Category Archives: Swedish research

Researching Scandinavia: What Records Are Available?

Are you ready?

  1. We’ve covered patronymics and how to follow them.
  2. If you have a name and correct birth date and/or parents’ names and place, you are either already on your way to jump in or need to use a search engine to see if indexed records are already online pertaining to your ancestor.

Exactly what kinds of records can be found in Scandinavia?
Lots of absolutely fabulous ones!

Census records – Denmark and Norway have both taken censuses that stretch back into the 1600s, although not on a regular basis. However, because Danish women continue to be identified by maiden names after marriage, those censuses contain bits of information I wish every census included. Take a look:

This is my 2X great grandfather, Frits Wille Oscar Emil Jensen, who I used as an example earlier in this series. I know the image and writing aren’t the easiest to read, but look at the green arrows. The first is pointing to Frits’s wife’s name. She is enumerated as married and names Margrethe Jensen f. Bruun. f. Bruun in English means born Bruun! It’s her maiden name! Happy dance time!

The arrow in the last column is pointing to exact towns of birth! Frits was born in Kjobenhavn (Copenhagen), but Margrethe was born in Frederikshavn, which is on the coast hours away from Copenhagen.

Sweden did not taken censuses in the way that we think of them, every ten years. They did something even better. See the next item:

Household Examination Records – All three countries have fairly complete parish church books, which include many types of records, including Household Examination Books. Each parish minister was expected to visit each household to determine whether the inhabitants knew their catechism, had received communion within the year and otherwise keep tabs on the family.

This image isn’t the easiest to read, but when you look at them directly online, they can be enlarged and most are fairly easily read.

Four lines down is the Molin family. Each person is separately listed, with exact date of birth and the parish where they were born. When towns are listed in the 5th column, that is the town where the person went to, followed by the year in which they left, likely to find work. When yet another town and year are enter, it means the person moved to another parish yet again. the various marks on the other side of the page refer to religious education. The last column is for comments.

When names are crossed out, it also can mean that the person died within the previous year. It looks like person #3 on the list, Elne, died on 7 February 1843 as there is a cross, the letter d. followed by 7/2 and the year. Remember European dating is in day/month/year order.

Guess what! The ministers were had to update these church books every year! Each baby’s birth was noted and, as often happened, it’s quick burial. The mortality rate was high.

Parish registers, aside from Household Examination Records, also  include records of christenings, confirmations, marriage banns, marriages, and burials. They also include lists of everyone moving in and moving out of the parish!

Yes, there are record losses, but many records survive in many parishes. It can’t get much better than that!

Probate Records – Deaths had to be reported within a few days of the event. Probate officials took an inventory and the record often named all the heirs.

Tax Records – There are tax lists, sometimes called Population Registers, at least in Sweden, which listed all taxable males. The last record I found for one of my ancestors was a listing in the 1785 Population Register.

Military Records – Published military records are available. Another of my ancestors was traced using laedgsrullers, a type of army registration system, a bit like a list of the old U.S. draft numbers.

Entire books have been written about the types of Scandinavian genealogical records available to research. However, I recommend checking the FamilySearch wiki for each.

Each country page in the wiki has advice on how to get started, where records can be found and hundreds of live links. FamilySearch Wiki is, by far, the most complete guide to researching in Scandinavia.

I hope this series has motivated those of you with Danish, Norwegian or Swedish ancestry to not fear the records. Just jump in and see where the search takes you.

For those of you not lucky enough to have Scandinavian ancestors, you are missing out on some of the best genealogical records found anywhere in the world.


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!



Researching Scandinavia: Understanding Patronymics

When I first learned about Scandinavian genealogical records and the variety and wealth of information that they contained, I wished I had a Scandinavian branch on my family tree.

I was ecstatic when I discovered I actually did have one, but my enthusiasm waned when it became a 30-year brick wall. Technology brought that wall tumbling down and I jumped in, despite the fact that I don’t speak any Scandinavian languages.

I’ve met a number of genealogists who also have Scandinavian ancestors in their own family trees, but have never made any attempt to research them because they think it will be too hard.

Hence, my decision to write a few posts to help readers understand the patronymic naming system (which seems to boggle the minds of many, but it is really pretty simple to understand) and the system of records available that will make your family tree blossom.

First, which countries make up the region known as Scandinavia? Answer: Denmark, Norway and Sweden. There are arguments about whether Finland is part of the region, but Finns are an ethnically different group and they do not identify themselves as Scandinavians.

As I write about Scandinavian records, I personally have delved deep into Danish and Swedish records so can speak to those quite easily. I have only dabbled in Norwegian records while on the hunt for my mtDNA common ancestor, but Norway’s records are similar to the others.

Before one attempts to step into Scandinavian research, it is imperative that the concept of patronymics is understood. If not, you will be chasing all the wrong families.


Patronymics is a Greek word that simply means the father’s name, i.e. PATRO (or PATER “father”) and NYM (or name).

In Scandinavia, children’s surnames were simply their father’s first name plus the word SON or DAUGHTER added to it.

Henry Davidson was Henry, the son of David.
Susannah Michaelsdaughter was Susannah, the daughter of Michael.

The part that confuses people is that the father’s last name follows the same pattern. Therefore, Henry Davidson might be the son of David, but David is the son of John, so he is called David Johnson.

Likewise, Susannah Michaelsdaughter is the daughter of Michael, but he might be the son of Andrew, so is called Michael Andrewson.

This sounds confusing, doesn’t it? It’s not! Suppose you have the pedigree chart below. It’s a great visual aid, will make this process easy to understand. Just an aside – This is just a quick hand drawn chart, which hubby (my official scanner) thinks looks askew, but it works for my purpose!

The yellow highlighted names show the patronymic changes. I only went back to grandparents on this chart, but highlighted part of those four surnames in red. Those names provide the given name of the parents in the next generation back.

We don’t yet know what surname the earlier generations will have, but the given names of the next generation of fathers are John, Stephen, Stephen and Paul.

The pedigree chart also makes it easy to see that although Susan and John both have fathers named Stephen, that doesn’t mean that they are related.

In U.S. research finding two Stephensons that close in a family tree might make us wonder if related Stephensons married into the family. Not so in the patronymic system.

Does this help? Are you feeling comfortable with how the patronymics system works? A later post will talk about how you use this information to trace back generations, but for now, you just need to understand the method used to name everyone.

There is one more part to understanding patronymics. Eventually, there came a time when there were too many men named John who was the son of John. Something had to be done to differentiate among two or three or more people in the village who met this criteria.

What was the solution? Well, names more like our typical surnames were added to the patronymic. With two John Johnsons in town, one might receive an additional name of Brown because he lived in a brown house, while the other man lived in a white one. John Johnson then became known as John Johnson Brown.

From that point on, until Scandinavian surnames became stabilized in the late 19th century and passed down intact from generation to generation, it will be necessary to keep an eye out for records using EITHER John Johnson or John Johnson Brown.

Another example of a new surname popping up in the family for the first time is military service. If 2 or 3 John Johnsons were too much to handle in a small village, imagine a dozen John Johnsons in one army regiment. Those men might have returned home and continued to use their new surnames – Brown, Rivers, Short, etc. – or not! Again, it will be necessary to watch for both versions of a person’s name.

Tomorrow is Friday and the Family History Finds will post, so the next lesson on Scandinavian records will be on Saturday.