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883 King Gorm unites the kingdom of Denmark 940 Harald Bluetooth Gormson becomes king and strengthens Christianity in Denmark circa 980 Vikings explore Greenland, today a Danish dependency
1013 Denmark and England unite
1397 Kalmar Union merges Denmark, Norway and Sweden
1536 Lutheran Reformation begins in Denmark
1660 Peace of Copenhagen establishes modern boundaries
1814 Sweden takes Norway from Denmark
1835 Hans Christian Andersen publishes his first fairy tales
1849 Christian dissenter churches are recognized
1866 Treaty of Prague cedes Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia
1915 New constitution establishes two-chamber parliament and universal suffrage
1918 Iceland gains independence from Denmark
1920 Northern Schleswig rejoins Denmark
1940 Germany begins six-year occupation of Denmark
2000 Denmark rejects the Euro
History’s most famous Dane is probably a fictional character, created by an Englishman—the “gloomy Dane,” Hamlet (who, by the way, would’ve been known as Hamlet Hamletsen if he’d actually lived in Denmark). But there are plenty of well-known nonfictional Danes, from fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen to nuclear physicist Niels Bohr.
Danish-Americans have made their mark on this side of the Atlantic, too. Danes joined Dutch expeditions to the New World in the 17th century, and many lived in the colony of New Amsterdam. On the other side of the continent, Danish explorer Vitus Bering first charted the Alaskan straits in 1728. Col. Hans Christian Febiger, known as “Old Denmark,” was one of Gen. George Washington’s most trusted officers. Down in Texas, a Danish flag still flies at the Alamo in memory of Charles Zanco, a Dane who died for the Lone Star State’s independence in the 1836 battle.
After Danish immigration began to surge in the mid-19th century, prominent Danish-Americans included Jacob Riis, the pioneering photojournalist and reformer who wrote How the Other Half Lives (1890). A.C. Nielsen founded the broadcasting ratings company that bears his name in 1923. High Nielsen ratings were later enjoyed by his fellow Danish-Americans Victor Borge and Buddy Ebsen.
No Danish-American has yet been elected president, although Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was Michael Dukakis’ 1988 running mate. Janet Reno, the first woman attorney general, is of Danish descent. And when Americans admire that most famous depiction of US presidents, Mount Rushmore, they’re gazing at the work of Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine.