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  • Ethnic Research: Danish Research is Easy!

    Norma Storrs Keating

    Finding your ancestors in Danish records is easier than you might think. This is because the Danes were very good record keepers and most of those records are accessible to researchers in several places and formats. Even if you don’t speak Danish, you can be successful in seeking your family history.  This article will suggest some search strategies, record types, and resources to use while you trace your Danish family

    Before you can begin the search for your ancestor, you need to have three key pieces of information about him. You need to know his name (preferably the one he used in Denmark), the date of an event affecting him (such as his birth or christening, marriage, death, or emigration), and the place that event occurred in Denmark (name of town or village). If you already have this information you are ready to begin the hunt. If you do not have this information, then you must continue looking in family and home sources, as well as local, state, and federal records to discover these three elements. One Danish record source that can be invaluable for helping you identify the name of your ancestor’s hometown in Denmark is the Copenhagen Emigration Records (Udvandringsjournaler). These passenger lists date from 1869 to 1959 and may be found at the provincial archives in Copenhagen, on microfilm (1869–1911) at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and online as a searchable database at the website for the Danish Emigration Archives (currently1869–1904). These are the first lists to check when looking for your immigrant ancestor because most Danish emigrants left through the port of Copenhagen and the last place of residence is recorded. Keep in mind that due to proximity and ease of travel, many emigrants from the Schlesvig-Holstein and Jylland areas of Denmark chose to go south to Hamburg, Germany, or another European port when they left Denmark.

    The Copenhagen Emigration Records are divided into two types: direct and indirect. Persons in the direct list traveled from Copenhagen to America, while those on the indirect list traveled to America through another port. Be sure to check both lists. The names are arranged chronologically by year and then alphabetically by the first letter of the surname. So, if the 1900 US census has indicated that grandfather Moritz Hansen emigrated in 1888, you would search the 1888 lists under the letter “H” for his name. The type of information given includes the name, age, place of last residence in Denmark (often the hometown or birthplace), occupation or title, destination in the United States, date of embarkation, amount paid, and relationship of family members traveling together. The name of the ship is also given in the direct lists.

    The lists are handwritten but generally legible and are similar to searching a census. Since you probably know identifying information such as your ancestor’s name, age at emigration, occupation, and United States residence, it is not too difficult to find the right person by matching these parameters. If you use the searchable database online to find the emigrant, you should be sure to get a copy of the original entry. Another relative may have embarked on the same ship or there may be an important notation that does not appear in the database.

    The information provided by these Danish passenger lists can enable you to easily find your ancestor in the United States passenger arrival records by identifying the ship and indicating the date of arrival. It can also reveal that much needed name of the hometown in Denmark where you should look for information about your immigrant ancestor.

    Researchers need to be aware that there are a few things that are unique about working with Danish records. Surnames in Denmark were based on four major sources: patronymics, trade or occupation, geographic location or residence, and nickname (including student name, military name, or even foreign name). The most predominantly used source was the patronymic system based on the father’s given name. This name changed with each generation. For example, Soren Nielsen was the son of a man named Niels. If Soren had a son called Peder, the son would be known as Peder Sorensen (the son of Soren). His brothers would also have the name Sorensen. His sisters would be known as Sorensdatter (daughter of Soren). Under this naming system, women did not change their name at marriage, so any reference to them in Danish records would use their maiden name.

    Around 1850 Danes began to take permanent surnames but the patronymic system continued to be used by some families until a national law instituted in 1904 required people to adopt permanent family names. This means between 1850 and 1904 either system might be found, although after 1880 most children were using their father’s surname. Be aware that sometimes a family changed the naming system in mid-stream, giving some children the patronymic surname and others the permanent surname.

    The Danes had a custom of naming their children after relatives. The naming pattern, used until about 1850, can be very helpful in searching for family groups and identifying deceased members of the family. Usually, the first son was named for the paternal grandfather, the second son for the maternal grandfather, and the third son for the father. The first daughter was usually named for the maternal grandmother, the second daughter for the paternal grandmother, and the third daughter for the mother. Subsequent children were often named for the parents’ brothers and sisters. Generally, if a child died, the next child born was given the same or similar name.  In the event that a spouse died and the surviving spouse remarried and had children, the first child of the same sex was named after the deceased spouse.

    It is estimated that approximately fifteen male given names account for about ninety percent of all male given names, with a similar pattern for surnames. As with all records, names can have many variations in spelling or misspellings that the researcher must deal with. Danish records may also be written in other languages, such as Latin or German. County boundary changes occurred in Denmark in 1793 and in 1970. Each time this took place, several counties were combined into a single new one. Currently there are only fourteen counties. This means the records for both the old and new counties should be searched for your ancestors’ information. Consult the Genealogical Guidebook and Atlas of Denmark by Frank Smith and Finn Thomsen to identify these counties (see bibliography).

    The Danish alphabet contains three unique letters: Æ (æ), Ö (ö) or Ø (ø), and Å (å). These letters are found at the end of the alphabet after the letter z. The letter Å (å) rarely appears in older records, as it was not officially introduced until 1953. Prior to that date it is usually written as Aa (aa). Check for words or names beginning with these letters at the end of any alphabetical list.

    Hint for successful location of the hometown or parish: think about how the name of the town/district/county would be pronounced in Danish. The non-Danish person wrote the name as he heard and interpreted it, not as it is actually spelled in Danish. Therefore, a town identified in United States records often cannot be located. Sometimes creative spelling manipulation of the town name using the Danish pronunciation will yield the correct answer to this problem.

    The Danish Parish Registers (Kirkebøger) are the most important Danish genealogical resource.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church became the state church after the Reformation in 1536 and was given the responsibility for the registration of vital events in 1646 when the King of Denmark decreed that all parish ministers should begin recording baptisms (døbte), marriages (copulerede), and burials (begravede). Thus, the church records became vital records. Virtually every person who lived in Denmark was recorded in a church record. There was very little civil registration of vital records in Denmark before 1874 and what information does exist is not readily available to the public.

    The kirkebøger are available in Denmark at the Danish National Archives and Provincial Archives. Some local Danish historical archives and groups also have the registers for their area on microfilm. Local parish ministers have the original registers from about 1930 to present in the church office or rectory. They often have some of the older books as well. Researchers in the United States can find almost all of these church records on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City from the time they begin until about 1920.

    Some variations in the law do exist. For example, some seventy to seventy-five parishes have records before 1646. In many cases, the parish ministers did not conform exactly to the laws. Before 1814, when a standard form was established, the parish registers were kept in the format that worked the best for the individual minister. Thus, some recorded events were in chronological order as they occurred, while other ministers  preferred to keep separate sections in the registers for the different events.  The sexes were not separated and these early records often include confirmation, introduction, communion, and absolution records.

    The new law in 1814 required that all registers be kept in duplicate—one by the parish minister and one by the parish clerk. In addition, the churches were now mandated to keep a record of arrivals and departures from the parish, vaccinations, and a general index of the parish register.  Special forms were provided for recording the information that was divided into male and female listings. Some kirkebøger also contain church accounts, land leases, pew rentals, and tithes. Typically the early records have less detailed information about an event than later ones. Dates in early registers were often written in Latin and used feast day names rather than actual dates.

    It is essential for you to know the parish (sogn), district (herred), and county (amt) where your ancestor resided in order to use these records. Without this information the great duplication of place names throughout Denmark can present a major problem in locating your ancestor. Remember, in 1850 there were 1,853 parishes in Denmark! Use parish boundary maps (found in Smith and Thomsen’s Genealogical Guidebook and Atlas of Denmark—see bibliography), atlases, and postal guides (found through CyndisList—see link in resource list) to help locate the correct parish before proceeding with a search.

    What kind of information about your ancestor can you expect to find in the parish registers?

    Baptismal record (døbte):  Children were usually christened within a few days after birth. These records may contain the following information:

    • Child’s name
    • Date of birth
    • Parents’ names
    • Father’s place of residence
    • Occupation or standing in the community
    • Mother’s age
    • Date and place of christening
    • Status of legitimacy
    • Date of mother’s introduction at church
    • Names and residence of godparents and witnesses
    • Name of the presiding minister 
    • Index citation.

    Sometimes the minister will note something special, such as the subsequent death of the child or the marriage date of parents. Stillbirths can be found in baptismal records, burial records, or as a separate listing within the parish register.

    Betrothal (trolovede) and marriage (copulerede): Couples were usually married in the bride’s home parish. These records may contain the following information for both bride and bridegroom:

    • Names
    • Date of birth or age
    • Hometown or residence
    • Marital status
    • Place of birth 
    • Parents’ names 
    • Vaccination date and name of vaccinator
    • Groom’s occupation
    • Date of marriage
    • Name of presiding minister
    • Names of the bondsmen/sponsors (often a male relative) or witnesses
    • Date of betrothal
    • Dates banns were posted
    • Index citation

    Betrothals are the equivalent of banns in other churches and can have more information than the marriage record itself.

    Burial (begravede): Burials usually took place within a few days of death and were recorded in the parish register where the burial occurred. Occasionally, when a person died in one parish and was buried in another, both ministers recorded the event. These records may contain the following:

    • Name of the deceased
    • Date of death and burial
    • Residence
    • Occupation
    • Date and place of christening/age
    • Place of burial
    • Cause of death
    • Name of spouse
    • Date of marriage
    • Names of parents and their residence
    • Name of the presiding minister
    • Index citation

    Confirmation (konfirmerede): Beginning about 1736, the Danish Lutheran Church began requiring young people to study catechism and pass a test before taking their first communion around age fourteen. These records may contain the following information:

    • Date and year of confirmation
    • Name and residence of the person
    • Date and place of christening/age
    • Parent’s name and residence
    • Remarks or grade by the minister concerning their studies
    • Name of the presiding minister
    • Vaccination date and name of vaccinator
    • Index citation

    If a family moved from one parish to another between the birth of a child and the date of that child’s subsequent confirmation, the record can provide the needed information for tracking the family to their former hometown. Always find the confirmation records for each child in a family.

    Introduction (introducerede): A mother was considered to be “unclean” after the birth of a child. She was regarded as “cleansed” after a few weeks had passed and could then be “introduced” back into the congregation. After 1814 this “introduction” was usually included in the baptismal record for her child. These records usually give the name of the person and date of event. A woman may be identified by her maiden name or her husband’s name. Be careful not to confuse the date of introduction with the baptismal or birth date of the child. In early records, finding a woman’s introduction record without finding a corresponding baptismal record for her child may mean the child was stillborn or died very soon after birth. In this case, a search of the burial records is a must.

    Arrival or moving in lists (tilgangslister) and departure or moving out lists (afgangslister): These lists were kept between 1814 and about 1875, although they are rarely complete before 1830. The law was mostly observed in rural areas, so a list is almost never found in cities. These records may contain 

    • Date and year of the event
    • Name of the person
    • Age
    • Place coming from and place going to
    • Occupation
    • Relationships, if members of a family are moving together
    • Index citation

    Occasionally the minister will add another piece of identifying information, such as a vaccination date or parents’ names. These records are valuable because they allow the researcher to track a person from one parish to another when there is no other record of their movements.

    Vaccinations (vaccinerede): These records begin in 1800 when every child was required to be vaccinated against smallpox. The usual information includes the child’s name, address, date of vaccination, and name of the doctor. In later years this information was incorporated into confirmation and marriage records. Comparison of vaccination dates in these two records can help confirm you are following the right ancestor.

    Parish Register Indexes (register): These indexes were intended to be a finding aid with reference to each person in the book. The minister was supposed to enter the name of a person once and then identify each page and entry number where they were mentioned. Unfortunately, most of the ministers did not understand this concept, so most of the indexes are incomplete or unusable. However, when a properly kept index is found it can be an extremely useful tool for searching the parish register book.

    Although there is no one general index of all parish register entries in Denmark, there are two finding aids that may be helpful in locating your ancestor. J.C.L. Lengnick compiled a good extract of Danish church records in seventy-seven volumes, which is available at the Family History Library on microfiche (#6350007). This work lists people using fixed surnames or people with high social standing using patronymic surnames. They are grouped by parish, with a separate index for each parish. The Scandinavian Vital Records Index, produced in 2001 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can be very helpful if your ancestor is listed on the CD-ROM. However, its use is very limited because it does not cover every Danish parish or county. Even within a parish the index may contain only a few of the hundreds of available records.

    The Danish census records can easily be correlated with parish registers to provide a complete picture of your ancestor’s family. They are especially valuable because they can provide information where all or portions of other records are missing. The returns are generally well preserved and reliable. Available census years are: 1787, 1801, 1834, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1901, 1911, 1916, 1920, 1925, and 1930. Although censuses were taken every five years since 1930, records less than sixty-five years old are confidential and may not be searched by individuals. Unfortunately, the 1935, 1945, and 1955 returns have been destroyed.

    These records are available at the Danish National Archives, Provincial Archives, and on microfilm (1787 1911) at the Family History Library. Some local Danish historical archives and groups also have the returns for their area in book form or on microfilm. Miscellaneous censuses taken on a city or parish basis can be found in some of the Danish provincial and city archives for the years 1769 and 1771. A census is also available for Copenhagen in the years 1885 and 1895. In Sønderjylland and Schlesvig-Holstein returns are available for the years 1803, 1835, 1840, 1845, 1855, and 1860.

    The census returns are arranged according to parish (sogn), district (herred), and county (amt.) Remember, the counties were reorganized in 1793, so the first two returns (1787/ 1801) were arranged according to the old counties. To use these Danish records, first find the county returns. Then, locate the district records, which are usually listed in alphabetical order within the county. Finally, search for the parish enumerations, also in alphabetical order within the district. As always, use your maps, atlases, and postal guides before you start a search to be sure you have the correct amt, herred, and sogn.

    There are no indexes or registers for the Danish census returns so you will have to be patient in searching them. However, the returns are well organized in columns and, generally, the handwriting is easy to read, so you should have no trouble finding your ancestors and their families.  Be aware that women are usually listed by their maiden surnames. As with most census records anywhere, Danish census returns do have flaws:

    1) Spelling for names and places may vary
    2) Information may be incorrect
    3) Ages should be accepted with caution
    4) Given names and surnames may have spelling variations or be incomplete 

    Once you find your family in one census, you should also search the same location in earlier and later census records for additional family members.

    You will find the following types of information in the Danish Census returns:

    1787, 1801, 1834, 1840

    • Given name and surname of each member of the household
    • Age
    • Sex
    • Occupation
    • Relationship to head of household
    • Marital status
    • Date of enumeration and address
    1845, 1850
    Birthplace (county and parish), in addition to the information listed above.

    1855, 1860, 1870, 1880
    Religious affiliation and handicaps, in addition to the information listed above.

    Workplace, in addition to the information listed above.

    Just as in other countries, by 1901 the questions provided more family information, such as place of last residence, number of living and deceased children, year of marriage, and length of residence in the parish. The 1911 returns even asked for the employers name and address and length of the commute to work! Finding someone in a large city can be a challenge with no index. There are finding aids for Copenhagen to assist in the task if you have an address for your ancestor. These are kept in the reference area of the Family History Library and are not available for loan.

    There are many more record sources available to you after you check the parish registers and census records. These will allow you to add more details and fill in some missing information. Most of these records are for advanced searches because they are more difficult to deal with and are not available for every locality and time frame. Accessibility will vary with each record type as well.

    The Family History Library keep the following on microfiche: military records, civil registration, police censuses, probate records, deeds, some land tenancy records, some passports, some trade guild records, some printed genealogies of the nobility, some mortgages, and some property tax records.

    The following can only be found at libraries and archives in Denmark: gazetteers, school records, midwife papers, farm/house histories, city directories, newspapers, and photo archives.

    As you become familiar with the Danish parish registers and census records, you will find they are actually very easy to use. The attention to detail and accuracy necessitated by name repetition and government decrees will spoil you. Your ability to move on to the more complicated record types and strategies will develop as you work backward in time through your ancestors’ lives.

    Major Danish Repositories

    National Archives:

    Rigsarkivet, Rigsdagsgärden 9, 1218 København K, Denmark

    Provincial Archives:

    Landsarkivet for Sjælland, Lolland-Falster og Bornholm:
    Jagtvej 10, 2200 København N, Denmark

    Landsarkivet for Fyn:
    Jernbanegade 36, 5000 Odense, Denmark

    Landsarkivet for Nørrejylland:
    Lille Sct., Hansgade 5, 8800 Viborg, Denmark

    Landsarkivet for Sønderjydske Landsdele:
    Haderslevvej 45, 6200 Åbenrå, Denmark

    State Library:

    Statsbiblioteket, Universitetsparken, 8000 Århus C, Denmark

    Danish Military Archives:

    Hærens Arkiv, Slotsholmgade 4, 1216 København K, Denmark

    Copenhagen City Archives:

    Københavns Stadarkiv, Rådhuset, 1599 København V, Denmark

    Danish Emigration Archives:

    Den Danske Unvandrearkiv, Arkivstræde 1, PO Box 1731,
    9100 Ålborg, Denmark

    Selected Bibliography

    Bukke, Inger M., Kristensen, Peer K. and Thomsen, Finn A. The Comprehensive Genealogical Feast Day Calendar. Bountiful, Utah: Thomsen’s Genealogical Center, 1983.

    Carlberg, Nancy Ellen and Keating, Norma S. Beginning Danish Research. Anaheim, California: Carlberg Press, 1992.

    Smith, Frank and Thomsen, Finn A. Genealogical Guidebook and Atlas of Denmark. Provo, Utah: Thomsen’s Genealogical Center, 1986.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Word List: Danish. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1997.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Research Outline: Denmark. Salt Lake City, Utah: Family History Library, 1993.

    Internet Resources for Danish Genealogical Research

    Cyndi Howells has 148 links to Danish resources on her site as of this writing.

    Family History Library: The entire research outline for Denmark and a Danish-English word list is at this site, as well as the catalog listing of the Danish records, books, and resources held in the library’s vast collection.

    Family Tree Magazine: links to Danish sites

    Genealogy Resource Index for Denmark: This site has transcribed records and other sources available free to the researcher.

    The Society of Local Archives: This group has an address listing of member local historical and genealogical archives in Denmark, including email and website addresses.

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