Beginning Scandinavian Genealogy

William B. Fagerström

This is the handout from the lecture given at the 2009 Scandinavian Fest.


Start by documenting names, dates, and stories about family members.  Let family know your interest and interview older family members.  Church and civil records will always be there but personal memories and records will be lost with time unless documented.

Family Stories When conducting an oral interview: make interviewee comfortable, don’t correct them, let them take conversation in a direction they want. If you touch on a sensitive issue, don’t pry. Ask specific questions (where was ____ born). Ask broad questions (what was it like going to school, to church).  Avoid asking “tell me all you know about our family history” as this can be overwhelming and hard for them to know where to start.  Remember tape recorders and VCRs may be threatening, particularly on a first interview.  Limit interview to about 60 minutes.  Document stories-who said what and when.

Important Records  The family bible (may have notes about births, marriages and deaths), certificates of birth or baptism, marriage, and death certificates, naturalization papers, newspaper clippings, photo albums, movies, immigration, old letters from/to Scandinavian country, family tree, etc. Preserving: Store in a safety deposit box or closet not in a basement or attic as heat, moisture and bugs/rodents can destroy records.  Acid in some papers and tapes can destroy.  So, use acid free tapes, use acid free paper to separate records. Avoid paper clips (rust) and most plastics on photos.

Family Surname-Patronymics  Until about 1900 most Scandinavians did not have a surname.  They used a patronymic system where Johan’s children Andre and Birgitta would be called Andre Johansson(sen) and Birgitta Johansdotter(datter).

Document research so you and others can later follow what was done; use family group sheets and pedigree charts; identify the source on the back of Xerox copies; keep a research log and a correspondence log.

Join genealogy/history clubs in localities where your ancestors lived and of your ethnicity of interest.

Facts  Remember family stories, census, church records and other records may have inaccuracies.  Family stories are clues, but should be checked since errors can enter over time and the passing from one generation to another.  Collect information and evaluate it later.  The family name may have been spelt differently in the past.  Careful, the same surname is not necessarily an ancestor, prove the connection.

Share by writing a family history even a partial or post your family tree and surnames on the Internet.



Census records, deeds, and church records contain different information about our ancestors.  Therefore, research is planned based on what we know about our family (names, dates, and locations of events), what we want to know and some idea of what records may have the information we want.  Are we more interested in one family branch than another branch?  Do we want to put together a family tree of names and dates for birth, marriage and death?  Or are we interested in writing a family history?  Generally it is best to start from what we know and work towards the unknown, this usually means working from more recent toward older records.



Federal Census is taken every 10 years and kept private for 72 years, so 1930 is the latest census available to us.  The 1790-1840 censuses named only the head of household and listed the number of people in age groupings. 1850-70 gave all names & ages. 1880 added birthplace of person & parent, partially indexed by state.  1890 destroyed by fire.  1900-30 added year of immigration & naturalization, indexed by state.  All are viewable as microfilm at the Archives in Wash. DC, in regional archives Boston, NYC, Philadelphia + 8 other locations and at Mormon churches [details below].  A fully indexed 1880 is available on-line at  Some states had censuses, mainly in 1800’s, often 5 years between Federal census 1845, 1855 etc.

Vital Records (birth, marriage, death) may list parents, etc.; many not in early 1800’s, $5-20/copy; by state or county.

Deeds for property; easy to use as alphabetically indexed by year, book for buyer (grantee), book for seller (grantor); county record

Probate Records often name family members, their relationship, location & marriages; list of personal property is descriptive.

Immigration-Naturalization papers mainly show country not parish; location of records tricky, index helpful for passenger lists.

Church-A lot of genealogy information is in church records but the type and location of the records is variable.

Country Histories & City Directories in most local libraries.  Also periodicals published by genealogy & history societies.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) lists 80 million people, death date & residence, can buy CDs, is available on Internet.

Indexes are very helpful in doing genealogy research.  For example, to see if an ancestor is mentioned in a county history book first check the index.



Scandinavian records are similar to USA records.  The Scandinavian church records are usually more complete covering most people, with more info and extending back further. The Scandinavian censuses are often not as complete or might not exist.  Going to Scandinavia to search for family records is fun and meeting with family members, even several generations removed, is very enjoyable as the Scandinavians are generally very hospitable and interested in relatives and family history.  Church records and in Norway the farm records (bygdebøker) are the most helpful so the key is knowing our ancestor’s parish, home town or farm.  Hopefully this is family knowledge, check with family members.  Unfortunately most immigration records show country and not parish.  Emigration records are more helpful.  There is a CD with emigration information on 1.3 million Swedes.  For help on correspondence to Scandinavia see Section 5-Resources.  Knowing your Scandinavian language is very helpful but not required as many church and census records are in an order (form).  However, court records do require knowledge of the language. There are many translation lists for key words and phases.  The handwriting in older records is more of a problem than not knowing the language.  There are guides to older handwriting, which is somewhat gothic.  Remember the Swedish letters å ä ö and the Norwegian letters æ ø å come after Z. There are maps with a scale of 50,000 to 1 (approx. 1”=1 mile) which show buildings, churches, place names of farms and villages.

Scandinavian Records Available In The United States The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also called LDS or Mormon Church) share their extensive books, pamphlets, microfilms and microfiche of genealogy records.  These are available at the main LDS library in Salt Lake City.  There are over 1500 Family History Centers (FHC) at local LDS churches where one can view microfilms and microfiches loaned from the Salt Lake library.  Each FHC has a catalog of the Salt Lake Library.  Most Scandinavian Church records until 1890 are available on microfilm.  These include birth, marriage and death records.  The Swedish Church took clerical surveys (census) that are very helpful as they are continuous, not every 10 years as in the US.  These clerical surveys are available on microfiche at the FHC of LDS and online at for a subscription.




Most public libraries have a genealogy or history section with books on how to do genealogy, genealogy data, and local history.

LDS Research Guides for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, for each of the 50 states in the US and for Canada, British Isles.

Computers are very helpful for genealogy record keeping, for searching resources stored on other computers (see “Computer-Internet” below), for finding and communicating via email with other genealogists, and for writing/publishing a family history. 


Internet websites are helpful as they have: 1) genealogy guides for region/ethnic/topic, 2) regional and migration histories, 3) names being researched with info on how to contact the researcher, 4) databases-birth, marriage, census, tax rolls, family trees, etc., 5) a query system for posting questions, 6) maps and 7) links to related websites. 

The top award winning genealogy web site is:  It has no information itself but has links to over 260,000 websites that are cleverly arranged into 180+ categories of genealogy topics and geographical regions.  The Scandinavian/Nordic category has many links: Scan./Nordic-68, Denmark-219, Finland-148, Iceland-89, Norway-321, and Sweden-279. Thus one can quickly go to: 1) guides on How To Find Your Ancestors In ____, 2) articles on Scandinavian names, naming traditions; Scan.-English dictionaries and Scandinavian genealogy word lists, 3) 1801 Norwegian census,  4) maps, 5) lists of Archives & Museums,  and 6) mailing lists where people share information, ask questions and get answers with others interested in Scandinavian/Nordic/ Viking-Danish/Finnish/Icelandic/Norwegian/Swedish genealogy and history.

A common disappointment has been the lack of online databases of vital records, church records, census, migration records, etc.  Things are improving.  LDS website  has genealogy guides, the 1880 census their International Genealogical Index (IGI) with over 600 million births, christenings and marriages which are easily searched using the computer or microfiche and databases of family trees (Ancestral File & Pedigree Resource) listing over 40 million people.  Family trees are very helpful because they link people to their parents and children.  Warning, these databases may be incorrect as anyone can contribute their family tree and there is no check on its accuracy.  The IGI listings are by surname and locality. 

The Internet has surname databases and surname websites.  The latter are devoted to a specific family or surname.  The largest surname database is at  It is searchable list or registry of more than 1 million surnames submitted by more than 220,000 genealogists. Each surname listing has locality(ies) and dates with information on how to contact the person who submitted the surname. The RootsWeb site also has family tree database, guides (general genealogy guides and Scandinavian guide, the SSDI and more. has a volunteer run website for each county and state with lists (& links) of local resources (libraries, societies, court houses, people), information about the area including history, a surname list, a query system and maybe databases of cemeteries, etc.  The World GenWeb similarly divides the world into regions, countries, and provinces/counties.

Google and other search engines are a very handy way of finding genealogy information on the web.

Organizations   Internet addresses given in [ ], http://www. or  http://  not shown to save space, typically added automatically 

American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave. Minneapolis, MN 55407 (612)871-4907 museum, bookstore []

Danish Immigrant Museum, Elk Horn, IA [] & Danish Archives North East []

Lutheran Church Archives-Augustana Synod at Swenson (below); Evangelical [], Missouri []

Minnesota Genealogy Society, 5768 Olson Mem. Hwy. Golden Valley, MN 55422 (has Scandinavian branch societies) []

Danish Genealogy Group, monthly meetings, booklet “Searching for your Danish Ancestors” []

Norwegian-American Genealogy Society, monthly meetings, quarterly newsletter  []

Swedish Genealogy Group, quarterly meetings, research guides   []

National Genealogy Society (NGS), 4527 17th Street North, Arlington, VA 22207-2399  (703)525-0052 []

Norwegian-American Bydelagenes Fellesraad, North American organizations of descendants from particular areas in Norway. Contact Marilyn Somdahl at 10129 Goodman Circle  Bloomington, MN 55437 (952)831-4409 []

Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL 61201  (309)794-7204  records including American Swedish church, a quarterly The American Swedish Genealogist []

Swedish Gen. Club of American Swedish Hist. Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., Phil., PA 19145 (215)389-1776 []

Vesterheim (Norway) Genealogy Center & Naeseth Library, 415 W. Main St., Madison, WI 53703  (608)255-2224 []


Professional Genealogists can be hired to do your family search or to help you solve a tough research problem. 


I’m not a professional but am willing to try to answer your questions or help you get in touch with a source.

William B. Fagerstrom, 2918 Jaffe Rd. Wilmington, DE 19808