My family is Scandinavian . . . now what?!

1866 parish register of marriages, Lavik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, viewed at
1866 parish register of marriages, Lavik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, viewed at

In the years after the American Civil War, an influx of immigrants from Scandinavia settled in the United States. Pushed from their homelands by famine, overpopulation, and lack of economic opportunities, these Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Danes poured into the country. In particular, they were drawn to the American Midwest, where large tracts of fertile farmland were abundant. Here they established their own communities, where they spoke their mother language, established their own churches, and even published their own newspapers. Today many Americans can claim Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish ancestry. And if you are one of these Americans, you may be apprehensive about researching these ancestors because of the language barrier. Don’t be; with the right base of knowledge and a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to uncovering your Scandinavian roots.

If you are just starting out, first try to learn as much as you can about your ancestor and his or her life in the United States. Does a marriage or death record reveal a Scandinavian birthplace? When did your ancestor immigrate and did he or she naturalize? Settle near other family members? As with all genealogical research, establishing a strong profile of your ancestor is important.

Next, consult a research guide regarding your specific ancestral country. FamilySearch has many helpful research guides, providing general and specific information for each country. We have some excellent guides here in the NEHGS library, too, which provide information regarding record collections, research strategies, the patronymic naming system, and tips on interpreting church records. They often include lists of key words to aid in deciphering church and census records, too.

Both and have collections of Scandinavian church records, where you can begin the search for your ancestor. But, in my opinion, the best records are housed in each country’s national archives. Many repositories have digitized their collections, and here you can search parish registers, census records, land records, emigrations records, and—my all-time favorite— moving in and out records. In Scandinavia, the minister of the parish recorded the movements of each parishioner. Thus in church records you can find not just your ancestor’s name, birth date, and date of baptism but also the parish he or she came from or the destination parish. A genealogist’s dream!

So don’t be hesitant about researching your Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, or Danish ancestors. Thanks to meticulous parish records, with some preparation and practice you will be able to learn more about your Scandinavian roots.


The National Archives of Norway

The National Archives of Sweden

The Danish State Archives

The National Archives Service of Finland

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

13 thoughts on “My family is Scandinavian . . . now what?!

  1. The Norwegian Digital Archives have been tremendously helpful to me, as has the Norwegian Heritage site at In the Archives I’ve found dozens of family records, from emigration papers to wills. The Norwegian Heritage site has members who are intimately knowledgable with their respective local histories and are willing to help with translation. Both sites are free.

    1. I’ve also used the Genline resource which has a treasure trove of church records from Sweden. You might want to get a visual dictionary of the old German writing system so that you can transcribe the records.

  2. If your Norwegian ancestors were from a rural region, check for regional histories and follow the farms. The farm was an important association with the family name and can be the tool to differentiate the names in parish records. Even my great-grandfather’s death certificate in Texas included the farm name. I managed to take my Christophersen line back to the beginning of the church records. (As far back as possible in Hedmarken.)

    Don’t forget that there may be multiple children with the same name. When a child died young, the next child of that sex was given the same name.

  3. The naming conventions make it difficult to trace ancestors. Jens Pedersen’s father may be Peder Rasmussen, for example. We know his father would be Rasmus . If no records are found listing all names, you are not sure who you are looking for. Any suggestions would be welcome!

    1. Deborah: Norwegians names frequently have THREE parts: forename-patronymic-farm name. It is by using the farm name that you can choose among all the various Peder Rasmussens. Sometimes people skipped the patronymic and used the farm name as a surname–so check that. Land research in the US is very helpful but, in Scandinavia, it is essential.

  4. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Sweden in 1886 and 1891. I did my research of their ancestors in the family history library in Salt Lake City before everything was on line. They had the Swedish records all on microfilm and when something was written on the records that I could not understand, someone there could help me read it. The records essentially provided a yearly census record, and I was able to trace all their ancestors back into the 1600s using primary records. My other ancestors, who often lived at the frontier in this country are much more difficult to trace. I also managed to find a second cousin, the granddaughter of my grandmother’s brother, who had not emigrated. Later I made 2 trips to ‘Sweden so I could see the actual places where my grandparents’ ancestors lived

  5. In addition to the various national archives, there are Rootsweb lists for each country, and, for Norway, at least, for the various counties (equivalents to states). In the case of the Norway list, and I suspect for the others, these lists, in English, are used by people in both of the countries involved to research their ancestors, whether they emigrated or not. I have gotten incredible help from the Norway list on using the official lists and other resources, and many lookups. One Norwegian man who lives in the town my g grandparents and their children emigrated from even went to the local archives and library to find and send me information that isn’t online yet, and probably never will be. He also went to the church where my g grandmother was baptized, my g grandparents were married, and my grandfather and his siblings were baptized, and took pictures to send me. These Rootsweb lists, like the National Archives for the various countries, and NorwayHeritage, are all free. I’d highly recommend adding them to your toolkit for Scandinavian research.

  6. Contact Blaine Hedberg in Madison, WI at the Norwegian Genealogical Center. He is a true expert.

  7. The Danish Records are excellent (& Free!). I’ve researched the Danish records for 20 years. With the Danish Archives online it is much easier now. I do not speak Danish, but I did have to learn “genealogical” Danish to do the research. I highly recommend using the Research Guides at Family Search.

  8. Been working on my Scandinavians for 40 years!

    Here is another link to the Swedish records, but you need to know the parish, and the records are, of course, in Swedish. Not easy to use at first. Sometimes they have a free weekend, but you need to register and download the software first.

    Another helpful tool, not to be over-used, is a wonderful Facebook group of helpful people: the Swedish American Genealogy Group. Read the posts and you’ll get an idea of how they can help people out.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.