Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/Captain Otto Olson

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Captain Otto Olson
BornNorway, 1883
OccupationSailor, Dredge Boat Operator
EmployerPrivate Entities, British Admiralty

Overview[edit | edit source]

Otto Olson was 56 at the time of his interview for the Federal Writer's Project in 1939 and a dredge boat captain in North Carolina. He readily gave his life story to interviewers Beaman, James S., and Massengill. Olson was born in a small Norwegian town, circa 1883, on his parent’s dairy farm but later became a sailor at 13. He had already sailed around the world 3 times by 1939. He had a wife and two kids, a girl and a boy, which they adopted. He got the dredge boat captain job in NC for the good pay and to settle down for a little. Olson liked America and wanted to stay; there are places he wanted to see again, but he would always return.[1]

Gold Dredge Boat on the Klondike River, 1915

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Olson was born in a small Norwegian town on his parent’s dairy farm. Olson, his five siblings, and his parents were neither rich nor poor. Olson received some schooling and worked on the farm, but he hated the later. The sea was in his blood, all of his uncles and grandfathers—one of which was even a famous captain in the British navy-- were sailors, and when he was 13, Olson joined them.[2]

Dairy Farm in New South Wales

Education[edit | edit source]

Olson received a limited education before becoming a sailor, and from then on was self-taught through the many books he read. Whenever he made port, Olson would try to find a reading room. He listed his favorite authors as Mark Twain and Victor Hugo. Olson admired America's attitude towards education and the schooling available; he and his wife deemed it important that their children obtain at least a secondary education, far more than they had. In 1939, Olson's daughter was in secondary school.[3]

Family[edit | edit source]

Olson married his wife, unnamed in the interview, when he moved to America, and they later adopted a girl and a boy, who are also unnamed. Religion was important to Olson; his daughter went to a Baptist church since her family was so while the son went to an Episcopal church with his wife. Olson was raised Lutheran, and never failed to say his prayers each night, but attended his wife’s church since Lutheran congregations were uncommon in the in southern states.[4]

Career[edit | edit source]

Olson began his sailing career at the young age of 13, and, so he claims, then only spent a total of 3 weeks on land over the next seven years. Olson visited every major port worldwide and had already sailed around the world thrice in 56 years. Olson worked many jobs and had many adventures over the years but decided to take the dredge boat captain job in NC and settle down for a little given his age. The dredge boat job compensated Olson better than any other previous job, though his pay declined during the Great Depression.[5]

Shipwrecks[edit | edit source]

Olson recounted three major shipwrecks to his interviewers: they occurred in the Baltic sea, off the coast of Siberia, and in the Gulf of Mexico. He was the sole survivor of a 39 man crew in the Gulf's wreck.[6]

The British Admiralty[edit | edit source]

One of Olson's notable employers was the British Admiralty, having worked on a British merchant ship. Olson, who referred to the Admiralty and the British Board of Trade as "sons of bitches" who brought him nothing but trouble, told his interviewers of the Admiralty's controlling methods: they only paid sailors after their return to prevent desertion and so they would spend all their earnings in England. Olson decided from this the English were an "overbearing" race. Olson developed many opinions from his travels: he firmly believed that Swedish sailors were "half-rate," that Americans "are quick to get rich and give a fellow chance," and the Dutch are the kindest of all.[7]

Norwegian Immigration to America in the early 20th Century[edit | edit source]

North-western vs South-eastern European Immigration

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who were far more diverse than the "old" western European immigrants, flocked to the US. One’s chance of immigration and reception was based on one's rank in the “hierarchy of whiteness.” Scandinavians were placed above “new” immigrants from countries like Italy, Poland, and Greece, as well as ethic groups like the Jewish people, in this racial hierarchy based on timely 'scientific' perspectives on race. Scandinavian immigrants unquestionably benefited from this: they were placed "in a relatively safe spot in the public discourse on immigration policy, on the more agreeable side of a widening divide separating the 'old' immigrants of northern and western European background from the 'new' immigrants of southern and eastern European heritage.” [8] "New" immigrants were infamously discriminated against in the Immigration Act of 1924, which created fixed quotas limiting the number of immigrants from certain countries and excluded nearly all Asian immigrants.[9] Norwegian immigrants, however, still faced overwhelming pressure to assimilate. In this struggle, immigrants had to "defend themselves against suspicions of disloyalty for trying to preserve 'foreign' traits and loyalties. In this debate, which intensified during World War I, the preservationists insist that there is no conflict between their cultural and their political loyalties.”[10]

North Carolina's Public Education during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

America's public education system was a general source of pride for the country, becoming a symbolic part of the "American Dream." The Great Depression exposed the flaws in public education, namely that its quality could differ greatly region to region depending on the funding available. Poorer, rural regions' public schools, like those in south, suffered during the 1930's. [11] North Carolina, comparatively, fared much better than its southern neighbors; every school remained open and "the educators themselves tried many creative ways to reduce costs and keep schools running. Some schools saved money by getting rid of cafeterias and cafeteria workers…Some schools cut back on courses considered less essential, like music and foreign languages." [12] Yet even for a student who attended a well-funded public school, the likelihood of their going to university was slim; "admission required knowledge of Latin or Greek, or being able to pass tests in algebra. These subjects were rarely taught in public schools. So in reality, only privately educated students had much chance of attending college.”[13] For the average American, the "promise" and opportunities of education only extended to secondary school.

British Dominance of the Seas, post WWI-1930s[edit | edit source]

For many decades the British navy dominated the world and sought to ensure this position post WWI, a time characterized by arguments over "freedom of the seas." The main disagreement, between Britain and the United States, arose in the first World War; “the vital interests of the United States and Great Britain collided repeatedly over differing interpretations...of neutral rights at sea. Having declared neutrality, American leaders believed that British naval blockades, interdiction of American cargoes, lengthening contraband lists, and blacklisting of American firms accused of trading with the Central Powers threatened the prosperity of the United States."[14] In order to ensure their country's believed right to neutrality, the American Congress passed a 1916 act funding the creation of a navy that could supplant the British. A naval arms race between the two countries ensued while tensions skyrocketed. [15]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Folder 287: Beaman, James S., and Massengill (interviewers): “A Life at Sea,” in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  3. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  4. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  5. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  6. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  7. Beaman, James S., and Massengill.
  8. Brøndal, Jørn. ""The Fairest among the So-Called White Races": Portrayals of Scandinavian Americans in the Filiopietistic and Nativist Literature of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Journal of American Ethnic History 33, no. 3 (2014): 5-36. Accessed October 1, 2020. doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.33.3.0005.
  9. 43 Stat. 153 (Pub. Law 68-139), Sess. 1 of 1924, (US 1924). https://govtrackus.s3.amazonaws.com/legislink/pdf/stat/43/STATUTE-43-Pg153a.pdf
  10. Thaler, Peter. "Concepts of Ethnicity in Early Twentieth-Century Norwegian America." Scandinavian Studies 69, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 85-103. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/215678806?accountid=14244.
  11. "The 1930s Education: Overview ." U*X*L American Decades. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 11, 2020). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/culture-magazines/1930s-education-overview
  12. Davis, Anita Price. Spring 2010. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." The Tarheel Junior Historian (North Carolina Museum of History).
  13. "The 1930s Education: Overview."
  14. Lisio, Donald J. “Introduction.” Chapter. In British Naval Supremacy and Anglo-American Antagonisms, 1914–1930, 1–4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107297890.001.
  15. Lisio.