Exploring my Danish roots

expatriate daydreams
I've been obsessed with Denmark for a long time now. It's a combination of liberal politics, collectivist culture, savvy urban planning, history, landscape and climate, tall men, you name it and I'm drawn to it. For those that know me well, take 17 seconds to scroll down the landing page of this website and tell me if every single highlight isn't so perfectly me. It just feels comfortable, like home. And it is home, in a way.

My mom's dad's family is Swedish, full of Malmquists and Bjornbergs from Stockholm. Her mom's line is a common English/Irish/UK mix. My dad's maternal line is Russian and German. My genes go back to Chester A. Arthur - US President No.21, John Williams - advocate of religious freedom, freedom from religion, and founder of Providence, Rhode Island,  a woman my gramma referred to only as "the Jewish gypsy" (love that), and other assorted characters I've yet to learn about.

However, for whatever reason, I feel most drawn to Denmark and to the experiences of my dad's dad, Otto Jessen. He came to the states at age 23 in 1929, from Alslev and then Ravnsbjerg, Denmark.

One of the lingering regrets of my life is that I didn't tune into this passion for Denmark until my grandpa Otto had already passed away in the spring semester of my freshman year at college. I wasted so many vacations in Iowa being a teenager and doing what teenagers do, which is waste time. If I could go back I would record every single story and word out of his mouth, I'd ask so many questions.

Part of My Happiness Project in 2013 is to research my Danish roots. Genealogy has to start somewhere and I'm starting with Otto and working my way back. A secondary reason I'm doing this, in addition to my primary desire to learn all about his life, is to generate energy around my goal to live in Denmark. Not to take a vacation. Not to enroll is whatever PhD will get me over there for a couple years. To live. Live for real. For a long time. I've researched expat websites and yes, even a few grueling doctoral program. I'm unclear for now as to how to make it happen. But again, even that has to start somewhere. In a small way, I feel like the three hours I spent at the Family History Library this weekend moved me in the right direction.

The Great Dane, per his declaration, grandpa Otto.
Here is what I learned so far:

Otto was born 28 September 1905 in Alslev (parish), Skast (district), Ribe (county).

He was child number seven for Kristen Thomsen Jessen and Dorthea Marie Andersen. Older siblings include: Karen Kristine (1891), Niels Paulsen (1896), Ane Katrine (1898), Anton Marinus (1899), Dagmar (1901), and Egner (1904). Herluf came after Otto in 1908.

Dorthea was 42 years old when she had Otto. In 1905. In farmland rural Denmark. And he was child number seven. The woman was not messing around. #vikingstock

Kristen, in some census records spelled Christen, and Dorthea Marie were born and christened (Lutheran) in the same parish of Tistrup (also in Ribe, the same county in which Otto was born). Kristen was a farmer, as was Otto once he made it to Iowa. Kristen was five years older than his wife. He passed away in July 1931, and Dorthea followed in April 1932, a couple years after Otto arrived in the United States.

I found the entire family (minus unborn Herluf) listed in a 1906 census (folketællings) in Alslev, where Otto had just been born in 1905. I found a birth record (fødte kirkebøger (look at me go)) for Herluf in Alslev in 1908, but then the family is not in the 1911 census for that parish. Where does a farmer, tied to the land, take a wife and eight children in 190-something? That's a mystery I get to work on next time.

It's a surreal feeling, to find something like this and actually see it on paper. 

I also found the passenger list for the ship that brought Otto to America. He said he was born in Alslev, but his last residence was in Ravnsbjerg. His travel visa was issued in September 1928, so I tried to find census records from Ravnsbjerg in 1925 (the last record before 1930, when he was already gone). That city doesn't exist in the census records. It's thrown me for a loop and I can't figure out why they wouldn't have done a census there. Google Earth circa 2013 shows all sorts of life and stuff going on in Ravnsbjerg, Denmark; but for some reason, 1925 census workers weren't keen on it. I need to know what county and district it's in (which I couldn't figure out online, but that would help).

At any rate, it was the first time I've ever done any research like this and I'm already looking forward to my next trip to the library. Granted many of the research sites are available to me online (i.e. the statens arkivers  (Danish state archives at Arkivalieronline.dk), but the itty bitty Danish grandmother who works at the Scandinavian research desk does not get to come home with me. She was enthusiastic, excited by the double ss in my last name, and helpful in teaching me all sorts of useful words that will no doubt help me navigate Denmark once I arrive:

kirkebøger: church record
søg: search
opslag: page
folketælling: census
amt: county
sogn: parish
herred: district
landsogn: rural
fødte: birth
døbte: baptism
copulerede: marriage
døde: death
begravede: burials

Oh yeah, I'll be the hit of expat singles mixer. Just you wait, Denmark. Just you wait.


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