Family Legends: The Abbreviated Life of Adolf Andersen

21 Oct

We grew up marveling at the ancient wooden chest in my grandfather’s den with the late owner’s name in faded script on the front. Adolf Andersen had been the brother of my grandfather’s mother, Helene Andersen Riis. She had come into the possession of the chest after Adolf’s death. Today that chest has an honored place in the home of Helene’s great-granddaughter Lisa in Minnesota. Strangely enough, Minnesota figures prominently in the investigation of this family legend.

Legend: According to the story we heard growing up, Adolf was a seaman of about 17 and the antique chest his sea chest. Adolf had won some money gambling, and some Swedes, who had either lost the money to Adolf or had seen him flashing the money about, murdered him and stole the money.

Verdict: False. Couldn’t be further from the truth.

Frederik Adolf Andersen (1876-1896)

Frederik Adolf Andersen (1876-1896)

Frederick Adolf Andersen was the youngest of nine Andersen children, born in Idestrup, Denmark, on January 8, 1876. Whether Adolf ever went to sea or not cannot be verified, but it seems highly unlikely, for on March 16, 1892, 16-year-old Adolf filed emigration papers from his hometown, Idestrup, with Minneapolis, Minnesota, his declared destination.

Adolf traveled to Bremen, Germany, where he boarded the S. S. Saale of the North German Lloyd Line, a steamship conveying cargo and a small number of passengers. Adolf traveled steerage class, sharing some kind of space or compartment (the accommodations are unclear) with four others from the Idestrup area : Lars Pedersen Riel, 16, of Bjorup; Niels Pedersen Riel, also 16, of Bjorup; Rasmus Hansen, 23, of Lidstrup; and Jens Jensen, 24, a Dane now living in Minnesota. All gave either Minneapolis or St. Paul as their destination. The Saale made a stop at Southampton, England, before crossing the Atlantic to arrive at Hoboken, New Jersey, on April 6, 1892. Adolf was processed at Ellis Island the same day, entered as Adolph [sic] Andersen and again with the declared destination of Minnesota. His occupation is entered as laborer. He traveled with one piece of luggage, undoubtedly the wooden chest.

At that time a number of employers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas sent agents to Denmark to recruit immigrants for work as laborers or to take up railroad land grants. Under the so-called “redemptioner” system, some immigrants would receive free passage in exchange for four to seven years’ employment to repay the cost of the voyage. It’s a fair guess that Jens Jensen, the 24-year-old Danish ex patriot, was either a recruiter or an agency chaperone.

One wonders if Adolf’s older brother, Hans Jørgen Andersen (1867-1941), influenced Adolf’s decision to come to Minnesota. Hans, a farm laborer and soon-to-be brick maker, had emigrated one year earlier, in 1891, with a declared destination of St. Paul, Minnesota. At least Adolf knew he’d have family not far away.

In Minnesota, Adolf met and married (date undetermined) Katherine Josephine “Kate” McCauley, who had been born in Scotland and had emigrated to Minnesota in 1890 by way of Northern Ireland and Canada. Their marriage was a brief one, for Adolf died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the tender age of 20 on May 31, 1896, in Hasty, Minnesota. He was buried in  Acacia Cemetery in Clearwater, Minnesota.

The story takes an interesting turn here: Adolf’s widow, Kate, then married Adolf’s brother, Hans Andersen, on August 23, 1897, in Buffalo, Minnesota. Kate and Hans remained married until her death in 1929. They had three children: Anna Marie Violet (1898), Laura Carolyn (1903), and Waldemar Peter (1904).

So, Adolf died of natural causes, not murder, on the plains of Minnesota. Where does the story of the murderous Swedes come from? Did Helene make it up, and , if so, why? That she had a virulent disdain for Swedes is well known. Denmark and Sweden had been at war on and off since end of the Viking era and often held each other with some disregard. Did Helene invent the story out of general anti-Swedish animosity to pass on her feelings to her children (which didn’t work, by the way, as two of them married Swedes)? And how did she keep those children from hearing the truth from their Uncle Hans or their “Muster” (mother’s sister) Marie? Were Hans and Marie in on the deception as well? If so, what did they have to gain from a lie? And wouldn’t Kate, Hans’ wife and Adolf’s widow, then have to be in on it as well?

Could Hans have told the murder story to Helene? Again, what purpose might that have served? Marrying a brother’s widow was not that uncommon in that place and time, but could Hans have believed others in the family might not approve? Did Helene know Hans’ wife was Adolf’s widow? Surely Helene communicated with her brothers at the time Adolf emigrated or got married. Was there some guilt on Hans’ part in encouraging Adolf to come to Minnesota where he would fall ill and die so young? Hans must have been the one to send Adolf’s wooden chest to Helene; perhaps it came with a tale of how it came into his possession.

My intention is not to cast aspersions on anyone. I only do the research and uncover the facts. The rest is anyone’s guess.

Alas, lots of questions and few prospects for answers.


2 responses to “Family Legends: The Abbreviated Life of Adolf Andersen

  1. Vicki Anderson

    October 23, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for the updated version of Adolph and Hans. I know that was the one story that surprised us the most when you told us about Adolph being killed by Swedes…since we had just been to the cemetery in MN where he is buried.

    • RRiis

      October 24, 2013 at 6:47 am

      That adds to the intrigue. Helene’s family knew the story, Hans’ apparently had never heard it. How does one keep such a story from coming undone? I have heard that Helene’s son Alfred Riis spent some time with Hans’ family in the Dakotas when Alfred was seriously ill in the 1930s. Adolf’s story must not have come up, but what a risk. Such a strange story, and we will never know the answers.


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