By Madeline Christensen

As a child, I didn’t know much about my ancestry except for a dusty ceramic mug that sat on a shelf in my grandparents’ kitchen. It was emblazoned with big red block letters: “You can always tell a Dane, but you can’t tell him much.”

Photo by Nate Becwar

Fittingly, my grandpa often sat on a bar stool right beneath it, the radio blaring and a magnifying glass nearby to read the crossword. A few months before he died he was no longer allowed to drive his beloved van, and like a symbolic middle finger to his doctor, he began to routinely take his motorized scooter 20 blocks to the local Walmart in the blazing summer heat instead. He was quite obviously the son of my great grandfather, a hard-working, headstrong Dane who immigrated to the United States when he was only 18.

Carl Peter Christensen grew up in Odense, Denmark—he would always note that this was the city where Hans Christian Andersen was born. He was persuaded by his childhood best friend, an orphan, to come work with him for a Danish bachelor in the Midwest. He had written my great grandfather that he was lonely because he couldn’t speak English, and you could make more money in the US than Denmark, anyhow.

Carl was the first of my ancestors to make the journey to America, and he had fully intended to return home to his parents and siblings once he had made a substantial earning. His father was a common worker and made just enough to feed the family. Carl’s family didn’t want him to stay in the US, and his last memory of his mother was of her crying before his departure.

“I remember my mother, she went with me to Copenhagen,” Carl said in an oral history conducted before he died. “And I can still see her. She was along the dock after I had gotten on board the ship. And they started sailing, leaving. And she was walking along the dock as far as I could see her. It seems to me the land was going away from us. But she was still walking as long as she could see the ship.”

He left the Copenhagen port with a small suitcase and a satchel, packed with good woolen socks knitted by his mother, who had heard that the winters were very cold in America, a few sandwiches to tide him over on the train ride from New York City to Nebraska and a bottle of something for the stomach from his father to keep him from getting seasick. His voyage ticket was bought using all the money he had saved up from farmhand work from the time he was 14. The rest—a loan from his friend he was meeting in the States, because you had to show you had $25 to enter America as an immigrant—he sewed in his clothing because he had heard of immigrants getting robbed during the voyage.

Leaving something behind

“I left a brother and a sister, aunts and uncles,” he said. “I left … that’s the worst thing, you know, for an immigrant when he thinks back. You leave something behind. And most of those people have died away, you know.”

The ship he boarded was called the Carl Frederick Chitkin, named after a well-known businessman in Denmark. It was at capacity with around 1,500 Scandinavian immigrants.

Once they reached Ellis Island, Carl became scared they might send him back because of his father’s seasickness remedy he had carried with him. But he passed through the commission after they merely looked into his eyes and sent him on his way.

“Well, we was just like sheep, you know, the immigrants,” he said. “There’s no question about that. But it didn’t take too long until we got on a ferry and they took us immigrants to the railway station. We got first on a kind of bus, they took my suitcase and heaved it right up on top together with the others.”

To Carl’s horror, his bottle of seasick remedy broke inside his suitcase.

“There was red stuff that run down on the side of the bus,” he said. “And I didn’t know what it was at first, but then I got to think, oh my, that’s my bottle! And people started laughing at it and that made me feel really bad. But everything went, otherwise, alright.”

Flabbergasted by the Statue of Libery

They were greeted at the port of New York with a ship bearing the American and Danish flags. As they got closer and closer, buildings and skyscrapers came into view.

“We passed the Statue of Liberty,” Carl said. “Oh, I was just flabbergasted. And in one way, I got to think, well, this probably will be my country now. All the immigrants, they was lined on top of the deck, along the railing to see everything. I was among them. I couldn’t help it.”

Although the experience felt like cattle getting shipped to market, Carl made it to Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska by train. Upon meeting his friend, he promptly paid back his $25 loan.

“He said ‘You don’t have to,’” Carl said. “But I did.”