Sunday, October 31, 2010

searching for Valdemar

Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine, Wisconsin Art Poster Print, 18x13
Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine  
 My dad's story was wild, but I wanted to believe it: In the late 1800s his grandmother, Christine, had been a servant in Denmark's royal palace. When she got pregnant by one of the princes, probably Valdemar, she was whisked away to America to work in a logging camp. Her baby grew up near the Wind Point Lighthouse in the Danish community of Racine, Wisconsin.

I'd always wanted to write this tale so last month I introduced myself -- via email -- to relatives in the Midwest, asking about our royal blood. Ha! They hadn't heard that one, but they mentioned a "family secret" that several had taken to their graves, and that records for Christine's firstborn were sketchy. His name? Valdemar. I knew it! She had so loved the prince, she named her baby after him. Coincidentally one of my cousins, Kris Olson Elbert, had already begun researching our Danish ancestry so our emails flew. We wanted to meet each other and visit our cousin, Bill Johnson, who had grown up knowing Christine. Bill lived near the Wind Point Lighthouse and was as curious as we were.

So I did what we've told our kids NEVER to do: met someone online, hopped a plane to Chicago, hugged hello in a hotel lobby, then drove to a new city to spend time with strangers. I didn't even have a Plan B.

Meanwhile Kris had scoured census records and with Bill's help found Christine's real name -- Maren Kristine Sorensen. This led to the discovery of a ship's manifest from the S.S. Island of the Thingvalla Line which arrived in New York on August 17, 1893. Captain Skjodt recorded that she was an unmarried servant from Copenhagen, age 26, traveling with one piece of baggage. I could picture that hot summer day on Ellis Island and Christine hiding her pregnancy from immigration officials.

Well, someone has to be level-headed in these matters. Kris did the math then broke the news: no prince. We're just regular Americans. Turns out Christine married a fellow Dane, Christian Nielsen, and their son Valdemar was born in 1895. But what happened to this boy, also called Walter? Did he run away from home because his dad was crazy? Maybe he died from hypothermia after rescuing a friend in a river, as one story went. We couldn't find any record beyond his birth until we looked through a dusty ledger at the Bethania Lutheran Church. The beautiful handwriting was in Danish but finally Kris spotted Valdemar Nielsen, son of Christian and Christine, who died in the spring of 1910. We were thrilled to see his name, but also felt sad. What happened? He was only 15. The cemetery didn't have any burial record.

For two days we hung out in Racine with wonderful family, all new to me. I learned that Christine's favorite flowers were violets gathered in the spring by her children. Bill drove us by her boarding house where she had had chickens and a garden, and cooked for eleven Danish men fresh off the boat. She listed herself as a widow when, in fact, Christian was in an asylum for 25 years. In Bill's kitchen -- which overlooked a beautiful and stormy Lake Michigan -- we scoured family letters, documents and photos, shared stories, laughed, and grieved a little. At the library Kris and I searched old newspapers on microfilm. Those things are hard to read, but we finally saw where an "undersheriff" took our gr.grandfather Christian to the State Insane Asylum. Then at last we discovered the obit for Walter. He died in St. Luke's hospital from "a lingering illness." Bill returned to the cemetery with these details and found Walter's grave and cause of death: pneumonia.
We still have many questions, such as, why was Christian "adjudged insane" on his daughter's 3rd birthday? But we're happy to have found Valdemar's resting place. One photo shows an earnest young man who would bring his mother wildflowers. He had three younger siblings and may well have braved an icy river to rescue one of them. Hypothermia untreated could have led to pneumonia.  Bill is going to straighten the crooked head stone and we'd like to have a family reunion. I'd love to gather some violets for Christine, to put on her son's grave.

Her daughter Gertrude -- my grandmother -- wrote that Christine was "noble and kind" with the "God-given strength of a Viking Pioneer in Amerika." I'll say.

"Son of C & C Nielsen" 1895-1910

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