At a library sale years ago, I picked up a rather thin yellow book called The Danish Texans. It caught my attention because my husband is of Scandinavian descent, and his last name (my married name) ends with “sen” – common in Denmark.
Sadly, that little book has perched on my bookshelves, being ignored among all the bigger, more imposing tomes about Texas – until today, when I finally opened it while hunting up a topic for this blog. I found myself instantly immersed in John L. Davis’s tale of people who left Denmark to forge new lives in America, particularly Texas.
The bulk of Danish emigration to America occurred from 1820 to 1920. In the early decades a majority of the immigrants were landless farmers who could not earn enough as farmhands to marry and raise a family. A few came from cities like Copenhagen, bringing diverse skills.
|Two Danish women working in field with mistress watching; ca. 1884; public domain|
According to Davis, when asked why they emigrated, some Danes said, “I did not want to be a common laborer in my own country” or “I did not care to live such a life of drudgery and poverty as my parents lived; I can’t do worse in America, and I may do better.” Still others left home looking for adventure.
A Real Texas Giant
One adventurer was John Edward Henrichson, the son of a Copenhagen cabinetmaker, who put to sea as a cabin boy at the age of twelve in 1819. By then, he was as big as most sailors. When grown, he stood almost seven feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, all muscle and bone. I search for a picture of him on the web, but no luck. Dangit!
Young John helped keep records for the trading ship and employed skills learned from his father to build and repair cabinets onboard. He made several voyages including into the Gulf of Mexico, travelling on trading missions into Mexico and on flatboats up the Rio Grande. The ship also stopped in ports along the Texas coast.
Leaving the sea, Henrichson settled in New Orleans, married a wealthy widow and used her plantation as a base for trading activities. However, he was attracted to the Nueces-Powderhorn area of Texas which he had seen on his travels. In the late 1830s, he left his wife, taking their three children, ages between five and ten years, and headed for Texas. He became a rancher and trader in the future Corpus Christi area, bought and sold land, and ran a supply store.
|Sunset over Powderhorn Lake; photo by Jerod Foster/Nature Conservancy|
Henrichson became known as “El Grandor” because of his size and because he was a friend to all. He could not ride the small mustang horses for very long due to his weight. When he did, his feet almost touched the ground, so he mainly walked wherever he went. He and his son served in the Mexican War as a blacksmith and wagon driver respectively, but only until U.S. troops crossed the Rio Grande, at which point both men returned to their ranch.
The elder Henrichson became fairly wealthy. Not trusting banks, he buried gold coins on his land, failing to reveal where he'd hidden the gold to his son before he died in 1877. But don’t worry, the family did just fine thanks to the ranch John founded.
In the 1860s (exact year unknown) two Texans, Travis Shaw and John Hester, went to Denmark to enlist people to settle in central Texas. Hester’s wife was Danish and may have prompted the recruitment trip. Originally, over twenty families settled west of Lexington in the north of what became Lee County in 1874. Within a few years, the area became known as “Little Denmark.”
Most who settled there were farmers, but a few were craftsmen. Christian Moelbeck was a saddlemaker, Paul Paulsen a cabinetmaker, Niels Thompson a carpenter and bricklayer, Peter Jensen a blacksmith. Single men among the settlers most often married local girls. Some husbands came alone from Denmark, sending for their families later after getting established.
There were enough Danes in Little Denmark to preserve their culture for a while, but most quickly adapted to American ways. Many names changed: Thomassen became Thompson, Rasmussen changed to Robertson, Jens became Yens because Americans didn’t pronounce the Danish names correctly.
Some families taught their offspring Danish but English soon became the predominant language. Their religion also changed as members left the Lutheran church in favor of local denominations. Brush arbor camp meetings were different from religious gatherings in the old country. When a minister conducted such a meeting, families came prepared to stay a week. Some brought milk cows and/or chicken coops in their wagons; blankets and even tents might be included.
|Methodist camp meeting, ca. 1819, public domain|
The Danes did maintain some traditions such as beer and polkas at community gatherings, and foods such as kartofler (boiled potatoes) and rodgrod (thickened fruit juice pudding.) They also did not give up the custom of pastry and coffee every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Otherwise, they lived like most settlers. Women made clothes for their family, prepared food and cared for the children. Men farmed or worked at a craft, or both, selling any surplus in town. Most families had large vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
One man from Copenhagen, Peter Christian Jensen, soon had a 375-acre farm, which he never could have acquired in Denmark. When a dispute arose over who could attend a private school, Peter donated part of his land for a school he named the “Equal Rights School.” Anyone could attend.
A Tale of Two Cows
There is so much more I would like to share about the Danes who came to Texas, but this is getting rather long, so I will end with a charming little story recounted by Mr. Davis. It made me chuckle.
The tale was told by Margrethe Henningsen, whose family got a “Danish” cow from a man named Iver Wind. She says:
“Mother stood with pail in her hand for now we were really going to have milk, cream and butter; but, alas, when Mother sat down to milk, both she and the pail landed in the grass. Father and Mr. Wind tied the cow . . . then Mother tried again. But the monster jumped into the air with all four legs.”
Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and romantic suspense novels, all spiced with paranormal elements. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and a gaggle of very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged children.
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