Scandinavian Life in Utah

Kent Powell
History Blazer, October 1995

During the last half of the nineteenth century Sanpete County became home to hundreds of Mormon converts from the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Aspects of this heritage remain in the buildings, traditions, foods, stories, and humor that were essential elements of Scandinavian life in Utah.

A closer look at one aspect—humor among the Sanpete Scandinavians—shows that it ranges from the nicknames they gave each other, to humorous incidences involving their use of the English language and their unmistakable accents, to elaborate stories involving social relationships and situations that brought out their individual human characters.

In an area where practically everyone shared his Scandinavian name with several other people, the Jens Jensens, Neils Andersons, Hans Hansens, Lars Larsens, Olof Ottosons, Peter Petersons, and others with commonly shared names were given nicknames by their peers that stayed with them all their lives and for some became more real than their given name. For example, a man arrived in Ephraim and informed a group of Danes gathered around the post office that he was looking for a man named Jacob Jensen. No one could help him, but the stranger persisted, indicating he had his address: “He lives in the South Ward, four blocks east of Main Street. Are you sure you don’t know Jacob Jensen?” Finally a light came on as Jake Butcher, one of the old-timers, scratched his head and said, “Hell, that’s me.” Others were given names like Painter Hansen, Dan Wheelmaker Jensen, Chris Cellar, Chris Tallerass Christensen, Big Mart, Dirty Mart, Soren Chickenheart, Faithful Andrew, Long Peter Peterson, Olof Coffee Pot, False Bottom Larsen, Chris Golddigger, Stinkbug Anderson, Fat Lars, Peephole Soren, Alphabet Hansen, Absolutely Anderson, Bert Fiddlesticks, Otto By-Yingo Anderson, Pete Woodenhead, Little Peter, and Salt Peter.

One of the most enduring of these individuals was a habitual drunk known as “Old Okerman.” On one occasion, when an LDS bishop was berating him for his drinking problem in front of a group of other church members, the church leader asked if Okerman had anything to say for himself. He responded sadly, “Vel, Biscop and Brodders, you haf all de time asked me how much visky I haf drunk, and scolded me for drinking it; but you nefer did ask me how tirsty I vas.”

Old Okerman had run up against the Mormon church teaching that strongly discouraged the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. This proved to be a real trial for the coffee-loving Danes. At the funeral of one Dane, the speaker reported that his friend had gone to that “happy hunting ground where there is no pain nor tears–nor Word of Wisdom.” On another occasion when members of the congregation could stand and express their thoughts in the church meeting, one member boasted that he did not use coffee, tea, liquor, or tobacco, and claimed that these things were only for the “yentiles” (gentiles–or non-Mormons). When he sat down, another brother jumped up and asked: “Brodders and sisters, vy iss it dat all the good tings shall be for the yentiles?” Most Scandinavians brought with them a very helpful device–humor–for coping with a new home and environment in the isolated valleys of Utah. In doing so they remind us that not always taking ourselves so seriously can often be good for the soul.

Source: William A. Wilson, “Folklore of Utah’s Little Scandinavia,” Utah Historical Quarterly 47 (1979).