Bob & Tom’s Excellent Adventures: Bishop Hill

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Bishop Hill, Illinois is about an hour northwest of Peoria in Henry County. This little town, with a population of about 125, is a self-described “Utopia on the Prairie.”

It’s a place filled with arts and crafts, a colony store, a museum and a couple of restaurants. Henry County’s tourism office shows videos of folk dancing, music, shopping, and dining in Bishop Hill. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a major tourist attraction where you can step back 160 years into the past of Illinois.

That past includes emigration, assimilation, and even assassination. There’s more to Bishop Hill than a tourist site. The town is the result of one group’s search for religious freedom in the United States in 1846. A charismatic character named Eric Janssen convinced a thousand of his fellow Swedes to sell everything they owned and travel to the U.S. to create the “New Jerusalem”: Bishop Hill, Illinois. Everything would be community-owned. No one would have more than his neighbor.

The first winter in Bishop Hill was brutal. The emigrants arrived too late to plant. A quarter of them died that winter.

With the arrival of more emigrants the next year, the colony thrived. Many settlers lived in the “Big Brick.” Dining was communal, so only bedrooms were needed. 

Bishop Hill artist Olof Krans would record how colony people, men and women alike, worked the fields.

Eric Jansson was only the leader of Bishop Hill for four years. An unhappy colonist, John Root, who had married Jansson’s cousin, shot and killed the colony leader in May 1850. It may be a reflection of how some outsiders felt about Eric Jansson that John Root only spent on year in prison for the killing.

Problems with finances, a national recession, and the outbreak of the Civil War brought an end to the Bishop Hill Colony in 1861. It had lasted just fifteen years. 

But Bishop Hill is important in American History. Letters from the settlers here to friends and relatives back in Sweden told of the rich and cheap farmland in the Midwest. Tens of thousands of Swedes crossed the Atlantic to new homes on the prairie. 

“And when these letters came back and the newspaper accounts about how successful Bishop Hill was, it encouraged people not just to come to Bishop Hill, but just come to the United States in general because they hear about the cheap land, the economic opportunity, and religious freedom,” says Todd DeDecker of the Bishop Hill Heritage Association. 

And Swedes still come here. Swedish royalty, most recently King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia in 1996, have visited Bishop Hill. Ironically, the country that Eric Jansson rebelled against has embraced his descendants and followers in far-off Illinois.

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