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Christensen Family Papers, 1806-1987

The papers of the Christensen family document over one hundred seventy-five years in the lives of several generations of individuals with ties to South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Denmark.

The collection consists of correspondence, business records, photographs, pamphlets, deeds, diaries, and ephemera acquired and generated by the family of Niels Christensen (1840-1909), a native of Denmark and a former Union soldier, and Abbie Holmes Christensen (1852-1938), a native of Massachusetts who settled in Beaufort with her family at the close of the Civil War. The family was very active in the civic and business community of Beaufort. Niels and his sons established successful real estate, hardware, and newspaper businesses in the community. Abbie was a published folklorist. The family was active in the temperance, suffrage, and civil rights movements in both South Carolina and Massachusetts. They were also among the founders of the Port Royal Agricultural School, a school for African Americans in Beaufort.

Much of the history of this family can be found in correspondence and personal papers that reflect their lives. Letters and diaries offer a window onto the Civil War, Reconstruction, life in Beaufort, World War I, the 1920s, the Great Depression, religion, spirituality, world leaders, race relations, and education. Additionally, the papers reveal Abbie's role in the evolving ethnic and social fabric of low country South Carolina immediately following Reconstruction, as well as her involvement in the suffrage movement and her interests in holistic medicine, spirituality, and her participation in the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (Rosicrucian Order).

Abbie Mandana Holmes was born to Reuben and Rebecca Holmes on 28 January 1852 in Westboro, Mass. Reuben, a jack of all trades, inventor, and traveling salesman, and Rebecca, a teacher, had a history of involvement in abolitionist causes in Massachusetts. Abbie's parents' stance as abolitionists and reformers, as well as their belief in education for all, were to be strong influences that carried over into Abbie's life and shaped many of the choices she made. Because of these political convictions, the Holmeses decided to take part in a missionary experiment at Port Royal on the South Carolina coast. Before the Civil War, Beaufort and the Sea Islands were home to wealthy planters and a large slave community. During and immediately following the war, the area became the site of a free labor experiment—the only egalitarian land distribution program undertaken in United States history. Reuben and Rebecca, along with Abbie, relocated to the South to participate in this interracial community at Port Royal.

As a young woman, Abbie returned to Massachusetts to pursue her formal education. She studied at Ipswich Female Seminary and later at Mount Holyoke College. The liberal education and strong support base she received at these two prestigious institutions provided encouragement for her to pursue her interests in writing and folklore. On breaks from school, Abbie taught at a common school in Beaufort that was open to African-American and white students alike.

At this same time, Abbie transformed her former childhood fascination with Gullah and her interest in African-American folklore into a writing career. She compiled and recorded the folk tales she heard on a daily basis in Beaufort—something she had started to do at Mount Holyoke. Her first story, "De Wolf, De Rabbit An' De Tar Baby," was published in The Springfield Daily Republican on 2 June 1874, around the time she left school. With encouragement from her family and former professors, she continued to seek publication for the tales. Abbie hoped to share her fascination with the allegorical tales with an audience beyond Port Royal and the South. She realized the importance of preserving and disseminating the oral tradition and legacy of Gullah folktales. Her success at capturing the Gullah dialect enabled her to publish the stories fairly regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Her work appeared primarily in Northern newspapers, journals, and folklore periodicals.

In 1874 Abbie met Niels Christensen. Niels, a citizen of Denmark, came to the United States in 1862 and enlisted in the Union Army as a private in the 145th New York Infantry Volunteers. At the time he and Abbie met, he was working as the superintendent of the Federal cemetery at Beaufort. The couple married on 13 April 1875 in Beaufort's Charles Street Baptist Church. Between 1876 and 1887, Abbie gave birth to six children (and buried an infant son). During these years, she also published numerous folktales.

In the years following the Civil War and after his position at the cemetery ended, Niels assumed an active role within Beaufort's business community. Around 1876 he founded a hardware store in town and began work as a general contractor; over the next ten years, the business grew and expanded. He also established Christensen Realty Company, which specialized in the sale of timber land and large tracts of plantation land. As his sons came of age Christensen welcomed both Niels, Jr., and Frederick when they expressed an interest in joining him. In 1879 Niels was selected to serve as Commissioner of Elections for Beaufort Country, and in 1886 he became the acting Intendant of Beaufort.

In 1882 Abbie inherited money from her deceased uncle, Alden Winch, former director of the American News Company of New York. She was able to use this money to bring more personal control to her marriage. She lent Niels a large sum to put into his hardware business and real estate interests. Abbie purchased property in Beaufort and invested other money, thereby assuring herself lifelong financial independence. She also used a significant portion of her inheritance to help found an interdenominational Union church in Beaufort—the Carteret Street Church.

Abbie firmly believed that her children should be educated in New England, just as she had been. In the mid-1880s, she made the decision to live with her children in Massachusetts throughout the school year. Consequently, she spent much of the late 1880s and the decade of the 1890s traveling back and forth between Boston and Beaufort. Abbie maintained a hectic schedule in both communities. In fact, it was while Abbie was with the children in New England that she first became involved in the temperance and suffrage movements. In 1888, while in Boston, she joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1889 she received a personal visit from WCTU president Frances Willard, and in 1890 the WCTU membership elected Abbie to the board of directors of the Women's Temperance Publishing Association on which she served for two years. Back in South Carolina she immersed herself in yet more women's suffrage and temperance activities. When the devastating hurricane struck South Carolina's coast in 1893, Abbie was away in Boston; from there, she organized relief efforts and successfully appealed for financial assistance from Massachusetts families.

By the end of the 1890s, Abbie had returned to Beaufort to live year round; once again she chose to involve herself in another aspect of Beaufort life—the education of African Americans. In 1898 the entire Christensen family worked with both black and white citizens of Beaufort to make the Port Royal Agricultural School a reality. They took as their inspiration the Southern educational institutions founded by Booker T. Washington, Samuel Chapman, Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, and Rachel Mather. Chartered in 1901, the school served the Beaufort community for over forty years.

After Niels' death in 1909, Abbie found solace in religion as well as through alternative forms of Christianity and holistic healing measures. She believed also in the predictions of astrology, the power of herbal remedies, and the ability of one's mind to overcome weakness. Years later, in 1929, she joined the Rosicrucian Order of Christian Mystics, a Christian-based sect that espoused the power of the spiritual over the material and the kinship of all humanity, and she participated in a correspondence course offered by the Rosicrucians. Mind Cure and Rosicrucianism were but two in a series of alternative religious and medical practices Abbie followed over the course of her life. She collected rare plants and dispensed homeopathic remedies to her friends and family; and, in later years, Abbie often spent time at various solarium retreats across the country as a means of restoring her mental and physical well being; her daughter Andrea frequently accompanied her on these extended trips.

In 1932, at the age of eighty, Abbie accepted a position as the Elector at Large for the Socialist Party in South Carolina. She served as a delegate for presidential candidate Norman Thomas. This was the only time Abbie publicly supported a political candidate.

Abbie died in Greenville on 21 September 1938. She was remembered by family and friends in South Carolina and Massachusetts, and the staff and students at the Port Royal Agricultural School memorialized her and established a scholarship in her name. The interests of Abbie and Niels Christensen lived on in their children, however. The Christensen family papers trace the lives and varied interests of their six children and many grandchildren. From running the family business to teaching school in Tennessee to serving as a state legislator to working as an engineer on the Savannah River Plant, the Christensen children and grandchildren participated in a wide range of activities in the South. This is largely reflected in the correspondence among family members that dates from the early 1880s through the 1980s.

The papers of the Christensen family consist of approximately ten linear feet of materials documenting the lives of several generations. In date, the collection ranges from approximately 1806 to 1986, with the bulk of the papers falling between 1850 and 1935. The collection is divided into six series: correspondence, family papers, Port Royal Agricultural School, Beaufort history, miscellaneous oversize materials, and photographs and postcards.

Correspondence is organized chronologically. By and large, the collection consists of correspondence among family members—the chief correspondent being Abbie Holmes Christensen. Apart from her family, Abbie corresponded with a wide circle of individuals including the following: Charles and Addie Barrow (educators, proponents of the Mind Cure philosophy); Ellen Murray (educator at the Penn School); W.W. Newell (secretary of the American Folk-lore Society); India Shanklin (teacher at the Port Royal Agricultural School); and Frances E. Willard (president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union). Also included are letters written to Niels Christensen from soldiers during the Civil War. Correspondence dating from 1893 and 1894 touches upon the effects of the hurricane that devastated the Beaufort area. Of particular note is a letter to Niels from Clara Barton, president of the American National Red Cross, thanking the Christensens for their donation of clothes to hurricane victims.

Personal papers include materials relating to individual members of the Christensen family, as well as to the extended Holmes and Winch families. Included in this series are patents for inventions, genealogical files, deeds, and account books belonging to Abbie's Winch and Holmes ancestors. The series contains personal papers that belonged to Niels, Abbie, and their children. The papers of the Christensen's eldest son, Niels, Jr., offer a glimpse into the life of a South Carolina state senator. Included among his papers are articles and editorials written by and about him, a biographical essay, newspaper clippings, and information regarding his involvement in South Carolina politics. Also of interest are documents generated by Fred B. Christensen, who worked as an engineer with the Savannah River Plant during the 1980s. The collection contains two folders of correspondence documenting his views on the maintenance and regulation of the plant by the federal government.

Materials pertaining to the Port Royal Agricultural School include copies of prospectuses and information booklets drawn up before the school commenced operations, an account book (1902-1906), scattered alumni records, enrollment statistics, and correspondence. Of particular significance are early letters exchanged between Abbie and Mr. & Mrs. Booker T. Washington as she went about the business of trying to model the school after Tuskegee. There are also letters to Abbie from Joseph and India Shanklin, the school's principal and his wife (she also taught at the school).

The Beaufort history series contains an assortment of documents that relate to the town's history, most of which were collected by family members over the years. Included is a copy of a 1915 letter signed by W.H. Townsend regarding the adoption of the commission form of government. Also included are articles and essays, among them materials regarding Beaufort Town Council.

Miscellaneous oversize materials collected by the family include five volumes of Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization dating from the early 1860s, an 1858 issue of The Illustrated London News that features an article on the devilfish in South Carolina, and several early maps of the New England region.

Photographs and postcards include ferrotypes, daguerreotypes, cartes de visite, and early twentieth-century black and white prints. Of interest are informal photographs of the family vacationing at the seashore at the turn of the century, images of students at Port Royal Agricultural School, and formal portraits of family members.

Abbie Holmes Christensen is the collection's linch pin. She realized the sentimental and possibly the historic value of preserving her family's papers. In her role as the family matriarch, Abbie maintained close ties with her relatives, children, and grandchildren. Not only did she save her own letters and diaries, but she also acquired the papers of her parents and grandparents and preserved them for future generations. The collection would not exist were it not for Abbie's careful efforts to insure her family's history; in turn, she instilled this respect for one's past in her children and also in her grandchildren, without whose efforts this collection would not be available for research use today.

| 1999 Manuscripts Collections | 1999 USCS Table of Contents | South Caroliniana Library |

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