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Dakota Datebook

Olaus Jörgensen Abelseth


On this date in 1913, Olaus Abelseth was celebrating his mother’s birthday, and felt fortunate to be alive, having survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Abelseth was a laborer and sailor from Norway. He came to America years before the Titanic existed with his brother Hans around 1902 or 1903. He lived in Hatton where he worked at different farms around the Red River Valley. He eventually made his way to South Dakota where he started a livestock farm in Perkins County. The farm struggled, so he went back to Norway.


In the fall of 1911, Olaus left New York on a steamship headed for Glasgow. From there, he continued on to Scandinavia, but the following year he was headed back to America, sailing on the Titanic with some friends and relatives. As the last lifeboat pulled away, Olaus, his cousin and stepbrother were left behind, with the cold water closing in. Olaus jumped from about five feet up and managed to surface, but his relatives did not. He swam for about 20 minutes before finding a lifeboat. He tried to climb on but someone yelled, “Don’t capsize the boat!” He clung to the side until he was finally allowed to scramble aboard, but the lifeboat was no safe haven. The bottom was full of water and Olaus tried to revive a freezing man, urging him to look up as the Carpathia came to rescue them, but the man died with the dawn. Another man wrapped his arms around Olaus only to slip away as well, leaving him to pry off cold fingers.


The lifeboat finally reached the Carpathia at 7:00 am where Olaus was greeted with a warm blanket and rushed to the dining room for brandy and hot coffee. In New York he stayed at St. Vincent Hospital for a time, and testified before the US Senate Inquiry.


Olaus eventually returned to his livestock farm in South Dakota where he married Anna Grinde in July 1915. They lived on the farm for 30 years and had four children. He retired in 1946 to Reeder, North Dakota. He would later live in Hettinger, and that’s where Olaus died on December 4, 1980 at age 94. 


Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas




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