By Bob Welch
Exceptional characters with well-known stories fill the annals of ranching lore. Charles Goodnight, Samuel Burk Burnett and Captain Richard King come quickly to mind, but there’s one man whose life is every bit as interesting yet not so widely known in the list of legendary ranchers.
Svante Magnus Swenson ran away from home at 20 years old. He crossed an ocean aboard a ship, learned a new language, survived at least one shipwreck, climbed the ladder from a traveling frontier salesman to a plantation owner, became the most prominent businessman in Austin during the days of the Republic of Texas, hobnobbed with governors, held several county and state political offices and amassed more than 100,000 acres of prime ranchland—all by the time he was 47.
Before he could ever lay eyes on his ranch holdings, he fled his adopted homeland as a political refugee under the threat of assassination. Even after his escape every business venture he undertook seemed to thrive. He lived to be 80 years old and was an incredible influence wherever his interests took him, but it’s his ranching legacy that has kept his story alive through the generations. After 165 years of ranching, the descendants of S.M. Swenson sold some of the last remaining ranches he put together. That sale provided this opportunity to tell his story once again.
Before the Ranches
Appreciating the ranching empire must be understood in the context of its founder’s humble beginnings, unlikely success, dramatic adventures and dogged determination.
Though born a Swede in 1816, S.M. Swenson embodied the American dream. By all accounts he ran away from his Jonkoping home in 1836 to New York. One story posits that the ship carrying him to America burned upon arrival in the harbor. He lost everything—however meager that might have been. Despite the early setback, he learned the English language as a store clerk and later worked as a bookkeeper for the railroad in Baltimore.
For unknown reasons, Swenson boarded a ship to Texas two years later. Whether he was just unlucky in seafaring or stories have been conflated, one account states that his ship sank just as it was coming into Galveston. As he swam ashore, Swenson became the first Swedish immigrant in Texas. Though he survived—again—he was in a new country with nothing more than the clothes on his back. August Anderson states in his 1916 book, “Hyphenated, Or the Life Story of S.M. Swenson,” that Swenson went to the beach the next day, gathered the wreckage that had washed ashore and sold it for his next stake.
Swenson caught a job as a traveling salesman and delivery driver for a merchant in Columbia, the first capital of the Republic of Texas. He soon became a partner in the business and peddled goods from an ambulance-type carriage. According to Anderson, it was at this time that Swenson first met Sam Houston, who was thoroughly impressed by the young trader.
Swenson’s delivery route served the plantation owners along the Brazos River. Some 50 miles upstream in Richmond, he became acquainted with Dr. George Long, a plantation owner. Dr. Long was in poor health and convinced Swenson to manage his property. After the doctor’s death in 1842, Swenson took charge of the plantation, bought a neighboring plantation in 1843 and married the doctor’s young widow, Jeanette.
Swenson, a dedicated Episcopalian, disliked the practice of using slave labor on his plantations. Now in charge of the operations, he traveled to Sweden in 1847 to recruit family and friends to return home with him and phase out the practice of slavery on his property. Soon, this immigration business blossomed and became informally known as the “Swedish pipeline.”
Other endeavors grew as well. His uncle, Svante Palm, took over managing Swenson’s interest in the Columbia mercantile business and moved the operation to La Grange. Both men were keen to find land and would often trade customers what they viewed as worthless land deeds to pay off debt or buy goods from the business. Leveraging his relationship with Houston and other political figures, his first significant land purchase was near Austin in anticipation of the capital relocation.
“He had a real entrepreneurial spirit,” says Steve Swenson, great-great-grandson of S.M. Swenson and retired chairman of the board for Swenson Land and Cattle Co. “He just had a vision that Texas at some point would grow and prosper, and he wanted land to take advantage of that.”
Many in the Brazos River Valley, where his plantation was located, claimed the climate was perfect for growing crops, but hard on the people living there. When Jeannette fell ill, Swenson sold the plantation and moved to their property near Austin in the hope that the change in climate would help her recovery and he could partner with his uncle, Swante Palm, in a mercantile business. The move wasn’t the cure they had hoped for, and his wife died in 1850.
Drums of War
Swenson’s mercantile, trading and agricultural businesses boomed as he supplied much of the material for building the new capitol building in Austin as well as supplying incoming settlers. He even holds the reputation as the man who introduced the Colt revolver to the Texas Navy, a sale that enabled Texas to defeat the Mexican Navy. As more of his fellow Swedes immigrated into Texas, his businesses grew and diversified to include a hotel and land development in and around Austin.
Swenson married Susan McReady in 1851 and had four children, including sons Eric Pierson Swenson and Swen Albin Swenson.
Other Texans sought Swenson’s opinion and influence on political matters. In the buildup to the Civil War, men were quietly working out which side of the slavery and secession issue to support. With an aversion to slavery and a strong friendship with Houston, Swenson fell into the abolitionist camp in the hope of preserving the Union and settling the slavery issue peacefully.
In the meantime, he bought more land.
Texas had joined the Union by 1850 and was experiencing westward expansion and transcontinental commerce, but both were happening slowly. While it was obvious that railways would accelerate the growth process, little incentive existed for the railroads to build through empty prairie.
Congress reasoned that after railroads existed on the frontier settlers would be more likely to move west. To finance this expansion, the federal government granted vast swaths of land—more than 129 million acres in sections checkerboarded across the West—to railroad companies. In turn, the railroads sold their lands to finance construction, but it was also in the best interest of the nation and the railroads to help ensure that the settlers’ farms, towns and businesses continued to grow and thrive along rail lines.
One such company was the Buffalo Bayou Brazos and Colorado Railroad. When they came to Austin in 1854, they found a willing investor in S.M. Swenson. He purchased 100,000 acres of land in Throckmorton, Jones, Haskell and Stonewall counties. He continued to obtain land by trading saddles, boots, blankets and many other supplies for Texas railroad land certificates. Owners of such certificates could file on any untaken state land. He purchased the school sections that alternated with the railroad lands he had bought so that he would have his holdings in solid blocks. His West Texas holdings increased to nearly 500,000 acres by 1860 in addition to the more than 128,000 acres he owned around Austin.
The specter of the coming Civil War hovered over every hamlet across the nation. Texas was not immune. As the nation began to break up, Sam Houston was governor of Texas. He maneuvered with all his political skill to keep Texas in the Union, including enlisting S.M. Swenson to supply him with the necessary material to support a band of soldiers to keep the peace if Texas could stay with the Union. His efforts failed.
Because the secessionists’ fervor against Houston and his compatriots did not subside once the secession decision was final, Swenson became a prime target. After rumors and harassment, he feared for his life. Without telling a soul, he buried over $20,000 in gold under his fireplaces. Then, under the guise of a trip to the hot springs of Monterrey, Mexico, to heal his rheumatism, he fled the country. Some stories relate that he hid under a load of straw in a wagon to make his escape across the border, though Anderson’s book makes no mention of that episode.
As the war raged, he stayed for a year in Mexico. Once the city of New Orleans was taken by the Union, he traveled there to set up shop as a merchant. He and his family reunited after the war and moved permanently to New York.
Swenson began the arduous process of re-organizing his varied and far-flung enterprises from his new location. First, he sold his Austin properties—mostly to family. Next, he founded a private bank known as S.M. Swenson and Sons. That bank was a precursor to First National City Bank of New York, known today as Citibank.
Swenson spent his later years establishing his family in the various businesses he created. He traveled home to Sweden and purchased a large estate for his mother and other remaining family members.
The Ranches Blossom
Despite liquidating most of his assets in Texas, he had never seen the land he kept but must have believed the vast, undeveloped land about 175 miles west of Fort Worth held too much potential to sell.
Swenson’s sons, Eric and Swen Albin, were in their 20s by 1882 and capable of taking over much of the family enterprise. Looking for a way to help pay taxes, their attention turned to the raw land. Swenson and his two sons traveled to Texas to review the properties—his first return in over 20 years—and decided to develop them into working ranches to sell eventually in smaller parcels to farmers and small ranchers.
They formed three ranches and named them for the three surviving children (his oldest daughter, Greta, died three years earlier at the age of 27). The largest of these ranches was originally named the Eleonora Ranch but was later known as the Throckmorton Ranch, named for the county in which it was located. Mount Albin Ranch contained a prominent flat-topped mesa and for that reason was later known as the Flat Top Ranch. Ericsdahl Ranch contained 50,000 acres and was located nine miles east of the future town of Stamford. That same year they registered the SMS brand, fashioned after the initials of Swante Magnus Swenson, and incorporated their holdings into the Swenson Land and Livestock Co.
The brothers leased the ranches from their father and began by fencing their vast ranges. They hired a cousin, Alfred Dyer, as the first manager and he supervised the construction of houses, barns and corrals, drilling of wells and stocking of ranges. Dyer introduced the Durham Shorthorn and Hereford breeds to the area, and the horses used on the ranches were Morgan-Arabian crosses, later known as Morabs. The ranch hands and laborers were nearly all descendants of the Swedes who immigrated to the Austin area before the war.
Steve Swenson said that drought and blizzards kept the ranch from making any money the first six to eight years of ownership. Though S.M. Swenson lived the last 30 years of his life in New York, he maintained his ties to Texas and regularly visited his extensive land holdings. He died on June 13, 1896, in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the age of 80 and was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
The ranches became family property after his death. By then his sons had the ranches up and running, and the first 20 years of the 20th century proved to be the golden age for Swenson ranching endeavors.
In 1900 the family donated 640 acres of land for establishment of the town of Stamford. The Texas Central Railroad built a rail line that made the newly formed town the nucleus for the Swenson Land and Cattle Co., headquartered in 1924 Swenson Building just off the town square. While the family did some land office business, they primarily stuck to large-scale ranching.
About that same time the company bought the Scab 8 Ranch, which added another 79,000 acres to the total, and renamed it the Tongue River Ranch. In 1906 they partnered on the purchase of the Espuela Ranch, renamed it the Spur Ranch and added another 200,000 acres to their ranges.
In 1902 the Swenson brothers hired Frank Hastings as the manager. Hastings was a visionary and a capable leader who ushered the ranches into a brave new world. His passion was the improvement of the breeding stock, and his signature accomplishment was being the first to develop a catalogue promoting the bloodlines and stock for sale at the ranch.
In addition to cattle, the ranch also focused its efforts on horses. In 1901 the Swenson operation incorporated King Ranch bloodlines into its remuda. In subsequent years the ranch became known by its gray and white mounts.
With the nation wracked by the Great Depression in 1930, the leading men of Stamford met with the goal of developing a community project to honor the frontier pioneers and come together “to live again the days of the Longhorn and the open range.”
Ranch managers W.G. and A.M.G. “Swede” Swenson were among the founders of the Texas Cowboy Reunion. Eight big outfits brought their chuck wagons for the festivities—hosted on Swenson land—and participants and spectators came from throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma. Anyone who had worked cattle prior to 1895 was given a badge allowing them all the privileges the event had to offer.
Ten years later the event was still going strong when a fledgling horse association—the American Quarter Horse Association—approached the Swensons to help organize their first ever show. AQHA driving force Bob Denhardt worked with Swede Swenson to develop four divisions of competition. The AQHA has gone on to become the world’s largest horse registry, and the Texas Cowboy Reunion is celebrating its 92nd year.
The Swenson Ranches continued operation as one unit managed by family members from 1882 until 1978. Although acreages fluctuated over those 96 years, on average the ranch operated at around 300,000 acres. In 1970, the family sold most of the Spur Ranch.
The Final Phase
In 1978 under control of the fourth Swenson generation, the ranches were divided into four family groups based on the four surviving children of S.M Swenson. At that point, some of the ranch holdings were sold by the different divisions.
“Most family businesses don’t make it past three generations,” Steve Swenson says. “If you can’t figure out how to buy people out, it’s just economics. That doesn’t make it bad. It’s just a fact of life.”
Steve Swenson’s family division traced to Eric Pierson Swenson. They inherited the Flat Top Ranch and portions of the Throckmorton Ranch. Bruce Swenson, Steve’s father, was the first president. As a young man Bruce moved from New Jersey to Stamford to learn the ranching business. He never left Texas, had six children, moved to Dallas and eventually became chairman of the board for the ranch. Bruce and his brothers Rod and Perry ran their ranches together. Steve and his siblings grew up visiting the ranch on holidays, weekends and summer breaks. Eventually, Steve became chairman of the board. By the time discussions were underway to sell the ranch, Steve’s family division alone had 41 heirs.
“A lot of family members were not interested anymore,” Steve says. “We made the decision to sell. It’s like having an old dog that you have to put down. I think it was a good decision, but it’s still sad. It was a joint decision, and one reason it worked well is we respected one another. It was done very soberly and seriously. This wasn’t a flippant decision at all. Most people don’t have that decision to make. We’re just so blessed and lucky.”
Sam Middleton, owner of Charles S. Middleton and Sons, has brokered the sale of more ranchland in Texas than perhaps anyone. Historic family operations such as the Four Sixes and Waggoner Ranches have transitioned to new ownership under his guidance. He was contracted to sell the Flat Top in 2019.
“The family all got along,” says Middleton of the Swensons. “There were no arguments. Their position was, ‘Some of us want to sell and some of us don’t, but majority rules.’ And they don’t get mad over it. They were a real pleasure to work with.”
While they held on to just under 14,000 acres of the Throckmorton place—which is now under the leadership of Steve’s brother, Chris—the 41,000-acre Flat Top was sold to Mike Smith, owner of the Smith Group, a commodities brokerage and cattle-feeding business based in Amarillo, Texas.
“We’re in the feedlot business so we use these ranches like grow yards to run quite a few yearling cattle,” Smith says. “It’s a real workable ranch—26 inches of rainfall, plus there’s 6,000 acres of really good wheat pasture. It just fit us so good.”
Smith emphasized that his operation, like the Swenson’s, is a family deal. There are no plans to sell it or deviate from its traditional use as a cattle ranch. In fact, Smith’s grandson, Hunter Smith, manages the company’s ranching properties.
“I was really glad he bought it,” Steve Swenson says. “That thing is a damn good ranch and I wanted somebody who would ranch it and not turn it into ranchettes.”
Regardless of current ownership, Steve Swenson reflects on the ranch with pride and humility. And above that, he sees the Swenson saga—from S.M. to his own nieces and nephews—as not just history, but an example of how life should be lived.
“He really was something,” Steve Swenson says of the family patriarch—S.M. Swenson. “He’s something we try to emulate. He set a pretty high bar.
“When the people that had gone before you set a good example, you try to live up to it. Those are the values that our country had for a long time that we’re kind of losing. Our nieces and nephews need to understand the values that went into establishing the ranch and that kept it going all those years whether they keep the ranch or not.”
Historic photos courtesy of the Swenson Family Archives.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Ranch Record. Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.