Danish immigrants began arriving in Iowa during the 1870s. Danish immigration was always less than that from other Scandinavian countries because of the typically good economic conditions in that country. Many Danes came after their country lost a war with Germany in 1863, resulting in the Danish territory of Schleswig-Holstein becoming German. This shift led many to choose emigration rather than remain in the area under German rule. Danish immigration began to rise in the 1880s and peaked in 1920.
Many other Danes came because they had converted to the Baptist, Methodist or Mormon churches. Danish Mormons crossed Iowa on their way to Utah as part of the Mormon handcart brigades from 1856 to 1860. These immigrants pulled handcarts from the end of the railroad line in Coralville to Salt Lake City, a distance of over 1,300 miles.
Other Danish immigrants to Iowa have had a lasting impact. A Danish language newspaper, Dannevirke, was published in Cedar Falls for many years. Christian K. Nelson, who came to Iowa as an immigrant, is credited with inventing the Eskimo Pie.
Many Danish immigrants settled in Iowa, mainly in the southwestern portion of the state, because that region still had available farmland when most of the Danish immigration to Iowa began in the 1870s. In particular, many Danes settled in Audubon and Shelby County around the towns of Elk Horn and Kimballton. Today, more people of Danish ancestry live in this area than in any other rural community outside of Denmark. It was once said that a person could live in Elk Horn for months and never need to speak a language other than Danish. Other centers of Danish settlement in Iowa were at Fredsville in Grundy County and Ringsted in Emmet County. Like other smaller immigrant groups, the Danes were mainly located in particular sections of the state, and not scattered throughout Iowa like the Germans and British.
The local people celebrate their Danish heritage with an annual festival. In 1976 residents arranged for a Danish windmill to be shipped to Elk Horn and reassembled as a memorial. Elk Horn is also home to the National Danish American Immigrant Museum, which opened in 1994 and houses artifacts and historical materials relating to Danish immigrants around the United States. In nearby Kimballton a park contains a replica of the famous statue of the Little Mermaid that is found in the harbor at Copenhagen, Denmark.