Elise Tvede Waerenskjold (1815-1895) marched to her own drummer in both Norway and Texas. The daughter of a Norwegian Lutheran pastor, Elise was a women’s advocate when feminists were unheard of in Norway. After a genteel education at home by private tutors, she became a teacher, a rare move for a woman at that time. Later she moved to Lillesand, Norway, and shocked the community by presuming to open a girls’ handicraft school.
Elise continued her unorthodox behavior by marrying a young sea captain, Svend Foyn without the customary reading of banns, and then by mutual agreement, ending the marriage three years later. As if the audacity of divorce were not enough, Elise resumed her maiden name. Foyn, on the other hand, gained great wealth by inventing the bomb-tipped harpoon that revolutionized the whaling industry, and he maintained a warm friendship with Elise throughout their lives, even helping her financially in later years.
Already known for her articles on temperance, in 1846 Elise began another career forbidden to women, that of editing Norge og Amerika (Norway and America). The publication promoted Norwegian emigration to America and Texas in particular by praising the freedoms enjoyed in the new land.
In late 1847 Elise, in search of an environment that welcomed her talents, joined an immigration party that settled in a Norwegian community south of present Dallas. The following year she married Wilhelm Waerenskjold, the leader of the immigrating party, apparently unaware that her divorce was not yet final.
The Waerenskjolds acquired rights to a square mile of land in the Norwegian community and Elise eagerly took on the rugged life of a pioneer farm wife. She wrote letters to Norway, telling of the life and opportunities in Texas, which are credited with encouraging many Norwegians who were “gathering crumbs from the table of aristocracy” to immigrate to Texas.
While Elise raised their three sons in the 1850s, her regular letters to Norway drew the newcomers directly to the Waerenskjold home where many stayed for several days or even weeks.
Elise remained in contact with her Norwegian neighbors, advocating for the establishment of a school, calling for a Norwegian Lutheran pastor in their community, and working in the temperance movement. She strongly opposed slavery writing that “Slavery is absolutely contrary to the law of God . . . .Let us ask ourselves if we would be satisfied with being slaves, with being sold like animals, with being separated from our mates and children whenever it might suit our masters. . . .To all this we must without qualification answer ‘No’!”
The Civil War, drought, grasshoppers and the financial burden of newcomers staying at their home caused considerable hardship on the family. Elise taught school and sold books she ordered from Norway. She also sold magazine subscriptions and garden seeds.
Her youngest son died suddenly in 1866 and later that year a neighbor fatally stabbed Wilhelm Waerenskjold. For years people claimed the Methodist preacher murdered Wilhelm because he was opposed to slavery; however, court records of the trial that took place ten years later do not support that claim. Elise wrote of the killer’s ten-year sentence that she thought the punishment mild for “such a cold-blooded and long-premeditated murder.”
Elise continued to run the farm, raise her sons, and write letters and magazine articles about life in the new land of Texas. In 1976 the Norwegian-American Historical Association compiled her letters to Norway into a book entitledThe Lady with the Pen.