Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 10/9/2002

Starting My Swedish Search

Readers of the Ancestry Daily News are aware of my Germanic heritage, particularly my maternal ancestors who hail from the Ostfriesland area of Germany. My wife's heritage is significantly more diverse and over the next several months, we'll turn to my work on several of these families.

I'll be perfectly frank: my own ethnic background is less confusing. I'm ½ Ostfriesen and 1/8th Irish-the rest is a hodgepodge of pre-American Revolution era immigrants. My wife is a different story. She is 1/8 Swedish, 1/8 French-Canadian, 1/8 Belgian, 1/16 Swiss and 1/16 German. Math fans will realize that this still leaves 1/2 of her lineage that has not been traced to the home planet (err . . . country). All of these families were post-1845 immigrants. It is a lot of culture to digest and an excellent reason for focusing on one area at a time and not constantly jumping from one family to another.

Even as we focus on different countries, there is a commonality to the methodology; it is the geography, the history, and the culture that are different (and extremely important). If I assume that one European country is just like another except for the language, I make a grave mistake.

Two Common Swedish Surnames
Readers who have heard some of my unusual surnames will realize that I'm now paying for it-the Swedish surnames I'm starting with are Johnson and Olson, two very common ones. We'll see though that in Sweden that there is more to the surname than meets the eye (or the ear if it is being spoken). Now my focus is Samuel Otto Johnson and Hedvig Olson, immigrants to Galesburg, Illinois ca. 1880, where they married in 1888. Research in the United States is fairly complete on this couple and I'm desirous to begin my work on the family in Sweden.

Deciding When to Swim
"Research is fairly complete on this couple" means that I've exhausted just about every source I can get my hands on. This is more than just a death certificate, an obituary and a "gut feeling they were from Sweden."

Many genealogists try to "jump the pond" before they are ready. Knowing only the country of origin is generally not sufficient to begin research in that location. Searches in the United States should be thorough. For the immigrants in this study, an excellent source for birth locations would be death records. Other sources would include obituaries, naturalizations (particularly those after 1907), and church records. This is not a comprehensive list of sources. In the case of Samuel Otto Johnson and Hedvig Olson, the records of the First Lutheran Church in Galesburg, Illinois, provided precise locations and dates for their births and christenings in Sweden. Other records generally listed Sweden or Östergotland (a county in Sweden) as the place of birth. I wanted as specific a location as I could get before I started in Sweden.

There is an online gazetteer of Sweden at Mapquest ( also allows the searcher to locate Swedish places.

How Specific A Location Do You Need?
Learning about the records in the country of origin is a good idea, even if your location is not yet specific. It might be that there are unique records for that country or area that may be helpful even if the location is not precisely known.

A little perusing of the Internet indicated that I might not need the village since I had the län (Östergtland). The website of the Swenson Center in Rock Island, Illinois ( indicated that there were indexes of Swedish emigrants from the Östergtlands län from 1851 to 1947. I will not always be so lucky to find such indexes. The Swenson Center is located on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, with a mission to study Swedish emigration. It looks like I could have "gotten by" with only knowing the name of the län. It pays to learn about the area being researched and the records available.

Keep Learning
My learning about the emigration records should be a beginning, not an end. It is also necessary to learn something of the geography of the country and the current political boundaries and jurisdictions and the function they serve. General research methodology does not change when one begins researching in a new country. What does change are many of the geographic details, the sources, and the history. These are things the genealogist jumping the "big pond" to a new country needs to learn about.

An excellent way to learn is to read research guides. There are many sites containing information on research in Sweden. Here are three, along with Cyndi's list that contains other links.

From the Swenson Research Center in Rock Island, Illinois:
This guide focuses on materials at the Swenson Center and on sources in the United States and is a good starting point for beginning work on Swedish roots.

Family History Research Guide to Sweden:
(Click on "S" and then scroll down to "Swedish Research Outline." There are a number of other documents related to Sweden on this site as well.)

Swedish Roots-From the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies:
There's a great deal on this site of interest to those pursuing their Swedish heritage, including information on Swedish history, language, and names. I have a feeling I'll be visiting this site again once I've located some actual records.

Cyndi's List-Swedish Links

Are the Names Common?
A surname that is unusual in the immigrant's new country may not be unusual in the homeland. One of my non-Swedish surnames is Saathoff, uncommon in the United States. However, in the area of Germany where this family is from the surname is more common. In cases such as this, scant details will not be sufficient to research the family overseas. My Swedish problem is even worse as the surnames are Johnson and Olson — extremely common names.

Are the Names Constant?
The commonality is only part of the potential problem with the surnames. Sweden is one of those areas that practiced patronymics until the relatively recent past, meaning the surname changed with every generation. Patronymical surnames are those family names derived from the first name of the father. On the death certificate of Samuel Otto Johnson, the father's name is listed as John Lund or Sund. This is not a mistake, but due to the fact that Samuel's last name of Johnson was derived from his father's first name of John. The inconstancy of surnames from one generation to another is something I will have to deal with when I research this family further.

There is an excellent article on names in Sweden written by By Nils William Olsson, Ph.D., F.A.S.G. at the "Swedish Roots" website, published by the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies. Before letting the names get you confused, read the article at

Personally, the constantly changing surnames will not confuse me any more than I already am. My Ostfriesen ancestors also changed their surname every generation until the early nineteenth century as well. There's only one real difference, the Ostfriesens generally gave all children the same surname-Jan Ufken's children would have the surname Janssen. The Swedes gave the boys one surname and the girls another. Erik would have sons with the surname Erikson and daughters with the surname Eriksdotter. This may come in handy if I have difficulty telling the gender of a child based solely upon the first name.


Cluster Emigration
While "it's a small world" may be a cliché, it appears to be true. Immigrants frequently settled where others from the same area had already immigrated. I was well aware of this phenomenon from researching other families, but had not considered it with this Swedish family yet. One correspondent indicated that many emigrants from Östergotland had settled in Knox County, Illinois (where Samuel and Hedvig settled). I knew many Swedes had immigrated to Knox County, but was unaware that a significant number were from the same län as Samuel and Hedvig. A little surfing revealed another interesting connection. A search on Google for "tjarstad" (the village where Samuel was born) indicated a town (Ophiem, Illinois) named for a village (Opphem) in the Tjarstad parish. This town is located in Henry County, Illinois (adjacent to Knox County, Illinois) and a short distance from where I live. Opphem and Tjarstad (according to Mapquest) are approximately five kilometers apart. While this makes a nice "small world" story, it remakes the point about the importance of chain migration.

Before You Cross The Pond

  • Learn about the locality.
  • Learn about the records.
  • Learn about the culture.
  • Remember methodology lessons learned elsewhere.
  • Wait to jump the pond until you know where you need to land.

    In future newsletters we'll work on other ethnic areas and discuss how successful I was in locating records overseas. Hopefully I have some successes to report.

    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Copyright 2002,
    Used by the author on his website with permission.

    Follow up to this article:

    Anders' Son and Erik's Daughter


    Cradled in Sweden, by Carl-Erik Johannson is an excellent book on Swedish research and has been very helpful to me in my work on my wife's Swedish Roots.

















































































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