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.
Comings and goings
The Copenhagen Police recorded everyone emigrating from Denmark—not just from Copenhagen—between 1868 and 1940. To protect people from unscrupulous emigration agents, the police had oversight of all overseas tickets. Complete information from each emigrant’s ticket grew into 90 thick volumes, including name, last residence, age, year of emigration and initial destination abroad.
Although the Family History Library (FHL)
has microfilm of Danish passenger lists from 1869 to 1911, the easiest way to start searching for your emigrant ancestor is online. The police records through 1908—covering 394,000 names—have been compiled in the free Danish Emigration Archives (DEA)
. You can search the database by any combination of name, occupation, age, last residence, parish, county, destination (city, state, country), ticket contract number, or date of registration. Besides these fields, the database also includes birthplace (beginning in 1899), family status, emigration agent’s name and ship’s name. The database encompasses both migrants traveling straight from Copenhagen to their destination and those who stopped over at another port; on microfilm, these two types of trips are grouped separately as direct and indirect.
If your Danish ancestors lived in Jylland (Jutland) or in the German border county of Schleswig-Holstein (once part of Denmark), they may have emigrated through Hamburg or other European ports rather than Danish ones. The FHL also has microfilmed Hamburg passenger records. For help with these, see the FamilySearch wiki.
Finding your Danish ancestors’ emigration records (such as in the DEA) often leads you to the name of your ancestor’s parish back in Denmark—information essential to unlocking the most important source of Danish genealogical information: parish records.
Steeples to people
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.
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 at <wiki.familysearch.org/en/Danish_Church_Records:_Online_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 a list of parishes online
. 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.
Once you’ve begun to search actual records, you’ll unlock a wealth of genealogical information, including:
• 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 the FamilySearch wiki
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.
Ordering a Danish
Given this rich mix of readily available records, you’re unlikely to hit many research roadblocks in your Danish genealogy. But if you do—or you simply want to probe deeper into the past—other records may be helpful. Most are among the FHL’s 90,000-plus rolls of microfilmed Danish records:
• Citizenship records: Danish citizenship wasn’t a birthright. Rather, cities would confer citizenship upon individuals, who then had the right to reside and do business in that city. Attainment of citizenship was recorded, with data about the individual, in “citizenship books” (borgerskabprotokoller). The FHL catalogs its collection of these books by county and city under the Court Records heading.
• Court records: If you can read and interpret them, court records contain useful genealogical information, especially regarding inheritance. Most cases were filed initially in city courts called bytinget. Although extensively microfilmed by the FHL, few are indexed, so you’ll need to have a place and approximate year.
• Land and property records: Denmark undertook an extensive program of land registration beginning in 1662, and some ownership and sales records date to 1551. An alphabetical register of property-related debtors and creditors was instituted in 1738, and all transactions from 1844 to about 1870 were recorded in registers. These are on FHL microfilm called regnskaber (account books) and matrikeler (land registration lists).
• Military records: Beginning in 1788, all males up to age 34 were listed by parish on rolls of potential draftees, updated every three years; these Army levying rolls (lægdsruller) can help you follow a male ancestor from parish to parish. Navy rolls (søruller), kept separately after 1802, include extensive genealogical data. The FHL has microfilmed army and navy rolls to 1860, mostly cataloged by city or town.
• Probate records: Kept separately from other court records after 1683, probates have been extensively microfilmed by the FHL; most include an index. When using probate records, keep in mind that a brother-in-law, for example, was legally the same as a brother and so may be recorded as such. Guardianship records (overformynderiprotokoller) can be a useful supplement to probate records when an heir was underage.
• Trade guild records: The FHL has collected some records of guilds from larger Danish cities. Besides tracing a member’s progress from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman, these records list guild members and may include apprenticeship contracts.
You’ve probably noticed by now that the Danish alphabet looks a little different. When you start delving into Danish records, you’ll encounter two letters of the alphabet in addition to our familiar 26: Æ (æ) and Ø (ø). A third “extra” letter, Aa (aa), appears in older records; Å (å) replaced it around 1950. Æ, Ø and Å are filed alphabetically after Z, although words and names beginning with Aa are filed at the beginning of the alphabet.
FamilySearch’s Danish Genealogical Word List
can help you get started translating words such as sogn (parish). It also will alert you to common spelling variations. If your research eventually takes you to Denmark, you’ll find that many Danes speak at least some English, so it’s not hard to get around.
Danish names also look a little funny to Americans, who’re used to surnames staying the same from one generation to the next. Although some Danish surnames derived from places, occupations or personal characteristics, most are patronymic—that is, based on the father’s given name. Until 1904, when a national law required permanent surnames, it was common for last names to change with each generation.
So, for example, if Hans Pedersen had a son named Lars, the boy would be known as Lars Hansen. Hans’ daughter Anna would be known as Anna Hansdatter (often abbreviated “Hansdr”). While this makes following a family through the generations tricky, it does immediately give you at least the father’s first name. Better still, women usually didn’t change their names at marriage, so Anna would be Hansdatter from birth to death.
Danes abandoned the patronymic system for more modern, permanent surnames in a patchwork fashion, so keep an eye out for when your ancestors made the switch. City-dwelling Danes began to adopt permanent surnames after about 1850, while many rural areas didn’t follow suit until about 1875.
Another naming tradition popular until about 1850 involved given names. The first boy was usually named for the father’s father; the second male child, for the mother’s father; subsequent boys were often named for the father and then for the parents’ brothers. Similarly, the first female child was usually named for the mother’s mother, the second girl for the father’s mother, and so on. If a spouse died and the other remarried and had children with the second spouse, the couple usually named the first child after the deceased spouse of the same sex. These naming patterns often can be helpful in sorting out family members.
Master these quirks and tricks and, given all the readily available records, you should soon have Danish ancestors “raining down” to grow your family tree.
Danish Records at a Glance
Church Records• Dates:
starting nationwide in 1646; earlier in some parishes• Access:
parish registers through 1920 on FHL microfilm; pre-1892 registers are being posted free
• Dates: at varying intervals since 1761
• Access: 1787 through 1911 on FHL microfilm; through 1850 (and eventually, 1921) at the Danish Demographic Database
• Dates: 1868 to 1940
• Access: through 1908 free in the Danish Emigration Archives; on FHL microfilm through 1911
From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine