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A Swedish Family in Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Perhaps it was William Gustafsson's still weak command of English. After all, he and younger brother Erik were Swedes. Or maybe he sought advice from an American and had the misfortune of asking someone of a prankish nature.

The issue was his last name. When he came to Texas in 1876, the older brother thought it important to start his new life with an American surname. Gustafsson was a very common name in his native country, but now that he had come to the states, he wanted a last name that stood out, one as unusual as Gustafsson was plain. Smith, he decided, was just such a name.

In time, the brothers Gustafsson surely came to understand that in selecting Smith as their new family name they had either badly mis-guessed or been terribly misled. From then on, despite their strong Nordic blood, they and their descendants carried the most ubiquitous of all Anglo-Saxon names.

Swedish immigration to Texas had begun in 1848 and gathered momentum following the Civil War. As word of Texas and its agricultural opportunities spread in Sweden, the pace picked up in the 1870s. By the time of the first world war, some 11,000 Swedes made their home in the Lone Star State, many of them in Williamson County and northeastern Travis County.

William Smith came to Texas first. Liking what he saw, he paid for his brother's passage to the U.S. in the late summer of 1878. Before leaving Northern Europe, Erik already had a family. He had married Katarina Johanneson and by the time they sailed to America they had five children. (A sixth would be born in Texas).

Their long trip finally ended in Travis County at the community of New Sweden where numerous other immigrants from their country had settled. Like so many others from the old country, they had come to America -- and Texas -- for a better life. While in comparison to the economic woes they had endured in Europe they probably felt they had achieved that, a better life could still be a hard life.

Having been a millwright in Sweden, living on the black dirt of Central Texas, Erik took up farming. His brother had done the same. Eight years after reaching Texas, Erik Smith supported his family by growing cotton.

In September 1886, Erik was picking bolls off the thick green plants when a rattlesnake bit his intruding hand. Erik managed to make it back to the house and Katarina sent urgent word to the doctor in Manor.

Charlene Hanson Jordan told the story in her 2008 privately published book, "Stuck in the Mud at Post Oak Island: History of a Texas Settlement." (Post Oak Island was a community in Williamson County and numerous Swedish families once lived in the vicinity.)

"It took hours for the doctor to come from Manor on horseback," Jordan wrote. "Katarina did what she could...by tying a ribbon around his arm to stop blood circulation. When the doctor came and removed the ribbon, Erick said, 'Well now I will die.'"

He said that because he refused the physician's recommendation that the venom-infused arm be amputated. With the curative use of rattlesnake serum decades in the future, Erick's declaration proved correct. Forty-eight years old, he died 28 hours later.

Her husband's death left Katarina with six children and no means of support. The following summer, still grieving for her husband, life only grew more difficult. On June 19, 1887, a towering late spring thunderstorm let loose with hailstones the size of small cannonballs. The plummeting globs of ice blew out their windows and punched holes through the roof of their farmhouse.

Everyone crawled under their beds to escape the massive hailstones. Even so, one of the girls was badly injured. When the storm passed, Katarina and her children went outside to find that the barrage from above had killed their calves, lambs, and chickens. Of course, their cotton field had been pummeled.

Katarina had no idea how she was going to feed her family, much less get their windows and roof repaired. She considered returning to Sweden but realized there was no way she could do that.

A deeply religious family, the Smiths had lost just about everything but their faith. And then one Sunday, after walking home from church with the rest of the family, 15-year-old August Smith -- the oldest son -- went to the creek to check one of his traps. Raccoon pelts, even skunk hides, brought in a little money for the family though not nearly enough.

Moving down the creek bed, he noticed a shiny object and stooped to pick it up. It was a silver dollar. Looking around, August saw a partially buried leather satchel, dug it up and looked inside. It held more silver dollars, 31 of them. While that doesn't sound like much money, back then those silver dollars had a buying power of more than $800 today.

Soon, the Smith house had a new roof and new windows, with enough money left over to seed a new crop.

While the Gustafsson-Smith family story reads like a fairy tale, in telling the story as an old man August Smith figured his long-ago find had a simple enough explanation. He believed the cache had been lost from one of the many north-bound trail herds that crossed the creek at that point. However the silver ended up on their property, it came at just the right time.

Katarina Johanneson Smith lived out her final years with one of her daughters at Decker, in Travis County and died at 82 on Dec. 31, 1918. She had taken comfort in her last days that she would be buried next to her husband, but that didn't happen. Once again, bad weather intervened. It was achingly cold and wet. The road to Erik's grave in the New Sweden Cemetery could not be traveled, so her family had to bury Katarina at Decker. Erik and Katarina Smith still lie 18 miles apart.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" Augus 3, 2016 column
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