Destroying a Brick Wall: It Took a Village – Part 1

When I began blogging four years ago, one of my goals was to share tips and tricks for breaking through those pesky brick walls that leave branches empty on our family trees. That’s actually where the name of my blog originated!

While I’ve written about my Johnson/Jensen brick wall a number of times, it has been from the viewpoint of telling the story of their lives. Today, I’d like to share a different viewpoint – the methodology, persistence and thinking out of the traditional box that it took to unlock the mystery of Johannes Jensen’s origin.

I originally wrote this for my friend, Ruth Maness, who passed away last June. She, along with the Scandinavian staff at the Family History Library, were instrumental in my success. I couldn’t have done it without them and learned to navigate Danish and Swedish records in the process.

Ruth thought it would make for a great genealogy talk, but as far as I know, she never presented it so here it is.

Part 1 – The Beginning

Back in 1980, when I first began researching my family history, both of my grandmothers were alive and both knew quite a bit about their families. My maternal grandmother, Hazel Ethel Coleman, was born 7 February 1901 in Calais, Washington, Maine, the second child of Hartwell Thomas Coleman, a master mariner, and his wife, Anna Elizabeth Johnson. The Coleman family was colonial New England, but Anna was born in Denmark.

The only known photo of Anna Elisabeth Jensen/Johnson
My Great Grandmother

Hartwell and Anna married in Calais on 14 July 1890. His occupation was listed as “mariner” while Anna was a stitcher in a shoe factory. When I began asking my grandmother about her mother’s family, she told me about her mother’s sad death. Anna apparently had had some stomach or intestinal problem – perhaps appendicitis or gallstones. The young town doctor came to the house and told my great grandfather that Anna needed surgery. This was in 1916 when my grandmother was 15 years old. The surgery was done in the house and Anna bled to death. My grandmother said she had very vivid memories of having to mop up all the blood on the floor.

Back in 1980, the most current federal census released to the public was the 1900 census. In Calais, Maine, I found Hartwell and Anna living with his parents, William and Sarah Coleman. The enumeration showed that Anna was born in September 1872 in Denmark. Hartwell’s son Hazen R., born 1895, was in the household, as was Rebecca Redding, granddaughter of William and Sarah. Lastly, I found Frederick W. O. Johnson (according to Hazel: Frederick William Oscar E. Johnson), enumerated as “father-in-law,” which he was, but to Hartwell, not to William, who was the head of household. Frederick was born in May 1845, also in Denmark, and he said he arrived in the U.S. in 1884.

His occupation was “detective” and he had been unemployed for 8 months of the previous year. I always chuckled at the “detective” occupation, as Calais was all lumber, fishing and ship building and I couldn’t ever figure out how he would stay employed there as a detective. However, that occupation made more sense in 2011 when I finally found the family in Denmark. “Frits” reported in the 1880 Danish census that he was a police officer at the local prison. “Detective” may have just described his rank. Henry Johnson, Anna’s brother, was a day laborer living five doors away with the Hiram Brown family. Henry’s census enumeration said he was born in March 1879 in Maine; he actually was born in March 1878 in Denmark.

In the early 1980’s, I hired a Danish researcher in Salt Lake City, hoping that she would be able to find a Frederick William Oscar E. Johnson, born in May 1845 in Denmark.  The first question she asked was if I knew the original form of the name since “Johnson” had been Americanized. I asked my grandmother, but she said the family always said the name was Johnson. I asked about her grandmother, but she said Fritz’s wife died before Grandmother was born. She didn’t know her name or when she died, not even if she died in Denmark or the United States. She did say that her mother had one brother, Henry, but he had also died a long time ago and, as far as she knew, he left no family.

The family was from “Copenhagen,” but whether that meant the city proper or a town near the city was unknown. I sent to Calais for a copy of her mother’s death certificate. Anna died 4 March 1916 and cause of death says “shock following operation,” which fits with my grandmother’s memories. Anna’s place of birth was Copenhagen and parents’ names were F.W.O. Johnson and Margaret Brown, both born in Denmark. The informant’s name isn’t given on the document, but it was likely Hartwell Coleman. I also got a copy of Henry’s death certificate. He died in Calais on 16 May 1916, only weeks after Anna; his cause of death was tuberculosis. Henry was born in “Denmark” and parents’ names were given as “Fritz Johnson” and “Mary Prun”, both born in Denmark.

This is the first time Frederick appeared as “Fritz” and, spoken with accented English, “Brown” and “Prun” could be something like “Brun” in Danish, so it seems that Frederick, or Fritz, was the likely informant on Henry’s death record. With this small amount of information, the researcher said it wouldn’t be likely that Frederick would be found and this line remained dormant for many years. It became my 30 year old brick wall.

Part 2 – The Pre-Internet Age

I made a few attempts at gathering more information about the “Johnson” family between the years of 1985 and 2010. The 1910 census of Calais showed Frederick and Henry R. Johnson renting at 3 Main Street. Frederick was 64 and Henry was 33. For this census, Henry reported that he worked as a motorman on the electric cars, while Frederick had his “own income.” In 1910, Frederick reported that he arrived in the U.S. in 1867 and Henry came in 1883. However, given that Anna and Henry were both born in Denmark, Frederick obviously had crossed the ocean at least twice if he first came in 1867.

One new piece of information was found in the 1910 census. Frederick said his father was born in Denmark, but that his mother was born in Sweden.  In 1920, Frederick was again enumerated in Calais, renting at 104 Union Street, about a block and a half from where he rented in 1910. He reported immigrating to the U.S. in 1883 with parents again reported as being born in Denmark and Sweden. No further record had been found for Frederick in the U.S., not even a death record (although I do now have his Calais death record dated November 1920.)

My grandmother said her father was tired of Frederick not having a job (or apparently even making an effort to find one) and that, although he again lived with the family sometime after the 1910 census up to 1916,  after her mother died, her father kicked Frederick out of the house. Hazel couldn’t remember exactly when Frederick died (she married in 1920 and my grandparents moved to Massachusetts), but she said her father wouldn’t pay for a tombstone for him and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Calais Cemetery.

My grandmother is gone. Her brother, Hazen, died in 1954; I never even knew him. There was no one left who knew anything about the Johnson family and I didn’t think I would ever be able to find the family in Denmark. I was wrong!!

Part 3 – Technology Breaks Down the Brick Wall

Although Grandmother (Hazel) died in 1995, I believe she is up there watching over me. In January 2011, late one evening, I was sitting at my computer. I hadn’t thought about my brick wall Johnson family for a long time, but the idea came to me that I should check to see what kinds of records Denmark might have. I guess she was letting me know it was time to get back to work on her family!

Arkivalieronline, the Danish National Archives online, quickly came up and I discovered that there was an 1880 census, free, indexed and computer searchable by name.

The Johnsons emigrated to America about 1883 so they should have been enumerated in the 1880 census in Denmark. Frederick (Fritz) William Oscar E. Johnson’s age in the U.S. records consistently matched a birth year of about 1845 and I figured there couldn’t be that many people running around Denmark in 1880 with his exact combination of names born about 1845 possibly in Copenhagen. I started searching various spellings of Johnson – Johansen, Johannsen, Johnsen, Jensen combined with all the possible ways I could think of to spell “Frederick.” I quickly realized that the 1880 Danish census didn’t have a soundex type of capability, or at least I didn’t find it then.

I know now that I can use wildcards to search, but at that time, I stuck to trying different spellings. Not speaking any Danish was a definite limitation, but Google Translate helped. I got nowhere with the surname and didn’t have much more luck with Frederick or Fritz. Then I got the idea to try “Frits” in Copenhagen. Thankfully, there weren’t as many as I feared and up came one “Frits Ville Oskar Emil Jensen,” aged 34! I couldn’t believe it. With him were wife Margaret, born Brun, aged 36, born Frederikshaven, daughter Anna Elisabeth, 7,  son Henry Robert, 1, and an unnamed daughter under one year old.

1880 Census for Copenhagen – Family 36 – Next to last entry

Frits’ older sister, Vilhelmina, aged 39, unmarried, was also in the household.  The family lived in Herstedvester, just outside Copenhagen; Henry and the baby girl were both born in that parish. Frits, Anna and Vilhelmina were all born in Copenhagen. The Johnsons, now Jensens, really were from Copenhagen and I was on my way to finding more family. I thought it would be a fairly easy search with the excellent Danish records – wrong again!

Question in my mind for later research: How did Frits and Margrethe meet and marry if he was born in Copenhagen and she was from Frederikshavn?

My next step was to search the 1850 census for Frits, aged 5. Quick success there – I found him with his parents, Johannes Jensen, 40, a soldier, born in Copenhagen and Johanna Elisabeth Molin, 35, born in Sweden. The 1910 and 1920 U.S. censuses had the correct places of birth for Frederick Johnson’s parents – his mother was, indeed, Swedish.

1850 Census for Copenhagen – Entry #13

Johannes’ and Johanne’s children were Wilhemine Amalie, 9; Emilie Olivie Frederikke, 6; Fritz Wilh Oscar Emil, 4 and Ludoviga Josephine Henriette, 2. All in the family were born in Copenhagen except for Johanne Elisabeth.

With Family Search indexed records and the church baptismal registers on Arkivalieronline, I was able to put together the following family:

Johannes Jensen, born about 1810, Copenhagen, Sergeant in the Danish Army, drummer
Johanne Elisabeth Molin, born about 1815, Sweden


  1. Wilhelmine Amalie, born about 1840, no baptismal information found
  2. (Here – possibly a deceased child since there was at least a three year gap between Wilhelmine and Emilie)
  3. Emilie Olivie Frederikke, 18 May 1843, Garnisons Church, Copenhagen
  4. Frits Ville Oscar Emil, 12 May 1845, Garnisons Church, Copenhagen
  5. Ludovica Henriette Josephine, 4 June 1847, Garnisons Church, Copenhagen
  6. Avilda Eleonora Philipine, 11 Oct 1850, Garnisons Church, Copenhagen

Johannes, Johanne, Wilhelmine and Emilie were enumerated in 1845, still in Copenhagen.

I found Johannes Jensen in 1840, an unmarried soldier, rank of sergeant, living in the barracks with other soldiers in Copenhagen. I could not find Johanne Elisabeth Molin in 1840, nor could I find Wilhelmine who could possibly have been born as early as 1839. Johannes and another “permiterit” soldier were boarding with the young family of Anders Thomsen in Copenhagen in 1834.

Problems: Since the Danish censuses have a gap between 1801 and 1834, I had no other pre-1834 census to search for Johannes Jensen. I had no other clues as to his parentage or siblings. No marriage record had been found for Johannes and Johanne, whose first known child was Wilhelmine, born about 1840, in the Garnison Church registers, nor could I find Wilhelmine’s baptismal record there.

I decided to try looking in other parishes in the 1840-1843 range for Wilhelmine’s baptism and possibly for a deceased child and happened to start with Trinitatis Church because it was also a large parish. Wilhelmine was not to be found. However, the baptismal records for Trinitatis Church included a stillborn daughter, entered 8 May 1842 in the register, born to Johanne Elisabeth Molin and reputed father Johannes Jensen. I had only looked for marriage records up to 1840, thinking Johannes and Johanne married before Wilhelmine was born.

Emilie’s baptismal record listed her father and mother, so they had married before 18 May 1843. I looked again for a marriage between 1840-43; no marriage was found at Trinitatis Church, but the Garnison Church register included an entry on 31 August 1842 for Johannes Jensen and Johanne Molin.

Jensen-Molin Marriage, Third from bottom

One more puzzle piece had been found, but there still was nothing found for daughter Wilhelmine, who was apparently born before Johannes and Johanne married. There were no further clues about Johannes’s parents either. The marriage record didn’t include vaccination dates for the bride or groom.

Problem: Was Wilhelmine the daughter of Johannes or someone else? Where was her baptismal record?

Between April 2011 and December 2012, I made multiple trips to Salt Lake City and I put in many hours of research on Johannes Jensen and Johanne Elisabeth Molin. The Molin line came together fairly easily. Johanne turned up in the Family Search index, baptized in Öved, then Malmohus County, Sweden in November 1814. This date fit my Johanne Elisabeth Molin Jensen’s age, but I wanted proof that she was the baby christened in Öved. The volunteers in Salt Lake helped me get started with Genline (now owned by Ancestry and before the days of Arkiv Digital) and when I returned to Tucson, I read literally hundreds of pages of parish records in Öved.

I compiled the members of her family – parents, siblings and even grandparents, using the family examinations in the Swedish church records along with the moving in and moving out lists. Johanne Elisabeth’s parents died in the 1830’s. She left Öved once to work in Lund and then returned to her home. In 1838, her final moving out record said she had gone to Copenhagen, so I had my proof that the one Johanne Elisabeth Molin baptized in 1814 was my Johanne who married Johannes Jensen.

My biggest obstacle with the Swedish research was reading the old Gothic writing. When I couldn’t use Google translation (because I couldn’t even decipher many of the letters in the words), I turned to Family Search forums and got some terrific help from on line volunteers. There was still more to be found in Swedish records, but that will happen on future trips to Salt Lake as the old records are very difficult to read and I haven’t found anyone in Tucson who is able to help.

At this point in my research, there was a hole big enough to step through in my Johnson, now Jensen, brick wall. Tomorrow, I will share the rest of the story and what it took to uncover Johannes Jensen’s family origins.




3 thoughts on “Destroying a Brick Wall: It Took a Village – Part 1”

  1. I really enjoyed reading about your research over all of this time! And, I got chills reading about your grandmother mopped up the blood.

    I think this is a great example of how record access has changed over time and, though problems might not have been solvable 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, they just might be solvable today!

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