We all have legends among our family stories. Some are linked to historical celebrities (my 3x great-grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt); some to historic events (my ancestors lived through the Great Chicago Fire); and some are inspiringly personal (my 4x great grandmother raised 12 kids on her own).
Many family history adventures start when someone wants to learn the truth behind one of the family legends. And, as professional researchers, we’ve learned time and again that many of these legends do have a kernel of truth in them.
Christine Romans has long been a collector of the family stories in her tree. One of her favorites is the inspirational story about her 2x great-grandmother, Anna Pedersen. Christine’s family often talks about Anna who left Denmark at 20 years old, came to America, and then saved her money to buy tickets to America for family members she had left behind. Christine’s family calls the tickets she paid for “Bedstemor’s Tickets.” (Bedstemor is grandmother in Danish.) Christine was hoping to learn if we could prove that this legend was true.
We started by learning what we could about Anna Pedersen’s life in America. She settled in Council Bluffs, Iowa and one year after her arrival, she married a fellow Danish immigrant, Hans Olsen. Her obituary told of her 72-year service to her local Lutheran church in Council Bluffs, which helped us estimate her birth year, and mentioned her arrival in the United States in 1886.
We found Anna and Hans listed in all the U.S. Federal Census Records from 1900 to 1930 (along with some state census records in 1925 and 1935). They lived at 917 Avenue B, in Council Bluffs Iowa. As we looked at all the people listed in their household over the years, we learned that Anna and Hans often took in boarders, and some of those boarders were related to Anna.
We identified one of Anna’s nephews, Karl Petersen, who came to America in 1922. His passenger list told us his age, occupation, father’s name and address in Denmark, and his eventual destination in America: Council Bluffs. The passenger list went on to list who paid for his passage. There, in black and white, was the proof that his passage was paid by his aunt: Anna Olsen, 917 Avenue B, Council Bluffs. There really were Bedstemor’s tickets!
It seems Anna was so pleased with her decision to immigrate that she wanted to give that chance to other members of her family. We wanted to learn about her own journey.
Eventually, we located Anna on a passenger list arriving in the United States and a departure list leaving Denmark in 1886. That part of the family legend is true too: Anna left her family at age 20 and journeyed alone to make a new life in the United States.
As part of her journey, Christine crossed the Atlantic herself to visit Anna’s Danish hometown and the Church Anna’s parents were married in. She toured the countryside of Denmark and walked the docks of Copenhagen were Anna would have departed her homeland forever.
Anna’s inspiring story is one that Christine will pass down to her descendants. In Christine’s own words, “I’m finding out it’s not a legend. It’s not myth. It’s history.”
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