August Rasmussen 1829-1919

The Escape to America

- by Lisbeth Pedersen and Mads Findal Andreasen
Translated into English by Mr. Jesper Wind.


165 years ago August and Ane Rasmussen said goodbye to relatives and friends in Sæby parish. They had made a decision to seek political and social freedom in the United States, because of the absence of both for their social class in the old country.
Many more Danes were to follow suit in years to come.

The 150-year anniversary of the Danish constitution was celebrated throughout Denmark in 1999. Probably few people realized that 1999 was also the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of the State Smallholder legislation.
An emigrant story from the year 1856 illustrates that even if the Constitution introduced democracy in Denmark, a long time passed before democracy also meant political and social freedom for everyone. Those freedoms became reality largely because of the passage of the State Smallholder legislation in 1899.
The main characters are August and Ane Rasmussen, who in 1856 emigrated from Sæby parish east of Tissø in West Zealand to Greenville, Michigan, USA, where they laid the foundation for the Big Dane Settlement. The next year 36 friends and relatives from the same parish followed the Rasmussens and thus began a pattern of emigration that during the following decades had a profound effect throughout the parishes around Tissø.

The politicians abandoned the smallholders

Let it be known immediately: This story is unsuitable for sensitive landowners and thinskinned vicars. The story revolves around memoirs written by the 70-year-old August Rasmussen, as they appeared in the Greenville local newspaper, "The Independent" in 1902.
Here he carefully describes why he and his young bride chose to leave Denmark and seek their fortune in the unknown America. In 1904 the memoirs were published in booklet form in both English and Danish. Around 1912 a Danish copy came to the Kalundborg Regional Museum's library in a peculiar way - more about that later.
If one considers August Rasmussen's explanations of why almost 40 citizens from one single parish chose to leave Denmark, a clear picture emerges which shows the living conditions of people without land and of the smallholder families in the time of the introduction of the Constitution. In the middle of the 1800's the politicians actually gave up promoting the establishment of more smallholder farms, because, in the politicians´ opinion, this segment of the population was already at the bursting point. Had the politicians continued this promotion, they could have hindered that a huge unpropertied class in the countryside had to support themselves by working for others. Not until the 1880's and 1890's did certain spokesmen such as the teacher and author Johan Skjoldborg, argue stubbornly for the establishment of more small farms, where families could survive without having to work for others. It was the work of the Landbokommission (Countrymen Commission) 1894-1899, which created the political foundation for the creation of a certain number of new small farms with state subsidies. These improvements would raise the standard of living for a large group of country laborers. Those farms had 6-8 acres of land, which wasn't much compared to the 80 acres of land August had purchased in USA some 40 years earlier.

"I gave my back to the squire's cane"

August and Ane counted among the individuals who were unable to own land. They were 27 years old when they emigrated in 1856. He came from poor smallholder conditions in Halleby Ore - an outlying area located along the Halleby stream, where the land belonged to the region's large estates. At that time Sæby parish had about 1700 inhabitants who supported themselves by agriculture and forestry together with grain and saw milling. Five or six large estates dominated the parish. A few small villages plus a number of smallholder farms and the dwellings of day laborers were scattered around the landscape.

Thoersoehus - a typical smallholder farm in the Halleby Ore area. The big fields behind the farm do not belong to the smallholder. Aerial photo from before 1951. Belongs to Høng Lokalhistoriske Arkiv     Thorsøhus - a typical smallholder farm in the Halleby Ore area.
The big fields behind the farm do not belong to the smallholder.
Aerial photo from before 1951. Belongs to Høng Lokalhistoriske Arkiv

August Rasmussen had three reasons to emigrate. He wanted land, he wanted to live under an elected president and he wanted to live in a place where all people were treated fairly.
He wrote: "There was neither land nor opportunity for us. We were slaves to the government, the nobility and to the authorities, both temporal and religious. Our rewards were miserable food and poor wages. Whether or not a man enjoyed his legal rights depended entirely on the question of wealth. The squires demolished our fathers' houses and farms, and the small plots were added to the large estate fields. These same men accumulated houses and fields until there was no more available land in the country. Thus the squires alone could remain there, bringing God's woe upon themselves".
Later he adds: "I gave my back to the squire's cane and my jersey to the first lieutenant's flat of the sword and my cheek bone to the farm bailiff's slap on the ear. Beatings and blows were not allowed, but those in charge did still hit the little ones. They knew our rights were nonexistent".

August and his Ane grew up during the last decades of the absolute monarchy, the vicissitudes of which left a mark on them for the rest of their lives. It was a patriarchal society with a rigid class structure, the king, of course, being at the top. Below him the nobility, squires, vicars and civil servants ruled over shopkeepers, farmers and workmen, while smallholders, people without land and laborers served at the very bottom of society.
After completing his schooling at Buerup School as a 14-year-old, August came to earn his living at estates and with farm owners in the Kalundborg region. After the confirmation of August, the vicar complained that his son, who was a schoolmate of August's, wasn't as bright. The vicar's son was deaf as well. August later wrote: "Given that social class was hereditary, the stupid and deaf became vicars or civil servants while the bright and wise would face a future under miserable conditions at the bottom of society". In his memoirs August did not agree with the saying of the absolute monarchy: "The individual to whom God gives the office, he also gives the intellect".

"Good administration of justice and beautiful girls"

As a farmhand August lived under harsh conditions. He served as a farmhand for three and a half years at Bregningegård about 17 kilometers east of Kalundborg. Here his master refused him medical treatment during illness, and once, when he forgot to take off his cap to the squire of Algestrup, he was beaten. However, around 1853 he read a letter sent home from the U.S. by a schoolmate, Christian Jensen, and August immediately came down with a severe case of "America fever". Christian was, in August's words, "a young man, with little learning, but he was resolute, fearless and always of good courage".
He had been a soldier and participated in the battle of Fredericia, but afterwards he was dissatisfied with a future as a farmhand. He left the country, walked to France, put out to sea, went ashore in USA and ended up in Greenville, Michigan. From there he wrote that in America there were "enormous plains and forests to be purchased for almost nothing. The Americans are honest people; a president who is elected for four years governs the country. Here is a good administration of justice and beautiful girls".

August was not interested in the girls - he had Ane. But he wanted land. So when he had finished his military service in Altona, the young couple began saving money for the voyage to America. He did piecework as a lumberjack, and she earned a fairly good wage as a kitchen girl.
August and Ane's living conditions while growing up had been so hard that they agreed not to have children unless they were able to offer the children a better life than the one they had had themselves. This would probably have been difficult in Denmark. In the second half of the 1800's the small farmers fell behind financially as well as socially, in part because the demand on farmland increased. Therefore few could afford to employ new farming methods such as draining and marling, or to replace bullocks with horses. People without land were left to work for farm owners and squires, who often owned the houses in which the day laborers lived. If the laborers became disabled, or grew too old to work, the public poor house was often their only resort. If they availed themselves of this public support, then they sacrificed many of their civil rights.

The journey to the unknown

In 1856, after four years of engagement and exchange of letters, Ane and August had saved enough money to marry and pursue their dream of emigration to America.
The vicar announced their decision when reading the banns in the church, and reactions were, according to August, very mixed. The squires were critical, saying that it was only the dregs of society that left the country, and that America was akin to Sodom and Gomorrah. Others said that August and Ane should lead the way and that they, if conditions were as Christian Jensen asserted, would follow the next year.

    August and Ane's traveling route in the USA 1856.
The journey took place by train,stagecoach and by foot. The newly weds spent four hours at Niagara Falls, which August called "this wonder".
(Map Bendt Nielsen.)


April 25th the couple was married in Sæby church and on the 10th of May they bid farewell to family and friends and "aimed for that spot in the horizon where the sun sets every evening".
Accompanied by the nightingale's warbles they went along the banks of Tissø for the last time, passed the idyllic little church with the family graves and continued to Slagelse.
From there they caught the train to Korsør, sailed to Kiel and drove on by train to Altona and Hamburg, Germany. Next they sailed to Hull, England, where they continued by train to Liverpool. There, along with 300 fellow passengers, they boarded a sailing ship bound for New York City. This voyage lasted two months in gales, fog and headwind. In New York City some of their luggage was stolen. However, by far the worst leg of the journey in terms of filth, vermin and crowded conditions was experienced on the train ride from New York to Kalamazoo, Michigan. From Kalamazoo they continued by stagecoach for two days and finally they walked for one day to reach Christian Jensen's cottage. All together their journey had lasted three months.

When the Rasmussens finally arrived at their destination, their luggage was missing, and they had nothing left but the cloth on their backs. The disappointment was even greater when they realized that conditions in Christian Jensen's home fell far short of those he had described in his letters. He lived in a miserable little cottage, owned no land, and Christian's wife could hardly be understood. She was an Indian and spoke little Danish!

Ane´s chest     Ane Frederiksdatter's chest.
Ane purchased it as a young girl in 1845, and it is similar in shape, colors and decorations to other chests exhibited by Kalundborg Regional Museum.
Many of the couple's belongings including hollyhock seeds were packed in this chest.
The chest was shipped to Grandville and didn't reach Greenville until 10 weeks after August and Ane had arrived.
Today it is standing in the home of August Rasmussen's grandchild, Clayton Rasmussen. Photo Mads Findal Andreasen, 1999.

August buys land

August and Christian were still able to acquire land thanks to another Dane who worked at one of the many sawmills around Greenville.

A couple of weeks after their arrival August purchased 80 acres of land at $2.00 an acre. This was a size similar to many owner-occupied farms in Denmark.
August chose a piece of land situated by a stream that flowed into the Flat River, which powered several saw and grain mills. This pastoral setting along a stream was very much like the Halleby Ore, where August grew up. They would have to work for years to pay off the land, but that did not deter Ane and August.

It was with great excitement that they, at Christmas 1856, wrote home to Denmark telling their loved ones about the land that would be all their own. In the month of August the following year 36 relatives and friends from Sæby parish arrived, young and old alike. Among these newcomers was August's 65-year-old mother.

The first Danish immigrants financed their land purchases by working for other farmers and at the sawmills around Greenville. Moreover they sold much of the wood they felled while clearing the fields. Later on lumber companies cleared the forests, and they in turn sold the land. This meant that settlers purchased property covered with stumps, which had to be removed before the land was suitable for farming. Thus they had the arduous task of clearing the land, but no profit from sale of the wood. In their new country the immigrants had to work for others as they did in Denmark. However, the crucial difference was that they received decent wages and had the opportunity to purchase land.

During the following decades many more families from the Kalundborg region followed in the footsteps of the pioneers from Sæby. A chain immigration to the Greenville area had begun. In his memoirs August used the word "pioneers" in referring to the individuals who led the way for themselves or others, and the life of a pioneer was not easy. Death, crop failures and hard work were a part of the pioneer life. Some were successful. Others were less so, but August recounted with satisfaction the way in which the Danish colony developed during the second half of the 19th century. He underlined that many children received an education, and that many Danish men had held public positions of trust. Several had become wealthy. This would hardly have been the case had they stayed at home in Denmark.


Young girl from the Tissø-area




Potawatomi-indian from Michigan. August and especially Ane had regular contact with indians, and traded often with them. August describes the indians as a good people, if they are met with honesty - otherwise they are vindictive and bloodthirsty.
Painted by Paul Kane, 1845.


Young girl from the Tissø area in her Sunday best.
Drawing based on the original dress in the collections of Museum Vestsjaelland, Kalundborg Museum.






Unbelieving vicars

It was also important to August Rasmussen to stress that the Danish colony supported soldiers of the Union Army during the American Civil war, and that this contribution was not without sacrifice.

Given the social setting in which these Danes grew up, it is no surprise that they were strong supporters of the abolitionist movement. Christian Jensen went so far as to enlist in the Union Army. After the battle of Fredericia he considered himself invulnerable, but he was hit by a bullet in the head and died instantly in his first battle on American soil.
August was impressed by the fact that in his new country young men were paid decent wages for service to their country. This stood in stark contrast to the situation in Denmark where young men had been conscripted with minimum pay before the advent of the Constitution in 1849. The Constitution of 1849 had of course introduced general conscription for all young men, which also had been the rule when August was a soldier. However, he grew up in a time when only the country dweller's sons and persons in comparable positions such as those of millers, innkeepers and country schoolteachers had to do military service to king and country. The social imbalance in military recruitment that August experienced as a young man marked his attitudes for the rest of his life. That is why he did not participate in the national excitement in Denmark in the years following 1848, when the Danes had won a victory against an uprising in the German dominated parts of the monarchy. On the contrary, August was eager to escape from his homeland before the next armed conflict.

What counted foremost in America was that the citizens, as free men, received a fair wage for a fair day's work. August recalled Danish squires, farm owners and vicars with nothing but bitterness.
He considered the vicars, who often were sons of farm owners or civil servants, as unbelievers who only had a taste for card playing, beer, liquor and indecent language. He referred for one thing to his own experiences as a youngster, for another to the description of true Christianity, which the founder of "Indre Mission", Vilhelm Bech, had given from his home in the rectory in Ubby a few kilometers from Sæby. Pastor Lind of Sæby, who had married August and Ane, was another exception. As a prison chaplain in Copenhagen, Lind had gained an understanding of social need, and he was one of the few who supported August and Ane in their decision to seek a better life in the United States.


The first schoolhouse and church in the Danish Settlement, build 1860.
Photo: Unknown


Changes takes time

The mass emigration from Sæby parish which August and Ane started in 1857 was a reaction to Danish living conditions for their social class. When about two percent of the population in one single parish chose to emigrate at the same time for the reasons described by the Rasmussens, this was tantamount to an exodus or an escape.
Emigration from Denmark increased significantly during the period 1860-80, when the poverty problems became severe, both in the countryside and in the cities. Thus the country lost a capable and rich human resource. However, it is without doubt that Ane, August and many of those who followed them did the right thing when they chose to become solid and hard working pioneers in the American society. With the Constitution in 1849 they had of course gained significantly more civil rights compared to those they had during their adolescence under the absolute monarchy, but their opportunities to improve their situation in Denmark were rather limited.

Inertia became characteristic of Denmark in the 1850's. The Constitution with its new social benefits, was actually a Cultural Revolution. Such revolutions are rarely implemented from one day to another; neither are social benefits redistributed likewise. It became a showdown against an ancient authoritarian rule, whose attitude toward life penetrated the entire population's way of thinking. Within the old system there was no such thing as individual rights. Only those who were granted authority by their superiors enjoyed some privileges, which included decisionmaking.

In reality these attitudes remained in practice long after the Constitution's introduction, and they were in conflict with the notion of individual rights following the aforementioned revolution in 1848. Many affluent people made no effort to understand the concept of democracy, and there were even several among the poor who barely realized that a new democratic government had been introduced in Denmark. Only about 14 percent of the population had the right to vote for candidates for the Folketing or to be elected to it. Even fewer were eligible for the Landsting.

Intellectually gifted and full of social indignation, August would no doubt have been a very disgruntled citizen, if he and Ane had remained in Denmark. This couple is a classic example of the type of persons who were left out by the Agricultural Reforms at the end of the 1700's.
The fact that they were unable to own land coupled with the increased population growth, which took place especially during the second half of the 1800's, created a surplus of cheap labor. In Denmark conditions were not as bad as they were in Norway and Sweden for instance. Thus the number of emigrants that left our neighboring countries was much higher than in Denmark.

Chance creates renewed contacts to the old country

After his articles were published in "The Independent", August Rasmussen received many letters from both Americans and Danish-Americans. This prompted him to translate the memoirs into Danish and to send booklets back home to Danish acquaintances. One of these acquaintances was Karoline Graves, who was a docent and attendant at Kalundborg Regional Museum, but who was probably best known for her efforts as a folklore collector and author.
She and August corresponded for a number of years, and in 1912 she presented a Danish edition of Rasmussen's memoirs to the library of Kalundborg Regional Museum.

In 1999 the "The Daily News", the successor of "The Independent" in Greenville, invited the museum's two keepers to address the region's residents about this immigration from Sæby parish, West Zealand in 1856/57. This contact was established through co-operation between Kalundborg Regional Museum and University of Wisconsin, which has been going on for a number of years. This co-operation has mainly been dealing with archaeological excavations at different places in Northwest Zealand. Also young Danes have visited our collaborators at different places in USA. From the library in Greenville they brought home a Xerox of the English edition of Rasmussen's memoirs. The archaeological connection suddenly focused on a common historical background between the Kalundborg region and Greenville.

August Rasmussen - 70 years old - in his beloved golden rocking chair. Photo: Unknown    

August Rasmussen - 70 years old - in his beloved golden rocking chair. Photo: Unknown


Church struggle and assimilation

This story reflects a time of social and political unrest and upheaval in Denmark. August asserted that neither his fellow Americans nor his descendants could ever comprehend the deplorable circumstances and the tremendous difficulties to which the poor had been exposed in the old country. Most people today cannot fathom the degree of privation suffered by August and his peers. That is the reason why the Museum's managers were invited to the United States to lecture about the Kalundborg region then and now. In the Greenville area there still exist many enclaves where names such as Rasmussen, Larsen, Jensen, Nielsen and Pedersen illustrate the Danish roots. The cemeteries and the churches' history even reflect how even in the new country the congregations were divided into Grundvigian and Indre Mission groupings. While the Grundtvigians wanted to maintain their distinctive Danish character, language and "national spirit", the supporters of Indre Mission enforced fast assimilation. To them it was not the language, but the words of the Bible which were sacred, regardless of the language in which it was published.

In his 1902 memoirs August noted that many of his deceased friends would scarcely recognize the nowenterprising region, which had been transformed from virgin
forest into productive fields of agriculture. He had learned that in Denmark, too, conditions had improved. This he attributed to the emigrants from whom the squires had learned that they must choose between doing the work themselves and improving wages and food for the laborers.
If August were to visit the Kalundborg region today, he would hardly recognize his childhood's paths. For instance many of the small houses and farms that were once the homes of the smallholders and day labor, are now the well restored homes of farmers, part-time farmers and people who work in Høng, Kalundborg or Copenhagen.
These remarkable and most welcome improvements are a direct result of both the 1849 Constitution and the State Smallholder legislation of 1899.

Notes & explanations

Battle of Fredericia:
The war 1848-1851 between Denmark and Germany. The bloody battle of Fredericia took place the 6th July 1849 - and was won by the Danes. Back

Reading the banns:
Public announcement in church that two people intend to get married. In the 1800's the vicar read the banns three subsequent Sundays calling for objections. Back

Next armed conflict was the Second Schleswig War (1864), in which Denmark lost both the duchy of Schleswig and the duchy of Holsten. Back

Indre Mission:
Danish fundamentally oriented Christian denomination. Back

The Danish parliament. Back

Second chamber of the parliament. Discontinued in 1953. Thus the Danish parliament changed into a one-chamber system. Back

Danish liberal oriented Christian denomination. Back


K. Graves: Ved Halleby Aa, 1921
K. Graves: En Almuekvindes liv, Roskilde 1927
L. Hedegaard: Forskelle i bosættelsesmønster og assimileringsprocessen. Unpublished manuscript.
H. Hvidt: Danmarks historie nr. 11. 1850-1900. Gyldendal og Politiken. O. Olsen ed.
T. Kaarsted: Tøffel"tyven". En 100 år gammel justitssag fra Løve herred. Fra Holbæk Amt XV.Bind, 2. Årgang. 1957
August Rasmussen: Pionerlivet i det store danske Settlement. Montcalm County, Michigan, North America 1856-1904.
T.W. Smith: Vi vil rejse nye huse. Statshusmandsloven af 1899. Landbohistorisk Selskab 1999.






August and Ane Rasmussen.

The pictures were taken in the United States before Ane died in 1880. August and Ane were determined that their children should have a better life in the new country than the two of them had experienced in Denmark.
None of their children survived. Their firstborn was buried in 1859 in a corner of the newly purchased land.
This funeral became the foundation of Little Denmark Cemetery, where many of the immigrants later were buried. August died in 1919.
Descendants of August Rasmussen's second marriage to a Norwegian woman still live close to Greenville. (Unknown photographer)












Headstone, marking the graves of August and Ane's two children - William (1857-59) and Laura (1861)

Headstone of William and Laura Rasmussen.

William was the first born son of Ane and August. He died in 1859 and became the first Greenville-Dane to be buried in a corner of August's farm. Because August swore that this grave never should be moved, his plot later became a public graveyard known as the Little Denmark Cemetery. Photo Lisbeth Pedersen, 1999.
















Medal for participation in the three-years war (1848-51) between Denmark and Schlesvig-Holsten/Germany. Photo by Mads Findal Andreasen, 1999

Service medal for participation in the First Schleswig War (1848-51) between Denmark and Schleswig-Holsten/Germany.
This medal was not awarded to Christian Jensen for participation in the war, but to another Danish Montcalm citizen, who participated in the war and afterwards appied for the service medal in 1876.
Christian Jensen was killed during the American Civil War in the first battle in which he participated (The Battle of Stones River).
The medal now belongs to Mr. Clayton Rasmussen, grandson of August Rasmussen. Photo Mads Findal Andreasen.




































Settlers' log cabin

Settlers' log cabin from around 1865 in the large forests in Michigan.
It was in similar surroundings Ane and August started their new life in Greenville.
Photo B.F. Childs, L. Hammelev's collection.








































Sæby Church

Sæby church 1999.
August and Ane were married one April day in 1856 in this idyllic village church built in the 1100's.
There was a world of difference between the services held in this medieval church and those held in the primitive log cabin used as church in the United States.
Photo Lisbeth Pedersen, 1999













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