For the last couple of months I have been engaged in research concerning the history of two river systems in Sweden: Göta Älv and Ätran. I have tried to explore questions of river/human interaction and several interesting themes have emerged. In my research I have focused on six case studies, and this blog post concerns one of them: Åkerström.
A map of Göta Älv with some important places marked.
For anyone interested in the history of Göta Älv – the largest river in Sweden which enters the ocean at the area surrounding Gothenburg – Åkerström is a place of significance for several reasons. The river has been used for transport for many centuries and Åkerström is intimately tied to the transport economy of Göta Älv on many levels. Furthermore, the Göta Älv valley has long been plagued by natural disasters which historical effects can be clearly seen in this area. The river should not be seen as something passive in this region, as its nature and effect upon the surrounding landscape clearly has affected the human society of the area.
The pre-medieval history of Åkerström remains largely unknown and unexplored. The only nearby remains of Iron Age activity is an ancient hill fort on a mountain overlooking the river channel just to the northwest of the 17th century farm Slätthult. Almost no burial features can be found here, apart from a few stone settings and stone circles to the north of Åkerström. Thus it seems like the local area was pretty much uninhabited during the Iron Age.
During the Middle Ages, the main area of settlement lay to the north of Åkerström, between present day Trollhättan and Vänersborg. This area was highly suitable for farming with soils consisting mainly of clay and silt. The vicinity to Vänern and the extensive forests surrounding this settlement area also provided the foundation for a diverse amount of secondary resource production. Cattle farming was the most important agrarian resource of this area and cattle – along with its byproducts – was highly valuable trade goods.
It is difficult to say with any certainty to what extent this region of Göta Älv was used for transport during the medieval period. Considering the picture that emerges during later centuries it is highly likely that the whole river has been used at least sporadically for transportation during the Middle Ages. However, the falls at Lilla Edet and Trollhättan were difficult obstacles for upstream transportation, and it is perhaps more likely that Göta Älv was used for downstream transports during this period – such as timber rafting. The difficulties of these water falls are well emphasised the later development, where a road called “Edsvägen” connected the river north of Trollhättan to Åkerström. Goods where traditionally unloaded at Trollhättan and transported by land to Åkerström. From Åkerström the goods could be shipped to Lilla Edet where it had to be transshipped again – at least before the middle of the 17th century when a river lock was constructed there by King Karl the IX of Sweden.
A georeferenced and digitised version of the 17th century map of Åkerström on top of a modern orthophoto. The original map can be seen here: Map of Åkerström (National Archives)
Åkerström should therefore be seen as a rather liminal area up till at least the 16th century, when it first appears in the written records. When we take a look at a map of the area from 1653, the location is obviously entangled in the river economy of Göta Älv. The map mainly surveys the farms of Slätthult and Stubbered, but also shows the location of Åkerström – where some “iron huts” where located – as well as the border stream between Denmark and Sweden. In 1648 a landslide occurred in this area, which had disastrous effects on the settlements downstream. Several ships and houses were destroyed, and the earth masses blocked the entire river valley. When the water eventually broke through the dam of soil a huge “tidal wave” swept down the valley, causing severe additional damages. The location of this landslide (called “Stora Jordafallet”) is also marked on the map.
The farms of Slätthult and Stubbered were by no means disentangled from Göta Älv, and had access to fishing waters in the river. In addition, Slätthult made “good revenues” from barges going down Göta Älv towards Gothenburg. We can only guess at the nature of these barges, but the farm obviously produced timber which would have been easily transported down the river. Timber rafting on Göta Älv was common during the 17th century, but most timber came from more distant places, such as Värmland and Dalsland. Here is then an example of a local entrepreneur who was engaged in the larger economic structures of Early Modern Sweden, and who used them for his/her own gains. We cannot know the historical depth of this phenomenon. According to some authors, timber rafting occurred on Göta Älv already during the Middle Ages. Even though this is indeed possible, scarce evidence exists.
Perhaps even more interesting are the two abandoned sawmills which lay on the lands of Slätthult. It is highly likely that the timber industry of the area suffered from the landslide in 1648, which would explain the abandoned saw mills. No real trace of these sawmills can be seen today, as they seem buried beneath large amounts of rocks which have fallen from the slopes to the south-east.
That was a short account of the area of Åkerström during the Early Modern period. The place is highly interesting, and an investigation like this raises additional questions:
· The water falls at Trollhättan were used for milling during the 15th century, which indicates that the vicinity was settled. Is it possible that the trading station of Åkerström was active already during the Middle Ages?
· Was local private engagement in long-distance trade something common during the Early Modern period?
· Was the area surrounding Åkerström politically important in some way due to its economic function?
· If so, where are the physical traces of this importance located?