Danish Visitor Explores Family Roots in Danish Virgin Islands


Aase Ingerselv, right, with her husband on their recent trip to the Virgin Islands.

Most people travel to the Virgin Islands for the beautiful beaches or the outstanding scuba diving,  but one recent visitor had a much more personal reason.

Aase Ingerslev’s great-great-grandfather moved to the then Danish West Indies in 1838 and is known by most people who have shopped or strolled through downtown Charlotte Amalie — A.H. Riise.

Ingerslev and her husband recently visited the territory for the first time where they had the fortune to meet Frank Langely, founder of the St. John Arts Festival, who brought them by the St. John Tradewinds office.

With little more than the clothes on his back, Riise sailed to St. Thomas when he was only 24  to set up an apothecary shop, explained Ingerslev.

“He had a pharmacist’s education in Denmark and came over with nothing but his two hands,” Ingerslev said. “The Danish government gave him the right to become a pharmacist here. He was very interested in plants and he invented the bay rum cologne with is still produced today.”

Historic Shop Still Stands
Although the downtown shop, which now offers high-end jewelry and fine perfumes and is owned by the Paiewonsky family, is no longer an apothecary, the historic waterfront building still bears the A.H. Riise name.

Ingerslev’s great-great-grandfather married a young woman on St. Thomas and had 13 children, one of whom was Ingerslev’s great-grandmother.

The Riises were members of St. Thomas’ high society, so it’s no wonder their history was soon interwoven with that of other prominent families of the time.

Ingerslev’s great-grandmother married the brother of the former Danish West Indies Governor Carl Emil Hedemann. Her great-great uncle also married a Hedemann.

After the back-to-back natural disasters in 1867, the Riise family returned to Denmark, according to Ingerslev.

Weather Sends Family Packing
“My great-great-grandmother didn’t want to stay here after the hurricane and earthquake,” she said. “The family was ready to return to Denmark and buy a house with a big garden.”

Unfortunately the Riise family house in Copenhagen has been torn down, but a square in in the city is still named after the pioneering apothecary and his family.

While the elder Riise and his wife returned to Europe, two Riise sons stayed behind — Karl and Valdermar — who ran the family pharmacy until 1913. Valdermar, who also married the daughter of a prominent St. Thomas family, had five children in St. Thomas before returning to Denmark himself.

Family Keeps Stories Alive
“I knew all of my aunts who were born here and they told me so much about the island and about their childhoods,” said Ingerslev. “I also have a wonderful collection of letters written by their mother Rose Petit, who was the daughter of one of the French families on St. Thomas. The letters give a lot of history about the island between 1892 and 1913.”

Ingerslev shared a number of interesting stories about St. Thomas from the late 19th century, including one about a tragedy nearly averted.

“My grandmother traveled here after her confirmation in Denmark and visited the family,” said Ingerslev. “Her mother and sister traveled with her and they stayed here for a couple of months. Because they came at Christmas time, they were asked to bring a Christmas tree.”

Evergreen Christmas
The Riise ancestors obliged and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with an evergreen tree aboard their ship, explained Ingerslev.

“The tree stood on the deck the three weeks it took to come here,” she said. “When it was put up, it was decorated very beautifully and they asked a lot of native children over to the house for an afternoon celebration. They lit the tree and it was so dry that it burst into flames.”

Luckily no one was injured in the fire, which could be seen from most parts of the island, Ingerslev added.

“A lot of aunts and great aunts told so many stories of the islands,” she said. “As a little girl I loved hearing all the tales and was very close with my aunts.”

Along with the many tales and some antiques which have been passed down, one Riise family tradition lives on as well, Ingerslev added.

A.H.’s Birthday
“A.H. Riise’s birthday was September 11 and every fifth year for 100  years we’ve been having a celebration in Copenhagen since 1905,” said Ingerslev. “In 2005 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the party and we’ll have another one in 2010.”

Making the long voyage from her Danish home to the Virgin Islands was a life-long dream, Ingerslev explained.

“I’ve always dreamed of coming here because I was so close to my aunts,” she said. “They passed away at very old ages, so I remember so many stories from them. I always promised myself to get here once.”

Although the Ingerslevs stayed in St. Thomas during their Caribbean stay,  Langley gave the couple a tour of Love City, which wasn’t the first time the Danes heard of the island.

“My aunts always talked about the beauty of St. John,” said Ingerslev.