Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter Plus, you’ll receive our 10 Essential Genealogy Research Forms PDF as a special thank you!
Get Your Free Genealogy Forms
"*" indicates required fields
Scandinavians were among the earliest American explorers and settlers, including the colonists of New Sweden in 1638 and Denmark’s Vitus Jonassen Bering in 1728. But most Scandinavian immigrants—more than 2 million, in fact—arrived on US shores in the great waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
If they include your ancestors, the techniques and records you’ll use to track them down them differ from what you’d encounter tracing ancestors in other European countries. You’ll find unfamiliar political (or clerical) subdivisions and records, new languages and strange-sounding names (such as Lars Hansen, Ole Thorvaldson and Lauren Svensdatter). But researching ancestors in the Scandinavian countries doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might think.
First, let’s clarify “Scandinavia.” This article covers research in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the three countries generally recognized as being in Scandinavia. Sweden and Norway are on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Denmark is north of Germany on the Jutland Peninsula and includes a number of islands, primarily in the Baltic and North Seas. Some people also include Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands in Scandinavia because of historical relationships with the other countries. Others include Finland, part of which is on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Although these other countries and territories are part of the Nordic Region, they technically aren’t Scandinavia. Understanding Scandinavian research will, however, help you trace ancestors in the other Nordic countries. Start your search for family in Norway, Sweden and Denmark following these five tips.
1. Start at home.
Before you look for Scandinavian records, prepare yourself with research at home. This is an area where the standard advice to “start with yourself and work backward” is critical. There are no shortcuts to making that leap across the water.
When you’ve determined who your Scandinavian immigrant ancestor was, find out everything possible from US records, including:
• Who was he or she? Find out all names he or she used.
• When did he or she immigrate?
• Where was the immigrant’s residence in Scandinavia?
Search for these details in home sources, such as a family Bible, letters, naturalization papers, passenger lists and souvenirs from the homeland. Search thoroughly for hints; even photographs may have information or clues to indicate where the family originated in Scandinavia. Don’t forget that family stories may contain a glimmer of a clue (but don’t take it all for gospel until you can do research for confirmation).
Note that clues in American church records may lead to your family’s church records in their homeland. Most Scandinavians were (and their descendants still are) members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of that country (such as Danish Lutheran or Swedish Lutheran). If the immigrant’s US community has a Lutheran Church of any “flavor,” start there. The church’s records may contain a letter of transfer showing the name of the former parish. You also may find a notation on a marriage or confirmation record indicating where the person was baptized.
Obituaries are a good starting point for researching in newspapers, but don’t overlook births, marriages and local interest stories. For example, an article might list new church members, name visitors from back home, or feature an immigrant family who’s become pillars of the community. That may mean reading the entire newspaper for the years the family resided in the area, but this can be very worthwhile.
2. Understand name games.
The people of Scandinavia didn’t find it necessary to use surnames until after the Middle Ages, because the sparse and stable population meant everyone knew Jens and Katrina (and their families) in a given town. Surnames came into use around the 15th or 16th century, depending on the place. The nobility were normally first to adopt fixed surnames, then the artisans, clergy, merchants and finally, the general population (farmers and laborers). The clergy often Latinized their new surnames, or used an actual Latin name. Merchants and craftsmen sometimes used German surnames or names reflecting their occupations: You may find Scandinavian Schmidts (German for “smith,” indicating a blacksmith, tinsmith, or other smith) who never even visited Germany.
But most of the population used the patronymic system. A patronymic is a name derived from a person’s father’s name. In Scandinavia, a child’s surname was formed by adding a suffix to the father’s given name.
You’ll occasionally find “matronymic” names—derived from the mother’s name. A child fathered out of wedlock, for example, might be given a matronymic name. That’s the usual reason for a surname such as Marensen (“son of Maren”). But even “illegitimate” births generally acknowledged the name of the father, and the child was named accordingly.
The patronymic system continued at least through the 19th century, and sometimes into the 20th. Especially in rural areas, populations were slow to adopt fixed surnames, even when required by law.
Scandinavian women didn’t normally adopt their husbands’ surnames; rather, they retained their birth names for life. A woman would be listed by her birth name in her birth and marriage records, of course, but also in the birth and marriage records of her children and in her own death record. There are some exceptions, however:
- In the late 1800s, women began adopting their husbands’ surnames. Thus Ane Jensdatter (daughter of Jens) who married Nils Andersen (son of Anders) could become Ane Andersen. Watch for this when looking at a child’s parents: Where you might normally expect to see the parents as Nils Andersen and Ane Jensdatter, with this scenario you’d instead see Nils Andersen and Ane Andersen. Before you follow the wrong maternal line, search for the couple’s marriage record to confirm whether the woman’s father was named Anders or something else (Jens, in this case).
- Upon immigration to America, a Scandinavian woman might have adopted her husband’s surname, knowing that this was the American practice. When looking for a woman from Scandinavia, check both ways.
For example, Niels Bertel Nielsen of Denmark came to America in 1902; his family immigrated the next year. The passenger record shows his wife, Karen Marie Nielsen, and five children: Lars Bertel, Dagmar Fredrica, Valdemar Theodore, Harold Holger and Elna Elise. After arriving in Iowa, the family members adopted Americanized names: Niels became Nels or N.B. Nelson, Dagmar became Rica Nelson; Valdemar became Walter Ted Nelson, Harold was Harold Nelson; and Elna Elise became Elna Alice Nelson. The mother was invariably listed as Karen Marie Andersen in Danish records, but used Karen Marie Nielsen for her passage to America, then Karen Marie (or Carrie) Nelson in Iowa. Note that they changed their names after immigrating (the name-changed-at-Ellis-Island story is a myth), and it made them appear to be English or Swedish, not Danish.
In addition to patronymics, other methods were sometimes used for determining a surname, including:
- Military names, primarily in Sweden. Only one man with a particular name could be in a unit, so the next arrival with the same name got a new surname, usually based on a physical or other attribute (bearded, strong, etc.). He would sometimes keep the name even after his service ended.
- Farm names, primarily in Denmark and parts of Norway. To differentiate themselves from others of the same name, a family might take the name of their farm. They might carry the name to a new area to show where they came from.
- Geographic names, primarily in Sweden and sometimes Norway. The name usually represents some physical attribute of the land, such as Lindberg (“tree” plus “mountain”). In Denmark and sometimes Norway, a geographic surname might be the name of a town, usually the origin of a newcomer to another area.
3. Use geographic and language aids.
Once you’ve found clues to an immigrant’s Scandinavian origin, do a bit more homework before beginning research overseas. Geography is important in identifying your ancestor’s parish, which was the focus of community life (nearly everyone belonged to the same church). Even if you know the parish name, seek other clues to its location: Parishes in different areas often had the same or similar names. Here’s an overview of jurisdictional organization in each country:
Be aware of the difference between civil and ecclesiastical (church) jurisdictions. For genealogical research, you’ll focus on the ecclesiastical ones. The rather elaborate hierarchy of organization starts at the top with dioceses (stift), which are presided over by a bishop (biskop). Within the diocese are several rural deaneries (kontrakt) with a dean (kontraktsprost) in charge. Within the deaneries are benefices or districts (pastorat) with a rector or vicar (kyrkoherde). Within the district are one, or more parishes (söcken or församling); the vicar resides in the mother parish (moderförsamling) but serves as pastor for all. The other parishes are annex parishes (annexförsamling). Sometimes the records for the entire district are in the records of the mother parish, rather than in each parish.
Sweden now has about 2,500 parishes. Each parish may contain villages (by) and farms (gård or hemman). Before 1862, parishes served both civil and ecclesiastical purposes. After 1862, two types of parishes were created: kommun for civil and församling for ecclesiastical purposes. Boundaries for a civil and ecclesiastical parish may or may not be the same. Be sure you’re looking in the ecclesiastical parish for church records.
The structure of the Church of Norway has 11 dioceses (dispedømme) with 106 deaneries (prestegården) and 1,284 parishes (sogne). As in Sweden, parishes are the record-keeping entity, although records may be in a “mother parish” where a vicar resides while serving multiple other parishes. Because Denmark and Sweden ruled Norway for much of its history, records may be in Danish or Swedish.
The Danish church hierarchy isn’t as strictly defined as in Sweden or Norway. Records are organized by district (herred), then by parish (sogne). As in the other countries, a pastor might have ministered to several parishes, so the clerk consolidated records into one book (but usually not intermixed). Here, however, you don’t find the strict concept of a “mother parish”; the consolidation of records is simply at the convenience of the pastor and clerk.
Scandinavian languages are based on the Old Norse language, not on Latin as in other parts of Europe. But the letters are based on Latin, with a few additions that follow Z in the alphabet. See the chart on the previous page for these characters and keyboard shortcuts to type them.
To translate Scandinavian records, you may prefer (as I usually do) to look up terms in a good translation dictionary. The older the dictionary, the more likely it’ll have the word you want. You also can enter the text into Google Translate. The result is usually close enough to figure out the intent of a passage, but less accurate the older your document. BabelFish also can help with Danish (Swedish and Norwegian aren’t available).
4. Study up in parish records.
In Scandinavia, each country had a state Evangelical Lutheran church that served as the official civil registrar—whether or not someone was a member of that church. Parish records will provide the names and dates you need to find census, military, land and probate records. Parish records are available for several centuries from the Church of Sweden, Church of Norway and Church of Denmark:
Starting in 1686, ministers were required to keep records of ordinances in church books (kyrkboken).
Beginning in 1685, the Norwegian Church Ritual required ministers to keep records of christenings, betrothals and burials. All residents were to be listed in church books (kirkebøker). Norway was ruled by Denmark until 1814 and Sweden from 1815 to 1905. Its records are similar to those of Denmark, and are in Danish, until 1814. Thereafter, you’ll find similarities to Swedish records and the Swedish language. Later records may be in Norwegian.
The Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church has been legally responsible for recording “the beginning and end of life” for all Danish residents for hundreds of years. Church books (kirkebøger) exist for most parishes before 1700, with the earliest in Copenhagen in 1619. Church books in each country have these major components:
- incoming lists (indicate parish from which a new member transferred)
- outgoing lists (indicate where a member was transferring to, sometimes “USA”)
- Clerical surveys, which exist only for Sweden, were censuses of congregations taken every five years. These are especially helpful because Sweden has no civil census.
- Indexes sometimes exist, but in most cases you’ll need to browse the records by place and year.
Church records for Sweden, Norway and Denmark are available on microfilm or microfiche through the Family History Library. Find them in the FamilySearch online catalog by selecting Search by Place Name, then entering the name of the country, county and parish. Select Church Records from the search results. You’ll see available records (or groups of records) by year; click on a title for details including years and location covered, and film or fiche number. Order films online for viewing at a FamilySearch Center near you. You also might turn up published indexes to church records; these can be a helpful shortcut to finding the originals.
Denmark and Norway church records are also being digitized and posted free on the respective state archives website. Visit Arkivverket.no to access the search page (in English) for Norwegian records, which will link to either a searchable index or the digital images to browse. (As you click around the site, you may need to click the British flag in the top right corner for English.) The search page (in English) for Danish records is here.
5. Follow families.
Most of us are accustomed to searching records for a surname. But in countries with patronymic surnames, you’ll search differently. Use these steps to confirm you’ve found the right family:
A. Start with the most recent person about whom you have information, then work backward to previous generations.
For example, my grandmother was born in Denmark and came to America as a small child, so I started by finding her birth record. A birth record includes parents’ names, with the mother’s maiden name, and their residence. In Norway, though, the mother’s maiden name may not appear on the record, if she took her husband’s surname. Check birth records for all her children, in case she began using her husband’s surname sometime after their marriage.
B. Search parish records before and after the birth for a number of years to find any other children of the same parents.
You may find records of siblings with the same or similar given name. If a child died at birth or in infancy, the parents might give the same name to the next child of that gender. In some cases, especially if the child was named to honor a relative or the parents were near the end of their childbearing years, a similar name might be given to a child of the other gender. For example, a child named Christen to honor an uncle died at a few months old. The next child, a girl, might be named Christine after the same uncle.
C. Search marriage records to find the parents’ marriage.
This record will often give you the birth, christening and confirmation dates, and parish names for both members of the couple.
D. Search for each of the parents’ birth or christening, confirmation and other records in the parishes indicated by the marriage record.
E. Now look for marriages and/or deaths for all the children you’ve identified, and for parents of both the bride and groom of each marriage.
F. Transcribe each record into your notes in the native language, then translate it into your language.
This will be essential to confirm you’ve found the right person or family. Glean all possible information from every record, including witnesses and references to other church records. Carefully cite the record, as well.
Resist the temptation to accept the first person you find with the name you’re searching. This can send you on a wild goose chase, especially in patronymic systems where a parish may have several same-named members. Use dates and parents’ names to help you distinguish people of the same name.
Watch for changes in surname, too. During the late 1800s, the family may have named some children with the patronymic, then used the father’s surname for the rest. For example, Jens Nielsen and his wife might have six children between 1870 and 1885:
- Karen Jensen (In the late 19th century, many families—especially in Denmark—began using the male extension for both sons and daughters.)
- Niels Jensen
- Christen Jensen
- Maren Nielsen
- Jorgen Nielsen
- Jens Nielsen
The surname appears to have been frozen after Christen. Children usually use the name given at birth/christening throughout life. A similar situation may occur with occupational, location-based or military names: The family may use the name during the time some children are born, but not others, so analyze each child to confirm it’s the right family.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine.