Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Place-names with a Danish ring, such as Dannevirke, Nebraska, and Viborg, South Dakota, testify to the founding of Danish settlements during the chief migration of Danes to the Great Plains of the United States from 1860 to 1895. Most of these settlers were dispossessed farmers taking advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, which made possible their dream of landownership. The establishment of railroads provided additional incentive for emigration, as large tracts of land owned by the railroad companies were made available and transportation was provided. Unlike their Nordic neighbors, the Danish settlers tended to scatter widely, with no more than 11 percent of the total settling in one state. In Kansas, for example, a number of settlements were the result of Danes fleeing Prussian rule of their home province of North Schleswig in the wake of Denmark's 1864 war with Prussia. During the first decade of settlement survival was difficult. Cultivation methods learned at home were useless on prairie land, where wheat and corn were the main crops. In Danevang, Texas, the southernmost Danish settlement in the Plains, the techniques for growing cotton had to be learned. One aspect of their traditional farming system of cooperatives did transfer, however, and the impact of Danish dairy cooperatives can still be seen today.

Settlements in North Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan represent the second migration of the Danes, many of whom were forced to leave the midwestern states as a result of rising land prices. Favorable Canadian homestead legislation added to the pull of the north. In addition, the United States' enactment of restrictive immigrant quotas in 1924 diverted a significant number of prospective emigrants to Canada. Settlements in such cities as Omaha and Calgary reflected the increasing occupational diversity of the immigrants, from commerce to the professions, which contributed to wider settler dispersion.

Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century immigrants in both rural and urban areas had established their own churches and folk schools, many clergy-inspired, as well as fraternal societies, including the Danish Brotherhood, social clubs, and newspapers. The Danish Pioneer, the largest Danish newspaper, was founded in Omaha in 1872 and is still being published. An 1894 split within the Danish Lutheran church in North America led to the formation of two organizations serving the Danes. One branch was headquartered at Blair, Nebraska. Its seminary, Trinity College, also at Blair, evolved into a liberal arts college, Dana College, which today houses an impressive archival collection related to Danish immigration to North America. The Dana Folk School in Calgary is also associated with the Blair synod. The other branch, shaped by the thought of N. F. S. Grundtvig, an influential Danish pastor and educator, saw as a major part of its mission the preservation of Danish language and heritage via the founding of colonies. Settlements such as Danevang, Texas, and Dagmar, Montana, and folk schools like Dalum Folk School in Dalum, Alberta, were the direct results of its support. Almost all the folk schools were forced to close in the 1930s due to the Depression and poor enrollment.

Today's chain of Danish brotherhood and sisterhood lodges and social clubs, located in Canada and throughout the United States, serve to maintain and promote Danish heritage and culture. So does the Federation of Danish Associations in Canada. The Danes of the Great Plains have made major contributions to American and Canadian life and culture. Two Danes of exceptional talents were Niels Hansen, a distinguished pioneering horticulturist associated with South Dakota State College, and Gutzon Borghlum, the sculptor known for his monumental carvings on Mount Rushmore in North Dakota.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Danish Architecture / IMAGES AND ICONS: Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Marianne Stølen University of Washington

Bender, H., and B. Flemming Larsen, eds. Danish Emigration to Canada. Aalborg, Denmark: Danes Worldwide Archives, 1991.

Hvidt, Kristian. Flight to America: The Social Background of 300,000 Danish Emigrants. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Nielsen, George R. The Danish Americans. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

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