Gösta von Fersens underbara resa genom de södra amerikanska delstaterna och bortom Mississippi floden, med berättelser om manga konstiga och gåtfulla händelser

2022 April Fools' Day Entry

Gösta von Fersens underbara resa genom de södra amerikanska delstaterna och bortom Mississippi floden, med berättelser om manga konstiga och gåtfulla händelser is an 1837 travelogue written by minor Swedish nobleman Gösta von Fersen, the English title of which would translate to Gösta von Fersen’s Amazing Journey through the Southern States of America and beyond the Mississippi River, with Narratives of Many Strange and Enigmatic Occurrences. The book sold poorly when it was first released, being regarded as an odd combination of rather dull diary entries and the kind of fantastic tales of mysterious creatures common to travel narratives before the “Age of Reason,” and it has not yet been published in a complete English translation. The interest in the manuscript by Arkansas historians in the twenty-first century relates to one particular section, which is seen as offering possible evidence for the existence of a heretofore undocumented settlement in the central part of the state (through which von Fersen traveled in 1813). However, given the mystical aspects of this part of his travelogue, debate continues to rage as to whether von Fersen’s narrative might actually be an allegory of some kind (like Plato’s tale of Atlantis in Timaeus and Critias) or simply the record of a fever dream brought on by malaria.

Gösta von Fersen was born on June 21, 1769, in Stockholm, a minor aristocrat whose career was largely overshadowed by that of his older cousin, Axel von Fersen the Younger, a Marshal of the Realm of Sweden who famously served in the American Revolution as an aide-de-camp to Marshal Jean-Baptist Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, and who was a personal friend to (and possible lover of) French queen Marie Antoinette, ultimately arranging the French royal family’s failed “Flight to Varennes.” But unlike his cousin, Gösta von Fersen showed little inclination toward travel or the life of a diplomat or statesman. Indeed, while many Swedish aristocrats of the era were imitating French manners and customs, Gösta von Fersen prefered, instead, to occupy his time with works of Swedish culture, such as the writings of Olof Persson (a.k.a. Olaus Petri), a Swedish clergyman and proponent of the Protestant Reformation, and Carl von Linné, author of Systema Naturae and the “father of modern taxonomy.”

However, following the June 20, 1810, murder of Axel von Fersen by a lynch mob in Stockholm, due to popular belief that he was responsible for the sudden death of Charles August, the crown prince, Gösta von Fersen quickly and quietly arranged for travel to the United States, fearing that public antipathy toward Axel von Fersen might broaden and lead to violence against the family in general, although this ultimately did not occur. He arrived in the port of Charleston, South Carolina, on October 29, 1810. Gösta von Fersen had likely hoped that his family connections might afford him a berth of some stature, and letters dispatched to old colleagues of his cousin—many now in high levels of the American government—received warm and enthusiastic replies. However, many of those who corresponded with Gösta von Fersen informed him of rising tensions with the British empire and the likelihood of war in the coming years and so sought to recruit him for eventual military service, to which von Fersen was disinclined. Instead, the Swedish nobleman decided to venture into the American hinterlands and record his observations of local culture and nature.

Unfortunately, Gösta von Fersen had little eye for detail or inclination for anthropological inquiry. Of Charleston, he wrote little beyond: “Every citizen here can talk of nothing but cotton. It is the only thing that matters.” From the spring of 1811 to the spring of 1812, von Fersen traveled through the states (or territories) of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, often recording in his diary little more than his own dismay at the primitive conditions and “distressing” culinary traditions. For example, in southern Mississippi, he expresses shock at witnessing a woman frying a filet of catfish, writing, “In my own native land, even the simplest peasant is acquainted with the proper practice of smoking or pickling such food.” Von Fersen found himself in New Orleans during the celebration of Louisiana’s statehood and was invited by some local members of the upper class to attend what he described as en mislyckad kräftskiva, or “an attempted crayfish party,” of which he writes: “When I tasted the first one, I asked if they lacked for dill in this part of the world. When informed that my hosts were familiar with the herb and regularly used it for other preparations, I then asked why they did not adhere to convention in the matter of the crayfish. This question seemed to annoy and confuse all in attendance.”

Von Fersen contracted malaria during his stay in New Orleans and spent some time recovering from the disease. Thus, he did not begin the next leg of his journey, up the Mississippi River, until early 1813. He recorded his intention to visit the many ports that had begun to emerge along the river on what was then the western frontier of the United States, but during a stop at Arkansas Post, he allowed himself to be convinced to venture westward instead, along the Arkansas River, being told by fellow travelers that the relatively unexplored territory offered greater potential.

By mid-March 1813, von Fersen and the group of trappers with whom he was traveling arrived in what is now Little Rock (Pulaski County), taking up residence in the cabin William Lewis had built upon the banks of the river the previous year. Unfortunately, the strain of the travel seems to have brought upon a recurrence of malarial symptoms, with von Fersen recording fevers and chills during the following two weeks. This illness calls into question the veracity of one of the narratives he provides of his time in Arkansas.

On April 1, 1813, von Fersen records rising from his bunk that morning “with my mind suddenly clear and unimpeded.” In this state, he wandered outside and began walking “in a vaguely northwesterly direction, as if being summoned by some spectral force.” He walked until “the ground began rising beneath my feet, carrying me up beyond the fetid air of the riverside and up into the clear skies.” Soon enough, he found himself within what appeared to be a village composed of tightly clustered cottages, each one of which featured a wide veranda and pitched roof. This village was inhabited by people whom von Fersen describes as “pale, far paler than you might see anywhere on this earth, even in the northern lands. There is always natural variation in skin tone and hair color among the people of any land, but the people I saw there were, to a person, robbed of this, so that they appeared like spirits wandering the hillside.” In addition, each individual was accompanied by a dog of some kind: “Whether they ran or simply shuffled about, always at their side was a hound of the noblest breed.”

Von Fersen attempted conversation with the locals, but the dialogues recorded in his book seem rather surreal. He approached one individual running with a dog, and, before von Fersen could utter the first word, the man said to him, “Have you read of the latest occurrences in far-away lands? I, for one, am sufficiently outraged about the matter to pen a missive on this subject and send it to a responsible party within the governmental apparatus.” When von Fersen asked of a woman the name of this location, she responded: “Last night, I attended a viewing of the latest amateur theatrical. It was a most amusing affair. Have you seen it yet?” Late in the afternoon, von Fersen discovered that he was hungry and inquired for provisions from a couple walking their dogs down a street, and they told him, “Just further down the street there is an establishment which opened just yesterday that serves victuals in the latest Italian style—you must try that.” However, by the time von Fersen arrived at the place, he discovered a notice posted on the door indicating that it had already gone out of business. Before sundown, he managed to find his way back to the cabin along the river and spent the next several days recuperating from his exertions.

Ever the enthusiast for Scandinavian culture, von Fersen named this mysterious location with a combination of Hel, one of the realms of the dead in Norse mythology, and the Swedish word for “circle.” Hel is not the equivalent of the Christian hell (which would be rendered helvete in Swedish), although the words are etymologically related. Instead, as described the thirteenth-century Prose Edda, the best source for knowledge regarding Norse beliefs, Hel is presented as the lodging for those who died natural deaths, as opposed to Valhalla, where the souls of those who died bravely in battle go. Not much is relayed about the actual inhabitants of Hel, although they are described as being differently pigmented than the living, which may have inspired the association by von Fersen. However, the older Eddic poem Baldrs draumar also relates that Hel is guarded by a dog and features a lavish feasting table, so that source, too, may have been an inspiration for the appellation.

The rest of von Fersen’s travelogue contains little of note. His experiences in the American South, especially central Arkansas, seem to have made him long for the relative safety of his native Sweden. However, with the War of 1812 having broken out during his travels, he dared not risk attempting to sail back while hostilities were ongoing. He arranged for travel to St. Louis, Missouri, and stayed there until 1815, when he traveled back down to New Orleans and, from there, set sail on a boat bound for Europe.

Back in Stockholm, von Fersen returned to the life of an idle gentleman and did not give consideration to the publication of his memoir for approximately twenty years. No one knows what motivated him finally to publish it, but Gösta von Fersens underbara resa was released in 1837, one of the first books produced by Albert Bonniers Förlag, a publishing house established earlier that same year. Although Albert Bonniers Förlag remains one of Sweden’s foremost publishing houses, the critical and popular failure of von Fersen’s book nearly brought the young company to an early demise. Von Fersen himself died in 1848, never having married or had children or made much of an impact upon Swedish society as a whole. His death went unremarked on in the Arkansas press.

Von Fersen’s travelogue remained completely unknown to the English-speaking world at large—and to Arkansas historians specifically—until rediscovered in the early 2000s by Gustav Lindström. A student in the Heritage Studies PhD program at Arkansas State University, Lindström, on a visit back to his native Uppsala, Sweden, began on a whim searching the Uppsala University Library catalogue for anything Arkansas-related. Thus did he discover a copy of the 1837 book archived in Carolina Rediviva, the main library building of Uppsala University. He prepared a translation of the Arkansas-specific portions of the narrative, which was published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 2010.

The story of a mysterious village of ghostly individuals has since sparked the imagination of locals in central Arkansas, especially during the 2013 bicentennial of von Fersen’s arrival in central Arkansas, which saw a number of conferences and festivals dedicated to the subject. Lindström’s recreation of von Fersen’s travels gives a high probability to the location of this colony being within the boundaries of present-day Little Rock, most likely somewhere in the hilly triangle-shaped area bounded by Markham Avenue, Kavanaugh Boulevard, and North Van Buren Street. As historian Michael B. Dougan has written, “Many people in Little Rock may well go about their lives completely unaware that they reside within the bounds of that colony of dog-worshipping, novelty-obsessed, pale freaks to which Gösta von Fersen so poetically applied the name Helkrets.”

For additional information:
Dougan, Michael B. “Give ’Em Helkrets!” Arkansas Times, March 29, 2013, pp. 12–15.

Lindström, Gustav. “A Lost Colony in Central Arkansas? The Evidence from the Travels of Swedish Nobleman Gösta von Fersen in 1813.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Spring 2010): 1–42.

von Fersen, Gösta. Gösta von Fersens underbara resa genom de södra amerikanska delstaterna och bortom Mississippi floden, med berättelser om manga konstiga och gåtfulla händelser. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1837.

Cecilia Pettersson
Uppsala University

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