Är dina förfäder svenska? Swedish Research at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center

by Jill Seaholm

Jill Seaholm, this week’s guest blogger, was born in Moline, Illinois, to extreme 100% Swedish-American parents. At 14 she was lucky enough to go on a family trip to visit distant relatives in Sweden, and, while there, became hooked on all things Swedish. At Augustana College she majored in Scandinavian Studies, studying the Swedish language and attending the Augustana Summer School in Sweden, and worked as a student assistant at the Swenson Center, indexing and doing research. Jill has worked at the Swenson Center full time and helped Swedish-Americans find their way back across the Atlantic since 1992. She wears many hats at the Swenson Center, including writer of the occasional article in the Swenson Center’s quarterly journal Swedish American Genealogist and coordinator of the journal’s weeklong genealogy workshop in Salt Lake City every autumn.

The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, located at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, is “a national archives and research institute providing resources for the study of Swedish immigration to North America, the communities the immigrants established, and the role the immigrants and their descendants have played in American life.”


It’s cool to be Swedish. We drive Volvos; we read Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson crime books; we eat hard, dry bread; we sit on IKEA furniture; and we’re lucky enough to have access to some very good record books.


In Sweden, authorities kept track of many things about the citizens over the centuries and, while the people may not have appreciated it at the time, there is a wealth of information available to people of Swedish descent. Sometimes the trick is getting Swedes back across the ocean to learn where they came from, as you must know the name of a birth parish or residence in order to proceed in Swedish parish records.


At the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, people look to us for answers, but sometimes we need more information than they possess in order to separate accurately the multitudes of immigrants with the same names. It seems as if most immigrants had the names John, Anders, Peter, Carl, Lars, Sven, Johanna, Christina, or Ingrid, etc., with surnames that look like the above, but with the addition of the suffix “–son” or –“dotter.” We use our Research Request Form as a guide both for people who hire us to do research and for people coming to the Swenson Center to experience their own research.


We ask people to start with the usual United States sources and to collect as much information as possible before contacting us for research or a visit. You should begin by asking your older relatives about the places in which the Swedes settled and whether they know if or where the immigrants went to church. If they don’t think they went to church, perhaps they know where the immigrant’s children were baptized or confirmed. That information can lead to finding the parents in church records. A baptism or marriage certificate in the family’s possession might provide the name of the officiating pastor. Obituaries and cemetery records can also lead to the name of the church where the funeral was held. At the Center, we use Swedish-American newspapers to look for obituaries, and in them we’ll occasionally find the Swedish parish of origin, year of immigration, or occasionally even parents’ names, although an obituary in an American newspaper may also yield the same data.


When researching in big cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis, where there were many Swedish churches, we may need to know specifically where the Swedes lived. That information can often be found in United States censuses and listings in city directories. We can then consult a street map to see which church was located nearest the residence.


We stress church records because one of our key research collections contains microfilmed records of churches –principally Lutheran, Covenant, Methodist, and Baptist — founded by Swedish immigrants in the United States and Canada. Swedish-American churches tended to continue their previous good recordkeeping in this country and, if Swedes joined these churches (and we hope they did even briefly), the membership records should provide dates and places. All too often immigrants used churches only for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, without ever joining..


For the many Swedes who did not join churches, we can try fraternal lodge records. Our record collections primarily cover emigrants and groups from the mass migration period, roughly 1850-1930.


We really appreciate knowing ahead of time when Swedes were born and immigrated, particularly if they had very common names like John Johnson or Christina Peterson. The 1900 United States census shows people’s approximate month and year of birth and year of immigration. I say approximate because the information supplied to the census taker was not always accurate. It is, however, a helpful guideline, particularly the month of birth. If previously you knew only that your John Johnson was born between 1857 and 1859, the knowledge that he was born in April can help weed hundreds of people from your list of possibilities in databases.


In emigration records from Sweden, we try to match emigrants’ names to their destinations in the United States. The main Swedish port of Göteborg did not start to keep records until 1869, so that strategy will not work for everyone.


Looking for immigrants in emigration and immigration records can be challenging given the Swedish patronymic naming system and the fact that they were phasing that system out at the time of the mass migration period. Couple those issues with the Swedes’ practice of Americanizing their names after arriving in the United States, and searches become far more problematic. At the Swenson Center we are accustomed to keeping our eyes open for many possibilities. Take this extreme example – let’s say your ancestor was named John C. Swanson in the United States. Considering the patronymic system, we would expect to find him as Johan (or Johannes, Jan, Jon, John, Jaen, Jonas, etc.) C. Swensson or Svensson in Swedish records. But if that fails, we have to branch out and be ready to find him under as different a name as Karl J. Petersson. It was actually quite common for a Swede to be known by his or her middle name and either drop the real first name completely, or swap it with the middle name. Thus he may have been born Karl Johan. If his father’s name was Sven Petersson and, instead of traveling under his patronymic, Karl Johan traveled under his father’s last name, we could see him traveling as Karl J. Petersson – completely different from his American name John C. Swanson. This example illustrates another reason why it is necessary to start with more information about the immigrant than just his/her name. (Additional tips on Swedish names can be found in an article by Nils William Olsson, Ph.D, F.A.S.G.)


In addition, names and spellings were not standardized at first. You may see a name spelled a variety of ways from one record to the next. Your ancestors were not the ones filling out the record books, and record keepers had their own ways of spelling things. It pays to know the different versions of names. A list that might surprise you contains all of names that are considered the same: Karna, Karina, Kajsa/Kaisa, Katarina, and Karin – and look for them starting with C or K. (A comprehensive list of Swedish given names is available on the Nordic Names website.)


At the end of the Swedish alphabet there are three additional vowels, in this order: x, y, z, å, ä, ö. If your parish or immigrant’s surname contains an å, ä, or ö, it is important to include that special vowel or your search will likely miss your goal. In Typing Swedish Vowels I show different methods for typing the Swedish vowels.


We also ask people to look for United States marriage certificates, because some states asked for the bride and groom’s parents’ names, but because the patronymic system was not used in the United States, we have to be aware that the parents’ names can also be Americanized in United States documents, even if the parents never left Sweden. When it comes to Swedish names, we have a lot to consider!


Sometimes people already have the parish name and don’t realize it. They will say that their ancestors were from, for example, Misterhult in Kalmar County, and wonder how to find the name of the parish. Misterhult is the name of the parish. A parish consisted of the church and the geographical area for which that church’s records were kept. There were sometimes many dozens of villages and farms within a parish’s boundary, but it was most often the parish that the immigrant spoke of and which was recorded in documents.


Once the Swedish parish of origin is known, we use Swedish subscription web sites to access Swedish birth records and some census databases. People who schedule a morning with our parish record volunteer can have one-on-one assistance. One can often trace the family back as far as records were kept in each parish, sometimes to about 1700, or one can try to trace forward the siblings who stayed in Sweden and see if they perhaps have living descendants in Sweden today. Some of the subscription databases available at the Center include Genline (now part of Ancestry.com); SVAR (Swedish national archives information; database is in Swedish, so click on the “In English” button); ArkivDigital (digitized Swedish records including church records).
The Swenson Center’s hours are by appointment. We have a small reading room and a staff of two, so we absolutely need to know when people are coming. When people contact us to schedule an appointment, we go to great lengths to find out what they want to know, or what types of records they want to use, so we know whether to reserve space on a computer or microfilm reader, or time with our parish record volunteer. Over the years we have saved many people a long drive to see something only to find we did not have it.


Please see our web site for more details about our genealogical records and services, visitor information, translation services, on-site fees, our quarterly journal Swedish American Genealogist, as well as our annual genealogy research group in Salt Lake City, and search our extensive online archival and library catalogs.


Welcome to the Swenson Center!


For further information on Swedish genealogy:


  • Online:

Cyndi’s List

Sweden Genealogical Gate

Swedish Center News

Swedish Roots

Tracing Your Swedish Ancestry by James E. Erickson and Nils William Olsson


  • In print:


Cradled in Sweden by Carl-Erik Johansson (Everton, 2002).


Letters from the Promised Land: Swedes in America 1840-1914 b7 H. Arnold Barton (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2000)


Roos af Hjelmsäter: A Swedish Noble Family, with Allied Families and Emigrants by Lillie Rollins Crawford and Robert J. Crawford (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1996).


Scandinavian-American Genealogical Resources by Charles Dickson (Heritage Books, 2004)


Your Swedish Roots: A Step-by-Step Handbook by Per Clemensson (Ancestry 2004)


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