Remembering the Danes of Yates County

John Christensen The Chronicle-Express
Speaking before a large crowd, Stephanie Olsen presented information about the early Danes of Yates County at a Yates History Center Talk May 9.

“No Olsen has ever made a mistake.” Citing the wry motto of her father, Stephanie Olsen gave the Yates History Center one of its most popular and well attended talks in recent years. With ebullient charm, sharp wit, and often self-deprecating humor, she described the lives and times of the early Danish immigrants of Yates County, including her own ancestors.

Originally scheduled for the parlor of the Underwood Museum May 9, advance notice of those who wished to attend proved so great, Olsen’s talk had to be relocated to the fellowship hall of the United Methodist Church, across the street. The audience was encouraged to bring primary and secondary source information from their own families, which would be scanned after the talk and the information added to the History Center’s collection and genealogical data. Family photographs, mementos, letters, books, diaries, and documents in both Danish and English filled three long tables in the hall, along with promises for much more to be brought in later by first through fourth and fifth generation descendants of those who “crossed the pond,” as Olsen said.

Drawing on her research gathered during the 20 years she lived in Aalborg in Northern Jutland (where many of Yates County’s Danes came from), and on what she has gathered in her more recent years since returning to Penn Yan, Olsen was able to relight the lamp of many memories from her own family and from many in the crowd.

Like most of those who chose to emigrate to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century, Danes were fleeing harsh conditions and looking for opportunities, both economic and social. Olsen described the “push/pull factors” of Danish immigration. In the aftermath of the war with Prussia in 1864, when one quarter of Denmark was lost to their southern neighbor, and as mechanization increased the size of farms and reduced the need for agricultural laborers, many of the poorest, mostly young men were seeking any means to improve their lives. The added pressure of famines, military conscription, and social unrest meant more people were willing to take the risk of crossing the Atlantic; still a perilous venture, especially in the appalling conditions of steerage class.

“We come from a long line of horse thieves and pickpockets,” as Stephanie’s father used to joke, but with the desperation the immigrants felt, it may not have been so far from the truth. It served as a good reminder to everyone how humble all our immigrant origins truly are.

Beginning mostly as farm workers, as those young men earned enough to buy land of their own or begin a trade, they wrote home to Denmark to encourage relatives and friends to follow their example. Some were even employed as “Yankees” by steamship, rail, and land companies to return to Denmark to recruit more to emigrate.

Young women soon followed, often employed as housekeepers, but it usually wasn’t long before they married and began families, according to local records. And in the 150 years since the largest waves of Danish immigration to Yates County began, there are now few families here who do not count at least one Dane as an ancestor, relative, neighbor, or friend.

The Danes of Yates County: The history and traditional arts of an ethnic community in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, by Varick Chittenden, published in 1985, is still available at the Yates History Center's bookshop and at Longs' Cards and Books