Indalsälven (Indal River – Direct translation: Inner Valley River) runs for around 430 kilometers (~270 miles) and is one of the most abundant riverways in Sweden. The river flows into the Bothnian Sea at Timrå municipality about 20 kilometers northeast of Sundsvall. Prior to the emptying of Lake Ragunda (Ragundasjön) on June 6, 1796, the stretch of river between the Bothnian Sea and the Big Falls (Storforsen) in Västerede 90 kilometers upstream, was home to some of the richest salmon fishing in the entire Nordic region.
The salmon spawning grounds and abundant fishing that the river provided were valuable assets, and therefore legal provisions specific to Jämtland were enacted as means to ward off predatory fishing as well as to ensure the legal rights of the waterway’s owners and other interested parties. No other area in all of Jämtland could compete with Fors parish’s reputation in regards to the amount of fish that the many waterfalls and rapids provided. Storforsen (The Big Falls), also called Gedungsen or Remmeforsen, acted as the first natural link in a chain of waterfalls and rapids where the salmon ran and jumped as they made their journey upstream.
The abundant salmon catch enticed people around the area to take stock and buy shares in rights to the river as well as its output. Fishing rights as well as shares in the overall catch were operated through a type of stock ownership, where several of the stakeholders preferred to handle affairs through employees or tenants rather than directly. As such, people far away such as the Norwegian-born noble Nils Halstensson from Storsjö became involved, as well as several men from neighboring Ångermanland County.
The determination of legal shares in the total catch called ‘fiskingar’ (fishings), were based on an advanced calculation system that took into account both the fishing locations as well as fishing periods.
Fixed installation fishing gear came in several variants: Bulkhead systems, permanent fixed systems, and ‘float houses’. Salmon was also caught with fixed nets, net-trawling as well as spears. A couple of boat teams would always work together when trawling with nets, as they did with the maintenance of permanent fishing facilities. For the rights to Salmon fishing along the river, the Swedish Crown levied various taxes and fees from the stakeholders.
At Klingerfjärden in the bay near Indalsälven’s estuary, some Jämtar (people of Jämtland) kept boats and sheds from where they would travel to Härnösand and back to conduct business. In 1632, however, they were forced to demolish these sheds.
When the Big Falls (Storforsen) was silenced by the catastrophe, other waterfalls and rapids along the river also disappeared in the areas known as Skede, Strug, Finnasil and Dräng, and as a result so did their names. No one knows for sure exactly where these falls and rapids were actually located, but the names do give some clues as to their general whereabouts. ‘Struck’ or ‘strucka’ in the local Jämt dialect denotes a ‘Current through a narrow waterway’.
There are many written records from the decades preceding 1350 that describe how coveted these rich and swirling salmon waters were, how ownership changed hands (not always voluntarily) and how those in power were able to put their interests ahead of the rights of the locals.
During the 14th century Jämtland was part of Norway from a geographical perspective, but from a religious perspective it belonged to the Diocese of Uppsala in Sweden. To confuse matters more, the King of Sweden ruled Norway from 1319 to 1450, however Jämtland continued to self-govern through its ‘Jamtamot’ parliament that enacted its own local laws. Jämtland’s borders at the time were essentially the same as they lie today.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the Archbishop of Uppsala, Olov Björnsson, was seeking along with his partners to exploit the rich northern fishing waters, and thus expanded his jurisdiction in 1331 to include the village of Fors. A share of the salmon fishing profits in Fors would therefore be directed to the coffers of the Diocese. According to an agreement dated the 7th of March 1331, Archbishop Olov Björnsson and Johan Ingemarsson (a royal official) together were entitled to one quarter of the total salmon catch of Fors village and Ragunda county combined, and their neighbor Thorald, also in Fors, took half of the output from the old Strömbyggnaden (Water Current Building) as well as one seventh from the new one. On May 23rd of the same year Johan Ingemarsson relinquished his share to the archbishop in return for the rights to alternate fishing locations. However, on June the 16th 1335, King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden and Norway issued a decree by which he in turn appropriated the Archbishop Peter Filipsson’s interests in the salmon fishing in both Ragunda as well as Fors for himself.
The Archbishops constructed several Salmon fisheries along the river, which were in turn summarily destroyed before long by the locals. Consequently, on February 9, 1341, several farmers were sentenced to a fine of 1 mark (Swedish currency at the time) for the damage they had inflicted. That same year, a trustee from Jämtland named Arne Gevaldsson, filed a legal challenge against the despised so-called ‘Bishop Fisheries’.
In 1345, Nils Halstensson was accused of having murdered Tore from Kolnäs with an axe. At sentencing, Nils was ordered to relinquish his farm in Mjälle on Frösön over to the Swedish Crown, along with all his associated salmon fishing rights in Ragunda. Nils Halstensson (~1300–1350) was born in Norway but later became a landowner as well as a knight on Frösön.
Nils Pettersson, a trustee in Jämtland, had a sizeable interest in the salmon fishing in the lower Ragunda valley, and assisted the Archbishop in Uppsala in buying a stake in the total catch at the Remmeforsen (Storforsen) falls. The Archbishop already had several other interests in the area, including land in Fors parish.
In 1346, Olav Gravlax Nilsson in Åsen, was forced to relinquish his share of ownership in the rapids at Remme, Skede and Strug as well as his entire share in Finnasil. The recipient was none other than Nils Pettersson, local trustee on behalf of King Magnus Eriksson.
The following year, Olav Gravlax Nilsson together with his father sold their joint remaining stake in Remmeforsen to Nils Pettersson, as recounted by Erik Gummeson, the Church dean in Ragunda, who certified that on April 11, 1347, Jämtland’s “trustee Niclas Peterson” bought fishing shares in Remme , Ragunda river.
Nils Pettersson continued to acquire fishing shares in Remmeforsen for himself as well: in 1347 from Torsten Aslesson in Skarpås, Hammerdal and in 1348 from Christian Jonsdotter in Hedestad, Fors parish. Apparently, Nils sought to gather all the most abundant fishing spots under his control, and when he had acquired all he could in Remmeforsen he continued to proceed along other means.
The Archbishop’s last known acquisition during the 14th century occured on July 25, 1347, via a donation from the priest in Ragunda at the time, Erik Gummesson, who bequeathed him one twelfth of Remmeforsen, which likely either denotes Storforsen or possibly the lower gravel bank referred to as ‘Remmen’. Erik had in turn obtained the salmon fishing from brothers Harald and Ulf in Walle, Rotokil (Hällesjö) as well as Lars in the village of Håsjö.
On the 25th of Januray 1348, the vicar Erik Gummeson, Ketliger the Church dean of Ångermanland as well as a priest named Andris, certified that trustee Nils Pettersson had been fully compensated, partially in trade and partially in cash.
In 1449, the so-called ‘war of union’ (unionskriget) war began for the Crown of Norway, between the King of Sweden, Karl Knutsson Bonde, and the King of Denmark, Christian the 1st. Denmark emerged victorious and in 1450 Norway became a dominion of Denmark, when the parliaments of both Denmark and Norway decreed that both kingdoms would henceforth be united under one regent, an agreement that lasted 364 years. In 1457, Christian was further crowned King of Sweden when Karl Knutsson was exiled.
In 1643, two farmers from Bispgården showed an old letter (parchment letter) dated 1443 to the municipal council regarding salmon fishing in “Strömsil” which referenced the purchase of ‘Sven in Ed’s’ interest in the fishing made by their ancestors (brothers to Sven). The letter stated that the Byamännen (villagers) had the right to fish with spears for three nights which also held true for the men of Bispgården (Bispgårdsmännen).
In a letter dated 1451, the priest in Ragunda valley, Per Laurensson, donated his farm named ‘Älvgården’ in Fors parish to the Archbishop and Diocese in Uppsala. The name Bispgården first appeared in 1472 however the name itself is likely much older than the above mentioned letter of donation.
In a sanction letter written by King Karl Knutsson Bonde in 1468, it states that when he was forced to renounce his rights to the crown of Norway, he retained Jämtland as a province of Sweden and would therefore work to fortify and protect the fishing rights of the locals against any intrusion made by the valley dwellers from Medelpad County. The King thus issued this letter protecting the rights of the fishermen, specifically aimed against those from outside intruding into the Ragunda valley.
Additional fishing records from the late middle ages are those from 1472 in Bögslafors, and from 1500 in Örefors.
In 1527 the Swedish crown assumed all church assets in Jämtland. The Nordic seven-year war took place between 1563 and 1570, and during this time Jämtland switched sovreignty between Sweden and Norway/Denmark no less than seven times. The Jamtamot parliament was banned during this period however continued to operate clandestinely. From 1570 to 1644 Jämtland belonged to Norway/Denmark, apart from the brief period between 1611-13.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the bailiff of Hälsingland had his eye on the abundant salmon fishing, and wanted to appropriate it on behalf of his sponsors.
Pastor Symon Laffrensson attested that in 1500 Erik Gulleson from Longsele parish in Ångermanland had taken a stake in the fishing in Örefors, Fors parish, as a deposit from Olof Iliasson.
Early on, influential players within the Church had their sights set on the salmon fishing in Fors due to its abundance, and through clever maneuvering had secured the Oxböle farm estate together with all associated fishing rights. It all began in the 1490s when Olav Bagge (bailiff of Norwegian origin) acquired share interests in Oxböle farm through the levying of fines. One of Bagge’s subordinates, Olav Aslaksson, ensured that as time passed more pieces of Oxböle were annexed in this manner, such that by 1505 the entire property had been appropriated by Olav’s successor, Håkon Torstensson.
Following ‘The Reformation’, which had begun in 1527 when the Church’s “superfluous property” was reappropriated by the state, King Gustav Vasa took ownership of Oxböle farm along with all associated benefits. The farm was then rented to Erik Andersson, vicar in Oviken and dean of Jämtland, and the tax revenue received would benefit the school in Västerhus on the island of Frösön.
During the Nordic seven-year war between 1563–70, Oxböle farm delivered substantial amounts of salmon to the troops stationed in the province. From 1564–65, a total of 32 ½ barrels of salmon, 22 ‘spickelaxar’ (salted and dried salmon) as well as 30 salmon trout were reportedly delivered according to royal records.
In 1611–1613, Baltzarfeden (the Balthazar Conflict) unfolded and Jämtar were forced to swear allegiance to the King of Sweden. In 1613 at the end of the conflict, Jämtland was returned to Norway and as a result the King of Denmark punished around 80% of Jämtar by confiscating their homesteads and forbidding them from cultivating their lands. Since fishing rights were owned by the ‘Taxpayer’, this privilege was likely rescinded as well. Following the Torstensson War/Hannibal Conflict from 1643 and 1645 Jämtland once again became Swedish.
In a letter from King Gustav II Adolf dated November 22, 1612, the King acknowledged that mayor Mårten Olofsson had received fishing rights in Ede.
During the first half of the 17th century, there was considerable disagreement regarding fishing rights. During Baltzarfejden (The Balthazar Conflict) from 1611–13, the farmers in Fors had sworn allegiance to Sweden, and so when peace returned and Jämtland was restored to Norway/Denmark the Crown deprived the farmers of their rights to cultivate their land along with their fishing rights to the river. Some of Swedish farmers, however, had married Norwegian/Jämt women in Fors and had become partial or full landowners/homesteaders prior to Baltzarfejden/Kalmarkriget. They were now laying claim the both their cultivation as well as fishing rights. In 1621, a landowner at the time named Tage Thott visited Jämtland, upon which he in 1623 turned to the government for help with a situation that arose. Tage had already assumed the fishing rights that the Swedes had forfeited, but the Swedes maintained their claim to their fishing rights and continued to fish the river. Tage felt that this should not be allowed, as they were not taxpayers to the Danish Crown. These Swedes were subsequently deprived of all fishing rights in the river within Fors parish.
During the first half of the 17th century, discord often arose between farmers as well as between the farmers and Peder Andersson, the vicar in Ragunda. In January of 1624, Peder lodged a complaint against some of the farmers from Utanede claiming they were preventing him and his associates from engaging in their Sunday-night fishing in Ravensils rapids, something his predecessors had done before him. The Utanede farmers had apparently threatened the lives of his associates, and made clear that if Peder himself ever showed his face, they would riddle him with a lead shot. The farmers were subsequently both charged and fined.
Mayor Mårten Olofsson and farmer Sven Nilsson, both homesteaders in Västerede, had previously established an agreement with Ragundadwellers regarding a fishing allotment that would be counted towards their allowances. This agreement was invalidated following the Balthazar Conflict as the farms were forfeited as punishment during the subsequent inquisition.
The Indalsälven salmon fishing disputes continued even after Jämtland became Swedish. Primarily, the Swedish Crown made several claims that the local farmers tried hard to have overturned. In order to once and for all settle which rights belonged to whom, a legal hearing was held in Ragunda in June of 1683, attended by all the owners, claimants and interested parties to the fishing rights in Fors and Ragunda. The defendant parties claimed that they as well as their ancestors, held the salmon fishing rights granted to them through their estates under the tax-law via inheritance, grant or purchase, and that they had the documents to prove it.
At the beginning of the 18th century, locals began to complain that the salmon fishing no longer was as profitable as it once had been. Only the lakes way up in the mountains still yielded a decent amount of fish. The actual amount of salmon caught in Indalsälven in and around Fors parish before this time cannot accurately be determined. It is only in the second half of the 18th century, when bookkeeping was introduced, that the actual amounts begin to be recorded and were reported as being around 20-30 barrels. This information also infers that the salmon fishing was richer in prior times and that the decline in fishing is believed to be due in part to the outlet of the river becoming shallower as well as the floating of timber downriver during the fishing periods.
Timber floating down Indalsälven began around 1750 but has been mentioned as early as the 1730s. This practice made fishing more difficult, especially for the permanent fishing facilities at the rapids.
To assist the farmers in Pålgård and Stugun upstream of Storforsen, the construction of a canal that circumvented the falls was planned. This solution would offer several advantages: by channeling the floating timbers through the canal via a series of locks they would no longer break or splinter as they headed over the waterfall, salmon would be able to migrate upstream past the falls, and more cultivable land would be exposed as a result of the lowering of the level of Lake Ragunda (Ragundasjön). The project began in 1763, and would eventually culminate on June 6, 1796 when the entire Lake Ragunda emptied, Storforsen was silenced and the abundant salmon fishing vanished forever. This entire story is best captured within the Fors Parish Seal and Coat of Arms that bears the sombre inscription ‘Fishing Lost’ written under a salmon swimming in the sunshine.