Faroese-Americans: Some Preliminary Research on an Immigrant Group without a Written History


Around the year 2010, I began researching the history of migration from the Faroe Islands to the United States. I had become fascinated with the history of the Faroe Islands, and I read everything I could find about that 18-island archipelago roughly equidistant between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. Settled by the Norse perhaps as early at the 9th century A.D., it remained until recently decades one of the more isolated communities in Europe.

Although the Faroese migrated to Denmark in significant numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it appears that they generally did not participate in the grand American migrations of other Scandinavian groups. Instead, Faroese came to the United States through work (particularly as sailors) or through marriage to Americans, almost always as individuals and not in groups. Faroese ethnic identity is rooted in a strong sense of place and in the importance of family connections. In the United States, Faroese immigrants were too few and too widely scattered to form ethnic organizations, or even to meet accidentally. But networks of extended family bound Faroese Americans to their homeland and to each other. Perhaps no other ethnic group in the United States is as interrelated through kinship, despite such wide dispersion.

Information on the Faroese in America is essentially absent in published form. On the one hand, this is surprising, since studies of Scandinavian immigrants in the United States are myriad and in-depth.[1]  But Faroese Americans appear to be so few in number that historians could have easily missed their presence. Since the Faroe Islands has long been a dependency of Denmark, Faroese American immigrants in the U.S. census would be counted as Danish immigrants.  However, it is difficult to know how many this might be. Tthe largest migrations from Denmark to the United States occurred in the mid to late-nineteenth century, when the Faroe Islands had fewer connections with the outside world. Relative to other Scandinavian groups in America, the roughly 300,000 Danes dispersed in settlements from Wisconsin and Illinois in the east to Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska in the West. In the early decades of the 1850s and 1860s, they tended to arrive as nuclear families, but the trend towards young, predominantly male (60%) individual immigrants dominated by the end of the century. The gender imbalance contributed to a high rate of intermarriage with Swedish and German Americans. Scattered settlement patterns made it difficult for Danish Lutheran churches to minister to their flocks.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, famines in Scandinavia and large scale economic dislocations inspired massive waves of Scandinavia-American migration. If the Faroese were not taken up in the stream, they were certainly aware of it. Although the Faroese were ruled by outsiders, they maintained a largely separate existence. In the treaty of Kiel in 1814, the Danes were stripped of control of Norway, which went to Sweden. Denmark nevertheless kept control over its possessions in the North Atlantic: Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. A Faroese national culture developed in relation to Denmark. Ministers in the Faroes sought their education in Copenhagen, and islanders wrote in Danish. In 1846, Faroese reemerged as a written language. Jonathan Wylie explains that “The creation of written Faroese integrated Faroese and Danish culture, by bringing Faroese intellectual life into the Danish orbit; for leading Faroese came to adopt the liberal Danish view that language exemplified ‘nationality’…”[2] A mercantilist Danish trade monopoly kept a hold of Faroese outside trade until 1856. Population pressures, meanwhile, caused new settlements to be founded on some of the smaller, less densely populated Faroes. All the while, famine, lack of grain, and  laws effectively barring the poor from marriage contributed to keeping the population low.

While emigration from Denmark to the United States was a safety-valve for the pressures of population growth in a land that was experiencing the birth pains of the industrial revolution, emigration from the Faroe Islands has historically had Denmark as its own destination. While the Faroe Islands seemed to be more stable and did not industrialize, international economic changes to the fishing industry, for example, could have caused ecomonic dislocations to inspire migration. Migration historians are quick to point out though, that most migrants consider moving locally before going overseas. For example, as landless peasants found life difficult in the overcrowded Danish rural markets, they moved first to the cities, then found their escape abroad. [3]

Since I am aware of no written materials about Faroese in America today, I spoke directly with Faroese Americans to understand a bit of their personal histories. I choose not to conduct formal oral history interviews, which even when well-intentioned can serve to frighten the most willing storyteller. In phone-calls and through email correspondence, I asked simple questions about migration, assimilation, identity, and language retention. The questions were simple, but answers never are. Those I interviewed showed a tremendous and encouraging warmth. Some spoke for over an hour until I was forced to end the interviews and prepare transcribing the notes that I had taken in short-hand. I recognize that oral historians prefer hard copy sound recordings, but I felt that in this circumstance, such recordings were unnecessary, cumbersome, and potentially counter to the progress of my research. Informality was important to glean the necessary facts.

Census records and passenger lists from the United States National Archives hint as a widely distributed migration of Faroese individuals from earlier decades. Research in Faroese, Danish, and Danish-American  archives is needed to piece together the rest of the story. This preliminary research indicates, however, that Faroese migration to the United States was never a group phenomenon. Instead, the maritime industry seemed to link Faroese to the outside world, and brought adventure individuals into the American orbit. Individual Faroese migrants to the United States were widely scattered, but maintained an interest in their homeland and their relations. The historian Wylie explains that:  “No people is without a past; but different peoples remember it more or less well, attribute more of less significance to it, and recall it in different ways and for different reasons. The Faroese find themselves on one end of the spectrum.”[4]  This present research may demonstrate the strength of the cultural, familial, and community bonds that continued to play a role in shaping Faroese migrants a world away.

Archival Records

Before I relate the information gained from correspondence with present-day (2011) self-identifying Faroese-Americans, let me first describe the nature of some relevant archival data on Faroese American migration. There are a number of errors that make difficult any census search for Faroe Islanders. In print, or in spoken language, the islands might be confused with the Virgin Islands, the Azores Islands, Fiji Islands, Rhode Island, Fayal Island, the Island of Fohr, or others. Emigrants listed national origin, not regional origin, and Faroese in the census would mostly appear as Danes. To find Faroese in the United States, it will be necessary to look closely at original records and not accept any transcriptions.

From 1895 to 1954, nearly all immigrants crossing from Canada into U.S. at any border crossing had their recorded names in the St. Albans list, named after the border crossing at St. Albans, Vermont. After 1917, a separate list records all migrants traveling between Canada and the United States on the west coast.  The St. Albans records for 1915 list a Hans Anderson (20 years old, Sailor, reads, writes) and a Kjartan Dalsgard (sailor, 34 years old, born 1908 Faroe Islands).[5] Neither appears to have family in tow, and it is not clear if these sailors were merely passing through of if they intended to stay.  For 1916, the St. Albans list records a John Jacobsen  (age 27, a fisherman from Torshavn) with wife Maria enter St. Albans, VT. Along with Jacobsen was along a F Nikodemus Nikodemusen, a 22 year old from Skaaling  [Skaalevig?]. [6] Again, further research is necessary to find out if these Faroese intended to stay. It seems likely that many Faroese listed as arriving in port or crossing borders were sailors passing through. For another example, we can see a 28 year old H. Jacobson who entered Honolulu in 1905 after departing aboard the Doric from Chile.[7]

Other Faroese entered at New York, and some apparently stayed in the United States. There was Zacharjas Helnesen  [Heinesen], 52 year old who entered aboard the Majestic in 1927. [8]There was Maria Arge Beier, a 45 year old born in Torshavn, who could read German, Romanian, and Danish, who entered New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1939. [9] There was also a 31 year old Marie Carlson from Torshavn, a housewife who entered New York in 1934. [10] In 1940, the 35 year old Hane Davidsen entered New York from Venezuela.[11] Entering New York aboard the Tungsha also was 24-year old Egil Djurhuue [Djurhuus] from Kollefjord in 1953. [12] And in 1941, the 26 year old Oll Evensen Entered New York aboard the H.S. Kolanaren. [13] New York appeared to be the most natural place for Faroese to arrive.  Born 1916 in Skole, Faroes, Ansgar R Johannesen arrived in New York in 1944.[14] Johan G E Henriksen, 44, arrived in 1948 to return to his home on Staten Island where he lived with his Norwegian wife Marie and their two children, Evelyn and Edna. [15]

Most Faroese entering the United States appear to be single men aboard shipping vessels, with an increase in occurrence or documentation from the 1920s.  U.S. Census records and passenger lists indicate that these Faroese spread out widely and did not settle among other Scandinavians in the Upper Midwest. Clement Jacobsen, 38, a Faroese laborer was listed as working in the steel works in Cambria, Pennsylvania, in 1920. [16]  Gunner Jornsen, 30, was an engineer at a sugar factory in the Virgin Islands.[17]  John F. Simonsen, 57 years of age, migrated to the United States in 1883, was naturalized in 1897, and was living at Orting Soldier’s Home in Pierce, Washington.[18] The 35 year-old Karen Jensen, born on the Faroes, immigrated in 1912, was naturalized in 1920, married a Jens Jensen and lived at 1959 Summerville Ave, Chicago, along with two children.[19]

Torgerd Pedersen

Torgerd Pedersen was eighteen years old in 1963, when an American, Gary Vaillancourt, came to the Faroes to help with radar installations for NATO. Torgerd grew up in Viareidi, a village of 200 people on the northernmost island of the archipelago, but had moved to Torshavn at eighteen to work as a cook’s helper at the city’s hotel. Here, the Americans came for their meals. Gary directed winks towards her. The couple dated and then married within a year, and left for Denmark. Aboard ship from the Faroes to Denmark, Torgerd and Gary celebrated their marriage by ordering a bottle of champagne. Rakul Samuelson, a young Faroese woman who worked as a stewardess aboard the ship, delivered the bottle to Torgerd and the two exchanged a few words in Danish, not realizing that they were both Faroese.

After a short stay in Denmark, Torgerd and Gary moved to England, where they spent three months together. With only one year of experience hearing American English, Torgerd initially found British English almost unintelligible. But she had time to learn, as Gary left England temporarily to continue work in Iceland and Greenland. Meanwhile, Gary’s friend John Ketels, another American on the DEW line, began courting Rakul Samuelson, the same young Faroese woman who had delivered to Torgerd a bottle of champagne on the ferry to Denmark. Gary and John had worked together in Alaska and both found brides in the Faroes.  At least two other Americans working on the DEW Line did the same. One Faroese woman married an American and settled in Seattle, another went to Nevada, according to Torgerd.

In the summer of 1963, friends John and Gary, alongside Torgerd and Rakul, met each other in Denmark. Torgerd recognized Rakul as the ferry’s stewardess, but was surprised to learn that the two’s parents were acquaintances, and that Rakul had even attended school with Torgerd’s older sister, Jastrid. In typical Faroese fashion, the two found they knew many of the same people. Their friendship continued in the United States. Torgerd and Gary returned to Oregon, while Rakul and John settled first in California. In the winter of 1963-1964, Rakul and John came to Oregon to visit. Eventually, Rakul and John moved to Oregon as well. Torgerd raised two children, worked for a few years at a plant nursery and then spent sixteen years as a supervisor at a small electronics/telecommunications firm.

Marriages continued to serve as a link in bringing Faroese to America. Torgerd’s sister Jastrid came to visit in Oregon, married an American, and chose to stay. A few years later, a younger sister, Malan, did the same. Three Faroese sisters with three American husbands remained in the Portland area.

Torgerd’s children took an interest in the Faroes as well. Togerd’s daughter travel with Rakul’s son via Denmark to the Faroes for a summer of work on the islands. Torgerd’s connections stem further. She notes that her brother Peter married the cousin of Edla (of Colorado). During a visit to California in the late 1980s, Torgerd stopped in the city of Carmel to visit the Faroese American painter, Skalagaard, at his shop. Skalagaard had left the Faroes at a young age, and then was about 70 years of age, and had not returned.

For the past few years, Torgerd has remained in touch with family through Skype.[20]

I had a brief but friendly 9-minute phone conversation with Hans Skalagard of California. Skalagard was from a family of fishermen and he began fishing a 13. But he wanted to see more than the local waters. He sailed for 27 years before settling in California in 1942. When I asked him if he stayed because of his married, he answered, “yes, more or less.” For 30 years he did not return to the Faroes, but corresponded with family. Then, by the 1970s, he returned to the Islands every other year. He last visited in 1998, and has not returned since the death of his parents. 18 of his paintings are on display in the main museum in Torshavn. Proud that his brother is a writer in the Faroese, who has produced books on the history of the Faroese police force.[21]

Rakul Ketels (Samuelson)

I spoke with Rakul Ketels (formerly Samuelson), a Faroese American from Klaksvik living in Portland, Oregon. Ketels’s husband, John Ketels worked came to the Faroe Islands for work in the early 1960s. He was an electrician in California on contract with General Electric to help install section of the U.S. DEW line, a series of radar sites across the far North in Canada, Greenland, and Scandinavia. The couple married in 1964 in Iceland and Rakul followed her husband back to America’s West Coast, first in California, then in Oregon. In the decades to follow, Rakul and her husband occasionally visited the Petersen sisters.

Rakul has also given presentation about the Faroes to groups in the Portland, Oregon area, including the local Scandinavian Heritage Society. When one of the conference organizers asked Rakul if she could present on the Faroese author Willem Heinessen, she responded in the affirmation. After all, she already knew quite a bit about Heinessen; in typical Faroese fashion the two were even related. One of Rakul’s sisters (name?) had married Heinnessen’s son. At other events, Ketels has also presented a video about the nature and traditions of the Faroes.  Her connections with the Faroes remained strong. Ketels’ son spent two summers in the Faroes. He once worked as a Halibut fisher and once as an assistant landscaper in Klaksvik. [22]

Jennifer Henke

The story of Jennifer Henke’s rediscovery of her Faroese “roots” best illustrates the importance of extended family networks on the Faroe Islands and the ability of these networks to endure through the separation of marriage and time.  Like many Faroese, Henke’s father, Hans Jacobsen (born 1898) became a sailor at fifteen. By 1917, he had left his home village of Fugelfjord for good. Jacobsen sailed around the globe, mostly on Norwegian vessels. From 1921 to 1925, his name appears on dozens of port registries from Honolulu to Hong Kong, Vancouver, Jakarta, and Yokohoma. At thirty, he had settled in San Francisco, where he lived the rest of his life. Henke recalls that he father seldom spoke about his Faroese childhood or family, but he did save a stack of letters from the Faroes. In seven years of correspondence after his departure, Hans’ family repeated implored him to return home. His sister-in-law dictated a letter to Hans from his parents:           “Come back to us. You cannot believe how much we all wish you back. You should know that we often talk about you.” (pg 37. Fuglefjord, 1 April 1918).  His love interest, as well, penned distraught letters, demanding his return. Hans’s correspondence cease in 1924 when his parents had passed away and the family gave out hope for his return.

Hans’s daughter, Jennifer Henke visited the Faroes in 1997, bringing along her father’s old, worn Danish letters, which she hoped could help her find her relatives. Although she struggled at first to get around the island and make contacts, within days of her arrival, Henke had found cousins upon cousins, nearly all of whom invited her for coffee at their homes. “Coffee,” Henke discovered, included any kind of meal. The homecoming welcome was overwhelming. Before Henke’s visit none of the Jacobsen’s even knew of an American in the family. But word of her arrival spread quickly around the islands, first by telephone, then through a radio interview later in the week. At a family reunion, sixty-five relatives appeared from all over the island. “I wasn’t exactly sure who everyone was, and I didn’t understand any of their language, but I knew I was thoroughly welcomed and loved by my family in the Faroe Islands.” (pg 53)

Henke had brought along a photo of her father, taken in San Francisco in 1923, to show her relatives. “One of the most amazing events of the trip was seeing a framed photograph of my father on the wall in the home of one of my relatives, enlarged from the postcard. When I think of the strangeness and improbability of finding my father’s family half a world away, eighty years after he left home, the most strange and yet most reassuring event was seeing the photographs of him in my cousins’ homes. His family loved him and missed him deeply.” (69) [23]

Other Faroese Americans

Edla Hurley (nee Jacobsen) of Walsenburg, Colorado also left the Faroe Islands with an American husband, whom she married in 1963. The couple lived in the Faroes and had two daughters there before moving to Europe and eventually the United States. She has returned to the Islands but is discouraged from further trips because of a dislike for flying. A nephew (brother’s son) and a daughter both live in Idaho and speak Faroese to each other when they meet.  She transferred her traditional knowledge of knitting into a successful business, Edla’s Yarns, http://www.edlasyarns.com/about.php. Edla has also presented about the Faroe Islands to local groups. [24]

In 2001, Joel Ours of Denver, Colorado, married Sonja Jacobsen, a Faroese woman who had earned a master’s degree in Copenhagen and took a job in the U.S., in 1999 planning on staying for only a few years. Ours explained that they speak both Faroese and English at home and are raising bilingual children. They returned to the Faroes every other year to visit family. “The connection to the Faroes is still very strong and a very important part of our family dynamic,” Ours wrote. “You’ll find the Faroese to be a very proud nation of people and no matter where they go they take their traditions with them.” Two children under five years of age, who are happy to get on a “big airplane” and visit “Omma og Abbi” (Grandma and Grandpa). [25]


Certainly more research needs to be done on this topic. Historians need to look at records in Denmark and in the Faroe Islands, and they need to look further into archival sources in the United States. By tracking down Faroese Americans for interviews more can be learned about the size and nature of the Faroese migrants. The Faroese represent one of the invisible minorities, invisible because they are so few in number. However, they present an interested case for historians and sociologists who might want to know more about how people from tight-knit communities adjust to life at a great distance from home and from fellow kin. I would be glad to Faroese Americans with more information, or from scholars who are interested in the topic. You can email me at michael j douma  (at) gmail. com.



[1] Examples of Norwegian and Swedish American history are legion. More rare are studies of Icelanders, such as Birna Bjarnado’ttir and Finnbogi Gud(th)mundsson, eds. My Parents: Memoirs of New World Icelanders (University of Manitoba Press, 2007), ix.

[2] Jonathan Wylie, The Faroe Islands: Interpretations of History (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 103.

[3] Frederick Hale, Danes in North America (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1984).

[4] Wylie, The Faroe Islands, 2.

[5] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Manifests of Passengers Arriving at St. Albans, VT, District through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895-1954; Record Group: 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Microfilm Serial: M1464; Microfilm Roll: 277; Line: 1. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Manifests of Passengers Arriving at St. Albans, VT, District through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895-1954; Record Group: 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Microfilm Serial: M1464; Microfilm Roll: 614; Line: 6.

[6] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Manifests of Passengers Arriving at St. Albans, VT, District through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895-1954; Record Group: 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Microfilm Serial: M1464; Microfilm Roll: 323; Line: 1.

[7] Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving or Departing at Honolulu, Hawaii, 1900–1953. NARA Microfilm Publication A3422, 269 rolls; A3510, 175 rolls; A3574, 27 rolls; A3575, 1 roll; A3576, 1 roll; A3577, 58 rolls; A3615, 1 roll. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[8] Year: 1927; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_3998; Line: 16; Page Number: 134.

[9] Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls); Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Year: 1939; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_6364; Line: 16; Page Number: 63.

[10] Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls); Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Year: 1934; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_5559; Line: 6; Page Number: 53.

[11] Year: 1940; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_6515; Line: 8; Page Number: 58.

[12] Year: 1953; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_8384; Line: 8; Page Number: 177.

[13] Year: 1941; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_6529; Line: 9; Page Number: 102.

[14] Year: 1944; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_6767; Line: 1; Page Number: 148.

[15] Year: 1948; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_7659; Line: 14; Page Number: 220.

[16] Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[17] Year: 1920;Census Place: Kings Quarter, St Croix Island, Virgin Islands; Roll: T625_2076; Page: 30B; Enumeration District: 33; Image: 125.

[18] Census Place: Orting Soldiers Home, Pierce, Washington; Roll: T625_1937; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 230; Image: 1128.

[19] Year: 1921; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_3022; Line: 22; Page Number: 23.

[20] Author’s phone interview with Torgerd Pedersen on 3 February 2011.

[21] Phone conversation with author, 12 February 2011.

[22] Phone conversation with Rakul Ketels, 1 February 2011.

[23] Jennifer Henke, The Missing Son: A Faroe Islands Saga (Privately printed, 2010), 69.

[24] Personal interview, 2 Feb 2011).

[25] Personal correspondence, 3 February 2011 and 5 feb 2011)


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