The Lady with the Pen Leads Norwegians to Texas
Born in Norway in 1815, Elise Tvede lived a comfortable, pastoral life as an upper-class clergyman’s daughter. After the death of her parents, she married Sven Foyn, a whaling magnate, and continued a life of ease until the suffering of others caught her attention.
“The Lady with the Pen,” as she became known, used her writing and journalism skills as a young woman to fight for education, particularly for women. She became caught up in the modern spirit in Norway and founded a school for girls and began writing for a Norwegian magazine owned by Johan Reinert Reiersen. Though she was something of a social crusader, her editorial work in Norway was disguised as a man’s because females were not supposed to take on a public presence outside the home.
Elise was not a woman bound by convention, although she did not chafe at convention for its own sake. She did chafe at fulfilling only a wifely role in those days and amicably divorced her first husband.
Looking for better social and economic possibilities like many Europeans, Reiersen, who is considered the “Father of Norwegian Immigration to Texas,” made his way with others to the New World in 1845 leaving Elise to run his publication. The first Norwegian settlement in the United States was founded that year a few miles west of the Neches River in Brownsboro (then called Normandy) in Henderson County.
Reiersen and Elise continued publishing in Norway for a couple of years and used the medium to encourage others to come to Texas. When he stopped the magazine in 1847, Elise decided to head to the land of the free as well.
She began to plan for a voyage to the United States, hiring the boat, and purchasing supplies for the voyage for her group. This was standard, although the ship captain turned out to be a rascal and a flop, losing his way, and provisions had to last for weeks longer than expected — she shared with others who had run out.
At just 32 years old, Elise was a long way from her once “life of ease,” nearly starving on the overcrowded immigrant boat and even found herself slogging through the swamps between New Orleans and Shreveport.
When Elise finally was able to settle with the other Norwegians in the Brownsboro Colony, she became one of its most outspoken and effective champions. She admired the independent spirit — she was a true Texan.
One of her well-known writings is called the “Texas Manifesto,” in which she blazed through an effete Frenchman’s critical account of Texas. He was obviously never here, she wrote.
She went on to praise the corn and beans, although Texas produced smaller potatoes. She praised the “amiable nature” of the animals, which were “much better behaved than Norwegian livestock.” But mostly when she wrote back home to encourage emigration, she wrote of Texas freedom. That is the character trait that has persisted to this day.
Elise married another immigrant in Brownsboro, Danish-Norwegian Wilhelm Waerenskjold.
After a time in the Brownsboro Colony, the Waerenskjolds and others moved over to an area now known as Prairieville or Four Mile Prairie that straddles southwestern Van Zandt and Kaufman counties. She said it reminded her more of her homeland with rolling agricultural opportunities. There was more room for settlement there and the government eventually opened the way for the Mercer Colony land to be settled free of legal entanglements.
Elise Waerenskjold, also sometimes called Elise Van Shaw, was a no-nonsense “mother of her people” for more than 40 years in Prairieville and one of the state’s leading pioneer heroines of the early settlement of Texas.
She defended her abolitionist heart in the midst of Civil War Texas. Some say the presence of the Norwegians in Van Zandt County is the origin of its “Free State” nickname.
Elise Waerenskjold eventually moved in with her eldest son, Otto Waerenskjold, in Hamilton, Texas, after having lived at Four Mile Prairie for 46 years. She died January 22, 1895.
Her numerous writings about Norwegian immigrant life in Texas remain an invaluable source of information and in 1961 they were published in a book called “Lady With the Pen: Elise Waerenskjold in Texas.” She is also written about in numerous other books of heroic pioneer women of Texas.
The church she helped found, now Four Mile Lutheran Church, still holds worship, although the original church, with the vertical panels (as opposed to a horizontal log building), is long gone. The church is still situated on land donated by Elise and Wilhelm Waerenskjold located at 460 VZCR 2607, Mabank.
The church celebrates an “Old-Fashioned Fourth of July,” starting with a memorial service at 11 a.m. July 4.
A flag raising and singing of the Star-Spangled Banner follows lunch at noon. The church raises money to tend to its historic cemetery by selling silent auction items, something similar Elise was known to do for years herself as she sold books and seed corn door to door to raise money to keep her own homestead and her community going.
It is said that with the exception of Ireland, no nation sent a larger percentage of its people to the United States than Norway. Ultimately, by 1925, about one-third of Norwegians had left the country. The Lady with the Pen and other immigrants from Norway brought a fascinating heritage and built a sturdy ethnic community that still thrives in pockets around East Texas today.