Swedish Immigrants in Texas

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Tony Maples Photography


East Sweden Presbyterian Church

Photo by andrewbutlerphotos.com
By John Hallowell

This historic church was the focal point of a Swedish settlement (called East Sweden) just east of Brady in McCulloch County.

It would be impossible to write a story of Swedes in the Hill Country without mentioning Sven Magnus Swenson; although he never lived in the Hill Country and spent his later years in New York City, he was the first Swedish immigrant to settle in Texas and the driving force behind much of the Swedish immigration that followed. And it was Swenson’s cousins, whom he had encouraged to come to Texas, who first settled the area called East Sweden in McCulloch County.

Swenson left his home in southeastern Sweden at twenty years of age, telling his mother in a letter that “I will get there (to America) someway or another, and I will make my fortune there. That was in 1836, the year that Texas declared its independence from Mexico. He arrived shortly thereafter in New York, where he went to school for two years before sailing to Galveston in 1838. The ship was wrecked just outside of Galveston, and Swenson lost all his possessions, but he was able to collect enough salvage from the wreck to go into business as a peddler. One of his customers, a Dr. Long, became a good friend, and when Dr. Long died in 1842, Swenson married the doctor’s young widow and inherited a plantation with 40 slaves.

Texas joined the United States in 1845, and looked for settlers to increase its population. Newspapers in Europe extolled the “American Dream,” and published glowing reports of the good land and great opportunities in Texas. Large numbers were coming from Germany, and Swenson decided to recruit some from Sweden as well. He sent for his uncle, Swante Palm and two cousins, Daniel and Carl Hurd. In 1846, Swenson made a journey to Sweden, recruiting more immigrants and bringing his sister, Annie, back with him. In 1854, with his business making money supplying settlers all along the frontier, Swenson turned his attention to acquiring land. By 1860, he owned more than 600,000 acres: 128.000 in the Austin area and nearly 500,000 in West Texas. According to the 1860 census, there were 163 Swedes  in Texas that year; Swenson sent Daniel Hurd back to recruit another 300.

Swante Magnus Swenson

Photo by williamson-county-historical-commission.org

The war between the states interrupted Swenson’s plans. His Union leanings made him a marked man, and he was forced to flee to Mexico. Swenson never returned to Texas, settling in New Orleans after the war, then moving to Brooklyn, New York. He founded a bank there, but continued to encourage immigration from Sweden. When he died in 1896, his fortune was estimated at $6 million, and there were nearly 9,000 Swedes in Texas.

Daniel Hurd waited out the war in Sweden, returning to Texas in 1867 with about 100 young pioneers from Sweden. They settled in the Williamson County community of Palm Valley (named for the Swante Palm family, who had first settled there) on S.M. Swenson’s land, where a generous welcome awaited the new immigrants. (Most of the immigrants would work there a couple of years to pay for their voyage across the Atlantic.) That “home base” for Swedish Americans spawned a large number of success stories, including that of the Hurd family in East Sweden.

Carl Hurd and his wife, Maja Lisa, had moved to Palm Valley from Brazoria County in 1863. Their two sons, Daniel and Leander (“Lee”), went to work for the Southwestern Cattle Company in 1871, driving cattle from Travis and Williamson Counties along the trails to Kansas. Daniel Hurd told years later how his brother Lee was knocked off his horse by a floating log while crossing the rain-swollen Red River. Another cowboy managed to rope the young man and pull him to safety, saving him from death by drowning.

Swedish Immigrants in Texas

During their “wild west” adventures, the Hurd brothers explored the area round Onion Creek in McCulloch County, and Daniel Hurd (the nephew of the first Daniel Hurd) decided then that he would eventually settle on the good land there. It was 15 years later that he and Lee brought their families to settle, forming the community of East Sweden with a half-dozen other families (and their sister, Edla), from Palm Valley.

They built homes in 1888 with lumber they brought from Brownwood, and set out on the back-breaking task of taming the land for farming. Four families donated an acre each at the corner where their properties met, and the community got together to build a 24’ by 40’ church with nine wagonloads of lumber and materials from Brownwood. Although all the families were of Lutheran background, the new church was organized as Presbyterian because the only available preacher was a Presbyterian from Mason. The present East Sweden Presbyterian Church was built in 1921, after the original building was destroyed by a storm. Since 1975, the church has not held regular services, but traditional Christmas Eve services are held each year, and the Hurds still use the building for family gatherings.

Daniel Hurd and his wife, Lydia, were parents of ten children, all of whom settled in the East Sweden area. Lydia was a Bohemian Jew, famous for her hard work and her frugal ways. Grandson Bobbye Hurd attributes much of the family’s financial success to her and tells how she would kill red ants one by one with a hammer instead of buying poison, and how, when one dress had holes in it, she would simply wear another dress over it rather than buying material for a new dress. The family worked hard and prospered, acquiring and farming large parcels of land. And although much of the next generation (Daniel and Lydia’s grandchildren) scattered after World War II, there are still quite a few Hurds here, and they are still among the largest landowners (somewhere near 85,000 acres) in McCulloch County. Bobbye Hurd explains, “We don’t sell land.”

East Sweden Presbyterian Church

Image by texasescapes.com

Norman and Wayne Hurd were cousins who grew up in Brady and went on to successful careers elsewhere. They formed a partnership in 1969 to develop the world-class resort of Horseshoe Bay on Lake LBJ. Norman’s sister, Francis King (she married John L. King, from Mason County), was a well-known artist with galleries in Santa Fe and Brady. Her son, Frank King, was one of the original contractors working at Horseshoe Bay and founded Bay Maintenance, Inc. He still owns ranches and businesses in Brady. Another son, Luther King, runs an investment company in Fort Worth and owns thousands of acres of land in McCulloch County. Their sister, Karen Bishop, is a long-time fourth-grade teacher in Brady.

Bobbye Hurd describes himself as “just an old, poor cattle rancher,” who hasn’t achieved the same financial success as his relatives. Even so, he owns a large ranch and a comfortable home near the East Sweden church, and serves as a sort of “anchor” for the family. He renovated the church in 1999 where the family gatherings are held, and serves as the unofficial family historian.

Swedish immigrants have never been a large percentage of Texas’ population, but their pursuit of the American Dream has had a major impact on the state for years, and this one family’s contributions are still being felt today. What a legacy!

Horseshoe Bay Resort

Image by hsbresort.com