Nyhavn in Copenhagen was the hub of Danish emigration. Alongside lodgings and taverns travellers found agencies of the major international steam line companies offering tickets to cross the Atlantic.
Steam line company agents stood ready when ships from the Danish provinces arrived with a steady load of Danes leaving their native country. They used every trick in the book to grab those potential emigrants who had not yet bought a ticket.
The emigrants were easily recognised by their large pieces of luggage. Needless to say, the merchants in Nyhavn would sell everything from socks to mattresses and utensils to those still in want.
In many Danish provincial towns, you could find shopkeepers, innkeepers and craftsmen who earned a supplementary income serving as agents for the major steam-line companies.
The provincial agencies gave people an opportunity to browse brochures from American railway-and immigration companies and even bought them their tickets for the Atlantic crossing. Agents received commission from these sales, and in the many years of mass emigration, the business proved to be quite lucrative.
Emigration from Europe to America rose dramatically after the end of the American Civil War. Technological advances and new means of communication like the telegraph, railroads and steamships tied the continents ever closer together.
The early Danish emigrants crossed the Atlantic onboard English or German ships leaving from Liverpool, Bremen or Hamburg. From 1880 until 1898 it was possible to sail directly from Copenhagen with Danish entrepreneur C. F. Tietgens’ Thingvalla Lines. Until the middle of the 1930s the journey from Denmark could be made with DFDS’ Scandinavia-America Line.
Imagine the sea-voyage they had...
“No boat that I ever since have been on swayed its way quite like ‘Norge’, sliding up and down the abysmal Atlantic waves. The Atlantic that I got to know at that time has since been lost, simply because nowadays, on the tall modern ships, you look at the sea from above. At that time, you saw it from below, barely above the surface, and in rough weather the waves would rise tall forming a narrow horizon of watery mountains with transparent bottle green peaks looming over the boat deep down in the trough between them, and when the boat would ride the wave, you could gaze upon ranks of Niagaras, one after the other. For weeks the deck was flooded with water and the entrance to the lower decks, where hundreds of Scandinavian emigrants were quartered, had to be kept shut. Imagine the sea-voyage they had!”
[Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]
The Ellis Island Immigration Reception Station in New York was where many emigrants first set foot in the New World. Newcomers were registered and inspected before being allowed to enter the American mainland.
The Reception Station on Ellis Island was inaugurated in 1891 and in use until 1954. In that period more than 12 million people passed through its gates.
New York was most often where Danish emigrants first encountered the New World. Seen from a distance, the towering buildings on Manhattan were awe-inspiring, compared with the modest profile of Copenhagen. The constant noise and ever pulsating street life made an unforgettable impression on newcomers. Incredible wealth and social misery existed side by side, and the almighty dollar reigned.
Danish emigrants were warned not to linger and get stuck in the American cities but instead encouraged to move westward. Nevertheless, the Danish speaking population in New York added up to a few thousand persons around 1900 and the city held around 20 different Danish organisations.
A surplus of daring...
“The tower houses in the lower city, facing Battery Place, are what you see at the entry having passed the Statue of Liberty, the famous skyline […] The impression is related to the great natural phenomena, mountain ranges and volcanos, but with the additional fascination that what you stand before is made by man. A surplus of daring and dimensions of thought have found an expression here, the American temperament…”
[Johannes V. Jensen: Fra Fristaterne, 1939]
A circle of more prominent Danes in Chicago met regularly around the ‘Round Table’ in Wilkens Cellar restaurant. The group fostered several initiatives meant to strengthen the ties between Danish emigrants and their native land.
Initially, the Danish-American Society was founded in 1906 for the purpose of sending Danish artists and actors on tour in America. A few years later the idea of a recurring 4th of July meeting between Danes and Danish-Americans in Rebild was launched.
Notably, the photo shows William ‘Black’ Hansen (1854-1909) (front left). Formerly engaged in the Danish socialist movement, he was for many years a driving force in Chicago’s Danish-American network.
Sofus Neble (1858-1931) was born on the island of Falster and trained as a typographer. In 1883 he emigrated to the USA and found an occupation at The Danish Pioneer newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska.
With Sofus Neble at its helm, The Danish Pioneer grew to form an almost indispensable bond between the tens of thousands of Danes that each year emigrated to America. The newspaper was written in Danish and, apart from carrying practical and useful information, it was marked by Neble’s personal and socially engaged journalism.
Neble’s direct language put the newspaper at odds with both major landholders and religious and industrial circles in Denmark and America. On the other hand, it earned Neble the respect of farmers and workers. Over the years, The Danish Pioneer established itself with correspondents in every major Danish settlement. With almost 30,000 subscribers in 1914, it was undisputedly the largest Danish newspaper in America. The newspaper is still being published in 2020.
Chicago is one of Americas major economic hubs. It is vibrant international metropolis and a gateway to the American Midwest. It formed a centre for both distribution of homestead land, speculation in railway bonds, and trade with farm products from the prairie states.
At the turn of the century roughly 10,000 Danes lived in Chicago. The colony was populated by an upper class of businessmen, traders and journalists and a large majority of craftsmen and unskilled workers. Being one of the latest groups to settle in Chicago they lived in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.
All peoples of the world on both sidewalks...
“From 23rd street the automobile moves down Broadway. Approaching Manhattan’s south tip, the street grows more and more like a long deep canyon with towering houses on both sides and thundering traffic at the bottom. A living amalgam of all the worlds peoples flow on both sidewalks. They wander. Nowhere else is the pace set by errands like on this broad street leading from work and to work. No one can be identified by his boots like the New Yorker. They resemble a new type of hooves, wander-feet, bruised and dusty from the grit they tear off the street, coal dust, metal and stone particles that wear of a city, they look like mountaineers, and so they are, every day they cling on to the stony ridges of the modern city, they advance over ground vibrating from traffic like a volcano, they breathe the poisonous air, fertile with the electricity of a thunderstorm; they manoeuvre their way between lava-streams of people that are constantly rallying with trams and trains over their heads and underground, they listen in a noise that is more isolating than silence, a sedative street-blast, a rockslide where airwaves are simply crushed. This is the high pressure they must go through; this is the way that leads across New York.”
[Johannes V. Jensen: Den nye Verden, 1907]
Danish mass emigration began around the middle of the 19th century, with people notably leaving the eastern part of the country. Their destination was most often Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin, still considered the western outskirts of civilisation on the North American continent.
When emigration from Jutland picked up speed in the 1870s, focus shifted to the prairie states. Over the following decades Minnesota, Iowa, Montana and the Dakotas were dotted with well-known Danish place names like Dannevirke, Rosenborg, Viborg and Askov.
Once the flood of emigrants began to ebb away in the 1920s, almost half of the Danish immigrants to the USA had settled in the prairie states.
The first settlers to arrive on the Great Plains lacked suitable building materials. Most often newcomers dug into the prairie soil and built a sod house. The construction work was required to be completed before winter started, as it brought high winds and freezing temperatures.
Better building materials, fuels and other modern conveniences were not readily available until railway lines were within reach.
The women who accompanied their husbands to their new homesteads often led hard and lonely lives.
The first couple of years on the prairie were especially difficult. Freezing winters and hard labour with a small outcome put both marriage and family lives to the test.
Many Danish emigrants made use of the Homestead Act, a piece of American legislation through which an applicant could acquire ownership of 240 acres of government land or public domain, as long as the applicant occupied and farmed the land for 5 years.
The Homestead Act helped populate the American Midwest. At the turn of the century, however, most suitable farmland had been occupied, and many latecomers found that a 240-acre plot of land was too small to support a family. It took years to cultivate the prairie soil and competition from mechanized and more well-established farms in the eastern states made life difficult.
From the turn of the century onwards the larger proportion of Danish emigrants settled in either Americas cities or in small rural communities. Quite a few travelled on to Canada where land was abundant and the homestead dream lived on.
The tale of freedom in America...
“The real reason why the tale of freedom in America […] still attracts emigrants, and occasionally whole fragments of peoples at a time, is that America still contains a certain ethnographical vacuum providing the characteristic movability of the American. The population is not a mass at rest but in continual fluctuation renewed by immigration, nowhere standing still, hence the rapid tempo. The reason why the battle for subsistence is less bitter than in Europe, somehow with a brighter tone, must be due to the fact that vast reserves of space still exist here.”
[Johannes V. Jensen: Den nye Verden, 1907]