfertile land on earth and turning it into productive farms. Only Swedes could make the desolate Wyoming prairies produce.

For whatever reasons, the Swedish colony in Wyoming never materialized, and Buffalo Bill returned to his Wild West Show for a few more years. But the show lost money and went bankrupt. Bill's heart was just not in cowboys and Indians, after discovering Swedes.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.