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
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 (www.mapquest.com) 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
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 (www2.augustana.edu/administration/swenson/genealogy.html)
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.
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
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
Learn about the locality.
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 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:
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com.
by the author on his website with permission.
Follow up to this article:
Anders' Son and Erik's
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.