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A Prarie Dream Recaptured

July 2024
10min read

The Utopian Swedish colony at Bishop Hill, Illinois, lasted only sixteen years. But in Olof Krans’s strange and evocative paintings it has a kind of immortality

One of the glories of the United States is the fact that when the established churches and monolithic governments of Europe forced out the sects that they believed threatened the closed pattern of their world, this country welcomed them. Their names are precious in the litany of our heritage—the Moravians, the Mennonites, the Amana Society, the Owenites. They came into our still open society, settled on the land, worked and worshipped in their own manner, and then (like the Owenites of New Harmony, Indiana) dissolved or (like the Amana Society of Iowa) continued in the ways of their fathers. We know of most of these pioneering communities through letters, the accounts of visitors, the writings of their founders. But among them, one, the Swedish Jansonist settlement at Bishop Hill, Illinois, had the good fortune to have its life captured forever by an artist.

Olof Krans was born Olof Olson in Selja, Sweden, in 1838 and was to be linked all his life with Bishop Hill. The first story we have about him relates to the emigration of the sect to this country in the eighteen-forties. In order to finance the emigration, each member was required to sell most of his goods and contribute the proceeds to a common fund. Olof’s father visited a shipwright to find out the value of a boat he owned and took with him some sketches of it. Young Olof, presumptuous as only the young can be, said that the drawings were inaccurate; on the spot, he made better ones. Both his father and the shipwright were impressed.

Olof’s parents were emigrating to the United States because they were followers of one of the most extraordinary men of nineteenth-century Sweden: Eric Janson—revolutionary, prophet, messiah. Born in 1808, Janson early began to preach against the orthodoxy of the established Swedish Lutheran church. He claimed that all one needed in order to be saved was to practice the word of God as it was revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He also possessed that prime prerequisite of all fanatical leaders—unshakable self-confidence. “Since the time of the Apostles,” lie is supposed to have announced, “there has been found no true preacher before me.” Janson’s combination of Biblical knowledge, rhetorical pyrotechnics, and invincible self-assurance soon won him a following of thousands, mostly comfortably-oft farmers from northern Sweden.

But with this success came, not surprisingly, the intense hostility of the Swedish government. Janson was repeatedly arrested, and by 1845 he had decided to leave Sweden and find a place where he and his followers could worship as they pleased. One of his trusted disciples arrived in New York late that year; hearing of good, cheap prairie land for sale near Victoria, Illinois—about 150 miles southwest of Chicago—he went there and looked it over. Then lie wrote his master that he had found the right place. In the summer of 1846 Janson himself—accompanied by his wife and two children and a few close friends—arrived, having dodged the Swedish police by skiing across the border into Norway and then taking a coastal schooner from Christiania to Copenhagen.

Soon after his arrival Janson bought land on the Edwards River in Henry County, a few miles north of Victoria. He named the place Bishop Hill in honor of Biskopskulla, the town where he had been born. By the end of 1846 the colony owned some 696 acres, the nucleus of holdings that would eventually increase to 12,000 acres. New immigrants from Sweden began arriving almost at once; in the years between 1946 and 1954, the end of the period of colonization, 1,500 made the trip across the Atlantic to Bishop Hill. Among them was the family of young Olof Olson, who sailed with a group of eighty in the summer of 1850. Their journey was typical: a three-month crossing to New York with little more than bread and cheese to eat; a steamboat journey up the Hudson River to Albany; a transfer to an Erie Canal boat that took them to Buffalo; another transfer to a ship that carried them through the Great Lakes to Chicago; a train ride from Chicago west to Aurora, Illinois; and then a hundred-mile trip on foot to Bishop Hill.

Life was not easy after the Jansonists reached their promised land. During the winter of 1846–47, when most of them lived in dark, damp dugouts on the slopes of a ravine of the Edwards River, nearly 150 died. Their food, which was served in a large communal hall, consisted of a meager ration of soup, corn, turnips, and cheese. A joke handed down for generations comments wryly on their diet: “I’ve got my eyesight back,” the long-ago humorist is supposed to have said. “Yesterday I couldn’t see any peas in my pea soup, but today I can see the church through my slice of cheese.”

But there was very little time for self-pity at Bishop Hill. The colonists were up at dawn, and the first business of the day was to file into the cruciform log church to hear one of the prophet’s two-hour sermons. He preached every morning and night on weekdays and three times on Sunday, and those who dozed off were given a sharp rap on the head with a stick by one of the monitors stationed around the auditorium. But nodding was not common, for Janson was a spellbinding speaker, and few of his followers wanted to miss his assurances that their days of illness and suffering were soon to end.

Indeed, his prophecies of the good life for all were soon fulfilled. Within a year the colony had 350 acres planted in Indian corn, oats, wheat, and broomcorn (a variety of sorghum used to make brooms). This last was Bishop Hill’s most important cash crop, and hundreds of acres were soon given over to it; with prices soaring to three hundred dollars a ton, it brought in thousands of dollars a year for the communal treasury.

Since the economic theory upon which the colony was based called for all to share and all to contribute, persons of both sexes and all ages had jobs to do. The young girls were milkmaids; the young boys drove the oxen; men were blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tailors; women were weavers, spinners, or bakers. In the fields all did their part, working in an almost military formation to demonstrate the co-operative principles by which they lived. An account left by a member of the colony describes the joy of this unified labor, which impressed all who visited Bishop Hill:

During the busy season, other labor was lessened or suspended for that in the fields, and men, women, and children over 14 years of age worked side by side.

Sometimes at the close of a day’s work in the harvest field, the laborers formed a line of march and, singing the songs dear to them, they returned to the village to partake of the evening meal.

There was one practical reason for having the women sharing the men’s labors—they always outnumbered males in the colony.

Young Olof Olson and his family must have been struck by its architecture when they saw Bishop Hill for the first time. Though scarcely four years old, the colony could boast extraordinary buildings that surpassed in size and style anything in the surrounding villages. In the summer of 1848 a big barnlike frame church eighty-four feet long and fifty feet wide had been built. Its basement and first floor contained apartments for married couples, and on its second floor was an auditorium that could seat a thousand people in the Jansonist fashion—men on the right side, women on the left. That same year work was started on a vast communal apartment house called, because of the material used, the Big Brick. It was two hundred feet long, four stories high, and contained ninety-six rooms and six halls. At the time of its construction the Big Brick was one of the largest buildings in the Middle West. In the next few years, using the bricks that the young people of the colony turned out at the rate of ten thousand a day, some eighteen important buildings were constructed. Among them was a clock-towered Steeple Building, which served as a general headquarters; a store; and a school where Mary Sandburg, Carl Sandburg’s sister, later taught. The Steeple Building was handsomely designed in the Greek revival style, and its architecture has been compared to the finest Shaker and Moravian structures. (Three Bishop Hill structures—the colony store and post office, the hotel, and the Steeple Building—are now listed in the Interior Department’s Historic American Buildings Survey.)

Things were indeed going well for the colony. But there were problems, too. Bishop Hill suffered from a continuing defection of those who were lured away by the more relaxed way of life and the greater economic opportunities of nearby Galva and Galesburg, which soon became predominantly Swedish themselves. And when gold was discovered in California, even some of the leaders of the community left for a time.

A more serious blow fell just seven months before Olof Olson and his parents arrived at Bishop Hill in 1850. Charlotte Janson, cousin of the colony’s leader, had fallen in love with a non-Jansonist named John Root, a young Swede who had been serving in the American army in Mexico. She was permitted to marry him only on condition that if Root should leave Bishop Hill Charlotte would remain behind. Before long, Root did leave; but soon he was back, demanding that his wife be allowed to go with him. The men of the colony intervened: twice Root “abducted” his wife, and twice she was forcibly returned. Public sentiment outside of Bishop Hill was in Root’s favor. There was even a threat by a mob of outsiders to burn the colony if Charlotte was not turned over to her husband.

On May 12, 1850, Eric Janson preached what was to be his last sermon in the colony church. The text he chose was ominous—from Paul’s second epistle to Timothy: “I am already being offered and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith ”” The next day, May 13, Janson went to Cambridge, the county seat of Henry County, on legal business. Root came up to him in the courthouse; there was an argument about Charlotte, a shot rang out, and Eric Janson fell, mortally wounded. In five minutes he was dead.

His sorrowing, bewildered followers could not believe what had happened. He could not be dead. Their prophet was immortal, they reasoned; he would, as Christ himself had done, rise again after three days. So they carried him into the church and laid him on a table in front of the pulpit where he had so often promised them the plenty they now possessed. For three days they kept a vigil, waiting and hoping, but when on the third day nothing happened, they put him in a wooden coffin and, weeping, carried him to the cemetery. His monument reads:


A man named Jonas Olson—no relation of the family whose young son was to become the painter of Bishop Hill—was chosen as the colony’s new leader. Under him and the trustees who governed with him, Bishop Hill’s prosperity continued for a time. There was a major upheaval, though, in the mid-fifties, when after a visit to the Shaker community of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, one of his elders convinced Olson that he should introduce celibacy into Bishop Hill. This radical departure from the ideals of Eric Janson, who had encouraged marriage among his disciples, was rejected, but not before many worried couples had left the colony.

During his first two winters at Bishop Hill, young Olof Olson attended school; when he grew older he was an oxboy and later worked in the paint shop and the blacksmith shop. The outbreak of the Civil War stirred the Jansonists to fervid patriotism for their new country, and when Lincoln called for troops to defend the Union, Bishop Hill raised an entire company of volunteers. One of these was Olof. Upon entering the army he followed the ancient Swedish custom of taking a new name. For in a nation swarming with Olsons and Johnsons it was important for soldiers to have names that would quickly distinguish them from each other. It was also thought conducive to military spirit to have a short, hard-sounding name. Olof chose Krans, meaning “wreath,” and he and his family thereafter permanently adopted it, preferring it to the more common Olson. The company from Bishop Hill had a distinguished war record, fighting at Shiloh and Vicksburg and marching with Sherman from Atlanta to the sea. But Krans was not to experience these glories: after the battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, he became ill, and in June of 1862 he was given a disability discharge.

During his brief service in the Army, Olof Krans had had two dreams—to return to the colony he loved and to marry his childhood sweetheart. But by the time he came back, the girl was already married to another and the communal colony was no more. After almost fifteen years of prosperity Bishop Hill had fallen on hard times. There were those who blamed Jonas Olson and the trustees and accused them of squandering the community’s funds. Whatever the reason, the facts were undeniable: the colony was in serious debt, and the number of the faithful had fallen from a high of 1,100 to a low of 655. Thus, in anger and bitterness, the communal colony had been dissolved in 1862, and the property, which had once belonged to all, was divided up among those of the disciples who remained. Most of it still belongs to their descendants.

His dreams shattered, Olof Krans went into a deep depression. During these difficult years he earned his livelihood by operating a horse-drawn photographic studio; it is likely that many of the portraits of the members of the Bishop Hill colony that he painted later on were based on photographs taken at this time.

Eventually Krans shook off his melancholy and, in 1867, married and moved to Galva. There, like many another primitive artist, he became a house painter. But Krans also did interior decorating—wood graining, marbelizing, and the like—and some of his work gave play to his fertile imagination. The window sills of one house became jungles of plants; vines grew on the pew ends of Galva’s Swedish Methodist church, while the ceiling of the Lutheran church was transformed into an azure sky spangled with golden stars.

He was a familiar and well-liked, if eccentric, figure in Galva. His painted backdrops and curtains for the local opera house were much admired, and his delight in dressing up in uniforms was viewed with a good deal of humor. It is difficult to tell whether he helped organize the Galva Fire Department because of his concern for life and property or because he enjoyed donning his tall fireman’s hat with its bright brass plate in front. And he probably got as much pleasure out of putting on the uniform of the band he helped organize as he did out of playing the bass horn. But dearest of all to him was his Grand Army of the Republic uniform with its bold sergeant’s stripes. Every Decoration Day Krans would step out in his blues, and, according to local legend, the neighbors would always say with an indulgent smile: “Here comes Olof in his Union suit.”

There is no evidence that he painted any of his pictures during these busy years. Not until 1896, apparently, when he was convalescing from a fall that left him partially crippled for a time, did he begin putting on canvas the scenes of Bishop Hill that he remembered from his childhood—the long lines of men and women sowing or reaping in the fields, the gently rolling landscape, the strong faces of the early settlers. Among them is his own portrait as a young man when his uniform was spanking new and when, full of hope, he set out to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s army.

By the time of his death in 1916, Krans had finished more than no paintings. Fittingly, most of these now hang in the Bishop Hill church, where, during those three days so long ago, the Jansonists waited for their prophet to rise from the dead. There, captured forever, is the serene world that flourished for so brief a time. Looking at the pictures—at the plowboys, the farm women, the sowers—one can almost hear Eric Janson say, as he reportedly once did when rain threatened the colony’s haying: “H you, O God, do not give good weather so we can finish the work we have at hand, I shall depose You from Your seat of omnipotence.” One can almost believe he could have done it.

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