Swenson, Swante Magnus (1816–1896)

By: Richard W. Moore

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: April 27, 2019

Swante (Svante, Sven, Swen) Magnus Swenson (Svenson), entrepreneur, founder of the SMS Ranches, and first Swedish immigrant to Texas, was born at Lättarp, Barkeryds Parish, Jönköping, Sweden, on February 24, 1816, the son of Margreta and Anders (Andrew) Swenson. After clerking in a store for a time, he migrated to America in 1836. Most accounts of his life say his ship burned upon his arrival in New York harbor, thus he came ashore with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He stayed briefly in the city, working as a store clerk and learning English, then worked as a railroad bookkeeper in Baltimore, Maryland, before arriving in Texas in 1838. There he was employed by John Adriance of Columbia, who operated a large mercantile business. Adriance supplied goods which Swenson peddled from a ambulance-type carriage bearing the sign Columbus Supply House. While making his rounds Swenson became friends with Dr. George Long, who owned a plantation near Richmond. Long was in poor health and convinced Swenson to become his overseer. After the doctor's death in 1842, the widowed Jeanette Long returned to Tennessee to visit relatives, and Swenson took charge of the plantation. In 1843 Swenson bought a neighboring plantation, and on December 12, 1843, he married Jeanette Long. Although Swenson used slave labor on the Louisiana plantations, he was basically opposed to the system and foresaw its imminent downfall. His views on the matter may have been one of the reasons behind his efforts to encourage Swedish immigration to Texas, which he began in 1847 on a trip to Sweden during which he offered to pay the fares of several immigrants in exchange for a year of their labor on his plantations. He continued this work throughout his life; after the Civil War he, his uncle Swante Palm (Swen Jaensson), and a brother in Sweden began running an informal Swedish immigration service often referred to as the "Swedish pipeline" (see SWEDES).

By 1850 Swenson had moved to Austin and established a mercantile business with Palm. Shortly after the move, Swenson's wife died of tuberculosis in Tennessee; the couple had had no children. While running the store Swenson continued to buy land; he submitted newspaper ads announcing that he would pay top dollar for headright certificates. In 1854 he invested in the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, which gained him 100,000 acres of land in northwestern and western Texas. He eventually became one of the largest landowners in Texas. In 1851 Swenson married Susan McReady; they had four children, including two sons, Eric Pierson and Swen Albin, who ran the SMS Ranch on the West Texas lands Swenson had acquired. While in Austin Swenson served two terms (in 1852 and 1856) as a county commissioner, and in 1853 he became the first treasurer of the State Agricultural Society. He also expanded his mercantile business beyond the city limits, using his string of freight wagons to sell supplies to outlying forts.

During the secession crisis, Swenson, who opposed both northern and southern radicalism, agreed to help Governor Sam Houston in an attempt to prevent Texas secession; Swenson was to raise supplies for an independent Texas army and in 1861 was promised a commission as quartermaster-general on Houston's staff, a position with the rank of colonel. When the effort failed, Swenson, who by this time had sold all his slaves, remained in Texas but vowed that he would not aid the South and that he would never take up arms against the United States. Despite his Unionism, Swenson was allowed for a time to continue his business in Austin, and, acting as an agent for the Swedish government, he arranged for the exportation of Texas cotton abroad. Though Governor Francis R. Lubbock allowed Swenson to leave the state several times, his travel caused a great outcry among politically powerful secessionists. In the fall of 1863 Swenson, in fear for his life, transferred ownership of his Austin store to relatives and fled to Monterrey, Mexico, where he stayed until late in the summer of 1864, when he went to Sweden to visit his mother. According to some accounts, upon his return he met briefly with President Abraham Lincoln and spoke with him about Texas and the Union.

By 1865 Swenson had gone to New Orleans and set up a large mercantile business in partnership with William Perkins; he also purchased a sugar plantation. Later that year he took his family to live in New York City, where he established the financial house of Swenson Perkins Company. After dissolving the Perkins partnership, Swenson established the banking house of S. M. Swenson and Sons. When this business was discontinued, he became a large depositor in the National City Bank, later the First National City Bank of New York. Though he lived the last thirty years of his life in New York, he maintained his ties to Texas, operating a clearinghouse for Texas products, continuing his work as a cotton agent, and regularly visiting his extensive land holdings. In 1891 he presented his large collection of ancient coins to the University of Texas, where they were displayed at the Texas Memorial Museum. Swenson died on June 13, 1896, in Brooklyn, New York, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

August Anderson, Hyphenated, or The Life Story of S. M. Swenson (Austin: Steck, 1916). Mary Whatley Clarke, The Swenson Saga and the SMS Ranches (Austin: Jenkins, 1976). National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 12. Gail Swenson, S. M. Swenson and the Development of the SMS Ranches (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1960). Swen Magnus Swenson Papers and Swenson-Palm Letter Book (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin).


  • Peoples
  • Swedes
  • Business
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists

Time Periods:

  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Richard W. Moore, “Swenson, Swante Magnus,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/swenson-swante-magnus.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 27, 2019