“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXV– Swante Palm, Nineteenth-Century Renaissance Man

Downtown, on the west side of Congress Avenue, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Swante Palm, who actually lived around the corner at 109 West Ninth. Though Palm was a major benefactor of the University of Texas Library system, and has a park and elementary school named in his honor, he is hardly a household name in twenty-first century Austin.

Palm was born in Basthult, Sweden in 1815, and was named Swen Jaensson, but for purposes of clarity we will refer to him by the name he went by in America. Palm’s parents were farmers, but they saw to it he was tutored privately by the parish clerk. From 1830 to 1844 Palm moved around, holding jobs as a clerk, sheriff’s officer, and part-time journalist. Early biographers believed Palm wrote articles critical of King Carl XIV Johan and that governmental pressure forced Palm to emigrate, but current research seems to disprove this.

According to his autobiographical fragment, “My First Steps Outside My Fatherland,” Palm considered leaving Sweden as early as 1836, but his life was complicated by financial and romantic troubles. The former problem got cleared up by some generous friends, and in 1844 Palm headed to America, where he met up with his nephew, Swen Magnus Swenson.

Swenson, one year Palm’s junior, came to America in 1836 with nothing, and worked his way across the country as a clerk and bookkeeper. He was the first Swede to come to Texas, arriving in 1838. He became overseer of a plantation near Richmond, Texas, and after the owner died, Swenson married his widow. A few years later he initiated efforts to encourage Swedish immigration to Texas.

Swenson went into the mercantile business, bought up vast tracts of land, started the SMS Ranch in West Texas, and founded the First National City Bank of New York. He introduced the Colt revolver to Texas, and made so much money that he signed his name “$. M. $wenson,” (because of course, “$. M. $wen$on” would have been ostentatious).

Palm initially worked in Swenson’s store in La Grange, and was also postmaster there. He moved with Swenson to Austin in 1850, then served from 1853 to 1854 as diplomatic secretary to the American consul in Panama, but the hot weather and lack of drinking water forced Palm back to Austin.

He had changed his name from Swen Jaensson to Swante Palm when he moved to America, and apparently his brothers changed their surnames to Palm as well, but why they did that is anyone’s guess, since I doubt that Texas at that time was overrun with people named Jaensson.

Palm had courted a lady named Agnes Alm when he still lived in Sweden, but it’s unclear if she was one of the young women who had complicated his young life in the ’30s and ’40s. At any rate, he proposed to her through the mail and sent her the money to come to Texas, marrying her in La Grange in March 1854. When the couple arrived in Austin, Swen Swenson held a banquet in their honor, attended by Governor Pease and other prominent citizens. The Palms had a son who died in infancy; Agnes Palm died in 1881.

Swenson tried to talk Palm into buying land, but Palm was uncomfortable with the idea, because he thought slavery would soon be abolished and there’d be no more cheap labor to work the land. Palm felt the mercantile business was the way to go, as it offered things that would always be in demand. Swenson’s store sent wagons out into West Texas loaded with, as he put it, “…boots and shoes, Hats, Hardware, Holloware, Earthenware, Woodware, Blacksmith’s tools, Iron, Steel and Nails; a General Assortment of Groceries, Flour, tobacco, Rice, etc.; whiskey, brandies, Holland gin, Rum, Sherry, Madeira, Port and Claret wine by the box or the barrel, oils, Paints, Window-Glass and Putty, Bagging and Bale Rope, Powder Shot and Lead; cooking stoves and office stoves, ploughs, hoes….”  

Palm served on the City Council and School Board and as Postmaster. He was an insurance agent, chief clerk at the State Treasury, and the meteorologist for the Texas Geological and Agricultural Survey, read at least five languages, and was an amateur archaeologist. He worked to set up Austin’s public water system and helped found the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Palm operated a Swedish consulate out of his home on Ninth Street (where the ubiquitous O. Henry was a boarder), and worked as the Texas Vice-Consul for Sweden and Norway from 1866 to 1899. He encouraged immigration from Scandanavia to Texas, loaned new settlers money, and even served as a marriage broker. He revisited his homeland for three months in 1873 and for a year in 1883. During the latter visit, King Oscar II of Sweden (yes, the one on the sardine can), decorated Palm with the Order of Vasa for his diplomatic efforts and scholarly achievements. When Palm returned to Austin everyone started referring to him as “Sir Swante,” even though the title was not technically correct.

Yet for all Palm’s many interests and activities, the thing that occupied him most was his library, which was the largest private library assembled in Texas in the nineteenth century. Palm more or less retired in 1879, and spent the last twenty years of his life puttering around in his library, reading, making notes, ordering new books from Sweden and elsewhere, processing others, and smoking cigars. His collection, which exceeded 12,000 volumes, covered a broad and thorough range of topics, including literature, art, history, theology, science, and geography.

In 1897, Palm announced he was donating the bulk of his library to the University of Texas. This increased the size of UT’s book holdings by anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. Still, I can’t help picturing the librarians muttering through clenched teeth, “What are we gonna do with all those books in Swedish?”

Fortunately though, books in Swedish only counted for about 3,000 volumes in the Palm collection, the rest being in English, Latin, German, and French. Many of the items in the Palm collection are now counted as rarities.

The donation came with a small proviso: Palm was to be provided with a small room next to the UT library, meals, and a job as Assistant Librarian, and so, until his death in 1899, Swante Palm and five assistants worked processing and cataloguing the books he’d spent his long and busy life collecting.

—May 25, 2006

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