by John Mark Nielsen and Peter L. Petersen
Denmark is geographically the southernmost of the Nordic nations, which also include Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Its land mass includes Jutland, a peninsula extending north from Germany, and more than 480 islands. Denmark consists of 16,630 square miles (43,094 sq. km.). With the exception of its 42-mile southern border with Germany, Denmark is surrounded by water. Sweden lies to the east across the Oresund, a narrow body of water that links the North and Baltic Seas; Norway lies to the north; and the North Sea to the west. Denmark has nearly 4,500 miles of coastline, and no part of the nation is more than 30 miles from the sea. Denmark also possesses Greenland, the world's largest island, and the Faeroe Islands, both of which are semiautonomous. Denmark means "field of the Danes." The Danish national flag, the oldest national banner in the world, is a white cross on a red field. Legend has it that the banner, called Dannebrog, descended from the heavens in the midst of a battle between the Danes and the Estonians on June 15, 1219.
Although the smallest of the Nordic countries in terms of land mass, Denmark, with 5.2 million people, is second in population after Sweden. The Danish people are among the most homogeneous in the world. Almost all Danes are of Nordic stock, and most are members of the Lutheran church. In 1990 foreigners made up less than 2.5 percent of the population. Because of the ancient practice called patronymics, whereby Peter, the son of Jens, became Peter Jensen, many Danes have the same surname. Although a government decree in 1856 ended patronymics, some 60 percent of all present day Danish names end in "sen" with Jensen and Nielsen being the most common. Approximately one out of every four Danes lives in the capital of Copenhagen (K øbenhavn ) and its suburbs on the eastern island of Sealand. Other major cities include Århus, Odense, and Ålborg. The country's official language is Danish, but many Danes, especially the young, also speak English and German.
It was not until the Viking Era of the ninth and tenth centuries that Danes, along with Swedes and Norwegians—collectively known as Norsemen or Vikings—had a significant impact upon world history. Sailing in their magnificent ships, Vikings traveled west to North America, south to the Mediterranean, and east to the Caspian Sea. They plundered, conquered, traded, and colonized. For a brief period in the eleventh century, a Danish king ruled England and Norway.
While Vikings roamed far and wide, those Danes who stayed at home cleared fields, built villages, and gradually created a nation. After a king with the colorful name of Harald Bluetooth (d. 985) was baptized in circa 965, Christianity began to spread across Denmark. Many Vikings encountered the religion on their voyages and were receptive to it. The current Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II (1940– ), traces her sovereignty back to Harald's father, Gorm the Old (d. 950), thus making Denmark one of the oldest monarchies in the world. Slowly the forces of Crown and Church helped make Denmark a major power in northern Europe. Under the leadership of Margrethe I (1353-1412), Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were joined in 1397 in the Kalmar Union. Eventually, the growth of nationalism led Sweden to abandon the union in 1523, but Norway and Denmark remained allied until 1814. Like much of Europe in the early sixteenth century, Denmark struggled with the religious and political issues set in motion by the Protestant Reformation. In 1536 King Christian III defeated the forces of Roman Catholicism, and Denmark embraced Lutheranism.
Growing rivalry with Sweden and various rulers along the north German coast created new problems for Denmark, but the greatest international disaster to befall the country came during the Napoleonic Wars (1804-1814) when an ill-fated alliance with France left the nation bankrupt and Norway lost to Sweden. New threats to Danish territory soon followed from the south. After decades of intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering, Denmark and Prussia went to war in 1864 over the status of the Danish-ruled Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The Prussians quickly gained the upper hand and Denmark was forced to surrender both Duchies. This meant a loss of about 40 percent of its territory and more than 30 percent of its population. This defeat reduced Denmark to the smallest size in its history and dashed any remaining dreams of international power.
The nineteenth century was also a time of great domestic change for Denmark. A liberal constitution, which took effect June 5, 1849, brought to an end centuries of absolute monarchy. Danes could now form political parties, elect representatives to a parliament, and were guaranteed freedom of religion, assembly, and speech. The country also under-went an economic revolution. Danish farmers found it difficult to compete with the low-priced grains offered in European markets by American and Russian exports and increasingly turned to dairy and pork production. The growth of industry attracted many job-hungry Danes to developing urban centers. But agricultural change and the rise of industrialism were not enough to stop rising discontent and eventually one out of every ten Danes felt compelled to emigrate; most traveled to the United States.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Denmark pursued a policy of neutrality in international affairs. While this policy enabled the country to remain a non-belligerent in World War I (1914-1918), it did not prevent a German occupation during much of World War II (1939-1945). It was during this occupation that the Danish people won the admiration of much of the world by rescuing 7,200 of some 7,800 Danish Jews from Nazi forces in 1943. After World War II, Denmark moved away from neutrality, and in 1949, it joined with the United States, Canada, and nine other European nations to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a pact aimed at containing the expansion of the Soviet Union. In 1973 Denmark became the first and thus far the only Scandinavian country to join the European Economic Community (EEC).
The twentieth century also witnessed great economic and social change. Danish agriculture became more specialized and moved toward increased exports while industrial development transformed most urban areas. Denmark gradually became a prosperous nation, and with the development of a welfare system which provides education, health care, and social security from cradle to grave, its citizens now enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world. Since 1972, Queen Margrethe II has presided over this small, peaceful, and civilized land whose character is best symbolized by its most famous author, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), a writer of fairy tales with profound psychological depths, and by one of its modern exports— the small, colorful plastic bricks called Lego.
THE FIRST DANES IN AMERICA
Although it is clear that Vikings reached the coast of Newfoundland early in the eleventh century, it is impossible to determine if there were any Danes among these early voyagers. Jens Munk (1579-1628), a Danish explorer, reached North America in 1619, 12 years after the English first settled at Jamestown. The Danish king, Christian IV (1577-1648), had sent Munk to find a trade route to the Orient via the Northwest Passage. With two ships and 65 men, Munk reached Hudson Bay before winter halted his exploration. Near the mouth of the Churchill River, members of the expedition celebrated a traditional Danish Christmas—the first Lutheran Christmas service in North America. Another Danish explorer, Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741), discovered in 1728 that a narrow body of water separated the North American and Asian continents. Today this strait is named the Bering Sea in his honor. Bering also was the first European to find Alaska in 1741.
Other Danes sought warmer climes. In 1666 the Danish West Indies Company took possession of the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Eventually, Danes took control of nearby St. John (1717) and St. Croix (1733). Danish planters imported slaves from Africa; raised cotton, tobacco, and sugar on the islands; and engaged in a lively commerce with England's North American colonies and, later, the United States. In 1792, Denmark became the first country to abolish the slave trade in overseas possessions. Denmark sold the islands, today called the Virgin Islands, to the United States in 1917 for $25 million.
Individual Danish immigrants reached North America early in the seventeenth century. By the 1640s approximately 50 percent of the 1,000 people living in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (later New York) were Danes. It has long been believed that Jonas Bronck—for whom the borough of the Bronx was named—was a Dane, but recent research suggests that he may have been a Swede. After 1750 several Danish families who were members of a religious denomination called the Moravian Brethren immigrated to Pennsylvania where they settled among German Moravians in the Bethlehem area.
Most Danish immigrants to North America from colonial times until 1850 were single men, and quickly blended into the general population. Rarely, with few exceptions, does the name of a Danish immigrant appear in the historical annals of this period. Hans Christian Febiger or Fibiger (1749-1796), often called "Old Denmark," was one of George Washington's most trusted officers during the American Revolution. Charles Zanco (1808-1836) gained a degree of immortality by dying at the Alamo in March 1836 during the struggle for Texan independence. A Danish flag stands today in one corner of the Alamo Chapel as a reminder of Zanco's sacrifice. Peter Lassen (1800-1859), a blacksmith from Copenhagen, led a group of adventurers from Missouri to California in 1839, establishing a trail soon to be followed by "forty-niners." Lassen is considered one of the most important of California's early settlers. Today a volcano in northern California, a California county, and a national park bear his name.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
Between 1820 and 1850, the number of Danes entering the United States averaged only about 60 each year. But soon this trickle became a steady stream. From 1820 to 1990, more than 375,000 Danes came to the United States, the vast majority arriving between 1860 and 1930. The peak year was 1882, when 11,618 Danes entered the country. Converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) represent the first significant wave of Danish immigrants to America. Mormon missionaries from Utah arrived in Denmark in 1850, only months after the Constitution of 1849 granted the Danish people religious freedom. Between 1849 and 1904, when Mormons stopped recruiting immigrants, some 17,000 Danish converts and their children made the hazardous journey to the Mormon Zion in Utah, making Danes second only to British in number of foreigners recruited by the church to the state. Many of these Danes settled in the small farming communities of Sanpete and Sevier counties, south of Salt Lake City; today these counties rank second and fifth respectively among all the counties in the United States in terms of percent of Danish ancestry in their population.
Another source of sizable Danish emigration was the Schleswig area of Jutland. As noted earlier, Denmark had been forced to surrender Schleswig to Prussia in 1864. Some 150,000 residents of North Schleswig were thoroughly Danish and many bitterly resented their area's new status. After Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, became Emperor of Germany in 1871, the policy of Prussia in Slesvig was essentially that of Germany. This meant the abolition of the Danish language in the schools and the conscription of young Danish men for the German military. Between 1864 and 1920, when North Schleswig was returned to Denmark as a result of a plebiscite following Germany's defeat in World War I, some 50,000 North Slesvigers immigrated to the United States. Ironically, most of these Danes appear in census statistics as immigrants from Germany rather than Denmark.
Most Danes who immigrated to the United States after 1865 were motivated more by economic than religious or political motives. Like much of nineteenth-century Europe, Denmark experienced a steep rise in population. Better nutrition and medical care had produced a sharp decline in infant mortality, and Denmark's population rose from approximately 900,000 in 1800 to over 2,500,000 by 1910. Denmark's economy was unable to absorb much of this increase, and the result was the rise of restless and dissatisfied elements within the population. For these people, migration to a nearby city or to America appeared to offer the only chance for a better life. Many used the Homestead Act or other generous land policies to become farmers in the United States. The work of emigration agents, often employed by steamship companies and American railroads with land to sell, and a steady stream of American letters (some containing pre-paid tickets) from earlier immigrants, stimulated the exodus. During the 1870s almost half of all Danish immigrants to the United States traveled in family groups, but by the 1890s family immigration made up only 25 percent of the total. Perhaps more than ten percent of these later immigrants, largely single and male, would eventually return to Denmark.
By 1900 a Danish belt of settlement had spread from Wisconsin across northern Illinois and southern Minnesota and into Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The largest concentration of these settlers was in western Iowa where today the adjacent counties of Audubon and Shelby rank first and third respectively in the United States in percentage of population with Danish ancestry. Communities with Danish names—Viborg and Thisted in South Dakota; Dannebrog and Nysted, Nebraska; and Ringsted, Iowa—attest to the role of Danes in settling the Midwest.
As the midwestern and eastern Great Plains began to fill with settlers, a variety of immigrant leaders and organizations sought to establish Danish agricultural colonies elsewhere by arranging for land companies to restrict sales in specific tracts to Danes. The Dansk Folkesamfund (Danish Folk Society) sponsored several of these colonies, including settlements at Tyler, Minnesota, in 1886; Danevang, Texas, 1894; Askov, Minnesota, 1905; Dagmar, Montana, 1906; and Solvang, California, 1911. Similar colonies were established in Mississippi, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Alberta, Canada. Most of these colonies were quite small and eventually blended into the surrounding community. An exception is Solvang, 45 miles north of Santa Barbara, which has become a major tourist attraction and bills itself today as "A Quaint Danish Village."
Not all Danish emigrants sought land; a significant minority settled in American cities. Chicago led the way in 1900 with over 11,000 Danish-born residents while New York counted 5,621. Omaha, Nebraska, and its neighboring city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, also had sizable Danish populations. Smaller concentrations of Danes could be found in Racine, Wisconsin (the city with the highest percentage of Danes among its population), the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in San Francisco. By 1930 political and economic reform in Denmark, along with the closing of the American farming frontier, brought this wave of immigration to an end.
The latest wave of immigrants came during the 1950s and the 1960s when some 25,000 Danes, mostly highly educated young professionals, moved to the United States where they settled in major cities, particularly New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Historians agree that the Danes were among the most easily acculturated and assimilated of all American ethnic groups. A variety of studies indicate that in comparison to other immigrants Danes were more likely to speak English, become naturalized citizens, and marry outside their nationality. Several factors explain the relative ease of Danish assimilation. In comparison to people from many other countries, the number of Danish immigrants to the United States was quite small. In the census of 1990, 1,634,669 Americans listed Danish as their ancestry group. This represents only 0.7 percent of the total population of 248,709,873. Even in Iowa, which had more Danish American residents than any other state from 1890 to 1920, people born in Denmark made up little more than two percent of the total population. Danes were generally literate and understood the democratic process, were Protestant in their religion, and easily blended with the majority northern and western European majority. Because Danes offered little challenge to the more established Americans, they seldom encountered resistance.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Danes have a variety of traditions and customs that have been adapted or preserved in Danish American society. Everyday life customs include men and women shaking hands with everyone when entering or leaving a group. Danes and Danish Americans take great pleasure in setting a proper table and following a proper etiquette. This often means using fine Danish porcelain from one of the two famous Danish porcelain makers, Royal Copenhagen or Bing and Grøndahl. Being a guest requires that one bring flowers for the hostess. When a guest meets the host or hostess shortly after being entertained, the proper greeting is Tak for sidst ("tuck for seest")—Thanks for the last time.
Entertaining and tradition merge in the many customs surrounding Christmas. Because of the dark Scandinavian winter nights, Christmas, with its message of hope, light, and love, is especially welcomed and celebrated in Denmark. Danish Christmas customs are also celebrated by Danish Americans. December begins with baking. No home is without at least seven different kinds of Christmas cookies. These treats are shared with guests, and it is customary to take decorated plates of cookies to friends and relatives. This custom is the origin of the well known porcelain Danish Christmas plates that can be found in many homes.
The celebration of Christmas culminates on Christmas Eve, a holiday traditionally shared with close family. Usually the family attends church in the late afternoon and then returns to a feast of roast goose and all the trimmings. A special dessert is prepared: "risengr ød" (reesingroidth), a rice pudding in which one whole almond is placed. The person who discovers the almond will have good luck throughout the coming year. After dinner, the family sees the decorated Christmas tree for the first time. It is lit with candles and decorated with paper cuttings of angels, woven straw ornaments, heart-shaped baskets, and strings of Danish flags. In Danish American homes, the tree is decorated earlier and lit with electric lights. The family joins hands and dances around the tree, singing favorite carols. Gifts are exchanged, and the family enjoys coffee and cookies. To assure happiness and good fortune, before the family goes to bed it is important to take a bowl of porridge to the nisse ("nisa")—the mythical little people of Denmark who inhabit the lofts and attics of homes.
Danes love to eat, and often do so six times a day. This includes morning and afternoon coffee and cookies and natmad ("nat-madth"), a snack eaten before going to bed. Many Danish Americans continue this routine. A Danish breakfast consists of an array of breads, cheeses, jellies, and plenty of butter. This is often topped off with pastry that in no way resembles what has come to be known in America as a "Danish." This pastry is baked fresh, with flaky, golden brown crust, and rich fillings.
Lunch often includes open-faced sandwiches or sm ørrebr ød ("smoorbroidth"). These are artfully created to be both a feast for eye and palate. Combinations include: sliced, smoked beef, fried onions and a mayonnaise topping; carrots and peas mixed with mayonnaise topped with mushrooms; parboiled egg slices topped with anchovies or smoked eel; and a children's favorite, liverpaste and slices of pickled red beets, which is eaten like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the United States. Beer, sodavand ("soda-van")—soda, and coffee are popular beverages.
The most important and time-consuming meal of the day is middag ("mid-da "')—midday, though it is eaten in the evening. Danes linger for at least an hour over this meal. Middag might include stuffed pork, fish (often plaice or cod) or frikadeller ("fre-kadella "')—Danish meatballs of pork, beef, flour, and egg. Inevitably, the meal would also include brunede kartofler ("bru'-na-the car-tof-ler")—potatoes browned in butter and sugar; r ødkål ("roidthcoal")—red cabbage; marinated fresh cucumbers; beer or a glass of red wine; and a dessert of cookies and fruit pudding, r ød gr ød med fl øde.
Other popular Danish dishes served in Danish American communities are: rullep ølse ("rol'-la-poolsa")—spiced, pressed veal; medisterp ølse ("ma-dis'ta-poolsa")—pork sausage; s ød suppe ("sooth soopa")—sweet soup made with fruit; æbleskiver ("able skeever")—Danish pancake balls; and kringler ("cringla")—almond filled pastry.
Danes and Danish Americans welcome any excuse for gathering together and eating. Formal dinners are held at Christmas, confirmations, wedding anniversaries and "round" birthdays—birthdays that can be divided by ten. Formal dinners normally last at least four to five hours and include toasts, light-hearted speeches, singing, and much conversation.
Danish peasant costumes were colorful, yet practical. A woman's costume consisted of headdress, scarf, outer bodice, knitted jacket, apron, shift, and leather shoes with clasps of silver or pewter. The scarf was often embroidered in bright colors of red and yellow on one side and with more somber, mourning colors on the other so that it could be reversed depending on the occasion. The cut and design of headdress, scarf, and apron reflected regional identities. Men wore hats or caps, a kirtle or knee-length coat, shirt, waistcoat, trousers, woolen stockings, and shoes or high boots. By the 1840s, these folk costumes of rural Denmark became a thing of the past. On special occasions in the Danish American community, some will dress in "traditional" costumes, but these often reflect a nostalgic recreation of the past rather than a true authenticity.
DANCES AND SONGS
Danish folk dancing mirrors other northern European countries with both spirited and courtly dances. On the Faeroe Islands, a stately line dance dates back to the time of the Vikings. Singing is a part of many Danish and Danish American gatherings. Popular are songs from the period of Danish Romanticism (1814-1850), which celebrate former national greatness or the gently rolling Danish countryside. The two Danish national anthems capture these important themes: "Kong Christian stod ved h øjen mast " (King Christian Stood by Lofty Mast) by Johannes Ewald (1743-1781) and "Der er et yndigt land " (There is a Lovely Land) by Adam Oehlenschlager (1779-1850).
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Danish immigrants often interacted first with other Scandinavians and with the German American community. Because they shared beliefs, attitudes, and general customs similar to the dominant culture in America, they made the transition to life in the United States without having to change many of their traditions.
Danish is a North Germanic language closely related to Norwegian and Swedish, and is also related to the West Germanic languages, including German and English. Contemporary Danish has adopted many English and American words such as weekend, handicap, film, and hamburger. Danish, however, has also had an influence on English. When Danish Vikings settled in England in the ninth century and established the Danelaw, many of their words became a part of English. Examples are: by, fellow, hit, law, sister, take, thrive, and want. The English town of Rugby is Danish for "rye town," and the word "bylaw" means "town law." Modern Danish has three vowels not found in English: "æ " (pronounced as a drawn-out "ei" in eight); "ø" (pronounced as "oi" in coil or as "oo" in cool), and "å," formerly spelled "aa" (pronounced as "o" in or).
There is a popular saying among Danes that "Danish is not a language at all; it's a throat disease." Unlike the other Scandinavian languages, Danish makes use of the guttural "r" and the glottal stop, a sound produced by a momentary closure of the back of the throat followed by a quick release. The language is not as melodic as Norwegian or Swedish. Danes or Danish Americans challenge people who do not speak the language to say the name of a popular dessert, a fruit pudding made from raspberries or currants called, r ød gr ød med fl øde ("roidth groidth meth floodthe")—literally: red gruel with cream. The guttural "r"s and the "ø" sound, made deep in the back of the throat, make this phrase virtually impossible to say for someone who does not speak Danish.
Because the Danish language is similar to English in syntax and the use of regular and irregular verbs, Danish immigrants did not have as much difficulty learning English as many other immigrants did. Almost all Danish immigrants were literate when they arrived, which also contributed to rapid linguistic assimilation.
GREETINGS AND OTHER POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Though Danes quickly acquired English, many phrases and expressions remain popular and are understood within the Danish American community. Common greetings and other expressions include: goddag ("go'-day")—good day; godmorgen ("go'-mo'-ren")—good morning; godaften ("go'-aften")—good evening; farvel ("fa'-vel")—goodbye; på gensyn ("po gen-soon")—see you later; værsgo ("vairs-go")—please; or, would you be so kind?; til lykke ("til looka")—congratulations; tak ("tuck")— thanks; mange tak ("monga tuck")—many thanks; velkommen ("vel-komin")—welcome; glædelig jul ("gla-le yool")—Merry Christmas; godt nytår ("got newt'-or")—Happy New Year. When toasting each other, the Danes, like other Scandinavians, use the word skål ("skoal") which literally means "bowl." One popular tradition suggests that the expression was used when Vikings celebrated victory by drinking from the skulls of their enemy. A more civilized Danish word for which there is no exact English equivalent is hyggelig ("hoo'-ga-le"). Hyggelig describes a warm, cozy environment in which friends eat, drink and converse.
Family and Community Dynamics
Education has played an important role in the Danish American community. A significant early influence were folk high schools. Inspired by the writings of Bishop Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872)—a Danish poet, pastor and educator—these schools offered an education that sought to instill a love of learning in its students, though they offered no diplomas and no tests or grades were given. Folk schools were established in Elk Horn, Iowa (1878-1899); Ashland, Michigan (1882-1888); West Denmark, Wisconsin (1884); Nysted, Nebraska (1887-1934); Tyler, Minnesota (1888-1935); Kenmare, North Dakota (1902-1916); and Solvang, California (1910-1931). Because the educational philosophy differed from many American institutions, folk high schools eventually ceased to exist. Grundtvig's philosophy lives on in adult education programs and in the work of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee which played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Elderhostel, a popular program offering one-week educational experiences on college and university campuses for senior citizens, has roots in the folk high school experience and the thoughts of Grundtvig. Two liberal arts colleges founded by Danish Americans are Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, and Grand View College, in Des Moines, Iowa.
In addition to Christmas, many Danish Americans celebrate Grundlovsdag, or Constitution Day on June 5, marking the date in 1849 when the modern Danish state was born. An unusual celebration held on the fourth of July in Denmark and attended by many Danish Americans is Rebildfest. It was begun by Danish Americans in 1912 and is billed as the largest celebration of American independence held outside the United States.
With the exception of the Mormons in Utah and small numbers of Methodists, Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists, most Danish immigrants were Lutheran and at least nominal members of the Folkekirke, the Danish National Church. After the adoption of the liberal constitution of 1849, the Church of Denmark was no longer a state church; however, it has always been state-supported. For many years there was no established Danish Lutheran organization in the United States, and those immigrants who were religiously inclined frequently worshiped with Norwegian or Swedish Lutherans. Eventually two clergymen from Denmark and some laymen met in Neenah, Wisconsin, in 1872 and organized what became the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. The church faced many difficulties, including slow growth. By one estimate, only about one out of every ten Danish immigrants joined a Danish Lutheran church.
A second problem involved the development within the Danish National Church of a factionalism which immigrants carried to the United States. On one side were the followers of the aforementioned Grundtvig, the Danish educator and church leader, who emphasized the Apostle's Creed and the sacraments. These people were called Grundtvigians. Their opponents were identified as members of the Inner Mission. They stressed Biblical authority, repentance, and the development of a personal faith. Eventually the theological disputes within the Danish Church in the United States grew so serious that in 1892 it was forced to close its seminary at West Denmark, Wisconsin. Two years later many of the Inner Mission members left the church and formed their own organization. In 1896 they joined with another Inner Mission group that had started a small Danish Lutheran church headquartered at Blair, Nebraska, in 1884. This new body called itself the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. The divisions among Danish Lutherans in the United States weakened the church's role as a rallying point, thus contributing to the immigrant's rapid assimilation.
The Danish Church (Grundtvigian ) was more inclined than the United Danish Church to stress its immigrant heritage. It opened Grand View Seminary in Des Moines, Iowa. The seminary also offered non-theological courses and in 1938 it became an accredited junior college. Its seminary function ceased in 1959 and Grand View continues today as a four-year liberal arts college. The Danish Church and its 24,000 members joined with three non-Danish Lutheran bodies in 1962 to form the Lutheran Church in America.
The United Church (Inner Mission) operated Trinity Seminary (founded 1884) and Dana College on the same campus at Blair, Nebraska. In 1956 Trinity moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where four years later it merged with Wartburg Seminary. In 1976 Queen Margrethe II of Denmark came to Dana and gave the spring commencement address in recognition of the American Bicentennial. The 60,000-member United Church joined with German and Norwegian churches to form the American Lutheran Church in 1960.
In 1988, when the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church merged to create the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the century-long organizational division among Danish Lutherans in the United States came to an end.
Employment and Economic Traditions
The majority of the Danes who immigrated to the United States looked to agriculture for a livelihood. Many who were farm laborers in Denmark soon became landowners in the United States. Danish immigrants contributed to American agriculture, particularly dairying, in a variety of ways. Danes had experience with farmers' cooperatives and helped spread that concept in the United States. The first centrifugal cream separator in the United States was brought to Iowa by a Dane in 1882. Danes worked as buttermakers, served as government inspectors, and taught dairy courses at agricultural colleges.
Young, single women often took jobs as domestic servants, but few remained single very long as they were in demand as spouses. Men who sought non-farm work found it in construction, manufacturing, and various business enterprises. Other than small concentrations in a Danish owned terra cotta factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and in several farm equipment manufacturing companies in Racine, Wisconsin, urban Danes were rarely identified with a specific occupation.
Politics and Government
Given their small numbers and widespread distribution across the United States, Danes have seldom been able to form any kind of voting bloc beyond local elections in a few rural areas. Nevertheless, politicians of Danish descent have served as governors of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and California. Several others have served in the United States Congress. In every election these Danish American politicians have had to depend upon non-Danish voters for a majority of their support. Danes have not displayed any collective allegiance to a particular political party.
Two events in the twentieth century involving Denmark have attracted significant political interest among Danish Americans. The first of these was the status of Schleswig after World War I. Danish Americans organized to lobby the administration of President Woodrow Wilson to ensure that a provision granting Schleswigers the right to vote on their status be included in any peace treaty with Germany. Accordingly, in February 1920, residents of North Slesvig voted to return to Denmark after 56 years of foreign rule. Danish Americans expressed considerable concern about the German occupation of Denmark during World War II. After the war many Americans sent relief parcels to their Danish relatives.
Peter Sørensen in a letter dated April 14, 1885.
"H e who can do a little of everything gets along best. He must not shirk hard work, and he must not shirk being treated like a dog. He must be willing to be anyone's servant, just like any other newcomer here."
By one estimate nearly 30,000 Danish Americans served in the armed forces of the United States during World War I. During World War II, 195 members of the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church died in the service of their country—a sizable number for a church that had less than 20,000 adult members and only 192 congregations. Generally, it appears that Danish Americans were no more or less willing to serve in the military than other Americans.
RELATIONS WITH DENMARK
Relations between Denmark and the United States have been unusually cordial. In 1791 Denmark became the eighth nation to recognize the independence of the United States, and it has maintained uninterrupted diplomatic relations since 1801, longer than any other country. In 1916, by a margin of nearly two to one, Danes voted to approve sale of the Danish West Indies (the U.S. Virgin Islands) to the United States. During World War II the United States and Denmark signed a treaty authorizing the United States to build two air bases in Greenland. After the war the United States provided Denmark with $271 million in Marshall Plan aid. In 1949 both nations joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and thereafter jointly operated several military installations in Greenland.
Individual and Group Contributions
Peter Sørensen "P.S." Vig (1854-1929), church leader and teacher, wrote six books on the Danish immigrant experience and contributed to and edited the two-volume Danske i Amerika (Danes in America ), published circa 1908. Marcus Lee Hansen (1892-1938), who studied under the renowned American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, is acclaimed as a scholar who early understood the importance of the immigrant experience in American life; his book, The Atlantic Migration, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1941. The preeminent historian, Henry Steele Commager (1902– ) has written of the influence his maternal grandfather, the Danish born Adam Dan, had on him as a child; Dan was one of the founders of the Danish Lutheran Church in America and an important writer in the immigrant community. Alvin Harvey Hansen (1887-1975), a Harvard economist influenced by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, played a role in the formation of the Social Security System in 1935 and the Full Employment Act of 1946 that established the Council of Economic Advisors.
FILM, TELEVISION, AND THEATER
Individuals of Danish descent have made important contributions to American media. The A. C. Nielsen Company, founded in 1923 by Arthur C. Nielsen, Sr., pioneered media market listener surveys for radio and television. The Nielsen Ratings have become an integral part of programming decisions both by the networks and cable companies. Bill and Scott Rasmussen, a father and son team with roots in Chicago's Danish American community, founded the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) in 1979.
The most famous Danish American entertainer is Victor Borge (1909– ). Fleeing Copenhagen after the Nazi occupation of Denmark in 1940, Borge came to New York; in 1941, a successful guest appearance on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall radio program launched his career. Known as "The Clown Prince of the Piano," Borge has since entertained audiences with a unique blend of music and humor. Jean Hersholt (1886-1956) appeared in over 200 films between 1914 and 1955; he is best remembered for his creation in the 1930s of the popular radio character, "Dr. Christian." Another well-known actor of Danish descent is Buddy Ebsen (1908– ), who starred in three long-running television series, "Davy Crockett," "The Beverly Hillbillies," and "Barnaby Jones." More recently, Leslie Nielsen (1926– ), a descendant of Danish immigrants to Canada, has gained wide popularity in the Naked Gun films.
Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914), the most important Danish American journalist, fought for the rights of the poor; his work, How the Other Half Lives (1890), described the impoverished conditions of laborers in New York City. Riis had a powerful ally in the person of President Teddy Roosevelt. Two important newspaper men in the Danish American community were Christian Rasmussen (1852-1926) and Sophus Neble (1862-1931). Rasmussen, a Republican, founded or purchased a number of papers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, and his printing company, headquartered in Minneapolis, published magazines and books as well. Neble's newspaper, Den Danske Pioneer (The Danish Pioneer ) published in Omaha, championed the Democratic Party and had the largest circulation of any Danish American newspaper, reaching an estimated readership of 100,000.
A number of writers have described the Danish immigrant experience. Most, however, have written in Danish. Kristian Østergaard (1855-1931) wrote both poetry and fiction; his five novels combine fantastic tales of Indians, horse thieves, and bank robbers with accounts of Danish immigrants struggling to create Danish communities on the prairies. The poet, Anton Kvist (1878-1965), found audiences through the Danish American press; many of his poems were set to music and sung within Danish immigrant circles. Enok Mortensen (1902-1984) published several collections of stories, novels, and an important history, The Danish Lutheran Church in America (1967); his novel, Den lange plovfure (The Long Plow Furrow ), published in Denmark in 1984, is the last novel by an immigrant who participated in the major wave of Danish immigration. The most important Danish American novelist writing in English was Sophus Keith Winther (1893-1983); three of his novels, Take All to Nebraska (1936), Mortgage Your Heart (1937), and This Passion Never Dies (1937), portray the struggles of the Grimsen family who arrives in Nebraska in the 1890s where they must rent land; the novels illustrate the darker side of the rural experience as fluctuating grain prices drive the family into bankruptcy. Julie Jensen McDonald's novel, Amalie's Story (1970), recounts the story of an immigrant woman whose poor parents are forced to give her up for adoption. Later she finds success as an immigrant in the Danish American community in Iowa.
MUSIC AND DANCE
Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), the great heroic tenor, won world-wide acclaim on European and American stages for his roles in the operas of Richard Wagner. Born in Copenhagen, Melchior began his career with the Metropolitan Opera in 1926; shortly before World War II, he immigrated to the United States with his German-born wife, settling in California where he starred in a number of films; he continued to perform with the Metropolitan Opera until his retirement in 1950. Peter Martin (1946– ) first appeared as a guest artist with the New York City Ballet; he became the company's principal dancer in 1970, and in 1983 he was named ballet master and co-director of the company. Libby Larsen (1950– ), an award-winning composer and the granddaughter of Danish immigrants, was named composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1983.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Several Danish Americans have served multiple terms in the United States Congress. For example, Ben Jensen (1892-1970) represented Iowa's Seventh District from 1938 to 1964 while voters in Minnesota's Second District sent Ancher Nelsen (1904– ) to Congress for eight terms between 1958 and 1974. Lloyd Bentsen (1921– ), the grandson of a Danish immigrant to South Dakota, was elected to the House of Representatives from Texas in 1948; at the age of 27 he was then the youngest member of Congress. In 1970 Bentsen won election to the Senate, and in 1988, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket headed by Michael Dukakis. President Bill Clinton appointed Bentsen as Secretary of the Treasury in 1992. Another high-profile member of the Clinton Cabinet, Attorney General Janet Reno (1938– ), is also of Danish descent; her father, Henry Reno, was an immigrant who changed his surname from Rasmussen to Reno after his arrival in the United States; prior to her appointment, Reno had served as State Attorney in Dade County, Florida. Although she never reached full Cabinet rank, Esther (Eggertsen) Peterson (1906– ), has held a variety of important governmental posts. An out-spoken consumer advocate, Peterson was named by President John F. Kennedy as assistant Secretary of Labor and director of the Women's Bureau in the United States Department of Labor; in 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed her as Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Max Henius (1859-1935), a chemist, specialized in fermentation processes; proud of his Danish heritage, he was the prime mover in founding the Danes Worldwide Archives in Ålborg, Denmark, and establishing the Rebild Celebration of the Fourth of July in Denmark. Niels Ebbesen Hansen (1866-1950), a horticulturist, did pioneering work in the development of drought resistant strains of alfalfa. Peter L. Jensen (1886?-1961) and an American partner invented the loudspeaker system and founded the Magnavox Company; later, he established the Jensen Radio Manufacturing Company, which makes Jensen Speakers. A Danish born blacksmith who settled in Nebraska, William Petersen (1882-1962) invented and registered the name VISE-GRIP which is manufactured by the Petersen Manufacturing Company. William S. Knudsen (1879-1947), who was born in Copenhagen, became president of General Motors in 1937 and was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead the development of defense production programs during World War II.
While there have been a number of Danish Americans of later generations who have played in professional sports, the most famous recent Danish American immigrant to play professionally is Morten Andersen (1960– ), the kicker for the New Orleans Saints. Born in Denmark, Andersen came to the United States at the age of 17 as a high school exchange student; before coming to this country, he had never kicked a football. After the 1993 NFL season, Andersen was already fifteenth among the NFL's all-time leading scorers.
One of the most important monuments in the United States is Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. The heads of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the son of Danish immigrants. Christian Guldager (1759-1826), the earliest of Danish American artists, painted George Washington's portrait in 1789. A Danish Mormon, Carl Christian Anton Christensen (1831-1912), created a panorama of works depicting important events in the history of the Mormon trek to Utah. Benedicte Wrensted (1859-1949), born in Hjørring, Denmark, photographed many Native Americans at her studio in Pocatello, Idaho. More recently, two artists, Olaf Seltzer (1877-1957) and Olaf Wieghorst (1899-1988) have been recognized for their depictions of the Old West. Marshall Fredericks (1908– ) is a contemporary, award-winning sculptor of Danish descent who has exhibited in the United States and Europe.
A comprehensive study of the role of the press in Danish immigrant life is Marion Marzolf's book, The Danish-Language Press in America, published by Arno Press of New York in 1979. Marzolf explored the history of the two existing Danish language newspapers Bien and Den Danske Pioneer as well as a number of others that have ceased publication, illustrating how stories and readership reflected an assimilating ethnic group.
Bien ( The Bee ).
The only weekly Danish newspaper printed in the United States. Founded in 1882 in California, it continues to print stories in Danish and English on international news and news of Denmark and the United States. A special focus is on Danish American lodges and organizations on the west coast.
Contact: Poul Dalby Andersen, Editor.
Address: 1527 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, California 91506.
Telephone: (818) 845-7300.
Church and Life (originally Kirke og Folk ).
A monthly publication by the Danish Interest Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Articles often reflect the influence of the Danish church reformer, N.F.S. Grundtvig, and are published in both English and Danish.
Contact: Thorvald Hansen, Editor.
Address: 1529 Milton, Des Moines, Iowa 540316.
Telephone: (515) 262-5274.
Den Danske Pioneer ( The Danish Pioneer ).
The oldest Danish newspaper published in the United States, it was founded in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1872. Because of its liberal agenda it was banned in Denmark between 1887 and 1898. In 1958, the paper was sold and moved to Illinois where today it is published bi-weekly and carries news of the Danish American community and stories of interest from contemporary Denmark in both Danish and English.
Contact: Chris Steffensen, Editor.
Address: Bertlesen Publishing Company, 1582 Glen Lake Road, Hoffman Estates, Illinois 60195.
Telephone: (708) 882-2552.
Fax: (708) 882-7082.
E-mail: [email protected]
Online: http://www.thedanishpioneer.com/ index.html.
Organizations and Associations
Danish American Chamber of Commerce and Danish American Society (DACC and DAS).
The DACC is an organization of over 200 business leaders, firms, and institutions that promotes commercial relations between the United States and Denmark and seeks to avoid duplication of governmental activities. The DAS is an affiliated society sponsoring cultural events. Separate organizations of the Chamber of Commerce exist in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Contact: Werner Valeur-Jensen, DACC Board Chairman; or Mrs. Neel Halpern, DAS President.
Address: 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 885 Second Avenue, 18th Floor, New York, New York 10017.
Telephone: (212) 980-6240.
Danish American Heritage Society (DAHS).
Founded in 1977, the DAHS has a membership of 650 individuals across the United States. Its purpose is to promote an interest in Danish culture, heritage, and language and to encourage research in the life, culture, and history of Danish Americans. The society publishes a journal, The Bridge, and a newsletter.
Contact: Dr. James Iverson, President.
Address: 4105 Stone Brooke Road, Ames, Iowa 50010.
Telephone: (503) 998-8562.
Danish Brotherhood in America (DBA).
Founded in 1882 in Omaha, Nebraska, the DBA is a fraternal association of 8,000 members, featuring social activities celebrating the Danish American heritage and offering life and health insurance to members. In 1995 the DBA is proposing a merger of its insurance functions with a larger fraternal benefit society while retaining its name and independent lodge structure.
Contact: Jerome Christensen.
Address: 1323 Wright Street, Blair, Nebraska 68008.
Telephone: (402) 426-5894.
Danish Interest Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (DIC).
Founded in 1962 when the Danish Evangelical Lutheran in America merged with several other Lutheran synods, the DIC seeks to preserve Danish contributions to the Lutheran heritage. A meeting is held annually at the Danebod Folk High School in Tyler, Minnesota.
Contact: Roland Jespersen, President.
Address: 116 North Seventh Street, Box 376, Eldridge, Iowa 52748.
Telephone: (319) 285-4693.
Rebild National Park Society, Inc.
Founded in 1912, this society of over 1,000 members supports what is acclaimed as the largest observation of American independence outside the United States. The festival is held annually on the Fourth of July in Rebild National Park, just outside the city of Ålborg, Denmark.
Contact: Erik Meyer, Corporate Secretary.
Address: 1788 North Fern Street, Orange, California 92667.
Telephone: (714) 637-8407.
Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies.
With more than 600 members in the academic communities in the United States and Scandinavia, it publishes the respected journal, Scandinavian Studies.
Contact: Dr. Terje Leiren.
Address: Department of Scandinavian Studies, DL-20, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195.
Telephone: (206) 543-1510.
Supreme Lodge of the Danish Sisterhood of America (DSA).
Founded in 1883 at a time when the Danish Brotherhood did not accept women as members, the DSA continues as an active social organization of 3,200 members, celebrating Danish heritage and supporting education through scholarships.
Contact: Else M. Lassiter, National President.
Address: c/o Else Lassiter, 3176 Horizon Dr., Santa Ynez, California 93460-9690.
Telephone: (805) 688-5411.
Fax: (805) 688-0866.
Museums and Research Centers
Danes Worldwide Archives.
Founded by Danish Americans in 1932 to record the history of Danes who immigrated to other countries, the archives contain letters, manuscripts, diaries, biographies, photographs, tape-recorded interviews, and over 10,000 titles related to Danish emigration. Also available are the emigration lists compiled by the Copenhagen police between 1860 and 1940 and microfilms of church records from most Danish parishes. There is a charge of $25 (U.S.) for requests received by mail or telephone.
Contact: Birgit Flemming Larsen.
Address: Ved Vor Frue Kirke, P.O. Box 1731, DK-9100 Ålborg, Denmark.
Telephone: 45 98 12 57 93.
Danish Immigrant Archives-Dana College.
Contains an extensive collection of books in Danish published in the United States, as well as periodicals, newspapers, journals, and letters relating to Danish immigration. The religious emphasis is on Danish Lutherans influenced by the more pietistic Inner Mission movement. Special holdings include the Lauritz Melchior, Sophus Keith Winther, and Hansen-Mengers Collections. Genealogy is not a focus of the archives.
Contact: Sharon Jensen.
Address: 2848 College Drive, Blair, Nebraska 68008-1099.
Telephone: (402) 426-7300.
Danish Immigrant Archives-Grand View College.
A repository for books, periodicals, letters, documents, and memoirs relating to Danish immigration. The archives' religious emphasis is on those Danish Lutherans influenced by N.F.S. Grundtvig, and the archives include a special N.F.S. Grundtvig Studies Collection. Genealogy is not a focus of the archives.
Contact: Rudolph Jensen.
Address: 1351 Grandview Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50316-1599.
Telephone: (515) 263-2800.
Danish Immigrant Museum.
Tells the story of the life and culture of Danish immigrants with displays of house furnishings, costumes, tools, church furniture, photographs, and many other items. The collection contains over 8,000 artifacts and includes a family history room for researching genealogy. Situated in Elk Horn, Iowa, the museum is located in an area settled by Danish immigrants during the late nineteenth century.
Address: 2212 Washington Street, P O Box 470, Elk Horn, Iowa 51531-0470.
Telephone: (712) 764-7001; or (800) 759-9192.
Fax: (712) 764-7002.
E-Mail: [email protected]
Sources for Additional Study
Danish Emigration to the U.S.A., edited by Birgit Flemming Larsen and Henning Bender. Ålborg, Denmark: Danes Worldwide Archives, 1992.
Hale, Frederick Hale. Danes in North America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.
Hvidt, Kristian. Flight to America. New York: Academic Press, 1975.
——. Danes Go West. Skørping, Denmark: Rebild National Park Society, Inc., 1976.
MacHaffie, Ingeborg, and Margaret Nielsen. Of Danish Ways. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, Inc., 1976.
Mussari, Mark. The Danish Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Nielsen, George. The Danish Americans. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981.
Petersen, Peter L. The Danes in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 1987.
Stilling, Niels Peter, and Anne Lisbeth Olsen. A New Life. Ålborg, Denmark: Danes Worldwide Archives, 1994.
"Danish Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/danish-americans
"Danish Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/danish-americans
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