tx almanac facebook link

Scandinavian Texans

Filed Under: 
Culture and the Arts

 

Texans of Swedish descent are the tenth largest ethnic group in the state, according to both the 1990 and 2000 censuses, with the latest U.S. census estimate, the 2007 American Community Survey, putting their number at 155,949.

The same 2007 survey estimates 137,342 Texans of Norwegian ancestry and 50,689 Danish-Texans.

st. olaf church

The view from a window in St. Olaf's Kierke reveals the rolling countryside of Bosque County. Photo by Mary Ramos.

Although many of the early Scandinavian immigrants came to Texas directly from Europe, this group more than any other ethnic group had successive waves move to Texas from other states in the union.

For example, the family of the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, perhaps the most well-known Danish-Texan, came to the Lower Rio Grande Valley from South Dakota in 1918.

And, Swen Magnus Swenson, who would eventually establish the massive SMS Ranches in Northwest Texas, left Sweden in 1836 for New York and Baltimore before arriving in Texas in 1838.

Johannes Nordboe, the first permanent Norwegian settler, arrived in Galveston at age 73 after nine years in New York state. He, his wife and three of his sons began farming a short distance south of Dallas in 1841. 

Charles Hillebrant, born in Denmark in 1793, drove his cattle herd across the Sabine River from Abbeville, Louisiana, in 1830 to settle on the bayous south of present-day Beaumont, and a few years later brought his family to join him. 

Among those who came directly to Texas were Charles Zanco and his father Frederick, who arrived in Galveston from Denmark in the summer of 1835 and began farming in Harris County.

Within months, Charles joined the Lynchburg Volunteers in the Texas Revolution. He entered the Alamo on Feb. 23, 1836, where he died in the battle of March 6.

Swedes

Swen (Sven, Svante, Swante) Magnus Swenson is called the father of Swedish immigration to Texas because many of the first Swedes to follow his arrival in 1838 were either related to him or received financial support from him. He first worked as a clerk in Galveston, working his way up to be able to buy land set aside to fund railroads and schools in Texas.

His uncle Swante Palm arrived in 1844 to open mercantile businesses in La Grange and Austin where S.M. had established his business headquarters. Swante would later serve as Swedish-Norwegian vice consul in Austin, and through the years, acquire  one of the largest book collections in the state, which he left to the University of Texas.

The Austin area attracted other Swedes who settled in Hutto, Swedish Hill, East Sweden and other communities in Travis and Williamson counties.

In 1848 S.M. recruited 25 Swedes who went directly to the plantation near Richmond in Fort Bend County that S.M. had acquired through marriage. Some of these immigrants were related to S.M. and many were related to each other.

S.M. Swenson had to flee to Mexico during the Civil War because of the Unionist sympathies he shared with his old friend Sam Houston. Although after the war he would relocate to New York, he continued to help Swedes move to Texas, especially to work on his ranches in Northwest Texas.

The SMS ranches, which would eventually include the Spur, Tongue River, Flat Mountain, and Ericsdahl ranches, were operated by his sons Eric and Albin and managed by relatives, including for many years his nephew A.J. Swenson and A.J.’s sons Willie and Swede. 

The town of Stamford was established nearby and many residents of Swedish or Scandinavian descent came there to work.

The New York branch of the family -— S.M., Eric and Albin — would be major investors in the First National City Bank of New York where Eric would serve as chairman of the board. It is the bank we now know as Citibank.

Norwegians

Bosque County is the “home place” for many Texas Norwegians, although it was not the first area of Norwegian communities.

After Johannes Nordboe began farming south of Dallas, Johan Reinert Reiersen (Reierson) in 1845 brought the first group of colonists to an area in eastern Henderson County they called Normandy. The settlement would merge into nearby Brownsboro, as many if not most of the immigrant families decided to leave the bottomlands of the Neches River tributaries for higher ground just 50 miles to the west at the line between Van Zandt and Kaufman counties. Here at Four Mile Prairie and Prairieville the Norwegians started anew in 1848.

By 1850, some of the Norwegians who had settled near Nordboe, began to look westward for land. Cleng Peerson and Ole Canuteson found the vacant land in Bosque County attractive and in 1854 began persuading their neighbors to move there. Norse was founded in 1853-54 and soon some of the families from the Van Zandt and Kaufman counties were moving there, as well.

Both Peerson and Reiersen contributed much to the emigration from Norway by publicizing the opportunities available on the American frontier. Peerson, sometimes called the “father of Norwegian immigration to America” had traveled extensively across North America in the 1820s and returned to Norway to recruit many who settled in the north-central United States. He himself settled there, but in 1849, at 67, moved on to Texas.

Reiersen promoted immigration in his newspaper Christiansandsposton, and, in 1844, collected his essays into a book, Veiviser — Pathfinder for Norwegian Immigrants to the United North American States and Texas. The book was a great catalyst toward Norwegian emigration.

Danes

Most Danes came to Texas as individuals or a single family, although there were a few settlements. After the Civil War, two Texans, Travis Shaw and John Hester, whose wife was Danish, traveled to Denmark and promoted Central Texas as a good place to farm. By the late 1870s, several Danish families settled in the northern part of Lee County, an area that would come to be called Little Denmark.

Rocky Hill near Fredericksburg in Gillespie County, which was already settled by Germans, attracted some Danish families.

The most extensive Danish settlement began in 1894 at Danevang on the coastal plain in Wharton County. Most of the initial colonists were Danes from the north-central United States but some others followed directly from Denmark.

Customs

Scandinavians assimilated quickly into the American culture. Danevang, which was founded by a faction of the Danish Lutheran Church of America that was protective of its heritage, was using English rather than Danish in its church services within 50 years of settlement.

But the Scandinavian foods, music and customs are maintained through festivals and clubs in Texas.

Danes now living in the larger cities return to Danevang to commemorate the Constitution Day of Denmark each June 5, as well as at Christmas.

Smorgasbords, a type of Scandinavian meal served buffet-style, can include flaeskesteg (roast pork), aebleskiver (Danish doughnuts) and brune kager (brown cookies).

A big smorgasbord is held each November in Norse in Bosque County. Norway’s Constitution Day is also celebrated there each May.

In the last few decades in some of the larger cities of Texas, Scandinavian social clubs have been formed. There is a Danish Club and a Swedish Club of Houston, where annual events include a pancake dinner, and, in a blending with Texas Gulf Coast culture, a Swedish Crawfish Party in April.

The Norwegian Society of Texas has several chapters throughout the state, from Houston to El Paso, and Vasa, a Swedish-American fraternal organization, has chapters in Dallas, Austin and Waco.

Prominent Scandinavian Texans

Lloyd Bentsen (1921–2006), served in Congress, first in the House for three terms, and then in the Senate from 1971–1993, when he resigned to become U.S. secretary of the Treasury. In 1988, he was the Democratic nominee for vice president. His grandfather, Peter Bentsen, an immigrant from Denmark, brought the family in 1918 from South Dakota to Texas, where they participated in the economic development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911–1956), daughter of Norwegian immigrants, born Mildred Didrikson in Port Arthur and raised in Beaumont.  Olympic medalist and professional golf champion.

Erik Jonsson (1901–1995), son of Swedish immigrants, co-founder of Texas Instruments and a Dallas civic leader, who served as mayor of the city from 1964–1971.

George Dahl (1894–1987), son of Norwegian immigrants, architect who designed two dozen buildings at the University of Texas at Austin. He is best known for his work on the 1936 Texas Centennial at Fair Park in Dallas, where his art deco buildings remain.

Andrew Hans Thaison (1849–1898), at the age of 19 emigrated from Denmark and later became mayor of Laredo in the late 1890s.

Hans Peter Neilsen Gammel (1854-1931), left Denmark as a young man. Was an early Texas bookseller and collector of Texana. When the Texas Capitol burned in 1881, he salvaged the scattered documents and published them as the first ten volumes of Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, which became an invaluable basic reference item in law libraries across the state.

Carl G. Cromwell (1889–1931), oilman born to Swedish immigrants. Called the Big Swede, he was contracted by the Texon Oil and Land Company to  drill the famed Santa Rita No. 1 oil well in 1923 with a constantly changing crew. He became drilling superintendent of Texon’s field where he drilled wells to record depths at the time. This businessman and entrepreneur later established the airport in San Angelo.

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2010–2011.

 

SOURCES

New Handbook of Texas, various, Texas State Historical Association, 1996.

Southwestern Historical Quarterly, various, Texas State Historical Association.

Swedes in Texas in Words and Pictures 1838–1918, Ernest Severin, 1918, Web translation by Christine Andreason, 2007.

The Danish Texans, John L. Davis, The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1979.

The Norwegian Texans, The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio,1970.

 

Texas Almanac

Texas Almanac