Jul 30, 2021

Scandinavian Ancestors

July 30, 2021

If you’re lucky enough to have ancestors who came from Scandinavia, you might wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to genealogy research. That is, unless not all of your ancestors came from Scandinavia, only part of them. In that case, you know how much more difficult it is to find records for ancestors from almost anywhere else in the world.

The reason that Scandinavians tend to be so much easier to research than folks from elsewhere is largely due to the state churches in Norway, Sweden, Denmark (Finland and Iceland are also part of Scandinavia, but their languages are so different from the other three that they need to be treated separately). The Evangelical Lutheran Church was the state church in these countries until fairly recent times. As a state church, the Lutherans were tasked with keeping records for everyone in their respective countries.

These records include baptism (almost always including date of birth), marriage and burial (almost always including date of death) as well as confirmation records and moving in and out records. If you are very lucky and have Swedish ancestors, the church there also kept what are called Household Examination Records. These records were originally kept by the local pastor to track how well his parishioners knew their catechism. Every member of every family was listed in family groups with birthdates, marriage dates, death dates, place of birth and death as well as dates of entry into and out of a parish and even dates of moves within the parish. All were recorded on a frequent basis. Smallpox vaccinations were also tracked on Household Examination records.

Using the various church records, it’s usually a simple matter to track a specific Scandinavian family for generations. Many of the records go back to the 1600s, although in some places the records don’t start quite that early.

In addition to the church records, various census records were taken in the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, in particular, has a large number of censuses. Military, tax, court and probate records are also available for the Scandinavian countries. Some of these can extend even further back than church records.

One of the best features of Scandinavian records is their ready availability online. Norway, Denmark and Sweden each have national archives that are available online, for free. Sweden also has a paid site called Arkiv Digital which holds church records, military, court and probate records – all re-filmed by the company to ensure the best possible digitization image of the old, sometimes difficult to read records.

On the whole, Scandinavia is a great place to research. There are, however, a few glitches that arise when researching Scandinavians. First, all of the records will be in the language of the country where they were made. Some of the websites will have English descriptions and instructions, but the records themselves will not be translated. The good news is that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are Germanic languages, and English has many cognates with them. This means that a word such as sjukhus which literally translates from Swedish as sick house, is easy to translate to the more common hospital in English. Another good example is död, which means dead; it’s not difficult to see that these words have a common root word. Even if there are not cognates for some words, the records use a limited number of words which quickly become familiar.

The other big issue when using Scandinavian records is the fact that the Nordic peoples used a patronymic naming system until the beginning of the 20th century. This means that surnames change each generation for most families. The father’s first name along with a version of the word for son or daughter is given as a surname to his children. Again, once you’ve used this system for awhile it becomes  easy to follow. In spite of the language and naming issues, most researchers will have few problems accessing and using Scandinavian records. In my own case, half of my ancestors were from Norway and Sweden. Without a doubt that half of my lineage is much easier to trace back further in time than any of my other ancestors. I feel lucky to have such a large percentage of Scandinavian ancestry. If you have Scandinavian ancestors, you’ll feel lucky too when you research them.

Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Lage