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Tracing your Danish Ancestors

Each year, many people of Danish descent visit the "old country" and they often use the trip find out more about where their family lived before they emigrated to the United States. Some just want to see the part of Denmark their ancestors came from but others may wish to undertake more serious genealogic research.

Whatever the purpose of the visit, it must be remembered that any serious genealogical research present difficulties and calls for a good deal of preparation if the result is to be as rewarding and satisfying as hoped for. This page will help you overcome some of these difficulties and to show you how to proceed on information obtainable at home.

Two fundamental facts should not be forgotten: first, that the handwriting commonly used in Denmark until about 1900 was the so­called 'German hand'; consequently you must expect to find this handwriting in all the old documents; second, that as late as 1850 the majority of the rural population did not use a permanent family name; instead the sons availed themselves of their father's given name plus ­'-sen' (Engl. son), while the daughters added ­'-datter' (Engl. daughter). Thus Peter Olsen's son and daughter would be called (say: Ole) Petersen and (say: Karen) Petersdatter. You may be certain that Peter Olsen's father had the given name Ole, but you have no means of knowing whether his surname was Hansen, Petersen, Jorgensen. or some other name. As the number of names in actual use was comparatively small, there exists a danger of mistaking identities. Another difficulty may arise from the fact that many names underwent changes after emigration; thus Jorgensen and Johansen and Jensen might all have been changed into Johnson.

To avoid any unnecessary waste of time it is advisable to gather all the information available at home before starting an investigation of the records in Danish archives. It is of paramount importance to establish the original form of the name of the ancestor in question, his precise age (preferably his date of birth), but above all his birthplace; if this is not possible, his last permanent address in Denmark may be of help. However, indications such as 'of the county of Aalborg' or 'from Jutland' will be of little avail, as it is indispensable to know the name of either the town or the parish in which registration took place. As a rule source material will not allow you to trace your ancestors further back than 200 or 250 years: frequently research must come to a stop before that. Only in case of noble families or families with employment within the administration you may cherish a hope of getting further, often by means of printed sources.

Information within the Family
A natural point of departure is of course the oral or written information the family can supply itself. However dubious family traditions may be, the old stories could contain the elements that would complete the picture; if any such story can be corroborated by written testimony, much has already been achieved. The following items are worth your special attention:
Conduct books. From 1832 and well into the present century all Danish domestics were required to possess conduct books in which comments on their conduct could be made by their employers. The fly­leaf usually bears valuable information about birth date and home parish.

Letters from Denmark
Perhaps no one in the family understands a word of Danish any longer; but even so, old letters from Danish relatives may still be about, and return addresses, maybe even postmarks, may be extremely helpful in suggesting the best starting point for an investigation.

Books and documents brought along from Denmark
Material of this kind may be in the form of diaries or a family Bible containing entries about memorable events in the family. There may also be draft papers or service records whose almost unintelligible abbreviations may lead to new openings. Photos brought along or sent over by relatives left behind can also give clues, for example through the name of the photographer. It is important that such material be not destroyed; if the family does not want to keep it, the Danes Worldwide Archives (address below) will be happy to receive it; the material will prove useful to emigration research as such, and may be of great help to other emigrants.

Naturalization documents etc. of the immigrant generation
An immigrant to a new country would undoubtedly often keep his naturalization certificate carefully stowed away. Such a certificate may not contain information about the immigrant's birthplace, but usually it states when and where the immigration took place, and may lead on to the relevant official records on the matter. The same holds true for wills, social benefit applications, deeds, etc.

Information in Archives at Home
Next in line come the official records and the genealogical institutions of the new country. It is not possible within the scope of this fact sheet to give information about all the countries in which Danish emigrants have settled. In the U.S. The National Archives, Washington D.C., contain an almost inexhaustible amount of source material such as passenger manifests, census records, military records and naturalization records.
Thanks to the Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saint, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, U.S.A., many original Danish records are now available on microfilm. The facilities of the Genealogical Society are open to the public, free of charge, and if time forbids a personal visit to Salt Lake City, or to one of the branch libraries, a list can be had with the names of researchers accredited in Danish research, who will, for a fee, carry out the research required. The Genealogical Society has published A Genealogical Guidebook and Atlas of Denmark (ed. Frank Smith and Finn A. Thomsen, p.t. out of print), which may be extremely useful also for research carried out in Denmark.

Records in Denmark
Once all the possibilities in the new country have been exhausted, it is time to turn to the material kept in the old country. Such material may sometimes open up new approaches to the records previously examined. This is especially true as regards emigrant lists compiled by the Commissioner of the Copenhagen Police; the original lists have been handed over to the Provincial Archives of Sealand while copies can be found with the Danes Worldwide Archives (address below). The lists contain information about the emigration dates and home parishes of the emigrants, the name of the vessels that carried them, and their destinations. However some incontestable factual basis is necessary for the exploitation of these lists.

Contact with Danish Relatives
Knowing the name of the relevant locality is of course a prerequisite of establishing contact with relatives still alive. Perhaps a local newspaper can be persuaded to bring a notice, or maybe one of the independent or municipal archives to be found throughout the country will be able to be of assistance. If the names of persons deceased after 1923, or of persons still alive, can be established the national registration offices may prove of use. Doubts as to how to proceed on such information may possibly be removed by application to the Danes Worldwide Archives, who will, for a fee of a few dollars, help you advertise in the relevant local papers.

Family History
If the object of the research is to trace the family as far back as possible, the state archives may become involved; such institutions, however, are under no obligation to undertake private investigation and cannot be expected to do more than look up a few concrete answers to a few concrete questions. Any major research must be carried out personally in the reading rooms of the archives which are open to public, free of charge; however, these institutions can be instrumental in bringing about contacts with researchers who are willing to undertake the genealogical work required, but the archives are not obliged to do so and cannot be held responsible for the results. Any application to the archives must be accompanied by information as accurate as possible and must contain photostats of the relevant documents. Photostats, microfilm, and xero­copies of source material can be supplied by the state archives within the given limits and provided that requests are clearly defined (names, dates and localities).

Source Material in the Danish National Archives
The Danish State Archives comprise the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen and four Provincial Archives (addresses below). The Danish National Archives keep the records of the Central Administration. The most important genealogical sources among these are the census forms and the draft lists. The oldest census forms date from 1787, 1801, 1834,and 1840.From 1845 and onwards these quinquennial or decennial forms contain information about birthplaces. The draft register goes back as far as 1788; draftees were originally exclusively peasant sons, who were registered from birth; from 1849 compulsory service was extended to all males, who were registered from the age of 15.

Sources in the Provincial Archives
Records from the Local Administration have been divided geographically among the provincial archives. The Provincial Archives of Sealand contain records from Sealand, including those from Copenhagen and the islands of Lolland, Falster, Møn, and Bornholm. The Funen Provincial Archives keep the records for Funen and adjacent islands Ærø included). The Provincial Archives of Northern Jutland cover Jutland as far south as the Danish­German border established after the 1864 war. The parts of Schleswig that were reunited with Denmark in 1920 have their own archives in Aabenraa, in which are also the records of the Prussian local administration up till 1920. Sources from Holstein and from the parts of Schleswig that remained German must be looked for in German archives, in particular in the Landesarchiv Schleswig ­Holstein (address: Schloss Gottorf, D­2380 Schleswig), or with church authorities; however, some central administrative records, such as the census forms from 1803 to 1860, are found in the Danish National Archives.
The Danish provincial archives contain records pertaining to both the secular and the ecclesiastical administrations. By far the most important genealogical sources are the parish registers. The majority of the population belonged to the Lutheran National Church, but other denominations, too, were required to leave their registers with the provincial archives. At best the parish registers go back beyond 1660, but as quite a few rectories have suffered through fire over the centuries, a number of parish registers have been lost. From 1814 all parish registers were kept in duplicate and from that time and onwards they are all extant. Beside births, deaths, and marriages the registers contain information about confirmation, and from 1815 to 1874 (1850 in case of town registers) they also comprise lists of leavers and arrivers to the parish; such lists are often incomplete or lacking, however. The one copy of the parish registers went into the provincial archives 30 years after completion, while the other remained with the local clergyman for a hundred years to facilitate the issuing of certificates of various kinds. For purposes of preservation, the archives are not allowed to supply private persons with copies from the church registers.

Another source much used is the estate inventories; such inventories or 'books' contain information about the financial status of deceased property owners, but may also state the names and addresses of the heirs. Sometimes distribution of the property was made out of court and in such cases the books offer no information about the heirs. Estate books from after 1919 will normally be found with the local magistrate. It may often prove rewarding to trace the history of a particular property owned by a family for generations. The main source will be the register of deeds, which has normally, together with the Land Register containing title numbers, been handed over to the provincial archives. If the title number is not known, it is difficult, often impossible, to locate an estate owned or inhabited by a given person; perhaps the local archives may be of help, and even arrange a visit to the present owner. If the property was once a copyhold farm, the records of the manor (in most cases handed over to the provincial archives) can yield information about the tenants as far back as to the first half of the 18th century. Many more sources than can possibly be mentioned in this fact sheet are found in the Danish state archives. Some are easy to use, such as the burgess rolls of the town stating the professions and descents of the citizens, others present greater difficulty and take more time, for instance the old court records ('tingbøger'); in all, however, they conjure up a vivid picture of the condition Denmark offered your ancestors in former times.

Online links

State Archives
The best way to trace your Danish ancestors is by contacting or visiting the State Archives in Denmark. The official web site of the State Archives offers information in English about how to trace your Danish ancestors, services available at the National and Provincial Archives, as well as information about Danish genealogy (basic records, names and handwriting).

Danish censuses online
The Danish Demographic database is the obvious choice if you want to search for your ancestors on the Internet via the Danish State Archives.

Danish Emigration Archives
Offers searchable online databases on Danish emigrants from 1869 to 1940.

The Danish Immigration Museum
An international cultural center, including the Family History & Genealogy Center (FHGC).

The National Danish-American Genealogical Society
An open group to promote interest and research in family history and encourage interest in Danish ancestry and heritage, among other things.

Addresses

Please be advised that the below mentioned archives will only help you if you visit them personally. Requests by letter will not be carried out.

Det Danske Udvandrerarkiv (Danes Worldwide Archives)
Arkivstrade 1
Postboks 1731
DK- 9100 Alborg
Denmark.

The state archives are:

Rigsarkivet
Rigsdagsgaarden
DK-1218 Copenhagen K
Denmark

Landsarkivet for Sjaelland, Lolland-Falster og Bornholm
Jagtvej 10
DK-2200 Copenhagen N
Denmark

Landsarkivet for Fyn
Jernbanegade 36
DK-5000 Odense
Denmark

Landsarkivet for Nørrejylland
LI. Sct. Hansgade 5
DK-8800 Viborg
Denmark

Landsarkivet for de Sønderjyske Landsdele
Haderlevvej 45
DK-6200 Aabenraa
Denmark