DANES. Danish immigration to Texas, like most European settlement in the Americas, was a result of stories of favorable conditions, actual or imaginary, put in contrast with real problems in a traditional homeland. In Denmark during the second half of the nineteenth century, population growth, low salaries, unemployment, and the difficulty of acquiring land joined with new legal freedom to bring about a large exodus from the country. The majority of Danish emigrants left between 1820 and 1920. Many discontented Danes saw Texas as a place for business opportunity and settlement.
Although colonial efforts were considered in the early years, the first Danish immigrants to Texas were individuals. The first known by name included sailors like Peter Johnson who, captaining his own ships along the Texas coast as early as 1832, first traded at, then settled near, Indianola. John Edward Henrichson, another seafarer, moved slightly inland and became a rancher near San Patricio. A Dane named Christian Hillebrandt moved his cattle from Louisiana into East Texas just after 1830, and one named Charles Zanco died at the battle of the Alamo in 1836. Some settlers wrote letters back to Denmark saying that Texas was the place to be.
By 1850 a sprinkling of Danes had arrived, some fifty individuals officially in that year's census, probably a low count that quickly grew. Until around 1950 the ratio of native-born Danes to the population of Texas was always fairly constant-about one to 3,000.
The early arrivals were mixed in skills and trades. They included Otto Kass, a soldier at Fort Worth; Thomas Moosewood, a Bexar County wagonmaster; Peter Hansen, a sailor in Galveston; George Henry Trube, former gardener and founder of a mercantile dynasty in Houston and Galveston; Peter Miller, a carpenter in the Rio Grande valley; Christian Dorbrandt, Texas Ranger and cotton-gin owner near Marble Falls; and Charles Grimur Thorkelin Løvenskiold, schoolmaster, lawyer, and colonel for the Confederacy from Corpus Christi. The Danes accepted most local spellings of their names and established lasting businesses and families.
But colonial efforts were not too far behind the first families. The first group resulted from a visit, just after the Civil War, of two Texans to Denmark. Travis Shaw and John Hester, whose wife was Danish, were promoting Central Texas as good farmland. The area they were selling was the part of Burleson County that went to make up Lee County in 1874. Initially, twenty families moved in, and others arrived before 1880. The group included Christian Moelbeck, a saddlemaker; Paul Paulsen, cabinetmaker; and Peter Jensen, blacksmith. The majority, the Sorensons, Rasmussens, Vittrups, and Olsens, were farmers. Here in the "Little Denmark" area of Lee County were enough families to preserve Danish customs for a time. They did not quickly lose their original foods, including kartofler (boiled potatoes) and rodgrod (fruit pudding), nor the custom of pastry and coffee every day at 10 A.M. and 3 P.M., nor the holiday observances. But the language and most of the customs of a European homeland thousands of miles away were quick to go. An immigrant is only a person who arrives after someone else, in the words of a later Danish arrival, Lloyd M. Bentsen, Sr.
Another settlement area was in Gillespie County, east of Fredericksburg around the Rocky Hill vicinity. Here, the choice of place seems to have been a matter of recommendation between families and friends. The fact that the county was already tolerably full of Germans, erstwhile Danish enemies, seemed to make no difference in Texas.
These arrivals coincided with the peak years of Danish emigration, 1885–95. But many more individuals came in these years than families, and many Danes moved directly into the young towns of Texas. H. P. N. Gammel arrived in Austin around 1878 and became state printer and one of the most notable book collectors, dealers, and bibliophiles of all times. Christian Mathisen moved into Fredericksburg as a blacksmith and subsequently invented an early wind-powered electric generator and innovative agricultural methods. Viggo Kohler was attracted to Beeville and Hebbronville, where he became a hotel owner and rancher.
Danevang, established in 1894, became the largest Danish settlement and still held on with a population of sixty-one in 1990. Land was contracted on the coastal plain south of El Campo by the Dansk Folkesamfund as a place for a church colony where Danish culture and language could be preserved. The society sold the land for nine dollars an acre and contacted potential colonists. The Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, one of two synods resulting from a church dispute in Denmark, had the colony as a religious charge. Many of the initial colonists came from the north central United States, where thousands of Danes had first settled after their long move; others came directly from Denmark.
Until the turn of the century, the settlers had a rough time. The first crops, northern grains, failed. Carefully transported cattle died. The first homes were primitive, and the low coastal plain was easily flooded. One young wife admitted that she "cried nearly every evening." The initial land payments could not be made, but the president of the Texas Land and Cattle Company, after a visit to the colony, gave an immediate extension on the notes. It was evident that the Danes were there to stay. By 1901 they had survived hurricanes, crop failure, insects, and local depression. They had largely switched to cotton as a cash crop. Shortly thereafter, they established a Farmer's Cooperative Society for bulk purchases of supplies and sale of crops. Community members started schools, reading clubs, an insurance company, a telephone service, a grocery, a cotton gin, and a gasoline station-all on a cooperative basis. The schools taught biblical history, Danish history, and the Danish language-at least in the summers-along with the regular "American" curriculum, until incorporation and state laws took over the community schools.
Danish culture and language did survive for over a generation. The church was the formal sphere of spoken Danish, which was used for regular services until 1954 and by Den danske Kvindeforening, a women's church society, until 1971. Danish was commonly used in business through the 1930s, and today a few people still can speak "native Texas" Danish, a language retaining some nineteenth-century structure and vocabulary and of interest to contemporary linguists. The major holidays celebrated in the colony were joint Danish Constitution Day-United States Independence Day and Christmas. On these occasions the European circle dance around a community tree was maintained. One or two songs were always sung in Danish.
Danevang still attracts visitors from various Texas Scandinavian clubs, but today looks like, and mainly is, a small Texas country community. From a peak of nearly 200 Danish families, about twenty were in Danevang in the late 1980s. They very strongly remember where they are from. But the economics of large farmholdings destroyed the colony.
Danevang continued to attract a few Danish families until around 1920, but fewer came to the United States in the early twentieth century. And many of the arrivals, more often single men than not, headed for the cities rather than the country. Hans Guldmann, John Christensen, and Johan Rasmussen found in Galveston a place of opportunity and a warm climate. Here were opportunities for dealing in cotton products, automobiles, and vegetables. Steamship-company agents in Denmark were still willing to sell tickets after World War I, but soon the United States enacted quotas to limit European immigrants, including Danes. Yet, of those who came, most stayed. Only about 8 percent of the arrivals returned to their homeland. Danish culture was Nordic and similar to the English and other dominant European groups in Texas. Danes were rapidly assimilated in terms of learning English, marrying outside their own groups, and adopting local habits intentionally. Danish cultural groups outside of Danevang lasted but a short time. The Dallas group, nominally active in the early 1980s, was the longest in duration among groups from the Rio Grande valley, Houston, Austin, and other cities.
One of the last areas of Texas to attract a sprinkling of Danish families was the Panhandle. Typical of that area's settlers was the Sorrenson family, which moved to Swisher County to try farming. Not so typical was the fact that Harry Sorrenson was an amateur mathematician and photographer. He took so many glass-plate photographs that he was able to build a greenhouse using the plates as panes.
To the south, the influential Bentsen family started with the arrival of Peter Bentsen from South Dakota. The Bentsens allowed only English to be spoken in their home and attended churches other than the Danish Lutheran. They were not alone in taking definite moves to become American as soon as possible. Economically, in a dominantly English-speaking society, it was the only practical choice.
After the turn of the century, no colonial efforts were tried in Texas. John B. Christensen founded Kristenstad at De Cordova Bend on the Brazos River, but the cooperative effort was never a Danish colony. The group of about forty families, who quickly tired of the social experiment, included only a few Danes. Today, there are thousands of native Texans who are Danish in ancestry, although little remains of their heritage.
John L. Davis, The Danish Texans (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1979).
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Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on June 28, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.