NAHA Header


A Texan Manifesto: A Letter from Mrs. Elise Wærenskjold
    Translated and Edited by Clarence A. Clausen (Volume 20: Page 32)

In the history of Norwegian migration to America, the settlements in Texas are treated as peripheral. They are far distant from the main colonies in the Upper Mississippi Valley, but the small communities in Texas have earned a degree of fame denied to many larger ones, primarily because of the literary activity of three pioneers.

Johan R. Reiersen, the Moses who led the Norwegians into the promised land of the South, fell in love with Texas immediately on his first visit in 1844 and announced that he had found there prospective homes for thousands of his country men “then gathering crumbs from the table of the aristocracy.” In letters to Norwegian papers and in a guidebook for emigrants, he sang the praises of America in general and of Texas in particular.

In 1845 Reiersen founded a Norwegian settlement near Brownsboro in northeastern Texas, and soon afterward a second one on Four-Mile Prairie in Van Zandt and Kaufman counties. There, in 1847, he was joined by Wilhelm Wærenskjold and Elise Tvede, who were married soon after their arrival. Wærenskjold wrote convincing America letters, or rather Texas letters, and was something of a poet; but it was Mrs. Wærenskjold who was destined to become the real spokesman for and the chronicler of the Norwegian pioneers in the Lone Star State.

She was the daughter of a pastor in southern Norway and had received a good education, including a fair knowledge of English, French, and German. In Norway she is still remembered as a foregangskvinne (a woman leader) because she was not content to limit her activities within the narrow bounds then fixed for European women. She founded two private schools, took a prominent part in the emerging temperance [33] movement, and, for a year, edited Reiersen’s magazine, Norge og Amerika, which ruffled official feelings by championing emigration to the United States.

The toil and the hardships of pioneer life could not crush Elise Wærenskjold’s initiative. She discovered that temperance work was as much called for in the Texas settlement as in her old homeland, and she took a very active part in organizing a Lutheran church and a school in her community. She also continued to champion the cause of emigration, and despite the fact that life in Texas did not treat her gently, she was always ready to speak up in defense of her state “with or without provocation.”

She did not need to wait long for provocation. In 1849 a Frenchman, Captain A. Tolmer, took a trip through parts of the United States, including Texas. His impressions of the country and its people were discussed in a series of ten letters to the French Journal des Débats, later published in book form under the title Scenes de l’Amerique du Norden 1849. These letters pictured America, especially Texas, in very dark colors and would be grist to the mill of any European who might wish to discourage emigration. Probably for this reason they were reprinted in the Norwegian newspaper Hamars budstikke in late 1850 and early 1851. The letters aroused the interest of T. A. Gjestvang, postmaster in Løiten, Hedemark, because he felt that they “engaged in falsehoods and exaggerations.” He therefore made copies and sent them to Mrs. Wærenskjold, whom he had known before she left Nor way, asking her and her neighbors to express their opinions of the travel account. The letter translated below is Mrs. Wærenskjold’s reply. {1} [34]

Twenty-two other Norwegian settlers in Texas signed brief statements condemning Tolmer’s account as “the most miserable product which can be bred by mendacity and ignorance,” to quote one of them. Another neighbor, J. H. Staack, a native of Lauenburg, also came to the defense of Texas. He said that he had been in the State some five or six years and was well acquainted with some of the sections covered by Tolmer’s description. Since Staack “durchaus keine Vergleich ung in beides finde, so erkläre ich Hr. Tolmers Beschreibung für falsch und eine grobe Lügen [sic].” {2}

Among the Norwegian signatories are the two well-known figures in immigrant history, John (Johannes) Nordboe and Cleng Peerson. Nordboe was probably the first Norwegian settler in Texas, having arrived there in 1841. At the time of writing he was about eighty years old. In misspelled and poorly composed Norwegian he declared vehemently that Mrs. Wærenskjold’s letter was correct in every detail, while the accounts which the “arch-liar Tolmer has strewn broad cast” were “unadulterated lies.”

On the basis of his many travels and experiences in America, Cleng Peerson said in part:

I have read your transcript of Tolmer’s letters and can affirm that the description he gives of the character of the people . . . is pure falsehood. I have in Texas as well as in the other states learned to know the inhabitants as very helpful and hospitable. I have also read Madam Wærenskjold’s answer to your letter and it is my conviction that the account she gives of conditions here is correct in all respects.

The document closes with the following postscript by Mrs. Wærenskjold: “Since J. R. Reiersen is working on a detailed [35] description of both the Norwegian settlements, which he will send you very soon, he has not signed this letter. A few of our other neighbors have not signed either, but I do not wish to delay the mailing any longer by waiting for them, and am therefore sending it without their signatures. E. Wærenskjold.”


JULY 9, 1851
[Morgenbladet (Christiania), June 17, 18, 1852]


July 9, 1851

I received your honored letter of May 1 on the first of this month, only two months after you sent it, which is the shortest time I know of for a letter to have covered the distance between Norway and Texas. You enclose in it a copy of several letters from a Frenchman, Captain Tolmer, which have appeared in a Norwegian paper, and ask me and other Norwegians here to let you know whether Mr. Tolmer’s account is true or false. Even though it seems to me that the contents of the letters should answer this question clearly enough for you and any sensible Norwegian who is not totally ignorant of other countries and especially of the United States (to which Texas has now belonged several years), I shall comply with your wish as well as time and my meager abilities will permit. I do this partly because of your request and partly to utilize the opportunity to bring my countrymen in Norway some information about this land that could possibly be of some value to those who may plan to come over here.

As you undoubtedly remember, I have been here since 1847, and I have seen a goodly part of this state, since we traveled through Nacogdoches, Cherokee, Henderson, Anderson, Smith, Rusk, and Van Zandt counties looking for a home which would suit our taste. I stayed for some time in the first three counties mentioned before I bought land here in Van Zandt, which I still consider the best of the areas I have seen in Texas. But, without further preliminaries, let us look at Mr. Tolmer’s letters. [36]

Your copy begins with the following statement: “I intend in a couple of days to go to Texas, where the struggle between man and nature is even more intense than in the Mississippi Valley.” I do not understand what the author means by this expression, since people have far less trouble and difficulty in Texas than in Norway-or in any other part of Europe, no doubt-so far as contending with nature is concerned, or in other words in harnessing its forces for the service of man. In Norway, if a person wants to turn a piece of unbroken land into a field, it will cost him much labor; even the cultivated land must be fertilized if the yield is to be satisfactory-and even so the crop is often destroyed by frost. Here a person merely needs to fence and plow the land and it is ready to be sown. (This is true only of prairie land; forest land must be cleared of brush and the large trees must be girdled - a belt is cut around the tree some distance from the ground and a bit deeper than the bark so as to kill it.)

No one thinks of gathering manure, since it is not needed, and in general the soil is cultivated in a rather slipshod fashion. Thus if a farmer, after having harvested his corn, wants to sow the field to wheat, he does not go to the trouble of clearing away the cornstalks but sows the seed amidst the stalks and all the weeds and then plows it under. That takes care of the matter until harvesttime the following May or June, after which threshing takes just as little care. The wheat is simply placed on the ground and trampled out by horses or oxen, much grain, of course, being lost in the process. Nevertheless, one of our neighbors harvested thirty bushels per acre, having used four bushels for seed. This is above the average, to be sure, but it is equally true that the crops could be much improved by more careful tillage. Rye, barley, and oats are said to give still better yields, but they are raised by very few farmers because the Americans use these grains only as feed for cattle and not for bread. Corn is the most common crop, and corn meal is generally used for baking. It is well liked by those who are used to it, but I must say frankly that I find it to be a poor type of bread.

Cotton is also one of the most important products and is al ways paid for in cash. Tobacco, flax, and other crops pay well. With the corn, different types of very large and delicious melons, pumpkins, and peas are planted. Potatoes of the Norwegian type [37] are but little raised and are eaten as soon as they grow large enough in the spring (by Eastertime) so I cannot say whether it would pay to produce them, but I should think it would if they were left in the ground until fully grown. Sweet potatoes pay very well if the summer is not exceptionally dry. Among fruits, the peach tree is the only one cultivated; it bears the third year after sprouting. Since grapes, plums, and cherries grow wild, I have no doubt that a person could obtain a fine orchard with little effort if only good trees of various kinds were obtainable. I know from experience that vegetables do extremely well if one only uses good seed, but, to the best of my knowledge, the seed cannot be either bought or raised here. To be sure, we can get seed from beans, peas, carrots, parsley, radishes, cress, lettuce, fall turnips, etc.; but, on the other hand, I do not believe we can obtain seed here from May turnips, all kinds of cabbage or cauliflower, kohlrabi, Swedish turnips, or French turnips (bot feldtske), which mature very early and would rot in August when the strong heat comes. It is best to bring along all sorts of seed. And all these things can be raised without manure and with only the most perfunctory type of tillage.

From what I have said, people can gather how much of a struggle it is to wrest from nature the daily bread; the struggle with the wild animals of the forest is of about the same severity. To be sure, quite a few beasts of prey are found here, for there are panthers (a kind of tiger, the size of a dog but shaped like a cat), bears, wolves, foxes, opossums, skunks, several types of snakes, and alligators in the lakes and rivers. But there is enough food for all these animals so they do not need to attack human beings. It is customary, therefore, when out traveling, especially with a wagon, to sleep out in the open either in the wagon or on the ground. A person can sleep quite securely, even though unarmed and far from people, whether it be on the prairie or in the woods. I might mention that old man Engelhoug lives all by himself in a little cabin he built in a lowland near a lake where there are alligators (my husband shot one of them), but he spends his time there quite undisturbed, even though it is in exactly such lowlands that wild animals are found. On my travels I myself usually sleep out and, except at first when I did not know the country, I have felt no more fear out in the woods or [38] on the prairie, though at times a couple of days’ journey from people, than I did at home in Norway behind well-locked doors.

All the time I have been in Texas I have not heard of a single case where human beings were attacked or harmed by wild animals. At times, however, they will resist if molested. I have heard of people-I believe there were two-who were bitten by snakes, but they recovered without difficulty. But snakes can be a nuisance and may crawl clear up to the second story, especially a type called the chicken snake because it eats chickens and eggs, which it swallows whole. The reason for its intrusion into the houses is that the hens usually have their nests under the beds and up in the lofts. These snakes are harmless, however; but, of course, such an uninvited guest can put a scare into newcomers, as happened to the Grøgaards and me in Nacogdoches, where such a snake had made its way to the loft.

It is a peculiar thing that the animals usually are of a more amiable nature here than in Norway. I have not seen a single mad bull here, while most of those I saw in Norway were very fierce. Neither is the danger for the domestic animals by far as great as one might expect, despite the fact that cattle, horses, and pigs run about in the woods without any supervision and at times may be away for days or even weeks and months, especially during the winter when the wild animals are the most dangerous. I have never heard of a cow or a horse being killed or wounded by a wild animal, but I suppose it may happen, though very seldom, that a little calf or a young colt may be if it is not kept at home. It is seldom, also, that a grown hog is killed, but many young pigs are killed during the winter if they are not kept in during the first weeks. Sheep also are in danger if they are not penned at night. I believe what I have said will prove that the struggle with nature is not particularly fierce.

Next Mr. Tolmer talks about the poisoned arrows of the Comanche Indians, and the Texans’ rifles. I cannot say anything about the first-mentioned articles because as yet I have not seen a single Indian; so far as the Texans are concerned, a person has nothing to fear from them unless he gets into trouble with them- then they really are much too prone to avenge every real or fancied insult with a bullet or a stab. But I am certain there is no land in the world where a person has less reason to fear [39] assault or robbery than here, where such things are unheard of. So when Tolmer says it is a miracle that he is still alive after having been in Texas a couple of weeks, one can only laugh. His whole silly story did indeed give me, and several others who happened to be here, a hearty laugh when I received the letter and read it to them.

It is true that the population of Texas is mixed; it is mixed as is the population of the other States in the Union, but to no greater degree. The inhabitants consist primarily of migrants from the other States, and they are no worse or more immoral than in the older States; they have their vices and virtues as in all other countries. They are, as already remarked, very quick to avenge themselves, and in all business dealings with them one must guard against being “taken by the nose” because they look upon cheating about as people in Norway regarded smuggling during my childhood. Otherwise they are very friendly and helpful, not only toward their own people but also toward foreigners. As proof of this I will merely mention that a Norwegian widow who lives in Nacogdoches (the same town that Tolmer pictures in such dark colors) with a large family of children not only received substantial gifts in the form of food and clothing, but, besides, the tuition fees for her children - which are quite high here - were paid for her. This was done by people, some of whom had never seen her. Consequently we do not need any public poor relief here, and you will look in vain for a beggar, because anyone who wants to work can earn a living, and those who really are in need will receive ample help without begging for it.

Furthermore, one cannot praise too highly that real freedom and equality which exists here and makes itself felt in all sorts of ways, not only in social relationships, where the poor are treated with the same politeness as the rich, the laborer like the official, but also in public matters. Every adult male has the right to vote irrespective of his economic status, and similarly all are obliged to defend their country no matter what their social position may be. All other duties as well as privileges are shared alike by everyone. It is not here as in Norway, where equality and liberty are found on paper but not in real life.

This equality is a natural consequence of economic conditions and of the system of government. When everybody can earn [40] enough for an independent living, the poor will not cringe before the rich nor the latter treat the former with arrogance. Similarly, when public officials are chosen by the people, and only for a certain number of years, they will not be tempted to be over bearing. But it cannot be denied that this method of choosing civil servants has its drawbacks, because many ignorant people are put into positions which they are not qualified to fill. I mentioned above that Americans are inclined to cheat. From this a person might conclude that they also would be given to stealing, but this is so far from being the case that I am sure there are few countries where one’s possessions are as safe as they are here. Thievery is absolutely despised and is hardly ever practiced, except on rare occasions by Negroes. Therefore locks are seldom found on houses, frequently not even doors. Nevertheless, a per son can leave his house both days and nights, yes, even weeks, without missing anything when he returns. Even in the towns you can leave stuff out on the sidewalks without losing any thing, an experience we ourselves had in Nacogdoches. And these are the people whom Captain Tolmer accuses of having be smirched themselves with all sorts of vices. What a disgraceful lie! Besides Americans, we have here immigrants from Germany, England, France, Denmark, and Norway; that these people are not worse than other human beings I hope will be believed with out further assurances.

There are very few free Negroes here, but, unfortunately, there are many slaves because most rich Americans are slaveowners. Much as I despise slavery, I cannot deny that the slaves here are treated rather well and that numbers of them are better off in many respects than the free laborers in Europe. But the loss of liberty cannot be replaced by anything. Since there are no Indians in the part of Texas where I have been, I can say nothing about them.

When Tolmer says that the Americans are mixed, now with Indians, now with runaway slaves, he lies, because they are entirely too proud for that. But it is difficult to find a single assertion which is not a lie. It is hard for me to think it ever occurred to him that people would accept this product of his at face value; it strikes me as nothing but a poorly written adventure story. I wonder if the people in Norway were not simply confused if [41] they took Tolmer’s account as anything but a piece of fiction. It is impossible for me to believe that Tolmer should have the audacity to offer as truth such a mass of gross, and in part palpable, lies to so highly cultured a nation as the French.

His ignorance of geography is so obvious that I believe any schoolboy would notice it. If he means to say that he rode horse back from New Orleans to Galveston, then he must never have been there, because this trip can only be taken by sea. Further more, there is no lack of fine horses in Texas, and there is little difficulty in stealing them, as they roam about to suit their own fancy. But, as already stated, you do not need to fear robbery and thieving in this country.

Neither will any American allow himself to be threatened with a whip; the good Mr. Tolmer would soon have had a bullet through his body if he had dared such a thing. To say that everybody here is a judge or a general is, of course, a ridiculous overstatement, but undoubtedly there are quite a few who fought as generals against Mexico during the war of liberation, when the Texans gained great fame for heroism. Similarly, since officials are elected for a set number of years, it follows that there must be many who have served as judges or in other capacities.

Tolmer’s statement that Galveston is the capital of Texas reveals an inexcusable ignorance, since Austin, as everyone knows, is the capital city. His travel route from Galveston to Wisconsin also proves that, far from being well acquainted with this country, he did not even have a map of Texas. {3} . . . But if the good Tolmer has neglected to study the geography of the country, he has devoted himself with so much the greater diligence to the language, since he even understood the “thief” language, which he says the judges and the generals made use of. From what I have already written, it will be easily understood that it is not customary here to travel with an escort of either Americans or Indians; only the most miserable coward could think of doing such a thing. That he sat down at an unpainted wooden table is quite believable but not that it was dirty, because the cleanliness of the Americans is very well known. [42]

I cannot say anything about the former inhabitants of Nacogdoches; I wonder how Tolmer had become so well acquainted with them and with the former appearance of the town. Had he already been there on some former occasion? Now the town is inhabited by Americans, a few Germans, and a still smaller number of Norwegians and Frenchmen. Most of them are well-to-do people engaged in trade. In the surrounding area are found a few Mexicans, who are usually held in slight esteem, whether justly or unjustly I cannot say. That there is as little cause to fear assault and robbery in Nacogdoches as in other parts of Texas should be obvious from what I have already said. There is no hotel there called “The Red Eagle” and no Spanish hotelkeeper; there are only two hotels, both owned by Americans. The town is too insignificant to have gates or portals; there is no river there spanned by a bridge - only a little creek crossed by a log. No boats can be used in it because it is so narrow that a person can usually jump across it. Neither are there any prairies in the neighborhood, and still less crocodiles and jaguars. (These animals are not found in Texas but, as already stated, the related panther and alligator are.) Nor are the Americans afraid of beasts of prey - no more than they would be afraid of giving the good Captain Tolmer a sound beating for all his lies if he were here. Undoubtedly there are quite a few wild horses in Texas and they can be tamed, but I do not suppose anyone is simple enough to believe that a person can, without further ado, jump astride a wild horse and ride it. Dogs are not used for hunting human beings. Tolmer undoubtedly had in mind the brutality of the Spaniards when they conquered America.

Such a house as the one Tolmer describes, with iron doors, etc., is not found in the vicinity of Nacogdoches, likely not in all Texas; the whole incident is nothing but fiction from beginning to end, since nothing even remotely like it has happened in the vicinity of Nacogdoches, and the people whom he mentions by name are absolutely nonexistent.

I notice that I have forgotten one of Mr. Tolmer’s charges, namely, that a person must not count on justice in our courts. No doubt this is in part true, but to no greater degree than in old Norway. The laws there, as here, have their flaws and often are not put in as clear and definite language as they ought to be. [43] This may cause them to be misunderstood or even on occasion to be interpreted in accordance with the individual opinions and wishes of the jurymen. I must say that in some respects the laws here strike me as superior to those in Norway, aiming especially at protecting women and children against want. Thus, while an unmarried man must pay a tax on all his possessions, a man with a family may hold $250 worth of property tax exempt. Similarly, if an unmarried man is in debt, the creditor can seize all his property as security, while a married man can hold the following free of distraint: a family homestead (but not above 200 acres of land or, in cities, property in excess of $2,000), all furniture and kitchen utensils (not above $200 in value), all farm implements (not above $50 in value), all implements and books in the case of craftsmen or professional men, five milk cows, one pair of oxen or one horse, twenty pigs, and provisions for one year. Neither can the creditors seize anything which the wife has added to the estate, either through marriage or later, if she has registered it with the authorities as her property. The purpose of these laws is, of course, to protect women and children against want. I might mention that every male person between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five is required to pay a head tax which varies from 75 cents to $1.50, and 20 cents on every $100 he owns. These are the only taxes I know of in Texas.

You are acquainted with my views about immigration to this country. I believe now, as formerly, that there are many thousands in Norway who would be far happier over here, namely, the numerous class of laborers and cotters-yes, also the less well-to-do farmers and handicraftsmen; in short, all people in Norway who live in economic dependence and have to work for others. Since the wages here are so much better, people like that could work themselves up in a short time to an independent position free of worries about the daily bread. On the other hand, anyone who is well situated in Norway ought, in my opinion, to remain there. If he can lead an independent life there and has the means to hire others to work for him, he will not be better off here but probably worse, since he might not be able to hire help (a man is not paid less than $10 a month) and thus would be forced to do much heavy work that is quite unpleasant for those who are not used to it. Likewise - at least to begin with - [44] he would have to do without many of the conveniences and pleasures of life that the more well-to-do people in Norway are accustomed to. For the poor and destitute, on the other hand, who have never enjoyed things like these, but from early child hood have been inured to drudgery and toil, there is little to lose and much to gain. In general, it depends much on a person’s character and ability to work whether he will be satisfied or dissatisfied. Land can still be obtained in our neighborhood for 35 cents to $2 per acre. Lots as small as 320 acres are still obtainable at 50 cents per acre, but this will not last long, as land is rising in price.

I have already spoken about the various field crops. All kinds of domesticated animals also thrive well and can be raised to good advantage, but a person must give them some attention if they are to produce a proper income. For instance, a person ought to provide himself with hay during the summer. This does not require any tillage, because an overabundance of good hay grows wild; one only needs to cut it and stack it to have butter and milk all winter. Most people, however, prefer to do without milk and butter throughout the winter and let the cattle shift for themselves during this season. The same is true with pigs; if one lets them run about in meadows and woods with their young while these are quite small, the increase will be very slow because most of the little ones will be killed. The sows should be kept in for several weeks after farrowing. Sheep are very profitable, but they must be locked in every evening if they are to be kept safe from the wolves. All types of poultry, as well as bees, do well. There are still a great many deer about, so the hunter is richly rewarded. He will also find numerous smaller animals like rabbits and squirrels (which are very tasty) as well as many wild birds such as turkeys, geese, various types of ducks, prairie chickens, and, in the fall, countless swarms of doves, besides smaller birds. The doves come by the millions; they look like a dark cloud and there is a sound in the sky as if a great storm is approaching. My husband killed about thirty with one shot, and where they roost at night whole wagonloads can be killed. But they are not this numerous every year. There are not as many wild berries here as in Norway nor as many varieties. Grapevines, however, grow in profusion everywhere, and another wild fruit, the persimmon, [45] is also very delicious. Wild honey in great plenty can be gathered by those who know how.

A family with children will get ahead much easier than one without, since labor is of greater value here than in Norway and many kinds of work can be done by children just as well as by adults. The main argument which can be advanced against immigration is that of health, because a person must be prepared to come down with ague, something very few newcomers escape entirely, though they undoubtedly must thank their own carelessness and cocksureness for it. It is not a mortal disease, how ever, and on the whole is not very serious for those who have the proper medicine and take proper care. In New Orleans immigrants should provide themselves with quinine, castor oil, and other useful medicines. But they should be especially careful in the taking of calomel, improper use of which undoubtedly has caused the death of several Norwegians.

I believe Texas is the best of the States to migrate to, partly because the climate is milder and more pleasant than in the Northern States and partly because the land is cheaper. Further more, without owning land a person can here acquire as many cattle as he pleases, and, finally, a person can here sustain him self with so much less work, since less is required for housebuilding, for getting feed for the animals, etc., etc., than in colder climates.

I will now conclude, despite the fact that I could say much more about Texas. But time is short and conditions very difficult for me, as I am constantly interrupted. So I must ask your pardon for sending you such a piece of hasty work as this.



<1> Mrs. Wærenskjold’s letter, with an introduction explaining its origin, first appeared in Hamars budstikke and was reprinted in Morgenbladet (Christiania), June 17, 18, 1852. A photostat of the Morgenbladet articles served as the basis for the present translation. On March 1, 1852, Wilhelm Wærenskjold also wrote a letter to Gjestvang giving his impressions of Texas and condemning Tolmer’s account as “too uninformed and untrue to merit” further refutation. This letter also appeared both in Hamars budstikke and Morgenbladet. A translation of this and other letters occasioned by Tolmer’s aspersions on Texas are found in Theodore C. Blegen, Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, 355-368 (Minneapolis, 1955). In the same volume (p. 321-350) are found numerous selections from letters by Mrs. Wærenskjold to friends in Norway. Accounts of the Norwegian settlements in Texas are found in Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 177-189 (Northfield, 1931); Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, 198- 209 (Northfield, 1938); Rasmus B. Anderson, First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration, 1821-1840: Its Causes and Results, 370-395 (Madison, 1896).
<2> Staack is saying that since he can find no similarity whatsoever between the regions described and the description, he declares Mr. Tolmer’s account to be false and a gross lie.
<3> Here follows a brief examination of Tolmer’s ignorance of Texas geography but, without access to Tolmer’s account, it is impossible to understand the analysis.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page