The main character of my book The Dala Horse, is a 10-year-old girl growing up in a Norwegian immigrant settlement in post-Civil War Texas. Her parents were born in Norway, but she was born in Texas. The book is inspired by the early Norwegian immigrants to Texas, including my own ancestors.
People are usually surprised to learn there are Norwegians in Texas. While it’s true most Norwegian immigrants to America settled farther north, some intrepid souls did choose the Lone Star State.
Norwegian immigrants came to America in three major waves in the second half of the 19th century. But the earliest came during an economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars 1807-1814.
Norway had outgrown its ability to provide enough food for its population. If you imagine Norway is a top hat, only the narrow brim is practical for farming due to the mountainous terrain. In the 1800s, only about 3% of its land was under cultivation, mainly due to Norway’s geography.
In addition, prosperous farmers who invested in commercial agriculture to take advantage of this imbalance lost out when domestic markets fell to cheap imports. Many went bankrupt.
Faced with a transition from an agricultural to a money economy, many found immigration more attractive than moving to cities. After all, exploration and adventure was in their Viking blood! Pair this with the generous land policies in Texas, and it's easy to see why so many were willing to risk the journey.
Immigration was also fueled by the 19th century version of social media: newspapers, magazines, and letters from friends who had already moved away and liked the result.
Early emigration proponents included
- Cleng Peerson of the sloop Restauration fame (the ‘father of Norwegian immigration’)
- Johan Reinert Reiersen, author of Norway’s first emigration-centric magazine, Norge og Amerika
- Elise Waerenskjold, the ‘Lady With The Pen’
All three had tremendous influence on Norwegian immigration patterns. All spent their final years in Texas and are buried there.
Of the three, Reiersen perhaps had the most impact bringing Norwegians to Texas. He visited the fledgling republic while touring America in the 1840s. He traveled to Austin and met with Sam Houston.
Reiersen was favorably impressed by Houston’s offers of support for any immigrants choosing Texas as their new home. Reierson’s book, magazine, and newspaper articles influenced many to join him there.
He and a small group of settlers founded the first Norwegian community in Texas in 1845. Initially called Normandy, today it is known as Brownsboro.
(However, they were not the first Norwegian settlers in Texas. That would be Johannes Nordboe, who had settled near present day Dallas in 1838.)
Cheap land - and plenty of it! - undoubtedly was a major factor in convincing immigrants to move to Texas. After Texas became a state in 1845, a married couple could claim a 640 acre section (one square mile). At that time, the average farm in Norway was 2-20 acres.
Between TWO and TWENTY.
The process of staking a claim in Texas varied, but went something like this:
- claim the land
- establish a home and cultivate at least 10 acres
- occupy at least 3 years
- pay for survey
And the land was yours, for anywhere from free to $2/acre.
No wonder immigrating to Texas sounded like a pretty good deal! The land was plentiful and cheap, but that was only a small part of the cost to immigrate. Immigration was booming. The ship captains were no dummies, and fares were at a premium.
As an example, immigrant one immigrant's fare on the ship New England from France to New Orleans was about $950. The fare on the riverboat St. Helena was $75 from New Orleans to Shreveport.
And this does not include her voyage from Norway to France. Or traveling overland from New Orleans to her final destination in Texas. One inflation calculator estimates $100 in 1847 to be worth about $2,750 today. Using that formula, her relocation to America cost around $30,000. And this was certainly not for first class accommodations. She traveled below decks with all the other passengers, and cargo, and animals.
After all the trouble and expense of immigrating from Norway to Texas, the original settlement of Normandy did not live up to the settlers’ expectations. Illness and other factors precipitated a relocation in 1848 to nearby Four Mile Prairie/Prairieville. More settlers arrived in 1850, bringing the Norwegian contingent to 105. Still seeking better quality soil and water, many Norwegians pushed further west in 1854 when Bosque County was created. The communities of Clifton, Cranfills Gap, and Norse became the Norwegian stronghold in the state.
Statewide population of Norwegians in TexasCensus records of the time reflect a slow but steady influx of Norwegians.
1860 = 321
1870 = 552
1880 = 941
One estimate of the number of Texans of Norwegian descent today is around
Several Norwegian societies have chapters in Texas, including
Fun facts about Texas Norwegians, or 'Texwegians'
- At one time, Norway was second only to Ireland in percentage of population immigrating to America
- Notable Texwegians include:
- In Norway, people use the word ‘Texas’ as slang for ‘crazy’
For more Texwegian fun, check out my book, The Dala Horse, now available on Amazon.
10-year-old Kaya Olson lives in a small Norwegian immigrant settlement in post-Civil War Texas. When her mother is killed, Kaya feels responsible. Can she uncover the secrets her family is keeping to solve the mystery surrounding her mother’s death?
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