Mara and I write and speak a lot about the concept of Identity. For both of us, understanding Identity is the starting point for applying and embodying any of the other principles we try to elaborate on. Perhaps the shortest quote that explains why we think it’s so important to begin with Identity is this: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
There are many things that influence our concept of ourselves and the thoughts that run through our heads, which then shape the kinds of decisions we make and how we respond to all of life (both the good and the bad) that comes our way. One of those influences that was on my mind as we traveled through Denmark was family legacies and heritage.
The Kofoed name is Danish (meaning “cow-foot”, and almost pronounced the same way over there “ko-foot”, with the “t” in foot sounding like an “l” and soft “t” combined…at least that’s what it sounded like to me). The name originates from a small Danish island off the coast of Sweden called Bornholm, and the name became prominent in part because of Jens Kofoed, the “Liberator of Bornholm” who defended the island against Swedish control in 1658. Apparently he had quite a few children. The name Kofoed is somewhat unique in that normally Danes would use as their surname a version of their father’s name (Jensen/Jensdatter). Kofoed’s, however, retained their last name, seemingly due in part to claims of nobility made in early and subsequent generations.
To give you an idea of the island, Bornholm is to the Danes what Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are to New England. It is an incredibly charming island, but mostly shut down in the winter time. In the summer, it’s reported that it only gets 4 hours of darkness, leading it to have a very “pure light”, and has long been an attraction for artists.
After a few days of wandering the streets of Copenhagen and the surrounding area, we decided to take the bus/ferry to Bornholm. The trip proved to be more magical then I could have imagined. Honestly, it was one of those moments where you felt the invisible hand of fate pressing upon and directing you.
We arrived early on a Tuesday morning, made our way to the Visitors’ Center to secure a private room in a home (since most hotels are closed during the winter season), and picked up this cheap-to-rent little Fiat 500 rental car that we had fun driving around the island. We came to this island knowing next to nothing about where we should go or what we should do to explore my family history. I knew only that I should begin the journey in the city of Rønne.
We decided to spend the first day driving around the island and getting to know the feel of the place. It was incredibly foggy, and I worried we wouldn’t see much of anything other than what was 100 yards off of the road. Part of me felt terribly disappointed that this homeland would remain hidden under a veil of clouds and grey on what would likely be my one and only visit.
We drove along the main road heading east and passed a village called Lobbæk. I thought I remembered reading something about a meeting of 17 freemen on the island (2 of whom were Kofoeds) occurring in that village when I was trying to understand some old records regarding Kofoed history on the island. It turns out I was wrong about the location, but my mistake proved fortunate, and offered the first sense of that invisible hand.
We decided to turn around and drive through a few streets out of curiosity. I guess I hoped I’d see something really old that looked like it came from the time of that meeting. To our surprise, after taking a couple of random turns, Mara screamed with delight when she saw a street called Kofoedsvej (or Kofoeds Road). My first thought was “How lucky that the very first town we decided to investigate had a street that carried my family name!” My second thought was “perhaps my family name is more common here than I’d supposed and this won’t be the last Kofoed Road I see.”
I guess I was right on both counts. It was lucky, and it wasn’t the only one we came across. It turns out there are two streets on all of the island of Bornholm that carry that name…we found them both by accident, only 2 hours apart as we drove through streets and wandered these little towns. It wasn’t until we returned to our room that night and I had a computer available and did a Google search that I realized we had stumbled upon the ONLY two Kofoed streets that exist (on an island with thousands of little streets and over 200 square miles of area). As an example of how confident I became that spotting that second sign with my name on it probably wasn’t a rarity, I didn’t even bother photographing this second and only other street sign. Too bad.
It gets even better than that though. As Mara and I left that little village area and continued our trek east, the fog persisted, making it so you could only see another car a few seconds before it passed you. We constantly kept our eyes peeled for something interesting to reveal itself suddenly through the fog, something beautiful, or old, something to take a picture of and remember the place by. Well, it was only a few minutes of driving when I happened to see a road off to the side that caught my eye. It was lined with trees, with a big stone in front and a bicycle resting on the stone. It was interesting enough to want to get a picture….so yet again I turned around and pulled over to get out and breathe the air and see if I could get a decent shot.
Again, as I got out of the car I had the inner turmoil of realizing this place was going to remain hidden from me, and I wondered how I would find anything important or significant to my family history. We enjoyed the scene for a moment, took it in along with the smell of the farms, enjoyed this quaint little spot, and eventually decided we should move on and head to the east side of the island. I would learn the next day, when I visited the Genealogical Society of Bornholm, and obtained assistance from a kind resident and expert there in the library, that Mara and I had pulled over on the road that served as a dividing line between two farmlands. On one side was born and raised a man named Hans Ancher Kofoed. On the other was born and raised Thora Marie Jensen. These are my great great grandparents, who left the island of Bornholm in 1857 when they and their families joined the Mormon Church and immigrated to the United States. (Here’s a link to a map with key locations)
Imagine that…stopping by chance on land filled with the history of my blood, of who I am. I try to be cautious about casual uses of the word miracle. But when I learned how fortunate we’d been, that’s exactly what this felt like. I’ll get to some of that a little bit later though.
Not knowing that we’d been unwittingly standing on “holy ground”, we continued our trek east, found some lunch, and eventually made it to the east side of the island as the fog lifted and the sun began to shine. It was a joy, because for the first time all day, we got to see just how charming this island is and how beautiful the homes and villages are.
When were were in Copenhagen, we met a Bornholmer in a shop who told us we should take a walk along the coast from Svaneke and go north west as long as we cared to. So we went for a 2 hour walk along the coast.
Those who loved last years “Yellow Happiness” posts will appreciate a consistent theme in many of the homes we saw. They really were beautiful.
I loved this sign near the harbor where we parked. Apparently people need to be warned every now and then about driving their car into the water.
We continued our loop around the entire island and realized by the end of the day that though we’d seen much of the island, we hadn’t experienced much “heritage” yet (or at least we hadn’t realized that we had). We originally thought that we’d only spend a day and a half on the island, but decided to extend it to two full days.
The next morning I did a little research and got in touch with a genealogist specialist on the Island (someone at the Mormon church in Copenhagen had told us to reach out to this man). He was unable to meet with us personally, but gave me a recommendation to visit the Island’s library in Rønne and meet with someone in the Historical Society.
So I trekked over to the library with my laptop, made my way to the historical society room, and started asking for help. They started by directing me to some old books with family names, and as I saw multiple volumes dedicated to the various spellings of my family name, I was a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, within 5 minutes a kind man named Lass arrived. He was an expert at looking everything up and just so happened to have an ancestor who left Bornholm on the same boat as my ancestors because she had also joined the Mormon church. He knew all about the villages and records we needed to look through and we spent the next two hours pouring over archives of parish baptismal records, censuses, farmland ownership, etc. He helped me pinpoint the very farms that my ancestors were born and raised in and he helped me find the general location of the last farm they owned before leaving the island.
Armed with farm addresses and villages and churches to visit and a camera in hand, I picked up Mara and we started our search.
Our first visit was to the fishing village of Arnager. Though records show Hans Kofoed owned a parcel of farmland in the village, we weren’t able to figure out which plot it was, nor where the house would have been. Most of the farmland is gone in that area and taken over by Bornholm’s airport. However, the long pier that stands there now hearkens back to the time of my ancestors. And who knows, since at least one document we found indicated Hans Ancher Kofoed was a seaman, that pier just may have been a vital part of his life and livelihood.
Since I couldn’t find actual farmland, I asked around to see if anyone knew of some of the older houses in the area and found this one that dated back to the same time frame. I know it probably has very little connection to my family, but there was still something otherworldly about looking at a building that may not have changed all that much from the time that my ancestors would walk by it. Who knows, maybe a friend lived there, or someone they visited with.
Our next stop was just a mile or two away to go visit the farmland where Thora Marie Jensen (my great-great-grandmother) was born. In fact, current census records showed that a house still stands today that was built at the same time she was born. We hoped to see if anyone was home at the farm to ask permission to look around. When no one answered we just stayed in the courtyard area to take some pictures. They eventually came home and invited us to look around at our pleasure.
Off to the side of one of the structures was a very old water barrel, covered in moss and falling apart. The current owners didn’t know how old it was, but thought it might have been from the same time period, given that it’s been a while since anyone had to haul water in a wheeled barrel.
They invited us into the home to take a look at a document that previous owners had prepared, detailing the names of all the former farm owners. Since the records didn’t show Thora’s family ever owned the land, I wasn’t looking for their name to be on the document. But it was nice to see that the home she was raised in still had roots and still looked back to those who had once lived and worked the land.
We left that farm and made the short drive to the other farm, where Hans Ancher Kofoed was born and raised. The owner wasn’t quite as excited to tell any stories (apparently I’m not the only Kofoed who has gone to the island searching out his roots and come upon the farm), but graciously allowed us to spend as much time as we needed to walk around the property and take pictures.
We left there as dusk was settling in and made it to the Nylars Kirke, their place of worship and baptism and confirmation before they joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Nylars Kirke is the oldest of the four round churches on the island, being built in 1165. Each of these churches has very thick walls and towers with little windows. They were both a house of worship and a place of defense in medieval times. This church stored and provided most of the records that Lass helped me uncover in our archive digging. It was too late to actually go inside the church, so we were forced to enjoy it as it was illuminated by the headlights of our Fiat 500.
And so, at least for that trip, the journey into understanding my roots had come to an end. We retreated back to the city center to share a meal and then prepare for our early departure the following morning – which would begin 24 hours of traveling from Bornholm to the south tip of Sweden to the fjords of Norway by ferry, bus, and train.
Last week in response to a comment on Mara’s “Written Two Weeks After Our Failed IVF” post, I admitted that digging into my heritage was a very positive and amazing experience, which also carried with it a sort of reminder about the influence a physical legacy/heritage can have. And although the following thought didn’t come with terrible remorse or sadness, the thought was still somewhere in the background. It was that without children of our own, there will not be some great great grandson that will come and find the land that I was born on, or wander in the city where I met my wife and where we fell in love. It is not a thought that I fear or worry about. It’s just there. Impermanence.
As important as the physical legacy of family and heritage and history can be, I have been equally shaped and molded by those I’m not related to at all. Many in my own faith tradition have played an influential role, in large part because we share a similar language of describing the growth process. We can understand each other. But as I continue to grow and learn and look into the human experience, I find mentors and inspiration in all faith traditions, in authors living and dead, in philosophy and in art, and in the quiet lives led by people that most of the world will never see or know about. There are people imparting their heritage and legacy to me on a daily basis. And for that, I am a better man.
I truly do not know what the future will bring, nor what our desire to pursue adoption will be in a year from now, or more. I do know that then, and now, I will be focused on making a difference with the world in front of me, with the life that is mine to live. And that is what we must all do.
What about you? Where do your ancestors come from? Have you ever visited their homeland? If not, do you dream of visiting?