Don’t be intimidated by patronymic naming patterns! We’ll walk explain the basics of Swedish genealogy, and where to find the records you need to extend your Swedish ancestry.
Foreign language obstacles and patronymic naming patterns are commonly cited reasons for avoiding Swedish genealogy research. But with an understanding of a few basic concepts, Swedish genealogy research can be simple, fun, and successful!
What is a patronymic name?
A patronymic name is one that is created when a prefix or suffix is attached to the father’s name. For example, the patronymic surname Johansson can be broken into two parts: Johans’ son. This means that someone with the surname Johansson was the son of Johan. Likewise, a surname of Johansdotter is the patronymic version used for the daughter of someone named Johan. Because of this patronymic naming pattern, a brother and sister may have had similar, but different, surnames from one another.
While it is common in many English-speaking countries to adopt a surname and pass it down for many generations, this was not the case in Nordic countries! It was common for the patronymic surname to change with every generation. Another interesting note that pertains to Swedish surnames is that women did not take their husband’s surname, but rather, maintained their maiden patronymic surname.
While patronymic surnames were common, some surnames were established based on other identifying characteristics, such as a physical attributes, occupation, or location where the individual lived or worked. This practice was commonly used by soldiers as a means of differentiating between other soldiers with the same patronymic surname. After their military service ended, many soldiers opted to drop these assigned surnames, but some opted to use the surname throughout their life.
Modern Swedish surnames
In the mid to late nineteenth century, the patronymic naming system began to fade. The -dotter suffix was replaced with women adapting the -son suffix. It became more common for a surname to be passed on over multiple generations; and women more frequently adopted their husband’s surname. Oftentimes as Swedes migrated to other countries, they would modify their surname to more closely resemble the language of the new country. Understanding how Swedish surnames have evolved over the years will help as you dive into Swedish records.
“But I don’t speak Swedish!”
Particularly in late 18th and 19th century records, record formats are tabular and an in-depth knowledge of the language is not required to make exciting discoveries. Additionally, different types of church records regularly reference one another, enabling researchers to trace their Swedish ancestors for every year of their life from birth to death. Even when an ancestor’s record trail turns cold, recent publications and indexes created by active Swedish genealogical societies make it possible to pick up the trails of elusive ancestors in earlier and later records. Not only do common Swedish records provide material for drawing genealogical connections, but the level of detail in these records also provides ample material for construction of biographical narratives–even if you don’t speak Swedish.
Swedish Church Records
Swedish church records are one of the most utilized sources for Swedish genealogy. In addition to birth and christening (födelse och döpte), marriage and engagement (lysning och vigsel) and death and burial (död och begravning) records, Swedish church records also include moving-in lists (inflyttade), moving-out lists (utflyttade) and a unique record known as the “husförhörslängd” – or the clerical examination. Swedish church records in the 18th and 19th centuries were often maintained in tables and were largely composed of names, dates and residences. Dates were frequently recorded in number formats according to the European system (dd-mm-yyyy). As a result, genealogy researchers can learn a great deal from Swedish documents with little knowledge of the Swedish language. For the few words you may need to learn, consider reviewing this list of words commonly found in Swedish documents available through FamilySearch.org. Longer annotations can be deciphered and interpreted through free tools such as GoogleTranslate.
As mentioned before, Swedish church records frequently reference one another. In particular, the clerical examination or “husförhörslängd” can act as an index to important family events. Beginning in 1686, each parish was required to keep a household examination for each household. Early records may have been discarded, but eventually statistical tabulations and tax rolls required the preservation of these documents. Copies of these records exist for many parishes in Sweden after about 1780. As part of the household examination, parish priests of the Swedish Lutheran church were required to visit with the members of their parish at least once yearly and test them on their knowledge of the catechism. The ledgers they utilized were reused over the course of several years and not only include information about the family’s religious duties, but also include additional information regarding migration, family structure, residence, and important family events.
Discovering Details About Swedish Ancestors
Typically, these registers will include information for a family over the course of 5-10 years. If a child was born, they were added to the clerical examination and their birth date and christening date was noted. If an individual or a family moved within the parish, a note was made in the clerical examination and a reference to the page number of the family’s new residence was also made. If they moved outside of the parish, the date they left was often recorded, along with the number of their entry in the moving-out books. The dates of deaths, confirmations, marriages, vaccinations and communions were also recorded. If you are lucky, additional notes might comment on crimes, physical characteristics, occupations, punishments, social standing, economic status or other life events with references to pertinent records.
The above Household Clerical Examination in Dals-Ed Parish in Älvsborg covers the years from 1866-1875 and shows the household of Per Johansson on the farm of Lilla Wahlberg in Bälnäs. The document provides birthdates and birth places for each household member. It shows that Per’s son, Andreas, moved to Norway in 1872. Another son, Emanuel, moved within the parish but returned after just a month. Among other notes on the document we learn that Emanuel only had one eye and that he was a dwarf.
Not only do clerical examinations reference other church records, but birth, marriage, death, and migration records frequently reference household examinations. Birth records might list the page number of the child’s family in the household examination. Marriage records will indicate the corresponding pages of the residences of the bride and the groom. Death records identify the residence of the deceased. Moving-in and moving-out records will frequently report the corresponding page numbers of the farm where a migrant eventually settled or the parish from whence he came. Even if these records do not list the specific pages of interest, they may still provide the reported residences which can then be located in the clerical examination records.
Most clerical examination volumes include an index of farms and residences within the parish. In the case of some larger parishes and cities, local genealogical societies have sometimes indexed all individuals in the volume by name. When researching in multiple volumes, note the farm or residence of your ancestor in the previous record and then search the index of residences near the front or end of the next clerical examination volume. Usually this will narrow your search to just a few pages out of the book rather than the entire volume.
Strategies for Overcoming Brick Walls in Swedish Genealogy Research
Occasionally an ancestor might have moved in a year for which migration records are not currently available, or they might have moved to a larger city with many parishes. Other times their migration may not have been noted, or jurisdiction lines may have been redrawn, resulting in the formation of a new farm and residence. In these cases it may be difficult to continue tracing an ancestor’s record trail. One strategy to overcome these situations is to search the clerical examinations by reported birthdate. The birthdates or ages of Swedish ancestors are recorded in many of their records. If you are browsing through large collections, consider searching by birthdate rather than by name. Since birth dates were often recorded in their own unique column and are more immediately recognizable than names, this may expedite your search. If these strategies still yield no results, searches in indexes may help to uncover an elusive ancestor’s record trail.
Online Resources for Swedish Genealogy Research
In recent years, online indexes and databases have made Swedish genealogy research simpler than ever. MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, and Ancestry.com all have large collections of indexed birth, marriage and death records from Sweden. Additionally, MyHeritage has partnered with ArkivDigital to index Swedish clerical examinations between 1880 and 1920. A current indexing project is attempting to do the same for the household examinations from 1850 to 1880. Other indexed collections at ArkivDigital include the 1950 and 1960 Swedish censuses. Ancestry.com has indexes of the Gotenburg passenger list records which can help identify relatives who emigrated from Sweden to others parts of the world. Finally, Sveriges Släktforskarföbund has compiled an index of Swedish death records from 1900 to 2013 which can be purchased on CD. If the record trail of your ancestor or another relative runs cold, you might pick it up again by searching some of these indexes for records before their earliest known record, or after their last known record. Often by consulting the corresponding church records mentioned in the indexes it is possible to close the gap in their record trail.
Given the resources available for Swedish genealogy research, success is imminent. Don’t let language or patronymics frighten you away from the amazing genealogical discoveries waiting to be uncovered.
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