An excerpt from "A Lady Grows Old in Texas" from Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home
Edited by Theodore C. Blegen
Published in 1955
Although many ventured into the West for one reason or another, those who settled and began to "civilize" the frontier truly tamed the continent. Asserts Roger Barr in The American Frontier, "As in earlier American frontiers, it was farmers, the last in the line of frontiersmen, who truly conquered the West. Dissatisfied by the conditions at home, lured by the promise of free land, and aided by new technology, they came by the thousands to the Great Plains beginning in the 1850s." Farmers had to learn new methods of farming; technological advances, such as John Deere's 1837 invention of the steel plow, made their work easier. Another invention, barbed wire (1874), allowed farmers to fence off their land to keep the growing numbers of livestock from trampling their crops.
Farming in the West was encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave settlers up to 160 acres of free land if they settled on it and made improvements over a five-year span. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted an additional 160 acres to farmers who agreed to plant a portion of their land with trees. These acts drew many thousands of settlersfrom the East and even from Europe into the wide-open spaces of the American West. Farming on the Plains was difficult, but by 1890 farmers had claimed more than 430 million acres of land—more land, writes Barr, "than all of their ancestors had claimed throughout American history." The biggest single land claim, known as the Oklahoma land rush, occurred on April 22, 1889, when in a single day some fifty thousand settlers claimed lands that were just opened to settlement.
Cattle ranching vied with farming as the dominant industry in the Plains, for ranchers found that they could graze vast herds of cattle on the open grasslands that had only years before been roamed by buffalo and American Indians. The construction of railroads meant that ranchers could get their cattle to slaughterhouses in the eastern states. As soon as Joseph McCoy established a railhead in Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, writes Barr, "the cattle industry was born. Between 1868 and 1871, nearly 1,500,000 cattle were driven from the Texas range north to Abilene and shipped east." The cattle boom did not last long, for increased competition among ranchers and between ranchers and farmers soon made cattle ranching less profitable.
As a settler in Texas, Elise Amalie Wærenskjold endured the hardships of pioneer life and rejoiced at the opportunities of life on the frontier. Her letters to friends and family in Norway paint a vivid picture of what life was like in Texas in the mid-1800s, when people were forging a new way of life and communities were just getting started.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "A Lady Grows Old in Texas":
- The following excerpt is from a chapter of Land of Their Own called "A Lady Grows Old in Texas." The chapter reprints a series of translated letters that Elise Amalie Wærenskjold wrote to family living in Norway. The excerpt includes letters written between 1852 and 1870.
- A mass migration from Norway to the United States began in the 1820s when the Restoration traveled to the United States.
- Before emigrating, Elise Amalie Wærenskjold edited the Norway and America magazine from 1846 to 1847.
- Wærenskjold settled in Texas in 1847.
Excerpt from "A Lady Grows Old in Texas"
Most people are Methodists
December 27, 1852. I should like to have various kinds of fruit stones and seeds sent over here to be planted. We have many good things in Norway that are lacking here; but it is not the fault of the land, for we could hardly expect to harvest what we have never sowed. Such a simple thing as ale I haven't been able to get up till now because of a lack of yeast; but since the last emigrants brought yeast with them, almost all of us have now brewed ale for Christmas, and it has never tasted so good to me as now. I haven't tasted a glass of wine in four years. If I could get fruit, I would certainly have wine and [fruit] juice too. It is certain that when one is suffering from fever thirst, one misses refreshing drinks, especially since cold water is looked upon as harmful....
Last summer there was quite an unusual amount of sickness here. We were spared for a long time, but then Wilhelm got the fever, and since there was no quinine in the store or anywhere else in the neighborhood, he couldn't break it. Anne, the maid, had to do part of his work, so she got it too, and then when I was left alone, Otto and I got it also. After a few days had passed, however, we were lucky enough to get some quinine. It is wonderful how quickly and surely one can break the fever with quinine. In the shops it was soon sold out to the doctors, and so the Norwegians got little. The result was that nine people died, most of whom surely could have been saved if they had had this remedy....
There is nothing unusual about their sermons or hymns, or their baptism or the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which are administered about as with us; but in the afternoonall the men go to one side and all the women to another for private prayer. There they alternate song and prayer, which one of the women says in a very loud voice. During these long and vehement prayers, they kneel at first, each in his own place, but gradually as they become more and more excited soon one, then another, will begin to scream and cry out, clap his hands, strike those standing nearest him, throw himself down on the ground, and on the whole act as one who is crazy or possessed by a devil. The others press around the inspired ones and continue singing and praying. The same noise takes place in the evening after the sermon and after the minister's most zealous incitement. It seems as if they believed they could not get into heaven unless they took it by storm. There was no edification for me in this. Several of the Norwegians have abandoned their Lutheran faith. Andreas and Mads Vincentz have been baptized and have gone over to the Carmelites, Marie Grøgaard to the Episcopalians, Mother Staack to the Methodists, and her brother to the Baptists. I wish very much that we could soon get a good Lutheran minister.
The Fourth of July was celebrated by the Norwegians in the settlement, one and all, and each person contributed either food or money. Wærenskjold gave half an ox and fifty cents. They gathered in the morning and continued celebrating a good twenty-four hours. They ate and drank lustily. A very few danced a little. Wærenskjold made a speech. As for me, I would rather have had nothing to do with the whole riotous affair, but such things are just what Wilhelm likes, especially when he can be at the head of the whole affair. Of what we are accustomed to call amusements I have few or none. My greatest joy is Otto, and then I also have a great satisfaction in seeing our various domestic animals thrive and multiply. Now you must soon send me a letter again. To get letters from Norway is one of my greatest pleasures, but with the exception of Gjestvang almost no one writes except when emigrants are coming; then we usually get a lot of newspapers too and a few books, which we read over and over until the next year when emigrants come again.
Cattle-breeding is our principal livelihood
January 6, 1857. You no doubt know that cattle-breeding is our principal means of livelihood. We do not plan to sell the cows, but only the steers until we can acquire about two hundred calves a year. This spring we can expect about seventy. Cows and calves are now $15 each, and a three-year old untrained ox costs the same. When it is trained for work, it costs much more. We have four mares, a horse, and a mule. The latter is unusually gentle and sure-footed. It is the children's and my riding horse. Niels sits in my lap and Otto behind me. We do have a four-wheeled carriage but very seldom use it.
We have sixty-two sheep, and this month and next we are expecting many lambs. I help clip the sheep, but I am not very good at it. I can clip only one sheep while the others clip two. Wilhelm can keep up with anyone. He is very quick at all kinds of work. I do notknow how many pigs we have, not because we have so many, but because pigs are so difficult to keep track of.
Since I hate liquor, it is a great joy to me that Wilhelm never tastes it. He has organized a temperance society in our settlement, and since that time the community has become so respectable and sober that it is a real pleasure. All of us Norwegians, about eighty persons counting young and old, can come together for a social gathering without having strong drink, but we do have coffee, ale, milk, and mead, and food in abundance at our gatherings.
Most difficult to get hired help
June 9, 1869. You talk about peasants living as cottagers. Such conditions are unknown here where everybody, even the poorest Negro, is too independent to submit to such a state of dependence on others. It is even most difficult to get hired help for months at a time, since they who do not possess land of their own prefer to rent land. He who owns the land then has to supply buildings, working animals, tools, seeds; he also has to feed the animals and pay for the maintenance of the fences. For all this you get half the harvest. It is mainly freed Negro slaves who take land in this way. Many of them are lazy, cruel to the animals, or so careless with the tools that they cause you a lot of trouble. This year we have twenty-two acres of cotton, fourteen of corn, six of rye, and seven of wheat. The rye and the wheat have already been harvested. Plums and blackberries have been ripe for several weeks—is that not early? Otto has eight acres of cotton, and all he can harvest on that piece of land he is to have for himself. Niels's main job is to look after the cattle and the hogs. We have somewhere between two and three hundred hogs, and last winter we sold about $300 worth of hogs and bacon. We got $.05 a pound for live hogs and $.11 a pound for smoked bacon. We have also sold some oxen and ninety-three wethers. Prices were $10 for a four-year-old ox and $1.50 for a wether. It used to be $3. In addition to this I sold turkeys last fall and got $25 for them, all told. Now that I have paid off my debts we are able to manage fairly well. I do not know as yet how things will work out with regard to the sum of money that is owing to me. It is an annoying affair.
You can pick cotton from August to January
[This letter was most likely written in 1870, according to the editors of Land of Their Choice.] Anyone who has little or nothing to start out with had best build a log house, since he can improve that as he goes along. But anyone who can afford to buy boards right away is wiser to build a frame or box house at once. I have a fairly large house (box) on the same estate where a Norwegian-German family is living now. This family has rented one of my fields. One of my chimneys is built of stone and the other of brick, and I have a kitchen range and a stove. For these stoves we only use iron pipes that go up through the roof.
Most people also have a smokehouse for the smoking of meat and bacon, a granary, and a stable for the horses, all built of oak logs. The stable is then only for the horses you use every day or for the horses of guests who may stay overnight. Many horses are never kept in the stable and never fed; they find their own food all the year round. I also have a kind of house for my sheep (completely open to the south and east) and a chicken coop, but [these] are an extravagance in Texas....
The plowing preparatory to the planting of corn and cotton can be done at any time during the winter; they are planted in rows with about three feet between the rows. The corn is planted from the end of February to May, though the beginning of March is the best time. The cotton is planted from April 10 to May 10. After both of these plants have come up, a furrow is plowed at either side of the plants, and then the weeds and some of the cotton plants are hoed away.After this the whole middle area of the field is plowed up once more and is gone over again with the hoe, and the field is then ready to be harvested. At the second hoeing all the corn and cotton which is in excess of the desired quantity is removed. The corn plant grows up with a very tall stem with broad leaves and usually two ears. In August the leaves are picked off, dried, and used as fodder for the horses. During the plowing period the working horses are fed with corn and fodder (leaves of corn) and sometimes also with oats.
The cotton plant grows to be quite tall, too, but it branches out more, like a tree, and has large yellow flowers which turn red before they are shed. On the same plant you may often see both yellow and red flowers. The cotton is picked off when the ripe seed capsule opens, and the seed is then separated from the fibers of cotton in a cotton gin. You can pick cotton from August to Christmas, yes, even in January. It is easy work that pays well, from $.50 to $1 per one hundred pounds; and a person can pick from one hundred to three hundred pounds a day, depending on the skill of the picker and the quality of the cotton. You can mow as much hay as you please out on the prairie, which is open to everybody. But the Americans do not want to take that trouble, and if you cannot mow the hay yourself, you are unable to hire anyone to do it for you.... [Blegen, pp. 323–6, 333, 338–40]
What happened next . . .
Elise Amalie Wærenskjold lived in Texas until her death in 1895 at age eighty-one. She wrote extensively throughout her life, publishing various articles in Norwegian American newspapers and magazines, including a history of the Norwegian colony in Texas in the late 1860s.
When Wærenskjold lived in Texas, she reported that its population was about one million, including twelve to fourteen hundred Norwegians. She lauded the state's excellent climate for growing crops, noting that crops "require only a quarter of the labor that one has to expend on them in the climate of my native country." Her descriptions of the natural resources and the availability of land enticed many people to emigrate from Norway to the United States. Her letters—and similar letters from other emigrants—spread the word that the United States was the land of opportunity.
Did you know . . .
- The U.S. population increased from slightly more than seventeen million in 1840 to thirty-eight million in 1860.
- The population of the western states and territories (including present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Utah) in 1850 was 179,000 and grew to 3,134,000 by 1890.
- Controversy over the improper and unfair use of barbed-wire fencing provoked arguments over who had the right to use public lands for grazing cattle in Texas and other western states. After erecting miles of fencing around public lands, the largest cattle-raising companies tried to secure leases to graze their animals on the federal lands. By 1883, those opposed to fencing the open range lands had begun cutting barbed fences in a protest that became known as the Fence Cutter's War.
- Legislation regulating how and where fences could be erected on or near public lands curbed the fence cutting in Texas in 1884, and similar legislation soon eased tensions in other states. The impact of the laws was impressive; they ended the Fence Cutter's War less than a year after it started and reinforced the patterns of ranching introduced by barbed-wire fencing. Nevertheless, the conflict was so divisive and devastating that fence cutting remained a felony in Texas at the end of the twentieth century.
- When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) withdrew the remainder of the public land from private settlement in 1935, some 285 million acres had been homesteaded.
Consider the following . . .
- What did Wærenskjold have to give up to move to America?
- Did Wærenskjold think the hardships of homesteading were worth the trouble?
- What did Wærenskjold think of the various religions she witnessed in Texas?
- What was Wærenskjold's opinion of other homesteaders?
For More Information
Barr, Roger. The American Frontier. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1996.
Blegen, Theodore C., ed. Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.
Gates, Paul W. Fifty Million Acres Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854–1890. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1954.
Gintzler, A. S. Rough and Ready Homesteaders. New York: John Muir Publications, 1994.
Hibbard, Benjamin H. A History of the Public Land Policies. New York: Macmillan Company, 1924.
Ottoson, Howard W. Land Use Policy and Problems in the United States. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. Homesteading: Settling America's Heartland. New York: Walker and Company, 1998.
Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage The Public Domain, 1776–1936. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1942.
Settling the West. Edited by the editors of Time-Life Books. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1996.