Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section068/Capitan Otto Olsen

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Ships from Olsen's Era

Biography[edit | edit source]

Capitan Otto Olsen was a Norwegian sailor who was born on a small dairy farm and grew up with three sisters and one brother. He didn’t care much for the dairy farm, but his uncles introduced him to sailing and he took to it.

As he got older, he made a living of sailing around the world on merchant ships. Olsen had been to almost every port and travelled around the globe three times, yet he had only shipwrecked three times – in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Serbia, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Of all these wrecks, the Gulf of Mexico was the worst by far. After the boat wrecked the few survivors made a raft of kegs but Olsen’s gut told him not to go, a choice that saved his life as the keg raft later sank. When Olsen was later found by a passing tankship, he was the only one of 39 to survive.

When taken to the nearest port in Galveston he stayed with a Norwegian friend of his and helped him and his farm the night of the Galveston Flood. To thank Olsen, his friend paid for his return trip to New York City. After exploring the city for six months he returned to London to collect his pay but was tried for desertion instead. Although he couldn’t be proven guilty, they never paid him for his work on the ship, adding to his dislike of the British.

After one last trip to South Africa with a Dutch merchant, Olsen found safer work and better pay operating a dredge boat in New Bern. Here he found a wife and adopted two children – a boy and a girl. Aspiring a better future for them, he made sure they finished high school so they would be more educated than him and his wife. Although he wouldn’t mind revisiting some of the places he has traveled in his adventures, he found a home on North Carolina’s coast and always wants to return there to be with his wife, his kids, and his boat.

Historical Context[edit | edit source]

Coat of Arms of Great Britain (1714-1801)

British Navigation Acts

The British Navigation Acts were a series of laws passed by the British that lasted over 200 years. These laws developed, promoted, and regulated British shipping, trade, and commerce between other countries (Clapham 1910, 483)[1]. They also mandated that all shipping used British ships and a majority British crew. However, they hired some seamen from other countries along the way to encourage trade. This effect lasted beyond the eradication of the laws in the 1800s. The controlling nature of these laws led many countries to resent the British, especially because it was hard for them to grow and prosper under these laws (Clapham 1910, 483)[1].

Olsen most likely became involved in the shipping business as a result of the British Navigation Acts. Norway was one of the countries the British used to recruit sailors and Olsen worked on British ships with a majority British crew. The abolishment of this act also resulted in a large boom in the Norwegian shipping industry which may have also allowed Olsen to become a successful sailor. The controlling nature of these acts also explains Olsen's disdain for the British.

Map of Scandinavia

Norwegian Emigration

When the Industrial Age reached Norway around the 1800s, the first industry to grow was the textile industry. However, this was quickly limited when the British placed an embargo on Norway’s textile industry, limiting their ability to be successful (Flom 2014, 67)[2]. Drawn to the growth and success of the industrialization in the United States, Norwegians began to emigrate in 1825. The first mass wave to the US was in the 1860s and it consisted of around 800,000 immigrants (Semmingsen 1960, 159)[3]. This resulted in a population shortage in Norway as well.

Although Olsen's date of birth is not stated, he was most likely born around the era of mass emigration from Norway to the United States. His motivation to leave Norway was probably a combination of the population shortage, the growing job opportunities available in America, and freedom to experience industrial success by distancing himself from the British. In his interview, Olsen also mentions that the American schools are also much better than Norwegian schools.

1900 Galveston Flood

Carrying bodies, Galveston hurricane, 1900

The hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900 made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on September 9th, 1900. This hurricane had 145 mph winds and made a 8-12 foot storm surge. This was the deadliest hurricane in America that has been recorded thus far. The hurricane killed 8,000-12,000 people, left 10,000 homeless, and cost over a billion dollars in damage (adjusted for inflation) (Burnett 2017)[4]. This ended the Golden Era of Galveston because investors became frightened and turned to Houston instead.

The main reason that this hurricane was so deadly was because Galveston was unprepared. Due to jealously regarding Cuban technology, the US forecasters cut off communication with Cuba while the storm was in the Gulf of Mexico. This left the US in the dark because they could not benefit from Cuba’s advanced technology or receive reports about the damage the storm caused in Cuba as it made its way to Galveston (Little 2019)[5].

Although he doesn’t identify the storm by name in his interview, Olsen was most likely caught in this flood after he was rescued from the Gulf of Mexico. Based off of the severity of the storm, it seems as though Olsen and his Norwegian friend were very lucky to have survived the storm since they were caught in one of the deadliest storms in America’s history.

  1. 1.0 1.1 Clapham, J.H. 1910. “The Last Years of the Navigation Acts.” The English Historical Review: 480-501. Accessed September 29, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/549885. Pdf.
  2. Flom, George. 2014. “A History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States: From the Earliest Beginning Down to 1848.” The Gutenberg Project: 67-71. Accessed September 24, 2020. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46681/46681-h/46681-h.htm#Page_64.
  3. Semmingsen, Ingrid. 1960. “Norwegian emigration in the nineteenth century.” Scandinavian Economic History Review, 8:2 150-160. 20 December 2011, https://doi.org/10.1080/03585522.1960.10411427.
  4. Burnett, John. 2017. “The Tempest At Galveston: ‘We Knew There Was A Storm Coming, But We Had No Idea.’” National Public Radio. Accessed September 29, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2017/11/30/566950355/the-tempest-at-galveston-we-knew-there-was-a-storm-coming-but-we-had-no-idea.
  5. Little, Becky. 2019. “How the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Became the Deadliest U.S. Natural Disaster.” The History Channel. Accessed September 29, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/how-the-galveston-hurricane-of-1900-became-the-deadliest-u-s-natural-disaster.