March 23, 1838: Piscataquis County, Maine’s 12th county, is formed from parts of Penobscot and Somerset counties. The county is the location of Moosehead Lake, the state’s largest lake; and Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest mountain.

With a population of about 16,800 in 2018, it also is Maine’s least populous county. The number of residents in 2018 is about the same that it was in 1900 and only about 30 percent greater than it was in 1840.

March 23, 1870: The Maine Legislature appoints William Widgery Thomas Jr. of Portland to be Maine’s immigration commissioner.

Portrait of William Widgery Thomas Jr. “Universities and their sons; history, influence and characteristics of American universities, with biographical sketches and portraits of alumni and recipients of honorary degrees” (1898)

Thomas quickly leaves for Sweden, where he had lived for three years earlier, and recruits 51 immigrants to become the first European settlers of a new settlement in Maine’s far north.

The colony consists of 22 men, 11 women and 18 children. All the men are farmers, and some are skilled in carpentry and other trades. The Swedes settle in what becomes known as the town of New Sweden and eventually expand into the adjacent towns of New Stockholm, Perham, Westmanland and Woodland.

In an 1895 address on the occasion of the colony’s 25th anniversary, Thomas recalls that Maine entrepreneurs had tried once before, in 1864, to plant a Swedish colony in Maine. After they recruited about 300 laborers and spent thousands of dollars to fund their passage across the Atlantic, he said, those Swedes landed at Quebec and simply disappeared. Not one ever made it to Maine.


To prevent a second such failure, Widgery secures a state promise of land, then goes to Sweden in 1870 and sets up a recruitment office in the city of Gothenburg. Thomas travels all over the country to find candidates, who are required to submit documents testifying about their abilities and character.

On June 25, 40 days after his arrival, he and the colonists leave Gothenburg on a steamer bound for England. In Hull, they take a train to Liverpool, then on July 2 board the steamship City of Antwerp, heading for Canada. The ship arrives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where, barred from using any of the city’s hotels and boardinghouses, they spend the night in a warehouse. From there, they go to Saint John, New Brunswick, and board two flatboats to travel up the Saint John River.

Near Florenceville, one of the children, a 9-month-old baby girl, dies. The parents insist on taking their daughter’s body to their new home.

The party reaches Tobique Landing on July 21, spends the night in a barn, and proceeds overland the next day across the U.S. border to Fort Fairfield for a round of welcoming speeches by local dignitaries. After stopping for the night in Caribou, they arrive in the place that Thomas christens “New Sweden.”

“All around us was an unbroken wilderness. A gigantic forest covered all the land, stretching away over hill and dale as far as the eye could reach,” Widgery recalls 25 years later. Even so, the colony thrives.

Today, while the Swedes’ descendants are thoroughly assimilated as Americans, evidence of Swedish culture persists in New Sweden and its surrounding towns.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at:

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