When guessing is all you have…

When Amalie was 7-years-old she was sent to a neighboring farm to work because her family was so poor.

I found this little nugget of information tucked in my e-records for my Great-Grandmother (my father’s maternal grandmother) Thyra Amalie Martinsen JENSEN. It took me by surprise because it wasn’t tied to any supporting documentation [1], I didn’t recall adding the tidbit to my records myself, nor were there any notes of where else the info may have come from. [2]

But given what I know about life in the late 1800s, both in America and in Europe, I find the story entirely plausible. [3] But, how do I figure out if it was probable as well?

All we can do when faced with oral traditions like this is to look at the public records and see what they can tell us of the place and time in question, then evaluate how that lines up with our testimony. [4]

So, in other words… Guess. An educated guess, yes. But a guess just the same.

Let’s start with the 1880 Danish Census, even though Amalie hasn’t even been born yet. [5]. Her father, Martin Martinsen, is 29; her mother Johanne 30; also listed are siblings Ane (7) Frederik (4) Henriette (3) and Vilhemine (2). Martin’s occupation is given as Daglejer, danish for hireling, what we would today call a laborer.

But we learn even more if we look at that entire census page [Figure 1, below] where we see that just two families up from Martin’s is Soren Vestergaard, the only person on the page listed as a farm owner who also happens to have a live-in servant. [6] Perhaps it is to the Vestergaard Farm that Amalie is sent seven years later.

Figure 1: Page 64 of Danish 1880 Census for Levring Parish, Lysgard, Viborg County, Denmark. From DanishFamilySearch.com.

Of course, there is no way to find out for sure, even in a census rich country like Denmark, although if the 1885 Census were available (one exists, however, no data is, as yet, online) and Martin & Family still lived near Vestergaard, it would go a long way toward making my theory more likely. There are no clues in the 1890 census, where Martin, now widowed, has moved to Hoberg parish to a farm of his own. [7]

So, despite the research, my argument falls squarely in the WAG [8] category, but given the circumstances, it’s the best I can do. I certainly hope that whoever employed young Amalie was kind and gave her tasks appropriate to her age: light housework, feeding the chickens, etc. [9]

Although, given that Amalie became a laundress in the United States to support her family after divorcing her husband [10], perhaps she had been put to work helping with the laundry all those years ago at the ripe ol’ age of seven.


Sources & Notes

  1. You may recall from last month’s post, KNOWing vs knowing, that there’s a difference between data you have documentation to prove and that which is undocumented.
  2. In addition to finding supporting documentation for genealogical data, it’s important to cite where and when the information was obtained. Obviously, I haven’t learned this lesson very well yet.
  3. Child labor is not unique to Denmark. In the United States, there was the Orphans Train that operated from the late 1800s through the early 1900s and supplied many orphans to the midwest farm belt. If you’ve ever read Charles Dickens, many of his stories depict the deplorable child labor conditions of the Victorian Era in England. And most civilizations, very early ones and sadly even today, have stories of children being fostered by (and sometimes sold to) other families because times were tough. For further reading about child labor, check out these sites: Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution; Child Labor: Lessons from the Historical Experience of Today’s Industrial Economies; History of Child Labor in Finland; Child Labour; Work and Adolescence in the Middle Ages; Orphan Train Rider Stories; Grandma Moses; Child Labor in Relation to Poverty.
  4. Sometimes chasing down a genealogical lead has me feeling like a trial lawyer faced with hearsay and circumstantial evidence. In the case of Amalie’s seven-year-old self, the “testimony” turns out to be a recollection by my mom of a story that Grandma Jensen told her. Now, take into account that Grandma Jensen died nearly sixty years ago and she was in her mid-to-late seventies, at the least, when she shared this story with Mom. Given the fragile nature of our memories, you understand why things like this can not stand on their own.
  5. The 1880 Denmark Census for Skovsborg (part of Levring parish in Viborg county) was enumerated on 01 February 1880. Thyra Amalie Martinsen was born on 12 November of that same year. I have Danish birth records to document that bit of data, too!
    1880 Denmark Census; Census Place: Levring parish, Lysgard, Viborg, Denmark; Page 64; accessed via DanishFamilySearch.com 25mar2020.
  6. I have created a story about this census page which may or may not be true. In my story, Soren Jensen Vestergaard (family unit #12) is the landowner (gaardejer) and the remaining persons on the page are tenants on his land or in some other way connected to him. Family #13 I believe are Soren’s mother and father. Family #14 is listed as a tenant (indsidder), with the head of household Anders Jorgensen employed as broomsbinder (kostebinder). He lives there with his daughter-in-law and her children. Family #15, also given as tenant, is Bernd Veismann, a weaver (vaever). And finally, there is Martin Martinsen, Amalie’s father, my great-great-grandfather and Soren Vestergaard’s farm labor. Remember though, this is just my theory.
  7. 1890 Denmark Census; Census Place: Hojbjerg parish, Lysgard, Viborg, Denmark; Page 10; accessed via DanishFamilySearch.com 25mar2020.
  8. WAG = wild ass guess, although, in actuality, my guess is a bit more domesticated than the word wild implies
  9. For more about typical jobs children were expected to do on the farm, check out Life in the 1800s.
  10. 1940 United States Federal Census; Census Place: Fremont, Dodge, Nebraska; Roll: T627_2244; Page: 63A; Enumeration District: 27-7; accessed via Ancestry.com 25mar2020.
  11. Header image is from PBS News Hour “Debunking the Myth of Summer Vacation’s Origins.”
  12. In the picture of Grandma Jensen that I conjure in my mind’s eye, it’s Thanksgiving, and this tiny, hunched figure approaches, the top of her gray head being the first thing you see. That and an apron tied around her waist protecting the flowery print dress she’s wearing for dinner. A child’s remembrance… When, in actuality, below is the only picture I have of my great-grandmother Thyra Amalie Martinsen Jensen, shown here with my cousin Cindy when she is about six-months old. Grandma Jensen seems bigger in this picture and not so frail as I remember. Memories… so fickle.

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