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North Dakota Danes


One of the first items visitors encounter in the Scandinavian Heritage Park of Minot is a life-size bronze statue of Hans Christian Anderson. Anderson was born in Denmark over two centuries ago, but his fairy tales are today known worldwide. The statue was dedicated by the Souris River Danish Society on this day, October 5, 2004, in anticipation of Anderson’s 200th birthday.

Upon first glance, a memorial to a Danish man who never stepped foot in the United States, let alone the vast prairies of North Dakota, seems a bit strange. But the 2000 Census records provide some tantalizing clues. Out of a population of over 640,000, more than 9,000 people living in North Dakota claimed Danish ancestry.

Danes had been exploring and settling in North America since the 17th century. But the largest wave of Danish immigrants opened with the conclusion of the Civil War and lasted through the 1920’s. Over that span of fifty years, nearly 300,000 Danes would immigrate to the United States. The majority would be drawn to the Midwest states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota and of course North Dakota.

Danes settled all over the state. Records from 1910 reveal Danish immigrants living in all but three counties. But the largest and best-known Danish settlement was found at the junction of Burke, Renville and Ward Counties. Active recruitment from the Soo Line and assistance from a church in Minnesota prompted this great influx into the region. By 1910, one-quarter of all Danes in North Dakota resided in Burke, Renville and Ward Counties. For this reason, they have displayed more Danish activity over a longer period of time than any other region in the state. Brorson High School, a Danish Folk School near Kenmare, instructed students in both English and Danish until its closure in 1914. The log cabin of Jens Dixon, who settled in northern Ward County, is currently on display at the Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn, Iowa. The names of Denmark and Daneville Townships are reminders of their earliest settlers. The Kenmare windmill, built around the turn-of-the-century by a Danish immigrant, still attracts tourists to the community.

But what about the Danes in the rest of North Dakota? Danes were among the ten largest immigrant groups in the state, yet they are seldom recognized as some of North Dakota’s early pioneers. According to historian Playford V. Thorson, their population was small. Most did not live in Danish communities, but lived among Norwegians, Swedes and Germans. Danes were more likely to intermarry with other ethnic groups and they embraced a variety of religions. In general, the Danes assimilated more rapidly to American life than did other European immigrants. Yet Thorson is also quick to acknowledge that there was a quiet pride in Danish culture. “They would manifest this in the New World, not in showy group display, but in low-keyed individual achievement. To most Danish Americans, this meant becoming a good American as soon as possible, which, in fact, is what they did.”

Written by Christina Campbell


Sherman, William C. and Playford V. Thorson, ed. Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo: ND Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU; 1988)