North Dakota survivors of Titanic sinking recount disaster

The Titanic disaster, which claimed more than 1,500 lives, impacted people the world over. Even North Dakota, far removed from the perils of the ocean, was deeply affected.

a mother and two children are show sitting on a bed
Survivors of the Titanic disaster included North Dakotans, as well as this French mother and her two sons. The Titanic struck an iceberg in April 1912 and sank, killing more than 1,500 people.
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

It was a calm, clear evening in the middle of the north Atlantic on this date in 1912. The drop in temperature signaled an approaching region of ice, but danger was far from anyone’s mind.

Suddenly lookouts noticed the black spot of an iceberg. With orders to turn, the ship slowly veered left. But it was too late. The glancing blow along the starboard bow proved fatal.

Twenty-two hundred passengers and crew were abroad the RMS Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912. Only 700 souls survived to tell the tragic story. As word of the sinking traveled around the world, families on both sides of the Atlantic anxiously awaited news of the fate of their loved ones. North Dakota was no exception. There were some happy endings for Dakota families. Olaus Abelseth survived the ordeal.

(Read Abelseth's account of surviving the Titanic disaster, preserved in the North Dakota state archives)

Others, like Johan Nysveen , weren’t so lucky.


Born in Norway, Johan Nysveen immigrated to North Dakota settling near Hillsboro as a young man. For 27 years he and his wife farmed the Dakota prairie and raised four children. But after the death of his wife, he moved back to Norway. Returning to the old country, Johan remarried and celebrated the birth of twins in 1911.

A collage of images of the sinking of the Titanic
Composite of five mounted photographs of wireless operator on shipboard receiving distress call; life boats bringing Titanic's survivors to the Carpathia; Capt. Smith of the Titanic--1912.
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

Having established a new life in Norway, he decided it was time to wind up his business in North Dakota and transfer ownership of the farm to his son. At the age of 61, Johan set out for North Dakota one last time. He purchased a third class ticket for the Titanic, embarking at Southampton on April 10. Having made travel arrangements along the way, his wife was unaware he was on board the fated ship.

Quartered near the bow, Johan became friends with a fellow traveler, Karl Albert Midtsjø , a 21-year-old Norwegian immigrating to America. The two had much in common, but the friendship had little time to develop. Four days later, disaster struck.

titanic interior image showing tables and chairs
Photograph of the main dining room on the salon deck of the ill-fated White Star Liner "Titanic", which foundered in mid-ocean after ramming an iceberg.
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

Feeling the impact of the iceberg, Karl and Johan made their way to the deck. Assessing the situation, Johan sensed he would not survive. But he suspected a younger man like Karl stood a better chance. So Johan stripped off his coat and watch and handed them to Karl.

Johan did in fact go down with the ship; his body was never recovered. Since his wife was unaware Johan was onboard the Titanic, it took several weeks before she discovered her husband’s fate. But fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

A lifeboat filled with survivors of the sinking of the titanic
Titanic survivors in a lifeboat on their way to the rescue ship Carpathia.<br/><br/>
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

Miraculously, Karl survived the ship’s sinking when First Officer William McMaster Murdoch offered him a seat in Lifeboat 15. And Karl didn’t forget his friend. Shortly after the Titanic disaster, he traveled to North Dakota to return Johan’s coat and watch to his relatives. He stayed with them for several weeks telling them about Johan’s final days on the Titanic; an act no doubt appreciated by the grieving family.

(Written by Christina Sunwall)

'Spire like a cathedral'

The disaster impacted people the world over. Even North Dakota, far removed from the perils of the ocean, was deeply affected. H.F. Chaffee, a businessman and farmer of Amenia, North Dakota, was returning from a European vacation with his wife, Carrie , on board the Titanic. Although his wife survived, he did not, and his body was never found or identified. Oskar Hedman, from Beach, North Dakota, had third-class passage aboard the ship, and managed to survive.


A group of women huddle under blankets on the deck of a ship
A Group of survivors of the Titanic disaster aboard the Carpathia after being rescued.<br/><br/><br/><br/>
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

There were other stories, though-such as the near-miss case of Dr. and Mrs. McCannel from Minot. They had been away from home for a long time, visiting Vienna and other parts of Europe in 1911 and 1912, so when it was finally time to depart, they made arrangements to hurry their voyage home. They planned to travel on the Titanic, but the ship’s schedule changed, and they were forced to book passage on the Carmenia, instead. They were disappointed to miss travelling aboard the ship they had heard so much about, but they were anxious to get home.

Onboard their ship, the McCannels ran into the field of icebergs that would later sink the Titanic. Dr. McCannel took a photo of one of the larger ones—it was tall, with a point rising some 200 feet above the surface of the water. The ship cut its engines until they drifted clear of the hazard. They heard no more about the icebergs or the famous ship until April 15, when they read about the tragedy in the newspapers.

cover of New York World detailing Titanic disaster
Photograph of the front page of the The (New York) World on April 16, 1912, headling the sinking of the Titanic.
(Courtesy / Library of Congress)

For years afterward, Dr. McCannel wondered if the fatal iceberg that sank the Titanic, described as having a “spire like a cathedral,” was the same one he had taken a picture of, which hung thereafter on his office wall.

The stories and the feelings survive, evident in the scholarship, the history and the memories. Even today, we can understand the relief the McCannels must have felt when, after they arrived at home, a Scottish friend said to them, “Your time had na come.”

(Written by Sarah Walker)

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. It is edited for presentation on Forum Communication Co. sites by Jeremy Fugleberg, editor of The Vault. See all the Dakota Datebooks at,  subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at

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