Grandmother Ellen Poulsdatter Christensen
1810 - 1896
Grandmother Ellen Poulsdatter was born to Poul Andersen and his wife, Inger Marie Hansdatter in Denmark on December 1810. She was their first child and only daughter. She had four brothers. When Ellen married Peder Christensen in St. Peder’s Church at the town of Slagelse on 30 June 1843, she was more than thirty years old. They had two sons, our great-grandfather Niels and his brother Poul.
“Peder Christensen was a large man. Part of the time he was a steward for government land, some of which he was apparently permitted to use as a small farm. One day he was kicked in the groin by a cow. A few days later, on 18 December 1847 he died.
“This left Ellen with two small sons and the necessity of finding a husband; if she were to retain custodianship of the government’s land it was required that she be married. This stewardship was apparently awarded by the Danish crown and had been a part of her ancestry’s inherited rights for several generations. According to family tradition, Ellen’s grandfather, Anders Jensen, had been an officer in the Danish Army. As a reward for gallantry, he received from the government a section of beautifully wooded land to be held by him and his descendants. At his death his son, Poul Andersen, inherited the land. Poul’s daughter, the eldest child, next fell heir. [In this circumstance of urgency] four months later, on 28 April 1848, [when Ellen was 38, she] married Hans Christensen. He was nine years younger than she.
“Hans lived with Ellen only a short time when he was taken into the army in a time of war with Germany. . . .Ellen had a difficult time during the three years Hans was in the army. Poul and Niels, though small boys, were compelled by circumstances to assist their mother in caring for the government-owned forest lands and in operating the small farm allotted to them.” The Christensen Family of Soro, Denmark, and American Fork, Utah, USA, Allen C. Christensen, 1994, p. 1
By the time Hans returned, Ellen was beyond the childbearing years.
“In 1855 the Christensens were visited by missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The fact that on May 11 of the following year they went at night to a pond to be baptized, perhaps says something about how their neighbors and friends may have greeted their decision. After nearly a year of preparation, the family left Denmark about the first of April 1857 to join the saints in Utah. They went first to Liverpool and after a brief delay, they set sail on the ship Westmoreland with 525 others. Five weeks were spent crossing the North Atlantic. They landed in Philadelphia and next took the train to Iowa City. “This was not a passenger train. .. . [Niels said later], “It was wonderful riding in box cars with planks for seats.” Three children and a brother from Denmark died while journeying by rail.” p. 4-6.
Three days later, June 12, 1857, they began their journey westward as part of the
7th Handcart Company. Allen C. Christensen’s book, Before Zion: An Account of the 7th Handcart Company, tells the story of their trek. A shorter version is in his Christensen Family book. The details are wonderful! The next fifteen paragraphs are excerpts from pp. 9-20.
Brother C. C. A. Christensen who later became a famous artist was in their company and wrote a reminiscence of the trip. Here are a few of his entries.
We were only poorly supplied with provisions when we left Florence and had a thousand more miles of wilderness to cover before we could expect any more. The little smoked pork, dried beef, and sugar, coffee, salt, and other seasoning with which we were furnished lasted only about three weeks in most cases and after that there was naturally flour, flour, flour, and only flour to eat. With this they baked bread, cooked porridge, gruel, soup, coffee, pancakes, and several other nice dishes, but still it was just flour, flour, and flour; and at one point flour was scarce too. We shot only one buffalo, and this happened almost like a miracle, for it lagged behind the rest of the herd. We dared not attack the great herd under our circumstances at the time.
There seemed to be a fierce determination to succeed in reaching Zion or die in the attempt. The Seventh Company sketch has one such moving example:
The first night out the company was inspected to learn if any were physically unable to proceed. A Swede, Brother Hurlberg, was advised to turn back because of his wife’s illness. But Brother Hurlberg had his heart set on going to Zion. He tailed along some distance behind the company for about fifty miles. When he was too far from the base camp [at Winter Quarters] to be sent back, he rejoined the company. Much of the way he pulled his two children and even his wife on the cart, through his superior strength and an unquenchable desire to proceed.
- C. A. Christensen said that one of the members of the company was a blind sister from Norway. Of her he wrote;
[She] was about sixty years old and walked the whole way. But she was alwys cheerful, and as she pushed the handcart her young daughter was helping to pull we could often hear her merry laughter when she unexpectedly found herself wading through one another of the many streams of water along our way. “No, Mother, we are about to cross some water,” we could hear her daughter warning her, “Is it deep?” or How deep is it?” we heard in reply from the blind woman; and when the explanation was satisfactory, she would walk cheerfully into the water.
This eyewitness also said there was a girl with a wooden leg in the company. Interestingly, she was successful in her quest and arrived safely in Utah. He also provides an interesting insight about the children:
Early in the morning, generally, the children who could walk--some even under the age of four--were sent ahead, accompanied by their sisters, partly to avoid the dust and partly to walk as far as possible before the burning sun and exhaustion would make it necessary to put them in the handcart.
C. C. A. Christensen, describing the routine chores of the company, writes:
We also baked bread in the kettles we had brought along. This was the women’s work, and sometimes took until past midnight, for each had to wait for the other to use the dutch oven. The men fetched water and gathered fuel, where firewood could be found; otherwise the women and children helped gather “Kokasser” [buffalo chips] as we call them in Danish, since along the great plains of the Platte River there were enough of that kind from the abundant buffalo herds which existed there at the time.
It seems reasonable to assume that Niels and Poul and their mother, Ellen, gathered more than a few buffalo chips. Ellen must have been one of those who was up late cooking bread. . . .Men also had guard duty four or five hours every fourth night. Apparently, young fellows the age of Poul and Niels also stood their turn on the night watch. Then, with little sleep, they would begin the next day’s march. For this company of Saints, the long and demanding hours must have tested them emotionally as well as physically. The trek is an eloquent statement of their courage and willingness to deal positively with deprivation. Interestingly, the Niels Christensen account does not focus heavily upon the severe hardships of the handcart journey. . . .
Poul took sick and nearly died on the way west. For three days his mother and another woman half led, half carried him--there was no stopping. He was never strong enough to pull the handcart again. The last hundred miles Niels and his stepfather pulled the handcart alone for the others were too worn out to help. . . .
On Sunday, september 13, people were just coming out of church services when the ragged, hungry, sunburned, weary pioneers came into Salt Lake City. They had walked 1300 miles. It was the happiest day of their lives. They had been ninety-three days on the way from Iowa City. . . .A ragged blanket, a ragged shirt, and ragged overalls were all that Niels had of this world’s goods. . . .His mother gave him a little bucket and directed him to go ask for some milk. The first house had none but a lady at the second home gave him some milk and asked if he had any bread. When he replied no, this kind woman gave him half of her only loaf.
During the winter of 1857-58, the Christensen family was compelled by circumstances to separate and live in various homes where they each work for their board. . . .
When the family was reunited in the spring of 1858, Niels and Poul each had learned to speak English. Their mother, Ellen, could not understand them; she was never able to speak more than broken English. . . .[That spring] the family moved to Lehi. They lived in dugout [and had] a hard summer with little to eat. . . .
In the spring of 1859, the Christensen family . . . moved to American Fork [and that is where they settled. Hans had arranged to farm land on shared and that was the beginning of farming in Utah for them.] . . .
In this time of luxury and convenience, one finds it difficult to conceive what women then endured. The family lived in a little one-room log house. When the animal began to multiply in number and the harvest season was on, Ellen was left with ten cows to milk, cheese and butter to make, and water to bring from the spring, in addition to cooking, spinning and weaving. . . .
[Hans and Ellen and Poul and Niels had been in Utah six years.] Hans wanted children of his own and on 5 December 1863 he married Maren Jorgensen in plural marriage. Maren was also a Danish immigrant. She was twenty years younger than Hans and thirty years younger than Ellen. Into the one-room log house came the new wife. Two children were born to Hans and Maren while they lived there. The second child died a day after birth. One can but imagine what Ellen’s emotions were during those years. As Clare poignantly wrote of her:
Now there comes back along the thin thread of memory from the days when childhood ears heard fragments of this story, simply that Ellen felt sad. But there was no bitterness in her soul and she became more like a grandmother to Hans’ children. . . .
At some point in the mid to late 1860s the Christensens built two log houses on land they now owned. p. 23.
[Then in 1873] Hans, who was acquainted with European home construction methods, decided to build a house which would be adequate for his wives, their children and grandchildren. The house must be strong enough to last to the millennium. p. 45.
The home became something of a legend in American Fork.
Ellen’s son Niels has married Phoebe Chipman before the big house was completed. Ellen and Paul lived alone in the south half of the house. Hans and Maren and their seven children lived in the north half. . . . p. 46
On July 24, 1880, Hans Christensen was picking gooseberries in his lot. The sun was very hot. Hans was overcome with the heat and died the same day. His death came as a terrible shock to Ellen. She was now seventy years old, and was left with the responsibility of managing all of Hans‘ affairs since she was, according to the custom in plural marriage, considered his legal wife. Maren’s youngest child was only six months of age and Maren was to live only another five years. . . .
Ellen was the only grandparent the children of Niels and Phoebe would know in mortality. There is a warm and telling comment about that relationship in Clare’s history of Ellen:
As the dark-eyes brood began to grow they would steal to grandmother’s house for thick slices of bread and jam. Grandma’s kitchen had one of those quaint old-fashioned cook stoves with a shelf in the front of the fire box and the fancy oven door on the side. On the wall hung the big cast iron pots and kettles and on the long table stood the little brass water bucket. In her front room stood the spinning wheel which she kept humming while the clock with its swinging pendulum changed away the hours. p. 47
[More than a dozen years had passed since Hans had died and Ellen in her eighty-third year became seriously ill. A letter written by Phoebe, her daughter-in-law, a year later in 1894 read in part] “Grandma Ellen Christensen had been very sick the year before. [Ellen] said she could die happy if she had only done the temple work for people.” Phoebe said to her mother-in-law, “Why don’t you pray to the Lord and ask him to help you to get better so you can go and do some?” She did pray to the Lord and did get better [and went and did some.] Later it was remembered that she had to be carried to the train when they departed for Salt Lake City, but when they returned home to American Fork she could walk. p. 57
In the fall of 1896 . . .Grandmother Ellen was nearly eight-six. Her long life had been one of toil and hardship. Yet her soul was sweet and filled with love. She had been widowed a second time for over sixteen years. She now lived alone with Paul, her bachelor son, in the big brick house. Niels was especially concerned one November evening about the health of his mother, and felt he should stay there with her. Ellen told her younger son that she was all right. Paul was there to look after her and she wanted Niels to go home and take care of his own family. She said to Niels, “You go home and if I am not here in the morning, it will be all right.” Paul kept the vigil. During the night his mother smiled at him and said, “Goodbye Paul, I’m going” It was November 11, 1896.
The long and arduous pilgrimage that had led from St. Peder’s Parish to American Fork was over. She died firm in the faith with a Christlike love in her soul. Her body was laid to rest in the Hans Christensen plot in the southeast section of the American Fork City Cemetery. Perhaps her great-grandson, Owen, said it best for all of us when he remarked, “We owe the fact that we are Americans to her. She made it possible for all the rest of us.” . . .Hers was a life of courage, devotion to duty and love of family. It is a noble heritage from one who sacrificed the comfort and safety of Denmark for the rigors and testing life of the American West and early Mormonism. p. 59
Except for the material in brackets [ ], all of this history is from The Christensen Family of Soro, Denmark and American Fork, Utah, USA, Allen C. Christensen, 1994.
Allen has written and compiled such a fine history, it seemed unnecessary reword the portions that focused on our Great-great-grandmother Ellen. They have mostly been gathered from the longer text to highlight her exemplary life.