Andreas Esbensen

1749 - 1808


Esbensen Museum in Vadso, Norway


By Tory Esbensen

[Based on a translation by Marte Hult of text references to the name Esbensen in Vadsos Historie]

Andreas Esbensen, our earliest known ancestor, was born in Denmark in 1749. We first meet him as a fifteen year old boy who has written a letter to a Norwegian merchant, a Mr. Wadel, asking him for a job. [Between 1442 and 1814, Norway was ruled by Danish kings.]

We do not know the circumstances surrounding this bid for employment, but it was successful. That same year (1764), young Andreas arrived in Vadso, Norway, on a hukkert -- a 2-masted, fairly flat-bottomed boat with a bowed hull rounded off stern and head.


 Hukkerts were in common use from the 1600s onward.

Present-day Vadso, located on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, has a population of only about six thousand people. It is said to be the northernmost residential town in the world.



The official title for Andreas as he began work was 'boy' -- the lowest rank on the job hierarchy. It was going to be a long climb to the top. But Andreas knew what he wanted. And he had the brains and energy needed to succeed.

We have to read between the lines to see how the company regarded its young employee. But his rapid advancement makes it clear that his ability was soon recognized.

The starting pay for Andreas was a yearly salary of 40 riksdaler (rdl.) -- equivalent to about 24 American dollars at that time. Other employees were coopers at 80 rdl. per year, 'workers' also at 80 rdl. per year, and 120 rdl. per year for the position of assistant (deputy merchant).

It seems as though his Norwegian employer made an effort to take care of our young hero. Perhaps this was because Andreas was the son of a deceased mesterblokkedreier employed at the royal fleet's shipyard in Copenhagen. [The term "mesterblokkedreier" evidently refers to an obsolete occupation having to do with work on the docks or with ships. Literally, the term translates as master block turner.] Additionally, his grandfather had also been a mesterblokkedreier -- which no doubt earned such a person respect in the ship and harbor milieu in Copenhagen, as well as providing a useful contact for Andreas with the company in Norway.

History confirms the obvious. The right connections can give you one leg up on the horse while others are still trying to get one foot in the stirrup.

Of course, good connections alone are not enough. You must know what to do with them. The career of Andreas Esbensen is a case study in how an ambitious, career-conscious, and far-sighted individual came to understand the trade system of his time, and was then able to exploit it to his advantage.

Two years after his arrival in Vadso, Andreas requested an increase in salary. His request was denied. His clothes were apparently paid for by the company, and had cost 30 riksdaler. This, said the company, was the limit of what could be afforded. Besides, it was not intended that Andreas should have his wardrobe replaced every year.

Andreas received his first pay raise in 1769, five years after his arrival in Vadso. The increase was 10 rdl. per year.

But then things started to happen.

Merchant Wadel wanted to get his son Immanuel into the Vadso trade system -- as a 'boy' to start with. But even this modest aim required some personnel shifts.

All at once, the 'worker' at the Vardo center, Simon Pohlmann, was sent to Kjollefjord and Tana to make room for Esbensen in Vardo -- a move which also meant advancement for Andreas from 'boy' to 'worker'.

All the moves were approved by the company.

In Kjollefjord, Pohlmann became the deputy or assistant merchant and, a bit later, the merchant for Loppa and Hasvik. However, that was the end of the line for him. He died in 1777.

At this time, Loppa and Hasvik were one trading district. The main store was in Loppa. The factory was in Hasvik. But this divided situation did not present any problem for the relationship of Hans Immanuel Wadel and Andreas Esbensen. They were married to two sisters, the daughters of the lieutenant and master of artillery Hedemark at the Vardo fort. 

Fort Vardo has quite a history. 

In 1307, what was then the most northern fortress in the world was built on the island of Vardøya in the Barents Sea. In the 1700s it was an important trading centre, with both Finland and Russia sending merchant ships to the ice-free port. The Vardø fortess was extensively rebuilt early in that century, and in 1789, the town received its charter.

On June 3, 1769, astronomer Maximilian Hell was on the island to record the tansit of Venus - a memorial plaque honours that event. Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen used the community during his 1893-1896 explorations. In 1944, the town was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis and many of its residents murdered.

CHARMING FACT:  There is a single tree in Vardø.  The residents protect it each winter by building a house around it.

 Andreas was 18 years old when he had married Henrika Hedemark who was 13 years his senior. This was in 1767. Henrika, known as Madame Esbensen, died in 1792 when she was 56 years old. She was buried under the Vadso church, in the northern choir wing. Andreas had then married Carine Heide, daughter of deputy mayor Nandrup in Fredrikshald.

In 1772, Andreas went back to Vadso where he served first as temporary merchant and then as 'assistant' or deputy merchant under a man named Beck. In other words, after only eight years and a couple of necessary transfers, Andreas had advanced from 'boy' to 'worker' to 'assistant' -- the next to the highest rank in the hierarchy.

Andreas took care to send a thank-you letter for the promotion and made a solemn promise of loyalty and 'industriousness'. He also reminded the company that the salary for assistant was normally 120 riksdaler. Evidently, the appropriate increase had not automatically come with the promotion. The company subsequently acted on this reminder.

In another thank-you letter, Andreas then sought exemption from the 'one-third profit' that was assessed on 'the requisition of goods for one's own use'. This was also consented to. It is obvious that Esbensen had built up a large reserve of good will with the higher-ups in the company.

Under Beck, Andreas Esbensen got a real taste of the actual practice of commerce. Beck had long periods of absence from the trade. On those occasions, Andreas managed everything to the great satisfaction of the company and (after 1775) the government itself.

In the light of Esbensen's excellent job performance, the company informed him that he would be remembered when future opportunities arose. In 1779, his salary was raised to 150 rdl. plus a certain percentage on goods that were returned.

Andreas sent another thank-you letter, but nevertheless revealed his impatience to move ahead. He asked for assurance of advancement as soon as a suitable opening developed. It is clear he was aiming for the Vadso trade. Beck's age, together with the stress of public duties, left little doubt that a change in merchants would occur before long.

However, the advancement did not go exactly as Andreas had hoped. True enough, in 1782 he was promoted in advance to the position of merchant for Kjollefjord and Tana. But someone else, namely, Christian Hvistendahl, received Vadso after Beck retired.

Nevertheless, Andreas was able to get full merchant pay before he took over in Kjollefjord -- probably in the summer of 1784. His salary became 300 riksdaler, which was absolutely the top wage in Finnmark. [Finnmark forms the northernmost part of the Scandinavian peninsula and is the largest -- but least populated -- county in Norway.]

Andreas was also able to bring in his son Arent Nicolay (born in 1771) as 'boy' in the trade at Kjollefjord.

Throughout his time in Kjollefjord, Andreas never put aside his plans to take over in Vadso. He was careful to keep Copenhagen informed of what he desired. In July of 1786, Copenhagen let him know that he would be kept in mind as soon as Vadso became available. But as things turned out, Esbensen's way back to Vadso as permanent merchant was not that direct. His next assignment was to go from Kjollefjord to Vardo.

At the end of 1786, Andreas confirmed to the company that he had taken over Vardo as a replacement for the temporary merchant and surveyor O.N. Giorup who had gone bankrupt in 1786 after taking over from Peder Hvistendahl in 1783. We don't know how the actual resignation happened. In any case, the company approved Esbensen's takeover.

It was clear that Vardo was gradually becoming a branch under Vadso -- either that or else trade in the two places was in the process of coming together administratively. Did Andreas realize this, and see possibilities for the future when he took over Vardo?

In 1787, he and his fellow merchants received orders to prepare accounts of all the business done in their respective districts, and to send the sales records to Copenhagen. Esbensen's account listed the names of 36 fishermen in Vardo and other places in his trade district.

Esbensen's summary report showed about 9500 rdl. on account for Vardo. Apparently, this satisfied headquarters. On the other hand, there were serious problems with Christian Hvistendahl's accounts in connection with his takeover of Vadso. Copenhagen finally warned Hvistendahl that if his accounts were not sent in within 4 months, he would be subpoenaed.

The solution to Hvistendahl's accounting problems proved beneficial to Andreas. It provided him with the opportunity to achieve his old dream of returning to Vadso. Hvistendahl and Esbensen had fashioned a partnership on trade both in Vardo and Vadso. The reasons for doing this were probably [1] a way to solve the accounting problems, [2] Esbensen's ambitions, plus [3] personal acquaintanceship, maybe even friendship.

In a short period of time under the new partnership, the accounts were settled and accepted. The partnership was formally recognized by license on the 27th of December, 1788. At the same time, trade at Vardo and Vadso was surrendered to private joint ownership.

This was a monumental development.

The goods in both places along with houses and inventory were transferred. Houses and inventory were relinquished for half of their 'book' value, while the goods on hand were sold at sale price in accordance with 1778 rates. Only the state's main store in Vadso was not included for the time being. Together the partners paid at least 27,000 rdl. for Vardo and Vadso. A large concern was thus established. In effect, Esbensen and Hvistendahl now had themselves a private monopoly!

The Esbensen & Hvistendahl company showed great activity and aggressiveness from the very beginning. The freedom that had been given for economic and other development was to be utilized as much as possible. There was no doubt that Vadso was seen as the main base for the company. Andreas moved there after a short residence in Vardo.

In 1788, Esbensen and Hvistendahl were at the head of a group of men in Vadso who attempted to get a doctor for the place. The chief administrative officer of the district reacted positively, but it would be a long time before East Finnmark got its own physician (except for the military barber-surgeon at Vardo fort). It finally happened in 1837. West Finnmark, on the other hand, had already gotten a district surgeon in 1775.

In 1789, Esbensen and Hvistendahl requested and got 'the sole and only' right to use Vadso island for fish processing and for other uses as they saw fit. The district grounded this decision on the fact that merchants in Vadso had earlier had the island for their disposition. It was also stated that the public, in court, had not had any objections.

As time went on, Andreas interpreted his rights to the island somewhat further. He complained to the district that the people in Vadso were destroying his hayfield by taking sod and feed for their animals. And as if that were not bad enough, the commoners allowed their goats to feed there. This 'corrupted' the English stock which the merchants grazed there in order to improve their own breed. The district supported the merchants and said that if the public didn't stay away, they would be brought before the authorities.

In 1791, the planning committee approved a request from Andreas for the removal of several houses which were too close to his warehouse in Vadso. The business was in need of more acreage.

Esbensen and Hvistendahl continued to expand their joint enterprise. They were the only bidders at the auction of the estate of deceased agent Ludvig Lem who had been the inspector at the main store for East Finnmark in Vadso. He died in April 1793, not even 39 years of age, and was buried under the floor in the middle of the Vadso church.

Next, Esbensen and Hvistendahl obtained the Elve property at auction. Then they wrote to the mission and offered the Elve property as a new permanent parsonage in Vadso for 550 riksdaler. In return, the old parsonage was sold to them for 80 riksdaler so the partners could use the land. The deal netted them the additional elbow room they were seeking.

Mail delivery was the next item on their improvement list. They put up money to ensure that mail delivery in their district would be as swift and secure as possible. Andreas even assumed the role of postmaster in Vadso. By 1796, the two partners were the only traders in the districts of Vardo and Vadso.

But now the partnership was nearing its end. Christian Hvistendahl's health began to fail. He retired from the trade and moved to Copenhagen where his will was written in 1798. He had no children, and his wife was dead. Everything was left to Andreas. The will explicitly stated the matter, as follows: 'My business partner, Mr. Andreas Esbensen...takes possession of our common trade including all our jointly owned ships, inventory, our possessions, common debts and the sum of all our joint business venture, in which everything living and dead is included, without my heirs making any hindrance.'

Andreas now had it all.

For this, he agreed to pay 16,000 rdl. in installments, from which there would be bequests to a series of people, including Esbensen's daughters, Hvistendahl's poor brother Peder in Vardo, and to the poor in Vadso parish.

This last was changed in a codicil to the will so that 'as long as he [Esbensen] lives and engages in trade in Finnmarken' he is released from paying these sums -- thus setting aside what the will had originally required. Responsibility for the arrangement was then transferred to the public trustee in Copenhagen, with the interest being paid from there to the poor in Vadso.

With respect to Hvistendahl's funeral, Esbensen would take care of it, 'as proof of their mutual friendship.' Christian Hvistendahl probably died a short time after his will was signed.

With this, Andreas Esbensen, 49 years old, stood alone and undisputed at the head of a large-scale operation which, in the context of its place and time, was a substantial business empire.

In the first decades of the 1800s there were no households as large as the largest we remember from around 1690 when Lilienskiold's household was composed of 29 persons. In 1801, merchant Arent Nicolay Esbensen (who in practice was already managing the trade for his father) came closest with 12 persons, of whom 8 were hired workers (one assistant, one store clerk, four 'ordinary' boys and two girls).

It continued to be the cultured people who had the most servants. Esbensen's trade assistant Lorenz Conrad Klog (Esbensen's 2nd trade assistant, with his own household) had 1 boy and 1 maid.

In 1801, we find 11 craftsmen among the Norwegians in Vadso, 10 of these living in the fishing station at Vadso. They represented the occupations of coopers, foresters, carpenters, smiths, masons, and shoemakers. The 11th was a boat builder who lived on Skoger island. His name was Peder Jespersen.

At the same time, all except one had a craft in addition to other occupations. The only one who was solely a craftsman was the cooper Jorgen Mikkelsen Smidt who was employed by the Esbensens. All the others were fishermen in addition to their crafts.

The youngest among the 'boys' was Ole Olsen of Vadso at 12 years. The Sami [Lapplander] boy Ariz Arizen at 13 (in Vadso) and Hans Immanuel Wadel (grandson of the merchant with the same name) at 14, working for Andreas, followed close behind.

Economic life was on the upswing in Vadso at the turn of the century. The fishing was good. To avoid large fluctuations and loss of production in poor fishing years, Andreas invested in a 'Russian vessel' with 'considerable equipment for fishing' -- probably a sea-going vessel. He also had his own ship which went between Vardo-Vadso and Copenhagen.

After a time, Andreas tried to introduce seine fishing -- an idea that ran smack up against the tradition of using handlines and long-lining, the universal fishing tackle for cod fishing. The fishermen objected 'strenuously' to this threat to their established system of setting lines.

Overall, Andreas found it advantageous to maintain the old trade connections with the capital city [Copenhagen] where his childhood home had been. He shared the honor of this new productivity with the minister Lauritz Lassen Brodtkorb, 'the honest and rightful thinking civil servant' who was married to Esbensen's daughter Marianne Kristine Esbensen. Their sons Eilert and Andreas Brodtkorb followed later in Andreas Esbensen's footsteps and started trade concerns.

This 'correct management of trade' can imply that the old credit and payment system had been softened up. However, it was not completely abandoned by Andreas or others who took up trade in Finnmark. In Vadso, it would remain in principle for many years.

What Andreas did was to adapt it to the new private capital system which he had built up, a system which insisted on both investment and speculation, plus producers willing to work. He must have realized that profit was dependent on fishermen willing to make a contribution. Unfortunately, it is difficult to measure those debt and credit conditions now because Esbensen's business archives were lost after he took over the business privately.

But back to the conditions of debt: Esbensen & Hvistendahl sometimes had to subpoena people to enforce payment of debts. For example, in March of 1796, six or seven people were subpoenaed in Vadso. Gjermund Hansen was one of them. He had been accused of taking back a cow which he had delivered as an installment on a debt. In February of 1797, the merchants subpoenaed two more people.

The common people were poor, especially the Sami fishermen. At the same time, it was made known that the Norwegian common people at Vadso were receiving credit from Andreas with the expectation that fishing would take a turn for the better.

In 1804, Andreas went back to Denmark. Soon after he arrived in Copenhagen, he contacted the Danish health committee and requested that the population of Vadso be vaccinated against the deadly smallpox virus. He had gotten new information about efforts at vaccination elsewhere in the kingdom, including what had been done in Kvinherad in 1802. Andreas wanted a vaccinator sent to Vadso, and he promised free transportation from Copenhagen to Vadso on his own ship. The health committee praised Andreas for his interest in the matter, but declined to act. The expenses were said to be too high (400 rdl.) and the district medical office in Finnmark was judged to be the correct institution to train a vaccinator. So nothing was done, although Andreas himself was rewarded with a royal gold medal of merit for his 'eager endeavors for the advancement of vaccination'. The Esbensens still have that medal.

Andreas died in 1808, whereupon his son, Arent Nicolay Esbensen, assumed full control of the business.

The lack of communication with the Danish capital (Copenhagen) grew increasingly bothersome. It led to the local view that North Russia was Finnmark's window to the outside world. During the winter of 1810-11, in secrecy, Arent took the initiative in establishing a postal route from Vadso over Kola to Archangel, with possibilities for continuation from there.

A coastal militia was formed with the merchants often serving as leaders of the local units. In Vadso and Varanger, the two sheriffs (one a Finn, the other a Norwegian) served under the overall command of Arent who held the title of Captain.

As for the health committee's earlier turndown of the request by Andreas that Vadso receive the service of a vaccinator -- this decision had left that population unprotected. In 1811-12, the people of Vadso became the victims of a catastrophic outbreak of smallpox.

In 1816, Arent Nicolay Esbensen, along with others, applied to the district for permission to commence seine fishing in Varangerfjord.

In 1818, permission was granted for two years on a trial basis. The effort ended when the fishermen in Vadso destroyed Esbensen's nets. They could not be convinced that the use of nets would not scare away the fish. Perhaps more importantly, the fishermen argued that only the well-to-do could afford nets. Individuals with money would take all the fish, thus leaving poor people even more destitute. Esbensen's plan fell apart.

In 1827, three vaccinators for Finnmark were finally appointed. In Vadso, it was Madame Anna Margretha Esbensen (born Galberg in 1770 in Denmark). She was the wife of Arent Nicolay Esbensen, and she worked in the midwife movement. At her death in 1836, she received a public laudatory notice for her role as a self-sacrificing pioneer in the health sector.

There was only one school in Vadso at this time, a common or public school. Everybody went here, boys and girls together, although the boys sat on one side of the classroom and the girls on the other. The children of the merchants and officials went there too.

When they got a bit older, the Esbensen children (three daughters) were often sent to relatives in Copenhagen. They went not just for schooling, but also to learn some etiquette proper to their station, which was difficult to do in Vadso.

Vadso had a township commission which was supposed to be composed of the minister, the sheriff, the minister's helpers and, after 1816, the parish's electors. However, the commission wasn't always structured according to this pattern. The first complete composition we have for the commission is in connection with the census of 1815. Arent Nicolay Esbensen is listed as a member. It seems that Arent was always a member of this town commission, also known as the school commission.

Although a new Esbensen home was built in the 1850s, we do know something about the older one. One visitor described it as a castle of wood amongst a hundred shacks. When travelers arrived, they were welcomed with cannon shots, and sometimes by rifle salutes.

In the main living room, the walls were papered with paintings of the company's ships and vessels -- past and present.

A special treasure was a picture of St. Nicholas from the 14th century. It was on a gold base with buildings (architectural ornaments) in the background. Esbensen said that the icon had been passed down through several generations of the family. A rich Russian had supposedly offered 'great sums' for it. When that offer was refused, Esbensen put the valuable object inside a cabinet with a glass top -- which he built to protect his precious icon from any tobacco smoke in the room.

From about 1814 on, Arent Nicolay Esbensen was generally considered to be the greatest merchant and richest person in Finnmark.


Daughter Jane was sorry to learn that Andreas was not more of a do-gooder. He was a hard-headed business man, through and through. Jane wanted to admire our earliest known ancestor for his work on behalf of mankind, but that is not how he spent his time on earth. She was deeply disappointed that he did not appear to have a strong focus on doing good for others.

Although I'm sure I will never change her opinion in the matter, I want to offer a different take concerning this ancestor from our family's past -- another way of looking at things.

My son George reminds me of Andreas. He is smart and hard-working, a dedicated businessman He has had to make his own way in the world without the special red-hot computing skills of his brother Daniel. And with diligence and energy he is doing it. Granted, he is not a do-gooder. Few people are. Certainly not Andreas.

But life is complicated. Andreas is not you and he is not me. There is no reason to believe that he did not take care of his immediate kin. The little we know suggests that he did. He also tried to prevent the deadly disease of smallpox from devastating the people of Vadso. Jane says he may have had his own selfish reason for doing this. She suggests it was simply to gain the gold medal he subsequently received. This seems like a far stretch to me. And there is no evidence to support such a guess. In any case, as far as I am concerned, when somebody wants to do something that is good (for example, his smallpox vaccination proposal), I'll give him or her credit for it until I find out otherwise.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He did not free them, which he could have done. From what I know of Jane, if she had been Jefferson, she probably would have freed them and then been thrown out of her house because she could not pay her bills. In which case, she would have been lost to history -- so completely impoverished and unknown that no one would even bother to say, "I wonder whatever became of that nice Jane Esbensen? The last I heard of her, she was standing gaunt, pale, and undernourished in the village square with a tattered sign that said, Free the Slaves!"

I don't regard Andreas as a role model -- but I respect his acumen for understanding the system in which he had to make his way, and for his ability to achieve his aim of climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. Out of the entire population in Finnmark at that time, he proved to be the one who knew best how to do this. It doesn't make him someone to emulate. But it's quite an achievement nevertheless. And he did so on his own, starting at age fifteen.

I find Andreas Esbensen to be a highly interesting ancestor. I am glad to know about him.