Sunday, May 29, 2011

Happy 187th Birthday, Bertha Poulsen (1824-1907)!

John Welch's great-grandmother

Until I found this photo of her, I had only focused on Bertha's daughter Mary.  In the past few months, her story has come alive to me.

Bertha (spelled Birthe in Danish) was the youngest of four children, and her father died when she was ten years old.  Bertha married Jacob, a prosperous man who owned an island farm in Denmark--he was the son of a legendary local May Queen Ane Rasmussen (whose 215th birthday is also today!) and her fairy-tale soldier.  They were happy with their two young toddlers.  Tragically, men jealous of Jacob’s wealth and social position attacked him, and he died as a result.  Bertha found it hard to take care of the farm alone.  She married a wonderful kindhearted man, Christian, and for a few years they raised a family in affluent circumstances, often entertaining community leaders, ministers, and schoolmasters.  Summer guests were received at the grape arbor, and servants were fed at eleven and four.

Everything changed when the family converted to the LDS faith, and they endured scorn from Bertha’s relatives and former friends.  Bertha and Christian even had to pull the children out of school due to the local persecution, and finally determined to leave for America.  They sold the farm for twenty-five thousand dollars, and equipped each in the family with eight suits of clothing of the best material and five pairs of shoes.  

The sea voyage was difficult and many died of cholera, including some Poulsen cousins traveling with them.  Christian, however, paid the cook to boil water for the family and they did not get sick.  The Poulsens struggled with lice on the train to St. Louis (which had been used to transport Union soldiers), and at one point Christian got off the train to get some milk for their sick children, and did not make it back on in time.  He arrived on another train that same night and soon found his relieved family.  Bertha mourned her two sons who died of measles on the journey. 

Christian Poulsen
Christian helped others generously, and after crossing the plains, their money was gone.  For awhile in Utah they lived in a fort to be safe from hostile Indians.  Bertha was never strong again.  She suffered from mountain fever, which was alleviated somewhat when her daughter Mary sold her earrings to buy some coffee for her sick mother. 

Eventually, the family again achieved comfortable circumstances.  Bertha taught the village women to sew and did most of the cutting out of clothes for men, women, and children.  She always managed to serve something delicious.  Her son-in-law Isaac noted her welcome presence at a grandchild’s birth, and her granddaughter Eulalia remembered their cozy and hospitable home and her Poulsen grandparents fondly. 

I would give her a new pair of sewing scissors! 


  1. Anita, the stories of these good people bring them to life in my mind. Although not my ancestor, I enjoyed reading of the faith and perseverance of this good woman and her husband.

  2. I'd give her medicine for the lice and other ailments suffered by her and her family.