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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

The Danes

Like the immigrants of countless other nations, many immigrants from Denmark came to the United States for religious reasons. The Danish immigrants of the 19th century were unique, however, in that they came to North America as part of the first mass influx of the pilgrims of a new religion: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

For centuries, small groups of Danes had visited and lived on the shores of the New World. Danes had joined Dutch expeditions to navigate the Hudson River in the 17th century, and in 1728 the Danish explorer Vitus Bering charted the Alaskan straits that bear his name. The New Amsterdam colony was home to many prominent Danes, including Jonas Bronck, whose land north of Manhattan Island became widely known as Bronck's, and, eventually, the Bronx. In addition, small numbers of Danes fled the established Dutch Reform Church to join larger, usually German, religious communities on the East Coast.

The greatest surge of Danish immigration came, however, in the wake of a small group of missionaries who arrived in Copenhagen in 1850, spreading the word of a new faith from America. In the following years, several thousand Danes converted to Mormonism, and roughly half of those converts left for the United States—nearly 20,000 by the end of the century. Once in the U.S., most joined their fellow believers on the trek to the distant territory of Utah, an arduous journey of many months, usually made on foot. The terse, handwritten diary of Danish immigrant John Peter Rasmus Johnson conveys some sense of the hardships of the trek, as the travelers endured disease, dangerous weather and terrain, and attacks by bandits, anti-Mormon vigilantes, and hostile Native Americans. By the end of the 19th century, Utah was home to the largest community of Danish immigrants in the United States.

Danish farm home, Iowa

At the same time, many Danish immigrants came to the U.S. for economic and social reasons, seeking a new beginning, insulation from European wars, or a stronger economy. Denmark had, however, avoided much of the land loss and famine that plagued their Scandinavian neighbors in the 19th century, and never lost as great a percentage of its population to emigration as did Norway and Sweden.

The Danes who did seek a new life in the U.S. settled primarily in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, the Dakotas, and Iowa, which eventually became the most Danish of all states. Danes were more urban than most other Scandinavian immigrants, and although many tried grain and dairy farming upon their arrival in the U.S., most eventually moved to cities and towns. Some towns and neighborhoods took on an entirely Danish character, but by and large the Danes mingled within larger communities, preserving their own religious and linguistic traditions, but living and working alongside neighbors who were often Scandinavian immigrants themselves. By the 1970s, roughly 360,000 Danes had settled in the United States.