Christensen Family of Manawatu, NZ

Anders Christian & Marie Christensen in New Zealand

Of the seventeen couples and one single man who arrived in Port Nicholson, Wellington, on 5 February 1871, the Christensens were to be one of the less fortunate families. While they started out relatively well, Marie's death in childbirth in 1885 put an end to that. Anders found himself having to cope as both breadwinner and sole parent of seven children aged between two and sixteen - and without the traditional kinship networks to fall back on. 

Tradition has it that after disembarking from the Celaeno, the first night the immigrants spent in New Zealand included a great celebration at Wellington's old Mount Cook Barracks, where the group were housed. Anders was very musical and was said to have played the fiddle, whilst himself dancing around the room amidst the dancing couples.

After a few days in Wellington sorting out matters relating to land purchase, and equipping themselves - on credit to the government - for their future lives, the party sailed for Foxton aboard the paddle-steamer Luna. The following day - 15 February 1871 - most of the party set out for the inland bush clearing known as Palmerston North. The men walked the whole way (about 25 miles), while the women and children travelled at least part of the way aboard Maori canoes. Three women remained in Foxton as two were about to give birth. The third was to be a support person.

Of traditions that survive, Marie and Johanna Berquist both spoke of being delivered by canoe to the town itself. Marie said she (and doubtless two-year-old daughter Martha ['Annie']) was taken up a stream to near the present-day intersection of Fitzherbert Avenue and Ferguson Street, thus close to the very centre of the present city. She also claimed that she was the second white woman to 'live' in Palmerston North. This must, however, be considered to be a sign that she had a good sense of humour. Mrs Coley, wife of the manager of the Palmerston Hotel, was already the 'first' women in this category, probably Marie was simply the first of the women to step out of the canoe!

The first night in their new home was spent at the Palmerston Hotel. The women and children slept on the floor inside the hotel, while the men attempted to sleep on the verandah amidst millions of hungry mosquitoes. The next day they were taken to the Karere Scandinavian Block (at present-day Westbrook), where the whole group were accommodated in a large tent until they built their own little huts on the land each family (plus the one single man - their interpreter) were allotted.

The Government agents had wondered how some of the non-labourer immigrants - such as Anders, the baker/miller - would cope with the transition to farming. Certainly he knew enough to quickly recognise suspect land when he saw it. His next appearance, with three of the others, was to protest that the land (surveyed into 'farms' of about forty-acres each) in the Karere Scandinavian Block that they had been allocated, was too swampy to farm. In fact, it had been very badly flooded after heavy rain over 5-6 March, and the new immigrants had been forced to take to the trees. At least one newly-built bush 'cottage' was almost completely under water.

Many, or perhaps all, of the immigrants were then temporarily resettled in what became known as the Scandinavian Camp, in the vicinity of the present-day intersection of Church and Albert Streets. The lower end of Albert Street was originally called 'Scandia Street' because of this. Unfortunately, the city fathers in the mid-1920s deemed this heritage too insignificant to bother will and changed it to acknowledge Queen Victoria's husband. A number of other mostly Scandinavian names had been similarly wiped off the town's street map in 1917, due to the fervent anti-Germanism of the time and lack of a little homework on the part of the authorities.

As a result of the protest regarding the swampy land, the four annoyed Celaeno families were transferred to the other new special settlement for Scandinavians at the opposite end of the 'town. ' The town, incidentally, was just a surveyed bush clearing, a couple of huts and the Palmerston Hotel - such as that was. It had been built in 1866 by Amos Burr, another of the author's great grandfathers. This second Scandinavian settlement was to become known at the Stoney Creek Scandinavian Block, with its 'farms' (then towering forest) being intended for the Danes and Swedes who arrived in the clearing from the ship England on 10 April 1871.

The 'new' Christensen property at Stoney Creek fronts present day Napier Road (SH3) and is about half way between Roberts Line and James Line. Only the bottom portion, about 20 acres, was flood-prone this time - and that because the old Manawatu Riverbed runs through it, leaving a lagoon that dries out in the summer. The rest is up a high hill known as the Terrace. The lower land is far more fertile than the clay soil on the hilltop. 

The couple built their small 'colonial'-style cottage near the road on the property. This lasted until the 1960s, but had been relocated to a higher site and converted to a car shed sometime after the present house was built by the next owners probably around the 1890s. 

During the early years, Anders combined his work repaying his debt to the New Zealand Government with work to transform his own portion of New Zealand's forest into something that resembled a farm. Public Works he probably was involved with were the wooden tramway built between Foxton and Palmerston North, and perhaps the construction of the road through the Manawatu Gorge. Certainly his shipmates were involved with cutting sleepers for the tramway. The Public Works projects were completed in the vicinity of Palmerston North during 1876, by which time the tramway was a proper railway and had been completed to Feilding.

On 14 November 1877, at the time the town's sawmilling company, Richter, Nannestad & Co., was establishing its flourmill, the Christensen farm was advertised for sale. The flourmill was to be the town's salvation at that time, as previously farm produce was usually perishable and could not survive the journey to the outside world - that is, outside Manawatu. Of course that meant there was a glut of perishable food in the district. Flour production meant wheat could be grown, milled and then sent away from Foxton by coastal steamer. The railway opened between Palmerston North and Wanganui in 1878 too, just at the point that the mill's equipment was ready to be railed from Wanganui to Palmerston North (but before the official opening).

The property was described in the aforementioned 1877 advertisement as consisting of a "well-built" four-roomed house, a bakery and a barn. It was apparently considered to be one of the best sections in the Stoney Creek Scandinavian Block. Also advertised for sale on the same day was the nearby farm of flourmiller, Wilhelm Erenstrom, a Swede from Brunskog like Marie, and who had travelled to New Zealand aboard the England. Erenstrom went on to become Head Miller at the new mill, a job he held for the next forty-five years. The evidence strongly suggests that Anders was also to be employed at the mill. 

Johan Richter, Jacob Nannestad and Frits Jenssen, owners of Richter, Nannestad & Co., were all Norwegians from Trondheim, who had made their own ways to New Zealand. Their company was the town's largest employer in the early years, with Scandinavians and Germans gravitating to it as the well-educated employers could speak their various languages. Richter's brother, Ole Richter, was Norway's Prime Minister between 1884 and his death in 1888.

Neither farm was sold at that time, and Anders finally received the title to the 48-acre property on 23 March 1878.

The family grew steadily also, with the arrival of Richard ('Dick') in 1872, Niobar ('Snider') in 1874, Calvert ('Collie') in 1876, Emmanuel ('Snowie') in 1878, Lydia in 1880 and Hilda in 1882. As with many other Scandinavian families around the time, these Anglicised names were not necessarily the same spellings as those written on their birth registrations (See First Generation for those). Things were further complicated by the family's tendency to use nicknames. 

All the while, semblances of 'civilisation' were developing around them. Doubtless it was a huge relief when finally Stoney Creek (now Whakarongo) School opened several miles away on 4 October 1877. The community supplied 23 First Day pupils, many of whom spoke a Scandinavian or German language rather than English. However, English was the only language in which they were permitted by the authorities to be taught, thereby starting the beginning of the end for the survival of these languages in New Zealand. 

For whatever reason, Annie was finally enrolled at Stoney Creek School on 2 November 1878. She was then ten years old. She appears to have remained only a brief time, with no departure date mentioned. While her brothers gradually found their way to the school for a few short years of formal education, Annie's only reappearance on the roll, was on 15 September 1881 when she was almost thirteen. It seems more likely, though, that she merely there to look after her little brother Calvert, who started the same day. She ceased attending on 22 September and was withdrawn from the roll shortly thereafter.

Between her own confinements, Marie found her niche as the local midwife and also as the person with the less pleasant task of 'laying out' the dead prior to burial. One of daughter Lydia's few recollections of her mother, was of older brother Richard and herself being yelled at by Marie, and being told not to wander off into the dense bush (in NZ, this term includes towering forest) still on the farm. There was great fear of people getting lost in such situations.

Another incident that has endured relates to the huge flood of 1880, where the family home was undoubtedly filled suddenly with water in the dead of night. Anders transformed his large baker's dough-mixing trough into a 'flat-bottomed boat' and delivered bread throughout the community.

Anders is said to have been very clever, and according to family tradition he had invented a waterwheel that worked in still water, and also to have created a telescope which he used to study the stars. The editorial in the Manawatu Times of 22 March 1883 described the waterwheel in some detail.

"Mr A.C. Christiansen (sic) of Stoney Creek has for some time past been devoting his attention to ... devising some improved means of using water as a motive power, and utilising the force of our numerous rivers and streams. He informs us that he has now devised a waterwheel, which may be worked in any river where a fall of 18 inches or two feet can be obtained, and by the erection of a sloping dam, which need not cross the river, but may merely run parallel to its banks for about two chain, such a fall can be obtained in any New Zealand river.

"Mr Christiansen's (sic) specialty lies in the peculiar formation of the waterwheel etc., which we are not at liberty to describe, as we learn that he contemplates taking out a patent for his improvement. Should he be successful in doing this, there will be no doubt that the manufacturing industries will receive a great stimulus by obtaining a cheap motive power.

"We may mention that Mr Christiansen (sic) has had great experience in his native country, Norway, and his idea will no doubt be found thoroughly practicable. It would probably pay some of our sawmillers or others to place themselves in communication with him."

The fate of the waterwheel is not known and it does not seem to have been patented.

The couple's activities were mentioned on other occasions also. These included (Manawatu Times 14/2/1883) Anders turning to a (then) very well-known travelling faith healer named Milner Stephen, in the hope that he could treat his rheumatism. The level of success achieved was not reported. 

Then on 23 February 1883, the Manawatu Times reported that Anders had won Doctor Marriner's prize for home-spun wool at the Palmerston North Summer Horticultural Show. Perhaps this was instead Marie's handcraft. The following month (28/3/1883) the Times published a letter from him complaining of the dangerous state of trees overhanging the road at Terrace End. He pointed out that a large branch had recently fallen onto the road.

The event that turned the tide within the Christensen family was Marie's death in childbirth on 13 March 1885, at the age of forty-five years. The course of death was given as 'childbirth: syncope - 12 hours.' "Syncope" is the medical term for 'faint', and is caused by lack of blood to the brain. The doctor, Hugh Mariner, who had no doubt worked with her in better times, attended her during her final hours. Probably the baby was never delivered as there is no memory of its birth or gender.

Her father was named on her death certificate as Nils Olsen, a farmer, and her mother as Marta Olsen, nee Andersdatter. In fact her father was Nils Jonsson. No other name for her mother has yet materialised.

Marie was buried two days later in the section of Terrace End Cemetery (then called Palmerston Cemetery) that is called Public Reserve No. 1. It is traditionally thought of as the pauper's section, although numerous people with some known  means are buried there. Her grave was marked for many years by a rough brick-edged concrete slab, into which her name had been scratched when it was wet. Unfortunately, this has long since vanished (since the 1930s). Mostly the area is now lawn that contains numerous dips indicating graves that have subsided. Her name does not even appear on the cemetery's burial registers, although the cause of that is the Town Hall fire that occurred on 4 August 1885.

There are two photos said to be of Marie, although there are doubts about one of them as they do not appear to be of the same woman. The one deemed to be more authentic shows Marie's head and shoulders. The stern look on her face is said to have been the result of her young son Richard biting her finger at the time. One copy of this photo was subsequently 'touched up' to change the frown into a smile. 

Probably the reason the Napier Road farm was sold so soon after Marie's death (the land transfer was actioned on  12 June 1885) was as much that Anders seems to have worked in the town already. Without Marie to organise things on the home front, it would have been very difficult for him to look after the children and the farm, and also earn a regular income. There were no dairy factories to supply at that stage, so the farm might still have scarcely earned its keep. 

Also, Anders clearly suffered badly from rheumatism and he had suffered other losses in recent times, in addition to his wife. These included a valuable yearling colt, whose death was mentioned in the Manawatu Times of 22 November 1884.

The farm's new owners were Nils Christian Christiansen and his wife Marie Margarita (Nilsdatter), who had also migrated on the Celaeno, and who were another of the four families who transferred in 1871 from the swampy land at present-day Westbrook. They moved the Christensen cottage to a higher location and subsequently built the present house on the property and installed its distinctive entranceway.

By 1882, Anders seemed likely to be relatively well-off. The 1882 Freeholder's List records that he now owned eighty-nine acres in the Manawatu County (that is, outside the Borough of Palmerston North), and this was valued at 900. On 7 May 1883, "A.C. Christiansen" (sic) advertised a Stoney Creek property consisting of eighteen acres of cleared land and "about" seven acres of bush. Possibly he had bought the neighbouring twenty-four acre Lot 8. The advert continued, saying that there was plenty of totara for fencing and "a good supply of water on the ground all year round." Perhaps that was a tactful way of explaining the presence of the lagoon?

Anders had also paid rates on a property (small farm?) in Featherston Street East, near Terrace End, in 1882, so perhaps that was daytime grazing for a horse.

In November 1885, Anders purchased a Featherston Street property from the Methodist minister, Rev. Otto Christoffersen, who had moved to Mauriceville. Anders owned this house until 1897.

Evidently by December 1885, he was becoming seen in some eyes as a potential husband, but he himself was not too keen on the prospect. While the actual circumstances are unknown, he felt sufficiently pressured as to place a notice in the Manawatu Times denying that he was about to marry some unknown Scandinavian woman. Unfortunately, the Times no longer exists between January 1885 and 1900. However, the Hawkes Bay Herald felt sufficiently surprised by the strange announcement that it published comment on it on 19 December 1885.

Financially there were a few problems too. The Manawatu Standard of 3 September 1885 published a report of Anders taking G.J. Symons to Court to seek money he was owed, than on 16 June 1886, the Standard reported that the Palmerston North Borough Council and C. Jansen had both taken him to Court to seek money from him.

On 8 March 1887, Anders was the successful bidder, with 200, for the 100-acre Lot 24 (Kingston Road, Shannon) at the first of the big land sales in the Shannon area. However, the first title issued on this property, in 1890, indicates that it was issued to someone else. Clearly he sold or otherwise been parted from it during the intervening period.

As well as the Featherston Street house, he also owned another in Main Street between 1891 and 1892, and paid rates on a property in Albert Street between 1896 and 1899. Presumably then his departure for Shannon must have occurred before about 1900.

What schooling the children had after leaving Stoney Creek School in June 1885 is at present unknown. Possibly the three boys still attending school  at that time, moved on to Terrace End School, which had opened the previous year. Richard had already left Stoney Creek School in August 1884, when aged eleven. 

Meanwhile, Lydia, who was four when her mother died, was sent to a Mauriceville family named Larsen. She considered in later life that these foster parents worked her very hard. They did not send her to school either. After two years they announced that they were going to America, but Anders refused to let her go with them. He is said to have feared they might 'lose' her there. She was then adopted by the Dahlstroms in 1887, with her father's consent, and returned to live the rest of her life about a mile from her birthplace. The mysterious Larsens, about whom nothing else is presently known, were presumably people the couple had known from Norway.

Snowy (Emmanuel), who was six when his mother died, went to live at some point with Bernt and Elisabet Johansen. They  had also emigrated on the Celaeno, and like the Christensens, were from Nes. That arrangement worked out satisfactorily.

Annie remained at home caring for the other members of the family, which by then included her father, the older three brothers and little Hilda, who had been just two when Marie died. In her latter years, Hilda told Lydia's daughter Vera, that she had always envied the life she had assumed Lydia had enjoyed with her adopted parents. In fact Lydia's relationship with her new mother was less than satisfactory. When Annie married in 1892, she took her little sister with her.

Anders applied for naturalisation on 8 December 1892, describing his occupation as a 'gentleman,' of Palmerston North. He gave his age as 52 years, said he had been born at Christiania, Norway, and that he had been in New Zealand 21 years. Well-known early Palmerstonian, George Snelson, who has been referred to as the 'Father of Palmerston North', signed the document stating that he knew Anders and thought him a person of good repute. Anders took the Oath of Allegiance before Snelson on 19 December 1892, the Governor was requested on 23 December to sign five Letters of Naturalisation, including Anders'. Then the notice was sent to the Police Gazette announcing that the matter had been agreed to on 30 December 1892. (IA1, 1892/3471)

He is also said to have become a Seventh Day Adventist at some point, although there is no proof of this. Certainly, based on the photo of him (by Danish-born photographer Charles Mariboe, from the aforementioned ship England) as a "Magnetic & Electric Healer," he undertook that activity at some point as a means to achieve an income.

During his latter years, Anders lived in the Shannon area, apparently with his two bachelor sons, Niobar and Calvert. Tradition has it that Niobar became involved with sheep stealing, with the unwanted skinless carcasses being dumped into a gully somewhere in the Tararua Ranges. Allegedly when things got too hot, Niobar felt the urge to depart for Australia and never returned.

Anders died from stomach cancer in the Ohiro Old Men's Home in Wellington on 16 August 1907, and was buried the following day, the minister who officiated being named Ballochey. Presumably he had been sent there due to his deteriorating health and the lack of someone available to care for him at home. The blank spaces on his death certificate and his burial in a pauper's grave at Karori Cemetery, Wellington, give evidence of his circumstances by this time, and one can imagine that there were few if any mourners. He was described as a labourer - a far cry from calling himself a 'gentleman' - and was even referred to as a Dane.

His grave is described as "Unpurchased Plot - X Path - Church of England, 1 (7) No. 301 17/8/1907, Christensen, Anders, aged 70, Funeral Director: R.H. Wilson W86P." This grave is locatable, but has not yet been sighted by descendants at this huge cemetery.

The trauma of finding himself effectively alone in the world, alienated by distance and upbringing from his siblings, doubtless influenced Calvert in his decision to attempt suicide a month later on 19 September 1907. He had suffered depression and had also spent a short time in the Porirua mental hospital. Tradition tied his death on 2 October (due to the gunshot wound to his head becoming infected) to the aftermath of the sheep stealing episode. However, this story of alleged fear of arrest varies from the evidence supplied by the Coroner's Report.

Tradition also states that a house fire destroyed the family's possessions, including Anders' precious violin. Theories that it was a Stradivarius are treated with skepticism, but it obviously meant a great deal to him. Possibly the two deaths in such a short period led to a planned demise for the cottage (a 'whare' or rough shack) at Shannon, by some unknown person.

Much of what Lydia learned of her mother, came from Marie's friend Christina Svensen, who lived in nearby James Line. Lydia had, of course, been adopted by the Dahlstroms and thereby brought back to the same community. Amongst the things Mrs Svensen was able to pass on was Anders' Norwegian recipe for Ammonia biscuits, which were made from rock ammonia. Lydia's children also loved this memento of their forebears, including during World War Two when the biscuits were able to survive the journey to son Leo then stationed in New Caledonia.

Living so close to her parents' former farm meant that Lydia had ongoing access to people who had personally known her parents. This included a special friendship with the Svensens in James Line. Her adopted parents had also been friends of Nils Christian Christiansen and his family since the 1870s and later they became friendly with the widowed Nils Pedersen, also from the Celaeno, after he moved to the district from the original settlement in 1900. In fact, he reportedly wanted to marry the rather reluctant Lydia. However, he died suddenly in 1910 (aged 60) after spending the day with the Dahlstrom family.

Annie continued her longstanding role of 'mothering' and generally keeping in touch with her younger siblings over the years. Thus to some extent at least, the 'bond' endures well over a century later.

Lydia used to take her two children to visit her mother's grave, and possibly her adopted father, a bricklayer, was responsible for the concrete and brickwork that once marked Marie's grave. Neither child could remember in later years ever being taken a little further across the cemetery to where Calvert lies - or even knowing he was at the cemetery - although they knew what had happened to him.

The old family farm, with its distinctive old white gate and entrance-way, is still a very familiar landmark during the author's daily drive between home and Whakarongo (formerly Stoney Creek) School. There is still a moment during the journey to think of the past as the scene flashes by.

Where wives died in such circumstances, it was quite common for the family to disperse in this manner - with all the ranges of possible consequences as happened here. Where the husband died, widows tended to remarry one of the surplus bachelors (in that era) in their district and - for better or sometimes for worse - the children appeared more likely to remain together.

Compiled by Val Burr  


Published sources

Aminoff, Sten, Svenskarna I Nya Zeeland (Sweden, c1988). [Entries 632 and 633]

Burr, Val, 'Anders Christian & Marie Christensen' and 'Ola Persson & Perine Martine Dahlstrom' in Early Manawatu Scandinavians (Scandinavian Club of Manawatu, Palmerston North, 1990, this reprint 1999). The above article derives from the unabridged version of the article published on the family in this book.

Burr, Val, Mosquitoes & Sawdust: A history of Scandinavians in early Palmerston North & surrounding districts (Scandinavian Club of Manawatu, Palmerston North, 1995). [Contains a considerable amount on the recruitment, voyage, settlement etc. of these people, including the Christensen family.] The above article derives from an updated version of an article published on the family in this book.

Law, Marjorie D., From Bush & Swamp: The Centenary of Shannon 1887-1987 (Palmerston North, 1987). [Map on inner cover and page 31]

McLennan, Vera L., From Stoney Creek to Whakarongo 1877-1977 (Palmerston north, 1877). [Pages 18-20, incl. Ammonia Biscuit recipe, and p. 102.] Note that Vera, nee Burr, later Boman, was Lydia Christensen-Dahlstrom's daughter.



Hawkes Bay Herald

Manawatu Standard

Manawatu Times


Unpublished Sources

Dept. of Lands & Survey, Land Grant records - held by the author.

Oral Sources (1990): Leo Burr, Vera McLennan-Boman, Michael Christensen, Charlie Christensen (all of NZ), and Bonnie De Jongh and Irene Black (of Australia).

Last updated: 26/12/2000

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