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Detecting Danish

Denmark is a small country which has had a lot of immigrants to other lands. Described herein are some places to look for further data if you have a taste for Danish!


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1732 (approx.)
Labels: Danish 
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This time out, we continue our glance at European research by stopping at Denmark. While the area has been settled, according to archeologists, for 10,000 years or more we will concern ourselves mainly with the last 500 years. Given its' location, just north of Germany, it is not surprising that it is considered to one of the north Germanic derived tongues, which also include Swedish and Norwegian. Those are all separate languages, and while they have some commonality, they are not at all interchangeable. If you have some German you can make guesses at some Danish words, but it is a separate tongue. Depending on how close the area you are researching is to Germany, you may even find some records written in German. The place considered to be the oldest extant settlement in Denmark is the small city of Ribe, in the southern part of the country. It is said that it was settled in the first decade to the 8th century. Any records before that time would be fragmentary.

Another item to remember is the physical location of the country. Until the Kiel Canal through northern Germany was built circa 1784, the only way into and out of the Baltic Sea was through the islands and peninsulas of Denmark. The canal saved sailing about 250 miles, a considerable amount. Many parts of the country are within sight of Sweden across fairly narrow channels. Yet historical research shows at least a dozen wars between the two nations from the 1400s to the 1800s.

As with many areas, it is very important to know where the immigrant came from. Not until much later in its' history does one find "national indexes" of births, marriages and deaths or large-scale indexes and records of emigration.

In researching this article I found that until about 1875, the majority of Danes used a comparatively small number of given names. In helpful descriptive material available in the guides, we find that "Prior to about 1850 all of the Scandinavian countries used a form of patronymics. The given name of a father was used as a surname for each of the children. The sons used the father's given name and a suffix that meant "son" and the daughters used the father's given name and a suffix meaning "daughter."

Starting about 1860 and going into the early 20th century, the naming custom was changing from this system of patronymics (named after the father's given name, which had been used for hundreds of years) to the type of system used in the rest of Europe and America, where the same surname passed from father to son. This shift in naming patterns first took place in the cities and took place last in the rural countryside villages. So, depending on when the specific area that your ancestor came from changed its' way of recording names, there are several possibilities for surnames. Again quoting Familysearch:

"A person could use the patronymic name they were born with for a family surname and pass it on to all their children, or a person could take their father's patronymic name and use it for a surname, or even a person could take an entirely different name such as a place name or a name they liked and begin using it from then on as their surname." Think carpenter, tailor, mason, or the like.

Because this is the same time period (ca 1860 to 1900) in which many Scandinavians emigrated to America, the first generation on either side of the ocean can be particularly difficult to research. Many Scandinavian records will, therefore, have a first name index rather than a surname index. I saw a statement that in a single family where three or four brothers often took entirely different surnames when they got to America.

The word "Slægtsnavn" is usually used to translate as "family name." (In German, "Geschlect" means gender, or taken idiomatically, a "Geschlechternamenbuch" means a book of the descendants. The two words in German and Danish have practically the same sound.) It is also what is usually meant if one is talking about surnames. These are the kinds of names that we now think of as "normal" in Europe and North America. Again borrowing from Familysearch: "Such a name is handed over from father to children according to a set of fixed rules - usually described in official legislation. Because of this trap, it is so important to realize when a name belongs to one group or the other. In determining this we can of course look at the years of legislation: 1526 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory for the nobility. 1771 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory in Schleswig-Holstein. 1828 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory in Denmark, 1856 the law from 1828 is reintroduced because so few cared about it - and did not follow it - and in 1904 changing slægtsnavn became allowed."

Like other areas, one will want to look in church records that could very well predate larger scale records for counties or whole countries. Here is where the compact size of Denmark becomes helpful. It is about 16,638 sq. mi. and extends about 250 mi. from north to south and 220 mi. from east to west. Comparatively, the area occupied by Denmark is slightly less than twice the size of the state of Massachusetts. There are about 406 islands in Denmark, not including the Faroe Islands or Greenland. Some 70 of them are populated but the remainder are uninhabited.

So, ways to approach Danish research:

1. Try to find the exact location of where your ancestor came from

2. See when they arrived in the New World.

3. See what kinds of records that you can find in North America in various churches, fraternal groups, obituaries, histories and other standard sources for origin information.

4. Check the information appearing in the web sites listed below, and of course look for information other have already done, on commercial web sites, free web sites, the Genweb series of web sites, and so on.

And, as always, try seeing if the place that you are researching has a web site, an historical society, a genealogical society, a local library or archive that might have data and try searching the Rootsweb messages boards for countries and surnames. You may find clues of people who have copies of data or research books. There is a lady in Missouri who has transcribed hundreds of years of church records into a Word document for the place that I am researching. What a find! My own former library has but five titles devoted to Denmark genealogy (although there are many more which deal with northern Europe and also the rest of Scandinavia.) These books ranged from 1974 to 1992, not nearly current. But searching the free web site yields over 1500 titles, and those are subdivided into useful categories such as real books, e-books, maps, dissertations, actual records, etc. It's a useful free source to examine. You might find a title that someone has already done on your family or place of origin. And oftentimes we find in the Rootsweb Worldconnect web site (although it has some big weaknesses), that there are people who have compiled records from even very small places and placed them online for free. Since that site gives email addresses, it is yet another place to look for connections.

Lastly, do try searching the Genweb. The Denmark Genweb sites lead right back to the DIS web site. The key thing to remember is that many records are available, that many are now searchable online and that many more are available of film through the Family History Center programs of the LDS church.

Useful Websites:

Held og lykke med at forske!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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