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Kansas Historical Collections - Danish Settlements in Kansas

From Kansas Historical Collections, Volume XVII, pp. 300-305

This article was written by Thomas Peter Christensen, Ph.D. and was printed in Volume XVII of the Kansas Historical Collections, 1928. All footnotes are indicated by bracketed numbers, e.g. [1].

About five million Americans are of Scandinavian descent. More than two millions of these are Swedes and nearly as many are Norwegians; a half million, approximately, are Danes and about a third of a million are Finns.[1] The smallest group are the Icelanders, who number only about twenty thousand in North America, and of these about six thousand live in the United States. Most of the Scandinavians live in the upper Mississippi valley. Only a few have settle in the Southern states. Kansas has smaller groups of Danes and Norwegians. The dominant group here are the Swedes.[2]

Iowa was long the leading state in the number of Danish-born citizens. But in 1920 the census showed a larger number in California. Thus the general drift of the Danes in this country--like that of the whole population--has been westward. Iowa, however, still has the largest number of citizens of Danish descent and birth, a total of about fifty thousand.[3] Iowa also has the largest Danish settlement in the United States, located in Shelby and Audubon counties. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, and California, all have considerable rural settlements, and minor settlements are found in most of the states north of the Ohio and west of the Mississippi. There are large city colonies in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and other large cities.

Danish immigration to Kansas began in the fifties of last century. By 1870 some had drifted into nearly every county of the state. The total number in 1880 was 18,838. It rose to 2,759 in 1910 and dropped to 2,263 in 1920. Danish immigration to Kansas has now virtually ceased.

The immigrants came from both the Danish islands and the peninsula Jutland. Not a few were Slesvigers from what has since the World War been called first and second zones. The Jutes or Jutlanders (Jyder) speak a dialect quite different from the national Danish. It is more like English than national Danish. The Jutes, for instance, use the sound of soft ch, which is not found in the national tongue. The Jutes pronounce u like English w. Other Danes do not use the sound of English w. To all Danes English words having th sounds are difficult to pronounce.

The Danish immigrants belonged generally to the laboring class. Some, however, were skilled mechanics and a few merchants. All were in good health. Not many had any considerable amount of property, but all were able and willing to work, and all adults could read and write--thanks to the compulsory school law of Denmark passed in 1814. They frequently brought with them to the United States wooden shoes and homespun clothes (Vadmelsklaeder); and nearly everyone had a liberal supply of home-knitted woolen socks, for many immigrants had the idea that it was almost impossible to procure them in this country, yet had to get along without them during the cold American winters.

The first Danish settlers in Kansas were probably Danish Mormons, many of whom apostated in the fifties enroute from Denmark, up the rivers and across the prairies to Utah. A Danish gold digger, John Nielsen, who had been in California, is mentioned residing on the upper Walnut creek, near Marysville, in Marshall county, in 1855. A number of Slesvigers located there in 1869. More arrived from Denmark and the other states during the following years, but not enough to form a purely Danish congregation. Since there were also other Scandinavians in the neighborhood, a Scandinavian Lutheran congregation was formed in 1874. Being isolated it Americanized rapidly and by the turn of the century it had lost much of its character as a Scandinavian church.

A group of Danish Baptists began to locate in the neighborhood of Jamestown, Cloud county, also in 1869. Under the inspiration of their leader, Niels Nielson, one of the First Baptists in Denmark,[4] a Baptist congregation was formed in 1871 and a church building was completed by 1877. The members themselves quarried the limestone used for this building and gave annually the crop of an acre of land to further finance the project. It took three years to build the church. After the death of Nielson (1887) the congregation found it difficult to get a Danish pastor, and though some of the older members could not well understand English most of the services had to be held in English. In 1886 the adult membership was 88. Though small, the congregation tried to do missionary work among both Danes and Norwegians at other places in the state. It kept an active Sunday school in English going, and in 1882 the women organized a sewing club which also functioned as a home missionary and charitable society. The missionary zeal of these pioneer women later expressed itself in the formation of a society to promote missionary work among Danish immigrants.

At Lyndon, Osage county, a small group began to collect in 1869. It never consisted of more than fourteen or fifteen families and therefore was not large enough to maintain permanent Danish organizations. These people belonged to that faction of the Danish Lutheran Church called the Grundtvigian which looks upon the apostolic creed as divinely inspired rather than the Bible. The Grundtvigians pride themselves upon being the intellectuals among the Danish Lutherans in the United States. And they are ardent nationalists. A branch of the Grundtvigian nationalist organization in the United States, the Danish People's Society, existed for some time at Lyndon.

Another Grundtvigian settlement, perhaps the most characteristic Danish settlement in Kansas, was founded also in 1869 at Denmark, Lincoln county. The settlers took homesteads, built log cabins or dugouts, and broke the wild prairie with oxen. The fact that buggies began to be used about 1880 would indicate that the prosperity of the settlement at that time was in the ascendant. Such prosperity must have been materially advanced by the cooperative creamery, which became an important factor in the economic life of these people.[5] Though this was a general community enterprise, the Danes looked upon it as an institution peculiarly their own since the later Danish immigrants were familiar with the cooperative creamery in Denmark.[6]

The Denmark settlers organized a congregation in 1877 and had a church built about 1880. Like the Baptist church in the Jamestown settlement, the Denmark church was three years in building. Both churches were built of limestone. Besides the congregation the Denmark settlers organized a Danish ladies' aid society (kvindeforening) and a young people's society (ungdomsforening). The purposes of the latter were religious, recreational and cultural; and in accordance with Grundtvigian principles the two latter were emphasized fully as much as the former. In that way the Grundtvigians believe a more healthy religious life is developed among the young people than would be possible by more sensational and emotional methods. During the summer vacation of the public schools the congregation provided for a few weeks of Danish school in which were taught religious and cultural subjects. In teaching religion the teacher told the Bible stories to the children. Little memory work was required. The vacation school (ferieskolen) enabled the people in this settlement to maintain the Danish language better and longer than in any other settlement in Kansas. But both the congregation and the young people's society now use both English and Danish in their work.

In the eighties the Grundtvigians projected a larger colony in Logan county. An option was secured on several townships, but the project miscarried. A number of Danes who went to farm in western Kansas at this time were reduced to the verge of starvation during the dry years of the early nineties. Some of them had to leave their farms without being able to sell or rent.

An interesting Danish colonization project was the ill-starred and short-lived Socialist colony near Hays City, in Ellis county. It was begun and ended in 1877. The leaders were Louis Albert Francois Pio, Paul Geleff, and W. A. Hansen.[7] All were Socialists who had been forced, or at least found it advisable, to leave Denmark. There were eighteen colonists, some married and some single. They at once set to work to build a log cabin with separate apartments for the married and the unmarried. Tools and stock were purchased. The men worked "like hell." The women quarreled. And the naked prairie--save for an abundance of buffalo bones, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, owls and an occasional soldier--seemed so unresponsive to the demands for a better social order, that the colonists could stand it no longer than six weeks. The property was then sold and the proceeds divided among the colonists, netting each some thirty dollars.

In spite of the failure of the colony, the colonists succeeded--some in Kansas and others elsewhere. They were not incurable visionaries, but able to adjust themselves to new conditions. Both Pio and Geleff were gifted journalists and succeeded as land agents. Mrs. Pio was one of the most talented of Danish immigrant women. She lectured occasionally to Danish audiences--in 1896, for instance, on "the full and unlimited coinage of silver." A daughter of the Pios married a Danish count from whom, however, she was later divorced. Hansen had a substantial business career in Chicago. A daughter of his married the Danish socialist, Sophus Neble, who is still the editor of the Danish Pioneer, a Danish weekly published in Omaha and reputed to have a circulation of over thirty thousand, larger than that of any other Danish-American publication.

As a result of the general drift of the American population, enough Danes have congregated in Kansas City to have several organizations. In 1920 the estimated number of Danes (Danish-born and native-born) was about 400 in Kansas City, Kan., and about the same number in Kansas City, Mo. A Danish Lutheran congregation belonging to the Inner Mission faction, which in its church practice is much like the Methodists, was organized in 1906 and a church was built (in Kansas) some years later at a cost of $14,000. The membership (children and adults) in 1917 was 283. Kansas City also has two Danish fraternal societies belonging to the Danish Brotherhood and the United Danish Societies, both Danish-American organizations.

The Danish immigrants often have a tender feeling for their mother country and their social heritage. Letters pass frequently--at least in the first generation--between America and Denmark, and the "Denmark letters" in America are as welcome as the "America letters" in Denmark. Danish-American immigrants often visit the home country and such a trip is considered one of the great events in the life of the immigrant. Danish-American families often continue to celebrate Christmas in old-country fashion according to which the festival begins--as in Old England--with "Little Christmasday" (Lillejuledag) and lasts until Twelfth Night, or as the Danes call "Eve of the Holy Three Kings" (Helligtrekongerdagsaften). Before the World War Danish-Americans also occasionally celebrated June 5, the Constitution Day of Denmark.[8] In Grundtvigian communities there has always been a great deal of community singing. People sing when they visit as well as at the more general gatherings. The songs used are both Danish and English and they are of a humanistic rather than of a distinctly religious character, except at church meetings.

Danish-American women are often deft needleworkers and seamstresses and usually good cooks. Danish bread and cake, soups and--to danes at least--the delicious home-made beer (not intoxicating) continue occasionally to be served. The afternoon coffee (eftermiddagskaffen) is so strongly entrenched in Danish and Danish-American traditions that the custom, which may be dignified by the institution, is retained even by those who in many other respects are thoroughly Americanized.

Churches and societies help the immigrants to preserve their social heritage. Where no organizations exist, Americanization is more rapid, but perhaps also more of a veneer than a transformation towards a better life.

The immigrant press is another factor in the preservation of the immigrant's spiritual values. Several Danish-American papers are read in the Danish settlements in Kansas. Those most widely read are: Dannevirke (a Grundtvigian publication issued from Cedar Falls, Iowa); Den Danske Pioneer (The Danish Pioneer, the most widely read Danish-American paper, and published in Omaha, Neb.); Decorah Posten (The Decorah Post, published for both Danes and Norwegians in Decorah, Iowa); Kvinden og Hjemmet (Woman and Home, published in Cedar Rapids and one of the few monthlies of interest to Danish and Norwegian immigrant women); and Luthersk Ugeblad (Lutheran Weekly Paper, read mainly by members of the Inner Mission Church). It is published in Blair, Neb. All of these papers are weeklies, except Kvinden og Hjemmet, there being no Danish dailies in the United States. For Christmas Danish-American publishers put out special Christmas magazines. These are widely read in the Danish settlements.

The attitude of the Danish-American towards his native and his adopted land is brought out strikingly in a recent news item in Dannevirke. A Danish former living near Caldwell, Kan., had at last realized his long-cherished hope of visiting the country of his birth which he had not seen for fifty-six years. He was now seventy-seven. In Copenhagen he was met by his older brother. Together the two started for their boyhood home in northern Denmark. On the way he caught a cold which proved fatal. Before he died he had directed his brother to send his body to Kansas to be buried by the side of his wife. For several reasons this was not at the time possible and so the Danish farmer from Kansas could not rest in the soil of his adopted state and country, though he had so desired.

The Danish-American immigrants love their Kansas homes. They are rather charmed by the hills and valleys of the Sunflower state, because they remind them of Denmark. Kansas soil was responsive to careful and intelligent cultivation and consequently most of the Danish immigrants and their children are now well-to-do. Being able to read and write their mother tongue, it was not difficult for the immigrants to learn English. They voted and held office, and their children passed through the public schools. Most of the nearly five thousand Kansans of Danish descent now think of themselves rather as Americans than as Danes. But all are proud of their Danish fathers and mothers who braved the loneliness, droughts, grasshoppers and Indian raids to build better human habitations on the western prairies.

Though some have been successful business men, the Danes in Kansas have contributed most to the upbuilding of the state as farmers and mechanics. Danes frequently have a strong bent for study and not a few of the Kansas Danes have become public-school teachers. Two of the best-known Danes in Kansas are Carl Busch,[9] the composer, in Kansas City and Dr. Jens P. Jensen, a writer on economic subjects, and now also a professor at the University of Kansas.


Danske i Amerika, 2 vols. (C. Rosmussen Co., Minneapolis, Minn., 1908). The most complete history of the Danes in the United States. It is in Danish. Volume 2 is still in process of publication.

N. S. Lawdahl: De Danske Baptister (Morgan Park, Ill., 1909). The standard work in Danish on the Danish Baptists in the United States.

John Bille: A History of the Danes in America (Madison, Wis., 1896). Deals largely with the controversy between the Grundtvigians and the Inner Mission people. Contains the only mention I have found of the Logan county colony.

T. P. Christensen: A History of the Danes in Iowa (a doctor's thesis, 1924). The manuscript is in the possession of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Contains a longer introduction on the Danes in the United States.

C. Bernhardt: Indian Raids in Lincoln County, Kansas, 1864 and 1869 (The Lincoln Sentinel Print, Lincoln, Kan., 1910).

Vance Thompson: "Organized Thrift"; The Cosmopolitan, vol. XXIX (May, 1900), pp.319-325. Mr. Thompson gives a personal impression of Louis Pio as he appeared in old age. This is excellent, but his statements about the colony are erroneous. I have based my own account of the colony largely upon an article by W. A. Hansen reprinted in Dannevirke, February 14, 1906, from Nordlyset, a Danish-American weekly published in New York City. Mr. Hansen was the manager of the colony near Hays City.

I have also used the old files of Dannevirke (Cedar Fall, Iowa, 1880-1926), and Luthersk Ugeblad (successor to Danskeren, Blair, Neb., 1920-1926). Much information was obtained from the Reverend Holger Kock, Denmark, Kan., about the Denmark settlement. I have also drawn on my own wide knowledge of Danish-American life and history.


1. Culturally the Finns are Scandinavians, though only the Swedish-speaking Finns are usually considered so racially.
2. In 1900 Kansas had 56 Finns, 970 Norwegians.
3. The Swedes and Norwegians each outnumber the Danes in Iowa by several thousand.
4. Nearly all Danes than and now in Denmark belong, at least in name, to the Lutheran Church.
5. The first cooperative creamery in Denmark was built in 1882.
6. A terrible calamity befell the little settlement the same year that the first Danish immigrants arrived there. On Sunday afternoon, May 30, 1869, about sixty Indians attached the settlement, killing five, three of them were Danes. A few years ago a monument was raised at the Lincoln county courthouse to commemorate the hardihood of these victims of danger incident to frontier life. At the same time a pamphlet was published by C. Bernhardt, one of the Denmark settlers, under the title of "Indian Raids," giving a detailed account of the massacre.
7. Another Danish Socialist who came to the United States at this time was Lauritz Grovelund. He wrote "The Cooperative Commonwealth."
8. Denmark received its first liberal constitution June 5, 1849. It granted manhood suffrage. This privilege was later abridged, but has lately been restored.
9. Strictly speaking, Mr. Busch is a Missouri Dane, since he lives in Kansas City, Mo.