Saturday, August 27, 2011

Axel Schrøder, The Danish Sailor

Now we come to Axel Schrøder who was born in Nexø, Bornholm, Denmark in 1877. His parents, Hans Christian Schrøder and Hansine Margrethe Kjøller were living in Nexø at the time of his birth but removed shortly thereafter to Vestermarie where Hansine’s family owned land and lived. Axel’s father was a baker and confectioner and needed to work in a larger town than the small rural community of Vestermarie.

It was not unusual for families to foster or apprentice out young children but even so it is shocking that at age 2 or 3 Axel was left with his aunt and uncle at the family farm in Vestermarie while his parents moved far away north of København to Helsingør in Jutland. While living there Hansine delivered a baby girl in 1880 that died the same day she was born. By 1885 Hansine had returned to Vestermarie as a pregnant recently divorced woman giving birth to a son, Camillo, who lived only 1 month. Axel continued to stay with his aunt and uncle while his mother moved with her parents to the larger city of Rønne, Bornholm.

His grandfather, Jens Peder Kjøller, now a retired country gentleman, started a newspaper and worked for several more years. Hansine lived with her parents in an apartment complex near the center of the city where she joined a dairy co-operative and managed to support herself as well as take care of her parents. When Axel was a teenager he moved from the farm and lived with his mother and grandparents. He was confirmed at the church in Rønne. 

There are several oral history stories involving the life of Axel. It was said that he ice skated from the small island of Bornholm to Sweden and I wondered how that could be since it is a 2 hour and 30 minute ferry ride across the Baltic Sea from Ystad, Sweden to Rønne, Bornholm. The sea between the island and the mainland does ice over but only infrequently. Then I discovered that in 1883 when Axel was six years old Krakatoa erupted spewing out a huge ash cloud drifting from Java and Sumatra to cover the entire globe and caused unusually severe winters for at least two years. It is likely that he did skate on the frozen sea but perhaps not all the way to Sweden which would have been a very long journey for a six to eight year old boy.

Denmark is comprised of Jutland, a peninsula sharing a border with Germany, and several islands, Fyn, where the writer Hans Christian Andersen was born; Sæland--København is located on the eastern side of this island and is only a short ferry ride from Malmö, Sweden; Lolland, Langeland, Æro, Samsø, Bornholm and some much smaller islands. Bornholm is seven hours out by ferry from København and is the furthest east except for the tiny islands off its coast. Bornholm is approximately 20 US miles long by perhaps 15 miles wide. The population of the island has stayed right about 40,000 since 1900. The main industry is herring fishing but it is also known as an artist colony with potters and painters of some note. The beach at the southern tip of the island has the finest white sand in the world and is a favorite summer resort destination for campers and sunbathers.

Probably when he was between fourteen and sixteen Axel went to sea as a cabin boy on a tall ship. Denmark still has training for sailors on these multi masted sailing vessels. Later on Axel did serve compulsory time in the Danish Navy. At age eighteen or nineteen he was a regular sailor on a tall ship either with the Danish Navy or as a merchant marine. We know he was sailing long enough to travel all over the world and we have reports that he was in two shipwrecks. The first wreck was when he was a cabin boy and he was tied to a barrel or a piece of wood so he would not drown. That ship was carrying salt and sank but Axel survived. The other wreck was when he was a regular sailor and once again he was tied to or hung onto a piece of wood and was picked up by another ship. Rather than drop him off on shore he was impressed or Shanghaied by this ship’s captain and forced to work on it for the duration of its scheduled travels. When the ship anchored off the coast of Chile, South America he jumped off and found his way to the nitrate mines near Valparaiso, Chile where he worked for a while. Nitrate is used in fertilizers, gunpowder, and preservatives and is known to be a hazardous material. It is believed that while he worked in the mines he contracted Tuberculosis (TB) and lived with it for the rest of his life.

Following his time in the mines of Chile he got back on ships and worked his way up the western coast of South and North America until he reached Seattle around 1899 or 1900. We know he must have arrived in the States by 1899 or 1900 perhaps earlier because he became a naturalized citizen in 1905 and the rules stated one had to be living in the United States for at least five years before filing intention to become a citizen. He liked it in Seattle and decided to stay. He had not been there long before he sent for his mother and she came to join him. By this time Hansine was a Rentier (person of independent means) and she traveled first class going from København to New York and from New York around the tip of South America and up the coast all the way to Seattle. She brought dishes, woolen cloth, jewelry, a music box with additional records, and many other things with her when she came. She was used to being in charge and being waited on making her a formidable presence according to some reports. Axel was well over 6’ tall with dark hair and brown eyes and reported as having a wonderful sense of humor. His mother, Hansine was 5’ 9” a striking height for a woman in those days. His father, Hans C. was said to have been about 6’ 4” also unusually tall for the time period.

Hansine is shown in this photo taken about 1901 or 1902 just as she was about to leave Denmark for America to join her only surviving child. She was about 48 years old at that time. Axel left the life of a sailor and became a postal clerk a job he kept until ill health forced him to leave Seattle for the desert of California in the 1930s. He died in Los Angeles, California in 1951. Hansine died in 1920 in Seattle.

From the available census records in Denmark it appears that Hans Christian remarried shortly after his divorce from Hansine and had two more daughters, Julia Katinka and Octavia Eleanora. I do think this a distinct possibility because one postcard sent from Denmark to Axel in the 1930s is signed Cathe and includes greetings from other family members. If so, this Cathe would be Axel’s half sister, Julia Katinka. No death date for Hans C. has been located yet.

In a future post the story of Axel's courtship and marriage to Anna Hornnes will be presented. Anna kept a journal so we are fortunate to have her own written account of her early life in Norway, her journey to America, and parts of her later life.

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