Swedish American: Family Records

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Back to Sweden

The first step in determining where an ancestor came from in Sweden involves talking to relatives and gathering any information that may be available regarding the family’s origins. The first generation of immigrants often left family members in Sweden. Letters written back and forth may contain valuable genealogical information including the name of the home parish. While subsequent generations generally did not speak or write Swedish, they may be in possession of earlier correspondence or family traditions that may provide clues. Some of the available family information may be found in:

  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Obituaries and other newspaper clippings
  • Letters and photographs (which often have people and place names on the back)
  • Family Bibles and other records kept by family members including journals and histories
  • Other family heirlooms and traditions


Many college/university libraries or county historical societies have microfilmed copies of local newspapers in their collections. Obituaries and their content have evolved through time. If you know the death date and place of an ancestor who died in the United States after 1850, there is the possibility that a notice of death may have appeared in a local newspaper. Perhaps, the obituary contains a place name that may assist you in determining the place of origin for the ancestor. It is worth the time to investigate this possibility.

Expand your search for obituaries to include papers printed in the Scandinavian languages. There may be only a few sentences written about an emigrant in the local English language newspaper, but there could be several paragraphs about them in an ethnic language newspaper. Even if that "foreign language" newspaper is printed in a city or town 200 or more miles away, don't discount the possibility of information about your emigrant ancestor being in it. If a Swede or Norwegian or Finn or Dane wanted others of their ethnic origin to know someone had passed on, they might have sent the information to that far away newspaper, knowing that edition would eventually make its way around the ethnic communities - though they might be several states away.

One source to use to find the address and name of the editor is Gregory's Media Directory. This is alphabetically arranged by state, then county and city/town. It gives contact information for the editor, as well as the date the paper began. A name and keyword searchable data bank of more than 3,800 newspaper titles is the GenealogyBank. The address is: http://www.genealogybank.com This is a subscription site, but may include obscure newspapers not found elsewhere.

Letters, Photographs, and "Loose Papers"

You may have in your possession letters which were written or received by your emigrating Swedish ancestor. Within these letters may be clues as to the ancestor’s place of origin. If you are unsure of the letter’s content, you may wish to contact the Scandinavian Reference desk at the Family History Library for assistance in determining possible Swedish locations. Please be aware that the Family History Library’s Scandinavian consultants are not permitted to translate word for word the contents of a letter. They may skim through the letter looking for place names and other pieces of genealogical information.

Photographs taken of family members in Sweden may have on the front or back of the picture the name of the photographer who took the photograph and the address of the studio, including the name of the city where the studio was located. This may be a clue as to where the ancestor resided prior to emigration. If there is handwriting on the back of the photo and it is in Swedish, you may wish to contact the Scandinavian desk at the Family History Library for assistance. Please remember that lengthy translations are not available.

Besides their "permission to emigrate" papers, your ancestor might have brought with them their smallpox vaccination (koppor) certificate. In many countries, you could not marry until you had proved you had had smallpox naturally, or that you had been vaccinated for it. This paper would give the name of the person vaccinated, date, their age and/or birth date, by whom vaccinated, where vaccinated, perhaps parent's names, perhaps the name of the birth parish. Minimally, it will narrow down the search to a certain area of the country.

If you find any papers in family possession which are written in a foreign language and/or "funny handwriting" GET THOSE PAPERS translated immediately! They may contain the clue to finding where in Sweden your ancestor lived before immigrating. Remember, these papers might be hanging behind the pictures on the wall, in the attic or basement trunk, be in the lining of that trunk, or otherwise. Because they were "important papers", your immigrant ancestor might even have given them to the local minister to keep in the "parish chest."

Sometimes, those old papers, and the oldest church books for the local parish might have been put in a bank vault for safekeeping. Only the older church board members may be aware of this, so you may have to do some sleuthing to find those records.

Family Bibles

Some families are fortunate to have in their possession, or know of someone who has in their family, the Bible which belonged to the emigrating ancestor. It was the custom through-out the nineteenth century for families to own a Bible in which personal information such as the name of each family member, the date and place of birth for parents and children, and other pertinent family information was recorded. Family Bibles can provide clues to solving the mystery from where an ancestor may have come.