Researching Scandinavia: Getting Started

Now that you understand the patronymic naming system used in Scandinavia, I hope that the first scary aspect of research has been removed.

The other issue that puts people off delving into the records is the fear of not being able to read the records.

Banish that thought from your mind immediately!

Many vital records, until you get back into the 1700s,  are in tables with columns divided into dates and names, so they are easy to read.

If you find you do have to read paragraph-style documents, then Google Translate can be your friend, along with Facebook volunteer groups like the Danish-American Genealogy Group, in which Danes help Americans locate and read old records and Americans, in turn, help Danes find lost branches of their families who emigrated to the United States. A third option is help at your local Family History Center, if it has Scandinavian help, or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, if you are near there.

The next big question then is “How do I get started?” That answer has actually changed through the years because of digitized and indexed records.

Answer: It depends!

I’ll cover Danish records first, as I have used them extensively.

My 30+ year brick wall existed only because there was little hope of finding family without knowing exactly which Scandinavian town they were from.

That is because, until the 20th century, all Scandinavian vital records were kept by the local church authorities.

With all the online records becoming available, today you need to know the immigrant ancestor’s name and date of birth (hoping that it’s correct). Having parents’ names and an ancestral towns are more than helpful, but sometimes it is possible to be successful with a bare minimum of knowledge.

My immigrant ancestor is my 2X great grandfather, Frits Wille Oscar E. Johnson, reportedly born in May 1845 (found on the 1900 U.S. census) and reportedly from Copenhagen.

Back in the 1980s, a professional researcher told me that without knowing the original form of the name Johnson and the actual parish where Frits was born, it wasn’t possible to find records.

I left the Danish branch of my tree bare for decades, as I knew nothing about Danish records and my grandmother knew nothing more about the family.

If I was starting out today, my first stop would be FamilySearch, as many Danish baptismal records have been digitized.

Here is my first try:

The results list was long, but no success. This is just a partial list:

I’ve got some Johnson, Johansen and other variations in the list and nothing likely to be my Frits turned up, so I need to try another spelling. This time, I’ll use Jensen since it sounds like Johnson.

Entry #14 on the new list of results is for one Frits Wille Oscar EMIL Jensen, born in May 1845 in Copenhagen!:

In the 21st century, my previous 20th century brick wall would have been a 3 minute challenge!

Obviously, the more you know about your immigrant ancestor and that the information is correct, the more likely chance of research success.

If I knew Frits’ mother’s maiden name, say from a death certificate, but didn’t know where he was born in Denmark, nor an exact year and still tried a search, what would the results be?

Not only did his baptismal record appear, but FamilySearch has even indexed confirmation records, which correctly state that the family had moved to Saeby, Hjorring County!

Many Danish baptisms have been both digitized and indexed, but not all have been! Finding your ancestor without knowing a town is a bit of luck of the draw.

What about Swedish records? The Swedish government made the decision to share their records via subscription sites. ArkivDigital is the premier website for Swedish research, as they have gone in and photographed the original church books instead of digitizing microfilms made years ago of the images.

Personally, I love ArkivDigital and subscribe to it off and on when I need to search Swedish records. The Family History Library has a subscription and all the Family History Centers can add it on their computers if they don’t already have local access. However, be aware beforehand that ArkivDigital’s records are not fully digitized either, but the collection database is growing quickly. There is also U.S. support for using the website.

MyHeritage has also added Danish and Swedish records to its collections. Searching for Frits Wille Oscar Emil Jensen’s mother, Johanne Elisabeth Molin, born 1814 in Sweden, brought up her baptismal record in the village of Öved in the southern part of the country:

Source: MyHeritage

Last, but not least, can Norwegian records be accessed? FamilySearch has some Norwegian baptismal and marriage records that have been indexed.

MyHeritage has some indexed marriage records, but I didn’t find any baptisms, aside from those on member family trees.

The best resource for Norway, though, is the National Archives of Norway, which has an icon to switch to English on it so it is navigable. The archives records are NOT indexed, though, so it is imperative that you know the exact town or at least a very small geographical region where your family lived!

To quickly summarize all of this information, you may well be able to find your immigrant ancestor’s family home even if you have minimal information – e.g. the person’s name and date of birth – and then be able to expand your search into Scandinavian records.

Member online trees also may be a huge help, as someone else might have already done the tough work for you! Be cautious using those trees, though, as some are riddled with errors. Use the clues you find as a bread crumb trail to help you document each piece of information for yourself.

The final post will talk about what records are available and what information they include. I guarantee that they are fabulous!



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