From the mid-1840s to 1930, nearly 1.3 million Swedes left for the United States—placing the departures, as a proportion of a European place’s population, behind only the British Isles and Norway.
“Peace, vaccination and potatoes,” as one historian put it, had caused Sweden’s population to double between 1750 and 1850.
But as Swedes worried less about war, smallpox and starvation, they began to run out of land and looked west to Nordamerika. By 1910, almost one in five of the world’s Swedish population lived in the United States, clustering in states such as Minnesota, California, Illinois, Washington and Michigan.
Finding Swedish Genealogy Records Online
The records they created by emigrating and in their new country can help you identify the parishes your Swedish ancestors left. Voluminous church paperwork records in the home country can tell your family’s story as far back as the 17th century.
First, you’ll have to puzzle out your ancestors’ names, whose variations go well beyond the spelling oddities genealogists are used to. My great-grandmother, for example, shows up as Hannah Johnson Fryxell in her obituary, Hannah Jern on her Illinois marriage record, and both Johanna Jansson and Johanna Jansdotter in emigration lists.
Start with the Swedish patronymic surname system, in which children took the father’s first name, plus a possessive s and -son or -dotter, as their last names. The good news for genealogists? You’ll automatically know the father’s first name, and until 1920, women were usually recorded by their maiden names even after marriage. This does mean you can’t count on permanent surnames connecting one generation to the next until 1901, although some families adopted them earlier and others also used a “farm name” from their dwelling place.
As for first names, like many countries, Sweden had a traditional pattern for naming children after previous generations—but this was less strictly followed than in places like England. Typically, the first son was named for the paternal grandfather (resulting in three generations named, for example, Anders Svensson, Sven Andersson and then Anders Svensson again). The second son would be named after his maternal grandfather, the third son after his father (Anders Andersson) and the remaining sons after other relatives and friends. The first daughter would often be named after her maternal grandmother, the second after her paternal grandmother, the third after her mother and the remaining daughters after other relatives and friends.
Don’t be surprised, however, to find two siblings with the same first name. Perhaps both grandfathers had the same first name, or the first child did not survive infancy—or was not expected to, but did. In a second marriage, the first child of the correct gender was commonly named for the deceased first spouse.
Both first names and surnames were often changed upon arrival in America, or soon thereafter. “Jan” or “Johan” became Americanized as “John,” just as “Jansson” might become the more familiar “Johnson.” Sometimes surnames even differed among emigrating families.
My great-grandfather, Gustav Magnusson, adopted the Fryxell name his brother John used in the army. (Soldiers were assigned or, later, chose unique names while in the service, to avoid confusion given the small pool of Swedish names.) Women often switched from “-dotter” to the simpler “-son,” and the double s was dropped. Gustav’s wife-to-be became Hannah Jern to match her brother, an earlier immigrant. Where he got “Jern” is a mystery, as is how my Ingelsson ancestors (mostly) became Lundeens in America.
Birth dates, however, didn’t change, and fortunately you can use these almost like Social Security numbers to tell one Anders Persson from another or divine that Hannah Jern is really Johanna Jansdotter. It’s also easier to scan handwritten church records for a matching birth date than a name. Keep in mind that Swedes put the day before the month, so 10-8-79 is Aug. 10, 1879. They also have three extra letters in the alphabet, Å, Ä and Ö, usually alphabetized after Z.
Puzzling out the parish
Start tracing your ancestors back to Sweden with home sources, such as letters, handwritten family stories and family Bibles. What church did your family attend? Early church records in America often kept up the detailed chronicling of family life required back in Sweden, and may even note the Swedish parish that new arrivals came from. The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center has a microfilmed collection of Swedish-American church records, including those of Augustana Lutheran, Mission Covenant, Evangelical Free, Swedish Methodist, Swedish Baptist and Swedish Episcopal churches. The Swedish subscription site Arkiv Digital (about $105/six months) has some US church records in addition to complete coverage of Swedish records. Ancestry.com has a database of US Lutheran church records, 1875 to 1940, but these don’t typically list Swedish parishes of origin.
Unlike US passenger arrival lists, which might say only “Sweden,” Swedish emigration records usually detail the person’s place of origin or birthplace. Start with the Emibas database, extracted from church records, available on Ancestry.com and the subscription EmiWeb site (about $59 per year). From there, your ancestor would likely be recorded in the Emihamn collection, which includes police records from the port of Göteborg, where beginning in mid-1869 all emigrants had to go to confirm they had a genuine ticket. This and several other emigration collections are also on Ancestry.com or you can purchase them on CD (Emigranten Populär 2006, about $41). All these resources are available from FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL), too.
Emihamn covers departures through the ports of Göteborg, Malmö, Stockholm, Norrköping, Helsingborg and Kalmar. Most emigrants sailed from Göteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city, to the port of Hull, England, from which they would travel by train to Liverpool (or sometimes Glasgow) to board a ship bound for New York City, Philadelphia or Quebec. Most arrived before the 1892 opening of Ellis Island, so you’ll want to look for New York arrivals in the Castle Garden database or in the pre-Ellis Island New York passenger lists on FamilySearch and Ancestry.com.
Swedes who lived in the province of Värmland, neighboring Norway, might’ve left from the port of Oslo. You can search for them in the Norwegian archives. Others may have sailed from Copenhagen; check the Danish Emigration Archives.
When searching for Swedish emigrants, try every possible name variation and use search wildcards when possible. On Ancestry.com, for example, Jans* will find both Jansdotter and Jansson. Consider that first names might vary, too; Hannah could be Johanna or even Anna. An ancestor’s birth date can be the key to finding the right emigrant among many similarly named Swedes (who may have changed their names in America, anyway).
Searching Emibas on Ancestry.com for Johanna, last name left blank, born July 15, 1863, I found my great-grandmother departing her home parish for “Amerika” on Aug. 16, 1881. With the emigration date narrowed down, I then found her sailing on Aug. 26 from Göteberg on the Orlando to Hull, ticket number 13421; the actual passenger record was on Arkiv Digital. Finally, with the help of the One-Step Webpages search of New York passenger lists, I found her (transcribed as Hanna Jomstck—the last name mostly just illegible) arriving Sept. 5, 1881, aboard the City of Berlin, all by herself at age 18.
Get me to the church
As satisfying as it was to trace my great-grandmother’s entire journey to America, the most important information in the emigration databases relates to Sweden: She departed from the parish of Kroppa in Värmland. Once you have identified an ancestor’s parish in Sweden, you can unlock a wealth of church records—even if your family wasn’t very religious.
After all, not only was Sweden overwhelmingly Lutheran (at least nominally) from 1536 onward, but the Lutheran church was the official state religion until 2000. The state church maintained all of what Americans would think of as “civil” records, including censuses and vital records. Dissenter churches weren’t allowed to keep their own records until 1915, and the Lutheran church officially recorded births, marriages and deaths until 1991.
The earliest Swedish church records date from the first decades of the 17th century. Areas that historically belonged to Denmark, such as Skåne and Jämtland, began keeping church records in 1646, when the Danes passed a law requiring them. Sweden passed a similar decree in 1686, effective in 1688, based on the record-keeping rules of the bishop of Västerås. All parishes were required to maintain records of marriages (vigde), including the names and residences of the couples and names of their parents; births (födde), including names of parents, christening witnesses, birth and christening dates, and the child’s name and birthplace; and deaths (döde), including burial place, age at death, last residence and occupation. These three sets of records are often known as ministerial books.
Parishes also were ordered to conduct what amounted to an annual census, called household examinations (husförhörslängder). Initially these might have been little more than communion records in some parishes, but after 1750, these censuses represent detailed snapshots of every household. Each person is listed by name, relationship to the head of household, and birth date (making it easy to scan a squiggly handwritten page for your ancestor). Those who died or moved out of the parish during the span of the examination book are duly noted. After 1894, a similar record called fo¨rsamlingsbok replaced the examinations.
Beginning in 1860, extracts from the household examination books were collected into a sort of census (befolkning). These are available in database form for 1880, 1890, 1900 and 1910. You also can access them on CD-ROM at the FHL or purchase them from the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies. If you’re seeking recent relatives in Sweden, the country has more traditional census databases beginning in 1970.
Also in the church records, a separate listing of special interest to genealogists recorded people moving into the parish (inflyttnings) and those moving out (utflyttnings), including to other countries. Often these moving records give the previous or destination parish, and you might even find helpful annotations of page numbers in the relevant household examination book.
Church records online
Until recently, following a family backward in household censuses required tedious scrolling through microfilm or online images. But the subscription site MyHeritage and Arkiv Digital have joined to make available more than 46 million searchable Swedish records from household examination books. Mostly from 1880 to 1920, the collection encompasses more than 5 million scanned color images.
Arkiv Digital also has color images of all other extant household examination books, though you’ll have to browse earlier and later years. Black and white images, organized by county and parish, are available on Ancestry.com, but they’re not searchable. You also can access church records from the state archives’ SVAR service (about $130/year) and on microfilm from the FHL.
The FHL, Arkiv Digital, Ancestry and SVAR also have the portions of church books containing births, deaths and marriages. Although you might have to browse these, some online indexes might make it easier. On FamilySearch, you’ll find these indexes:
- Sweden Baptisms, 1611-1920, 9,291,334 records
- Sweden Burials, 1649-1920, 1,207,501 records
- Sweden Marriages, 1630-1920, 1,124,757 records
Be aware, however, that not even the largest of these is complete, so don’t give up if you don’t find an ancestor. Ancestry.com has several searchable databases—again, not complete—of Swedish vital records found in church records:
- Sweden, Indexed Birth Records, 1860-1941, 12,218,388 records
- Sweden, Select Baptisms, 1611-1920, 26,270,634 records
- Sweden, Births from the Swedish Death Index, 7,557,296 records
- Sweden, Select Marriages, 1630-1920, 2,367,004 records
- Sweden, Select Burials, 1649-1920, 1,905,617 records
MyHeritage has similar databases covering slightly different time spans with varying numbers of records. The site also has indexes of church records from Örebro, Södermanland, Uppsala, Jönköping and Västernorrland.
Back and forth
Once you’ve identified an ancestor’s last parish in Sweden, a good strategy is to follow the family backwards in time through the household examination books. Within the parish, take note of the rote name—indicating a group of neighboring farms—at the top of the page where you find your ancestors: It’s likely the family appears in this same rote in the next older examination book. More recent books often have a table of contents at the beginning with page numbers for each rote, saving you (maybe) the trouble of scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed or digitized pages.
The husförhörslängder of course list each individual’s birth date and may indicate when a couple married. When a person died within the span of a book, his or her annual tick marks stop and the death date is usually noted. If you can’t find an ancestor in any online index, use these dates to narrow your browsing in the parishes’ separate pages for births, marriages and deaths.
When you find an ancestor’s birth record, try to decipher the names of the parents. Then try to find the parents’ household in the husförhörslängder at a point in which your ancestor would’ve still been present. You can use your ancestor’s birth date to spot candidate families on the pages.
For example, I found my great-grandmother Johanna Jansdotter in the household examination book for Kroppa covering 1876 to 1880, in the household of her father, Jan Andersson. From those census listings, I learned that Jan Andersson was born June 2, 1815, in Lungsund. That was enough to find his birth record and learn that his parents were Anders Jansson and Maria Andersotter. I found them in the 1831 to 1835 household examination books for Lungsund, with son Jan in the household. That census in turn gave me Anders’ birth date and place in 1782, which I used to jump back still another generation. I found my fourth-great-grandfather Johan Nilsson, born in 1752, in the household examination books as far back as 1778. The 1815 to 1820 book noted that Johan had died in 1816, so I was able to find him in the lists of Lungsund deaths spanning 1774 to 1829.
Because women were referred to by their maiden names, I was able to similarly trace Johanna’s mother’s family back to my fifth-great-grandfather, born in 1714. The church records do begin to peter out about this point, or simply become too squiggly and unformatted to decipher. Lungsund household examinations begin in 1733, for example. But Lungsund’s records of births, marriages and deaths date to 1687, so I can keep looking for more ancestors.
By working back and forth between household examination books and vital records, you may be able to trace your family in detail back even into the 17th century. With some help from distant cousins still in Sweden, I’ve managed to document one line of my Swedish ancestors back to my ninth-great-grandfather, Lars Håkansson, born before 1600.
Beating brick walls
If you get stumped, other Swedish records might come to your rescue. Most are available on Arkiv Digital and SVAR, and FamilySerch has microfilmed many. You might try Swedish estate inventories (bouppteckningar), probate records that include genealogical information as well as the deceased’s assets and debts.
Military records, which reflect the allotment system (indelningsverket) under which groups of farms provided soldiers from 1682 to 1901, have been extensively microfilmed. A transcription effort, the Central Soldiers Register is underway and searchable online in English. Elisabeth Thorsell, editor of the Swedish-American Genealogist journal (published by the Swenson Swedish Immigration Center), adds, “SVAR has indexed the military rolls, so if you know what company a certain soldier served for, then at SVAR you can go directly to that company and find information on him, instead of searching all the eight companies of the regiment.”
A head tax (mantalspenningen) was paid by almost all healthy adults from the early 1600s to 1938. The FHL has various microfilmed tax records as far back as the 1550s. Deed books for tax purposes (mantalslängder) were kept beginning in the 1630s, with records by farm dating from the 16th century. The FHL has these on microfilm. SVAR also has land certificates spanning 1875 to 1933.
Arkiv Digital and SVAR both have extensive collections of less common records that can help you get around your brick walls. Arkiv Digital is a bit easier to use, but each has some records that the other does not. The price tag for these services may seem steep, but both offer subscriptions as short as a week for about $12 to $15, so you can store up your Swedish research questions and then try a blitz of online research.
After all, your Swedish ancestors invested their hopes and everything they had to bring your family to America. Surely it’s worth a few bucks and hours of squinting to discover the details of their story?