Less than 10 months before he died in 1893, a Minnesotan scribbled in the margin of an old church birth registry during his final visit back to Sweden.
"With a greeting from the New World and with gratitude to memories of the Old World. Hans Mattson."
It was a fitting foot-in-both-worlds farewell from a guy who spent his 60 years juggling one-word descriptors: immigrant, soldier, lawyer, politician, preacher, publisher, diplomat. But most of all, Mattson was known as a fervent recruiter of fellow Swedes and Scandinavians to Minnesota.
"I have never forgotten a friend, born in Red Wing of Swedish parents, telling me of something his father often repeated," Minnesota author Stewart Holbrook wrote in 1952, "which was to bless the name of Hans Mattson who had talked him into leaving his native land, then had shown him the land of Canaan, which in his case turned out to be Goodhue County in Minnesota."
Mattson created a state immigration board in 1866 and served as its secretary. Four years later, he became the state's first Swedish-born politician elected to statewide office. Between stints as secretary of state, he sandwiched five years with his family wooing would-be Minnesotans in Sweden — not to mention a couple of years as the U.S. consul general in Kolkata, India.
Mattson's effectiveness in persuading Swedes to relocate to Minnesota shows up in census numbers. By 1910, Minnesota became the most Swedish state in the country with Swedes making up more than 12 percent of the state population. Roughly 1 in 10 Minnesotans today have Swedish roots, ranking behind Germans, Norwegians and Irish.
"Through his excellent contacts in his homeland, Mattson, probably more than anyone else, lured Swedes to Minnesota," according to "Svensk historia," a widely used college textbook published in the 1960s in Stockholm.
Born on a small farm in southern Sweden on Dec. 23, 1832, Mattson emigrated to America at 18, arriving in Boston on the Swedish brig Ambrosius in June 1851. Although he'd had some schooling and military training in Sweden, he was listed as a common laborer on the ship's manifest.
After a short stop in Illinois, Mattson led a group of fellow Swedes to a colony know as Vasa in Goodhue County, where he married Cherstin Peterson and considered becoming a Baptist preacher.By 1856, they moved a dozen miles east to Red Wing and began raising a growing family.
Mattson shifted from farming to a mercantile business just as the financial panic of 1857 left him broke. So he became a lawyer and entered public life — elected Red Wing's city clerk in 1859 and then county auditor.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Mattson organized a company of Swedes and Norwegians — becoming captain of the Third Minnesota Regiment. He was promoted to major and eventually colonel, but falling sick might have been his best break during the war. He was back home recuperating when the Third Minnesota was part of an infamous 1862 surrender in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
After the war, Mattson dove headfirst into his role as immigration booster — both as a state official and a railroad company recruiter.
As a recruitment tool, Mattson also founded Swedish newspapers in Minneapolis and Chicago. While his autobiography, written late in life, is available online (tinyurl.com/HansMattson), a booklet he penned 150 years ago shows his come-to-Minnesota shtick. Published in 1867 in Chicago and distributed for free, the 29-page article was translated from Swedish to English (tinyurl.com/Mattsonpitch).
Among the highlights, Mattson compared supervised criminals in Ohio (1 of 1,950), New York (1 of 884) and Massachusetts (1 of 1,990) with only one in 3,854 Minnesotans behind bars.
"This comparison-wise large freedom from crime has without doubt its basis in the peoples' character who have immigrated here," he argues.
He then points to the state death rate, with 1 in 155 Minnesotans dying in 1860 — better than 10 other mid-American states he lists. That stat "speaks best for itself in regard to the climate's healthiness in comparison with other states."
And speaking of climate, Mattson insists that "much misunderstanding abounds concerning winter in Minnesota; many think that here it [is] too cold for farming, livestock raising and the resident's comfort. This is a mistake. The cold here is no severer than in the middle part of Sweden."
Talk about your backhanded compliments. In his 1891 memoir, Mattson says other states envied his Swedish pipeline and a Kansas writer accused him of "selling my countrymen to a life not much better than slavery in a land of ice, snow and perpetual winter, where, if the poor immigrant did not soon starve to death, he would surely perish with cold."
Despite his rosy pitch, Mattson insisted the pioneer life in Minnesota included "laborious privations and troubles for each and everyone."
"Those who do not possess fresh courage and firm purpose to overcome/conquer the settler's difficulties, ought not to come here, but … be assured that the life in the West in a new settlement, where the nature squanders its richest collections, has so many happy life-changing and encouraging sides that they properly outweigh all privations and courage."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book "Frozen in History" at startribune.com/ebooks.