The Danish Brotherhood in America: The Story Continues

To emigrate means to begin, and then begin again. Sometimes this means moving repeatedly from one community. For 19th century Danish immigrants these places could be a folk high school, a farm, then a bakery and perhaps a carpenter’s bench. Although not often mentioned, it might also mean years in military service. The US Army offered immigrants a path toward community, a connection with a goal, and a way to become part of a strange and compelling new land. One such immigrant was Mark Hansen. Born in Denmark and formerly a member of the Danish Army, after emigrating, he–like a number of Danes–fought in the War Between the States. While for him the US military was not a final destination, nevertheless it decisively formed his identity as both a Dane and an American.

The great wave of Danish immigration in the second half of the 19th century included both veterans of the American Civil War and survivors of the disastrous Dano-Prussian War of 1864. Mark Hansen, who by now had settled in Omaha, recognized both how much military veterans shared, and how much they needed each other. With this understanding he founded the Danske Vaabenbrødre (“Danish Brothers in Arms”). Several similar groups developed during this same period, and five of these groups gathered to form a national association of Danish American veterans. However, the scope of the new organization did not stop there. There was an almost immediate realization that there were thousands of Danish American men who, although not military veterans, also wanted and needed to be part of a group of “honorable men, born of Danish parents, or who were of Danish extraction.” Thus, in 1882 the Vaabenbrødre was transformed into the Danish Brotherhood in America, the DBIA. William Wind of Racine, Wisconsin was elected the first president of the group.

The DBIA quickly became America’s largest secular organization for Danish immigrants. At its peak the Danish Brotherhood had over 350 lodges, including three in Canada and even one in Copenhagen.

From the beginning the DBIA made it possible for its members to have insurance protection. It also provided social activities and the opportunity to speak Danish and sing Danish songs. It offered a Danish community in the midst of a decidedly non-Danish world. Over the years the DBIA gradually expanded its identity from that of a men’s group to a family association. Gradually membership was opened to children, to spouses, and eventually to anyone who wished to join.

In the 1920’s the torrent of immigrants to the US was reduced to a trickle. The American government established tight restrictions on who would be allowed to immigrate, and then the Depression and the Second World War made emigration distinctly unappealing. There were years in the 1930’s when net migration was from the US to Europe rather than the other way around. At this time the DBIA changed its emphasis from helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States to celebrating the delights in being Danish. This change in emphasis worked well for nearly seventy years. In 1967 a new headquarters modeled after Børsen (the Danish stock exchange building in Copenhagen) was built on Harney Street in Omaha. New lodges were established around the nation. Scholarships, camp grants, and orphans’ benefits were added.

Hidden behind the prospering years of the late twentieth century, however, were two challenges that eventually became overwhelming. First, the years of Danish immigrants flooding through Ellis Island receded ever further into the past. Those born in the 1970’s and 1980’s were likely to be fourth generation Americans. Inevitably, for many of them that meant a greatly reduced identification with Denmark and the distinctive qualities of Danish life. Second, the administrative costs and the regulatory requirements for operating a fraternal insurance program eventually became prohibitive. In August 1995 the DBIA’s insurance policies were transferred to the Woodmen of the World and the Omaha headquarters were closed. Several individual lodges resolved to remain active and many do to this day. Current total membership stands at about 8,000.

The end of the DBIA as a national organization means the closing of one special chapter in the story of Danish immigration. However, the Danish American Archive and Library has been able to preserve a great deal of information by and about this period. When the DBIA’s Omaha headquarters closed, most of its records were transferred to DAAL. These records include handwritten membership rolls covering the better part of a century. Membership information was recorded in 15 massive ledger books, each weighing up to 40 pounds or more. Since carrying these books from one part of the Archive to another is not for the faint of heart, they have been placed on special tables toward the front of the Archive. Each volume contains details about a person’s birthplace, occupation, marital status, and as a special bonus for genealogists, clear evidence for the correct spelling of his name. Through the work of Helga Hanson and other Archive volunteers over nearly two decades, this information has been transcribed, sorted, and computerized. It is now available for searching on the web site of the Danish Immigrant Museum. Click on “The Danish Brotherhood & Sisterhood” under the “Library & Genealogy” menu at www.DanishMuseum.org.

This is an outstanding example of cooperation between the Archive and the Museum of Danish America. The DBIA published a monthly magazine from 1916 through 1995. Its name and form took three different shapes over the years. The names themselves trace the transformation from a primarily Danish identity to one clearly American. Initially the magazine was a Danish publication entitled Det danske Brodersamfunds Blad. In 1941 it became an English periodical called The Danish Brotherhood Magazine. Finally in 1972 it was renamed The American Dane. The Archive has a nearly complete run of all these periodicals, a treasure trove for those interested in discovering the DBIA’s activities and tracing the organization’s gradual Americanization. The earliest issues are fragile and easily damaged, so they have been carefully stored in acid-free boxes.

The Archive has also been the recipient of thousands of pages of material from individual lodges. These include minutes of business meetings, financial statements, Christmas programs, insurance guidelines, joint celebrations with Danish Sisterhood lodges, correspondence between lodges and the Omaha office, anniversary booklets, national conventions, membership guidelines, and much, much more. This material is stored in approximately 100 boxes, not to mention ledger books stacked on shelves and a filing drawer filled with folders. Of particular importance is the collection for Milwaukee lodge #36 donated by Nancy Larsen of Ashland, Ohio. Since her father, Albert Larsen, was so thorough in preserving information on lodge #36, this collection more than any other reveals what a Danish Brotherhood lodge is like.

The DBIA was not the only organization of its type. The Danish Sisterhood of America was founded in Negaunee in Michigan’s upper peninsula in 1883, just one year after the DBIA was organized. Like the DBIA, the Sisterhood was established to provide social and financial assistance to Danish immigrants. Unlike the DBIA, it has to this day retained a national office and its own archive. There are currently 48 lodges, including two in Canada. DAAL has an extensive collection of applications for membership in the Danish Sisterhood. These applications provide an exceptional window into the lives of Danish Sisterhood members. The Archive also has information on some individual lodges

The range of materials in DAAL on the Danish Brotherhood and the Sisterhood is enormous. Partly because there are so many documents from so many different lodges, there is a great deal of work to do in order for this information to be properly organized, indexed, and preserved. If there are current or former members of the DBIA or other Danish lodges or anyone else curious about these societies, their assistance in accessioning these materials would be most welcome. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Archive, and volunteers willing to explore the story of the DBIA are particularly needed. Archival work, like immigration itself, requires beginning again and again, and so it is with the Danish Brotherhood in America.