Your Danish ancestors likely were lured to America as so many immigrants were—by dreams of a better life and visions of a land of milk and honey. In 1836, the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen described what his countrymen expected to find in America: “Ducks and chickens raining down, geese land on the table.” They were after hygge, a treasured concept that roughly translates to a “cozy feeling of well-being.”
Despite that allure, Denmark lost less of its population to America than did its Scandinavian neighbors, whose economic plights were far worse. By 1920, about 300,000 Danes had immigrated to the United States—including at least 20,000 inspired not by promises of poultry, but by the words of Mormon missionaries. Except for those drawn to Utah, most Danish immigrants settled first in the Midwest. Then, according to the Library of Congress, Danes “spread nationwide and comparatively quickly disappeared into the melting pot. The Danes were the least cohesive [Scandinavian] group and the first to lose consciousness of their origins.”
But don’t worry—melting pot or no, genealogical evidence of these immigrants’ lives is far from invisible. If you’re among the nearly 1.5 million Americans who claim Danish ancestry, use this guide to rediscover your Danish roots.
Although the Danes have unique immigration and assimilation patterns, tracing your Danish ancestors closely mirrors other Scandinavian research. Like its neighbors, Denmark adopted Lutheranism as its official state religion. Until almost the 20th century, the church kept all Danish vital records—births, marriages, deaths. Whatever faith your Danish ancestors professed, Lutheran ministers painstakingly detailed their lives in church records (kirkebøger). This began nationwide in 1646, after a decree from the king, although the earliest parish records date from 1572.
Happily for Danish researchers, the FHL has microfilmed all extant parish registers up to about 1920, and you can rent them through a <a href=”fhcs”>local Family History Center. Better still, pre-1892 parish registers are part of the Danish State Archives Filming Centre’s digitization effort. Access is free and requires only a simple registration.
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) can help you figure out where to dive into parish records. Although it contains some transcription errors and omissions, the IGI has birth, christening and marriage data on millions of Danes. A quick IGI search may jump-start your parish records work. Keep in mind, however, that Danish names tend to be similar: A search of all counties for Jens Rasmussen born in 1840, for example, produces 102 hits to sort through. Genealogists have undertaken many indexing projects for parish registers. See whether your ancestral parish is listed in the guide to indexes.
When you find your ancestor in an index, note all the information and take it to an FHC to rent the original record on microfilm. Can’t find your relative in an index? You’ll need to identify his parish to locate him in microfilmed records. Quiz family members and pore over old documents, letters and family Bibles for clues. The locale you uncover may be the name of a village or farm, rather than the parish; use gazetteers and maps to help you match this place to the parish it’s in. You’ll find an online list of parishes here. Keep in mind that Denmark consolidated its original 50 counties into 23 in 1793, and realigned them again in 1970 (see map, opposite page). The counties were replaced by five regions in 2007. The FHL catalog uses the boundaries from 1793 to 1970.
- Baptisms (døbte): Children usually were baptized within a few days of birth. Early records may contain only the date, the child’s name and the father’s name, but most registers also list the mother, witnesses, godparents and status of legitimacy. You may even learn the child’s birth date, the family’s place of residence and the father’s occupation.
- Marriages (copulerede): Look for marriage records in the bride’s home parish. Besides the couple’s names and residences, post-1814 registers frequently include their ages, occupations, fathers’ names, and sometimes their birthplaces.
- Burials (begravede): Even if an early ancestor was born before the start of parish records, you can find crucial genealogical information in his burial record. Most burial registers include the deceased’s age and the date and place of death or burial. After 1814, look for the deceased’s residence, cause of death, names of survivors and sometimes the person’s birth date and place, plus parents’ names.
- Confirmations (konfirnerede): Beginning in 1736, Danish youngsters had to master the Lutheran catechism and pass a confirmation test before making first communion at age 14. Early confirmation records list only the child’s name and residence, and sometimes the age. After 1814, you’ll also learn the child’s christening date and place, parents’ names, confirmation grade and smallpox vaccination date.
For help making sense of the records you find—and deciphering the sometimes-inscrutable old Danish handwriting—see wiki.familysearch.org/en/Danish_Handwriting_Guide.
Government vital records
For Danish research, government vital records (also called civil registration) aren’t really helpful for supplementing church records—unless your ancestor lived in one of the four counties under German rule from 1863 to 1920: Tønder, Hadrslev, Åbenrå and Sønderborg. German authorities recorded births, marriages and deaths in these counties beginning in 1874, and the FHL has microfilmed the records.
You also can find civil marriage records for the city of Copenhagen (København) beginning in 1851, plus death certificates for some urban areas covering 1857 to 1932. But parish records should always be your first research stop.
The most helpful government records for your Danish research are censuses. The first enumeration with genealogical information happened in 1787, followed by headcounts in 1801, 1834, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860 and every 10 years thereafter until the end of the century. In 1901, the government began taking censuses every five years.
The information you can glean from Danish censuses varies by year. The 1787 and the next three enumerations list everyone in the household and each person’s age, gender, occupation, marital status and relationship to the head of household. From 1845 on, censuses add religious affiliation and birthplace.
The Danish Demographic Database is making census information searchable and available for free online. Most data through 1850, as well as 1880 and 1885, have been posted, and subsequent enumerations (through 1921) are in progress. You can search one or more censuses at a time by name, parish, county, birthplace, age or age range, gender, occupation and position in the household. To view digitized images of the actual census pages, you’ll need to complete a free registration.
The FHL has microfilmed Danish censuses from 1787 through 1911. In larger cities from 1870 on, households are arranged alphabetically by street. So once you’ve found a family in one census, start by checking that same locale in both earlier and later enumerations. If you’ve found your urban ancestors’ parish records; you can look under that address in the census.