"Butter-Peter" on the prairie

By Henriette Kragh Jacobsen

This article is based on information found in church records, censuses and the below mentioned web-addresses. The information about the family’s life in America was recorded by a grandchild after oral narrative of Anna Marie and Peter Christiansen’s two youngest daughters and grandchildren. Those records were kindly lent to the author by relatives of Peter Christiansen living in Lønholt near Fredensborg. The article has been published in ”Personalhistorisk Tidsskrift” 2013:1 (Journal of personal history and genealogy).

Emigration from North Zealand in the 19th Century

From around 1840 and 75 years on approx. 300,000 people emigrated from Denmark to seek their fortunes in distant countries. The emigration from North Zealand was small compared to other parts of Denmark. In Frederiksborg County approx. 3 % of the population emigrated, while it was some 14 % that left from the county Lolland-Falster.

The website www.ddd.dda.dk contains a database of people who emigrated from Denmark in the period 1868-1908. It reveals that a total of 118 people emigrated from Asminderød-Grønholt parish in North Zealand. The parish covered at that time also Humlebæk with the hinterland. The number might not be accurate, because the database has not registered all emigrants.

The vast majority of those who traveled were adolescents aged 15-29 years, and the number of men was twice as high as women. But there were also families with several children who went on a long voyage. Most have emigrated in the years 1885-1890 and 1903-1908.

America, the land of opportunities was absolutely the most attractive, but some chose destinations as Canada, New Zealand, Australia or Argentina. Farm workers, domestic servants, seamstresses, blacksmith’s and clog makers sought new territories in the hope of a better life than they thought they could get in North Zealand.

Peter Christiansen

One of the many who chose to take the trip across the Atlantic, was Peter Christiansen born on 16 October 1840. His parents, blacksmith Christian Hansen and Ane Margrethe Pedersdatter (Peder’s daughter), lived in the blacksmith’s house in the village Langstrup located between Humlebæk and Fredensborg in North Zealand.

When he was just three years old Peter’s father died of typhus only 27 year old. His mother, Ane, now alone with three small children, was assisted by her brother in the smithy. Like her former spouse the brother was also a blacksmith.

As was common at the time, Ane quickly found a new partner. A year after her husband's death, she married at the age of 32 with the 10 years younger Ditlev Hansen Dideriksen. They had three children together, and Peter Christiansen thus had two siblings and three half-siblings.

Peter often did not turn up at Langstrup School located three miles from the village. His help was needed in the smithy where his job was to pull the bellows, when horseshoes, ploughshares and harrow tines were made. After his confirmation in Asminderød Church in 1855 Peter left home to work as a farm boy elsewhere.

However, there were much more serious duties that subsequently called. On 15 May 1863 Peter started as a private in the 18th Battalion, and one year later he was a soldier fighting in the war in 1864. First, he took part in the fight against the advancing Prussian and Austrian troops, and in February he was involved in the Battle of Mysunde and fought against the enemy at Ornum Mill and at Dybbøl Church.

When Dybbøl fell, he was with the reserves in Sønderborg, but when Als was attacked, his battalion withdrew while fighting back. From there they marched to Fyn (Funen). On 1 September 1864 Peter’s time as a soldier ended, but according to the family he continued throughout his life to have an aversion to the Germans.

After returning from the battle fields, Peter returned to North Zealand to work as a farmer. Here he met Anna Marie Christiansen from Tikøb, a village not far from Langstrup. He came to share his life with Anna Marie for 36 years. What caused them to make a big decision that would change their lives for ever, we do not know. But in 1867 Peter, Anna Marie and her brother Lars Christiansen waved goodbye to their family and the Danish spring. The course was set against New York.

To Minnesota via New York

The trip across the Atlantic took 6-7 weeks, when travelling with the large sailing ships. In New York, they were received in Castle Garden, where the immigrants (1855-90) were recorded and controlled (later this was done at Ellis Island). Thousands of Danes who arrived after 1892 can now be found on www.ellisisland.org. In the area around Castle Garden there were several agencies that could help to provide home and work.

Shortly after arrival Anna Marie and Peter were married on 11 June 1867 in the Seamen's Church at Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, which was close to their residence in 18 Brooklyn Street. Four months later, the couple had a daughter and in January 1869 a son. Soon, the apartment was too small, rural life lured, and they wanted to get away from the big city.

But before they headed west, they were waiting for the arrival of Anna Marie's parents, Caroline and Christian Hansen, and five of her siblings. Maybe they had long wanted to leave North Zealand for good, maybe Anna Marie's letters were filled with praising mention of God's own country. We will probably never know. They too were held by the emigration wave. Minnesota was the next country for the 10 ethnic Danes. The state is old Indian Territory and Minnesota means in Sioux language "sky tinted waters" or "sky coloured water."

The two families settled by the Lake Wall in Otter County. Peter and Anna Marie Christiansen and her parents and siblings were the first settlers there. But they were not the first Danes in Minnesota. Already in 1869 there were more Scandinavians who had chosen this spot on the American middle prairie, and there were many more to come.

One of the reasons was that the landscape reminded them of home. Indeed, Wall Lake and its surroundings look like - even today - the landscape around the lake Esrum in North Zealand where both Peter and Anna Marie had lived.

Life in America

Because of the so-called Homestead Act, which President Lincoln had issued in 1862 to increase immigration, the settlers could at the time choose or a piece of land of 160 acres totally free. Some requirements should be met though: It should be their intention to become an American citizen, they had to inhabit the homesteaded land for five years, and they had to cultivate the land. Then they could get their final deed of the land. Peter got his in 1876.

The year after they had homesteaded, i.e. in 1870, the district was organized as a proper township. The request that was signed by the new settlers had 20 signatures on land holders, the majority of which were of Danish origin. For the same reason this township was given the name Dane Prairie. Soon the settlers were joined by other Scandinavians, which clearly can be seen on the map from 1888, where names like Ole Langen, Hans Nielsen and Niels Thygesen appear.

The condition of cultivating the soil was not exactly easy to meet, but it provided bread on the table for families. Peter had first started to trap lots of trees in the wooded area where his land lay. In the early years before he could grow enough grain to sell by, he worked in the city of St. Paul part of the year. But Peter was diligent and started off well, and later he could indeed double his territory when he bought his brother, Lars Christiansen's, land adjoining his own.

In 1882 the railway line, Northern Pacific Line, opened and Wall Lake Station was set up on its route. The station also came to serve as a post office where Anna Marie's father, Christian Hansen, was postmaster. Later he ran a grocery store in town. Development of the village had moved fast.

In the beginning, Peter, Anna Marie and their two children lived in a very primitive shelter, until Peter had a small wooden cottage built. As the family increased, he built a larger wooden house. In 1902, however, because of hard work and his good business skills he was able to build a large 2-storey house with 6 rooms and a real toilet!

There was a dining room, living room and a big kitchen, and the house was in true American fashion surrounded by an open porch. Exceptionally, Peter is in the picture from 1902; he did not enjoy being photographed.

Anna Marie and Peter had to get used to a somewhat different climate than the Danish. The summers were very hot and winters just as cold. In the early years, they had to go through several winters with fierce snowstorms and unusually cold temperatures down to minus 50 degrees. Some years, hail and locusts destroyed their harvest.

The few Indians of the Chippewa tribe, who were still in the area, rarely gave problems for the settlers in Dane Prairie. In fact, the couple's children were playing with Indian children. In 1876 however, there were rumors of an Indian attack.

Together with the other residents of the area Anna Marie and Peter had to escape with a few necessities. In a wagon pulled by oxen and with their two cows on the backlog they drove to the nearest grocery, where they found shelter for the night. The rumors proved to be unfounded and the day after the family could return to the home.

In addition to cows, Peter had bought some sheep who gave wool for clothing and they also had a lot of chickens. Clean water they got from a spring near the house. Eventually, they had 14 children, who all learned to knit, so they were self-sufficient in underwear, gloves, hats, etc.

The first three years Peter had to walk 40 miles to the city of Alexandria to sell his grain after harvest. He wrapped sackcloth round his shoes not to wear them out. After a few days, he then returned back home with flour, sugar, salt and other goods.

Anna Marie wrote letters to her sister Ellen in North Zealand, and from her sister Anna Marie received patterns for cross-stitch embroidery. According to the family, Anna Marie was always working on a piece of needlework. She did not learn English, while Peter taught himself English using the children's school books.

 

The children were brought up strictly and were not allowed to laugh at the table or to do handwork or go fishing on Sundays. Playing cards and alcohol was strictly forbidden. Peter never beat his children though, and he told some of his descendants this was because his own mother had been very severe.

If someone in the family got sick, they had to cope themselves, as the doctor lived far away. At childbirth neighbours came to assist. The children walked 2 miles to the school that was built in 1874. Peter was the main organizer behind the school project and for many years he was the school's treasurer.

The Christiansen family were Methodists, and participated when two Methodist churches were built in the neighbourhood. In the local Tordenskjold Church, where Peter was a board member, the service was held in Norwegian. He was also a teacher in the Sunday school. During winter, when it could be difficult to get to church, worship was held at the home of the Christiansen's, and if a priest could not come, Peter handled the sermon.

“Butter Peter”

Peter did very well as a farmer, partly because he used agricultural practices learned during his youth in Denmark. Every summer he let a piece of land lie fallow, and he also introduced rotation of crops, which was not common practice in the new homeland.

He also began on what would prove to be a large and continuous production of quality. On every pack of butter the name “Christiansen” was printed using a special stamp he had made himself. The quality of his butter was so good that he got the extra 15 cents per pound compared to others. Locally, he was even known as "Butter Peter" and he was the first in the area who acquired a butter centrifuge.

Peter Christiansen died 63 years old in 1903, and two years after his wife Anna Marie passed away at the age of 58. They were buried at The Tordenskjold Church cemetery. In the obituary of Peter, he is referred to as a successful farmer and a highly skilled butter producer who was respected by friends and neighbours. The couple were described as hard working, and they could rightly be proud of their model farm and their achievements.

When Anna Marie died, the 13 surviving children inherited the land and property, which has since belonged to their descendants and today, the fifth generation is running the farm. The only time all 13 children have been together, was at their father's funeral in 1903.

One of Peter and Anna Marie’s 14 children, a son, remained unmarried, a daughter died young, and among the other 12 children, 10 married other Danes or Norwegians. As none of Anna Marie and Peter's sons had sons themselves none of their descendants carries the name Christiansen.

Anna Marie and Peter Christiansen is a fine example of a couple to whom the American dream came true. It took hard work and a brave effort, but they and their many descendants did very well indeed.