Origins of Scandinavians Arriving in America Before 1870

by Gary T. Horlacher, Sep 2002

"The groups were made up of relatives and acquaintances, and usually of persons from the same locality, and that they moved to the same destination and settled in the same place when they came to America." Eric Norelius, 1890

Defining the Focus

Goal: To find the town of origin for Scandinavians who immigrated to the United States before passenger lists are available in these countries. Since passenger lists which give the town of origin in the original country were first kept in most of these countries from 1869-1874, it becomes more of a challenge finding this information for those who emigrated prior to that period. Since the beginnings of the emigration to America in the 19th century were in the late 1830s and early 1840s, there are many who came to America during the from the 1830s-1870. It is identifying the place of origin in Scandinavia this group prior to their emigration which is the focus of this article.

Through studies of emigration groups, Kamphoefner devised the following typology which we can take advantage of in genealogy:

Kamphoefner's Typology 

Pull Push
High proportion single High proportion families
Young adults Broader age distribution
Male predominance More balanced sex ratio
More urban More rural
More in areas and times of light emigration More in areas and times of heavy emigration
Higher wealth, education, occupation status Lower wealth, education, occupation status
Anglo-conformity, assimilation Cultural pluralism, acculturation


Although Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Finns were in the New World from the late 1600s, chain-migration emigration of the common class did not begin in Scandinavia until the 19th century. Researching the families that came prior to the 19th century would require different strategies and search techniques which could also be based on the above typology (e.g. searching coastal cities, sources for the mid- to upper classes, etc.).

Not covered by this article:

  • Individualistic emigration of Scandinavians prior to 1836 which includes adventurers, sailors, and entrepreneurs
  • Finland & Iceland (started a little later than other Scandinavian countries).


Because the primary source for emigration (passenger lists) from Scandinavia are not available for this period, emigration research requires different and clever strategies. The harder the problem, the more enterprising and creative you will need to become in order to find the solution. You will have to "think outside of the lines". As you continue to revise your strategies until ultimately you find the origin of your emigrant, you will learn much. Here are some strategies that have been developed and which will be shown in this article: 

  • History of the community where they first settled. Where were the early residents from? (Later emigrants in a settlement were often from the same areas of the mother-country as others in the place they settled)
  • History of emigration from Scandinavia. Where were people leaving from and why? (High numbers of emigration were generally found in certain sections of the country which changed at different times due to various factors)
  • Find out what indexes and records are available for the time period in the country. (Sometimes you can eliminate entire counties and regions by searching available indexes for those areas)
  • Find extended relatives in America and search for clues. (Often several people in the same family emigrated. If you can't find the place of origin of your ancestor perhaps a younger sister came over later and is listed in a passenger list or an uncle or cousin came over earlier and is listed with town of origin in a book early settlements of Swedes or Norwegians in America)
  • Search U.S. sources - church records, biographies, obituaries, fraternal societies (Early naturalization & census will not generally give specific places of origin but help narrow it down. Fraternal society records will generally give the town of origin. Church records in America will often give this information. Biographies and obituaries sometimes give the specifics but might also just narrow it down to a region).
  • Search for clues in general sources such as: IGI, Internet (Databases, Queries, Genealogies).

Sweden (1840s-1870)

The following book is an excellent source of background on the early settlements of Swedes in America. He generally lists the towns in Sweden where the founders of each Swedish colony were from. You can get a map of Sweden and plot out the towns of those in the settlement where your family was from and look for any patterns or groupings of towns. You could then do an area search of those areas. You can also study the first chapters of the book which give a short overview history of the different early migration groups and where they were from in Sweden:

Norelius, Eric. The Pioneer Swedish Settlements and Swedish Lutheran Churches in America 1845-1860. Translation from the Swedish (1890) and indexed by Conrad Bergendoff. Rock Island, Illinois: Augustana Historical Society, 1984. (FHL book 973 W2no)

Other sources that you should definitely be aware of and use in emigration research for this period include:

  • Olsson, Nils William and Erik Wikén. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in the United States 1820-1850. Helsingborg: Schmidts Boktryckeri AB, 1995. (FHL book 973 W3ow) Based on earlier books Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York 1820-1850 (1967) and Swedish Passenger Arrivals in US Ports 1820-1850 (except New York) (1979)
  • Personregister över indvandrare från Sverige till New York, 1851-1860 (Index of Immigrants from Sweden to New York, 1851-1860). Göteborg: Landsarkivet, 1985. (FHL book 973 W3gL; film 1224712 item 4). Created from New York arrival lists.
  • Personregister til Statistiska Centralbyråns i Stockholm förteckningar över emigranter 1851-1860 (Index to Central Bureau of Statistics in Stockholm Records of Emigrants 1851-1860). (FHL #1224712 item 5)
  • The People of the Red Barns by Elsa Lagevik (1996). Includes 2500 people who left Sweden between 1851-1863 from 7 counties: Västmansland, Kopparberg, Gävleborg, Västernorrland, Jämtland, Västerbotten, and Norrbotten. (FHL book 948.5 W2L)
  • County lists - Emigration (1851-1940) and Vital Records (1860-1920)

As indicated in the strategies section if all of the above sources do not work, it is helpful to understand the general migration patterns of the time. You might be able to eliminate large parts of Sweden and concentrate on the areas that are left. The following map and chart indicates the areas of highest numbers of Emigration from Sweden during the 1840s-1860s:

Areas of Earliest Mass Migration Early emigration also included parts of Värmland, Halland, Malmöhus, and Västmanland. Following list of parishes not comprehensive!

Kristianstad: Önnestad, Vä, Kristianstad, Österlöv, Fjälkinge, Nymö, Trolle-Ljungby, Oppmanna, Vånga, Örkened, Hjärsås, Knislinge, Glimåkra, Osby, Stoby, Finja, N. Åkarp, Vittsjö, V. Karup.

Kronoberg: Algutsboda, Långasjö, Älmeboda, Södra Sandsjö, Linneryd, Ljuder, Nöbbele, Ekeberga, Hovmantorp, Ö. Torsås, Jät, Tävelsås, Hemmesjö, Växiö, Gårdsby, Furuby, Dädesjö, Herråkra, Ekeberga, Älghult, Åseda, Vislanda, Hinneryd.

Östergotland: Kisa, Linköping, Ryd, Örtomta, Vårdnäs, Horn, Sund, Gammalkil, Mjølby, Vallerstad, Svanshals.

Jämtland: Sveg, Tännäs, Storsjö

Skaraborg: Essunga, Lekåsa, V./Ö. Bitterna, Naum, Ryda, Sandhem, Gustav Adolf, Habo, Lidköping, N. Ving, Varola.

Älvsborg: Hällestad, Kärråkra, Böne, Timmele, Hössna, Gullered, Tvarred, Angered, Rångedala, Gullered.

Blekinge: Mjällby, Gammalstorp, Jämshög, Asarum, Karlshamn, Hoby, Backaryd, Ronneby, Tving.

Gävleborg: Alfta, Bollnäs, Såderala, Hille, Hudviksvall, Enånger, Järvsö, Ljusdal, Bjuråker, Hassela, Bergsjö, Gnarp, Norrbo, Hög, Forsa, Hälsingtuna.

Jönköping: Gränna, Skärstad, Ölmstad, Adelöv, Vireda, Haurida, Linderås, Frinnaryd, Barkeryd, Eksjö, Malmbäck, Bankeryd, Nävelsjö, Näsby, Kråkshult, Hässleby, Stenberga, Lemmhult.

Örebro: Karlskoga, Bjurtjärn, Eker

Västernorrland: Stöde, Allmar, Tuna, Sabra

Kalmar: Sødra Vi, Vimmerby, Lönneberga, Järeda

As indicated in the strategy section, one technique could be to eliminate different sections of Sweden through county-wide or regional indexes. There are various indexes to emigration records and county records during this period for Sweden. Following are those I am aware of through the Family History Library. If others are aware of additional indexes available in Sweden or elsewhere, perhaps they can pass that information on to me so we can update this article from time to time!

Sweden County-Wide Indexes

Vital Records Index 1686-1875 - Jämtland (FHL #1644180)

Emigration Indexes - Stockholm, Uppsala, Södermanland, Östergötland, Norrbotten, 1851-1947 (FHL #1149103)

Jönköping 1860-1895 (FHL #1703132).

Kronoberg 1861-1890 (FHL #1703093).

Älvsborg (FHL #1703096)

Värmland (FHL #1149169)

(Kalmar county index begins in 1875)

For one research project, after all of the indexes were searched the remaining counties that had not been eliminated were compared with the map of Sweden showing the high concentrated areas of emigration. The remaining most likely areas that had not been eliminated were noted. Then since the ancestor was born in 1864 just a few years prior to the emigration of the family and her exact birth date was known, a search was made county by county of the remaining counties. Since Sweden began keeping extracts of birth records from each parish in a particular county in 1860, it was possible to check all of the parishes in a county by looking at a single film. It was possible within an hour or two to go through an entire county looking for a specific birth date. The first county that was searched for the birth about two thirds the way through an exact match was found. The first and middle names matched, the father had the right given name to be her patronymic, and she was born on the exact date. Going then to the clerical survey records (similar to census records but even better), it was found that this family did emigrate two years later to America. Although this strategy required checking every parish, it was also prioritized so the chances of finding the connection were much higher by searching the areas where there was highest emigration and for those areas that had not been eliminated already from the emigration indexes.

The Swensen Center at Augustana College has church records from US and Sweden for sale or research.

Norway 1825, 1836-1870

As with Sweden, it is helpful to know the history and background of emigration in Sweden and become familiar with the areas from which high numbers emigrated during different periods of time. This is particularly true in Norway during these early years as in later years emigration from Norway became so widespread that there was hardly a parish in the country that didn't have large numbers of people emigrating. Other than Ireland, Norway had more people per capita emigrate to America than any other European country during the mid to late 19th century.

The modern period of emigration from Norway started in 1825 when a group of Quakers left to find more freedom from persecutions. The Norwegian converts to Quakerism were sailors who had been converted in England while imprisoned in England during the Napoleonic Wars. Quakers had been kind to them while they were imprisoned. These sailors returned to southwestern Norway and began to spread their new faith. It was also from this same region that the spread of emigration fever began and spread up through Norway.

Areas of Highest Emigration 1825, 1836-1855

Emigration in Norway started in Ryfylke in Rogaland County in 1825 and 1836. Emigration from Hardanger and Voss in Hordaland, Upper and Lower Tellemark, and Numedal and Hallingdal in Buskerud County also began in the 1830s. Emigration Emigration from Sogn in Sogn og Fjordane County and Valdres in Oppland County began in the early and mid-1840s. From 1855-1865, mass emigration also began in Vest and Aust Agder, Akershus, Hedemark, and Nord Trøndelag.

Some general sources that can be quite helpful are available on the Internet (perhaps others can help us add to this list):

Digital Archives, Includes Census Indexes, Church Records, and Other Sources

Two books that are a must to anyone trying to research the origins of Norwegians who came over in the earlier years of the Norwegian emigration are the following:

  • Naeseth, Gerhard B. Norwegian Immigrants to the United States, A Biographical Directory, 1825-1850. 2 vols. Madison, WI: Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 1997. (FHL book 973 D3nn)
  • Ulvestad, Martin. Nordmændene i Amerika, deres Historie og Rekord (The Norwegians in America, their History and Record). 2 vols. Minneapolis, Minn: History Book Company's Forlag, 1907. (FHL book 973 F2u). First volume is a history of Norwegian communities and their earliest settlers. Second volume is an alphabetical listing of Norwegian emigrants.

If you are trying to eliminate sections of Norway that have indexes, there are emigration indexes that I am aware of for Rogaland and Telemark Counties, both areas of high numbers of early emigration:

  • Rogaland Emigration Index (FHL #1440024), also see book Utvandrer fra Rogaland (FHL 948.3 W2k)
  • Telemark Card Index (FHL #6350054)

If your Norwegian family had an unusual surname, one other than Olsen, Johnson, etc., you should be aware that most non-patronymic (names ending in -sen) Norwegian names come from the name of the farm where they last lived or were from in Norway. By finding the location of all of the farms/villages by that name and checking the church records of births or emigration from the parish were those farms/villages are located, you will very often be able to find the origin of your family. This might not work for a name like Haugen that has perhaps 400 places by that name in Norway, but for most other names if you can eliminate it to 3-20 places to check it is certainly well worth the effort. A wonderful book listing most of these farms and which parish and county they belonged to is:

  • For farm names, see Norsk Stedfortegnelse (Norwegian Place Index) (FHL book 948.1 E8ns)

If you can't find you town of origin in other sources, consider looking for the records of the emigrant's children's birth, marriage, and death records in the Norwegian Church Records from the community where they settled in America. The ELCA archive in Illinois holds a very large collection of such records:

  • Norwegian American Lutheran Church records: ELCA, 321 Bonnie Lane, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007 

Denmark (about late 1840s-1870)

Emigration from Denmark in the 19th century started later than in the other two countries and was never as wide spread. Danes have been found to have assimilated much quicker and settled more spread out rather in tight ethnic groups in North America. A wonderful book giving the background of emigration from Denmark is:

  • Hvidt, Kristian. Danes Go West. Rebild, Denmark: Rebild National Park Society, Inc., 1976. (FHL book 973 W2hvd)

Although there were no passenger lists from Copenhagen prior to 1869, there is an alternative source that might not initially be obvious to everyone. That is the Hamburg Passenger Lists. Although emigrants from Denmark in the later years generally sailed from Copenhagen to Hull, England, during the years prior to 1869 probably a majority of the emigrants leaving for North America would actually sail from Copenhagen to Kiel, Germany. There they would travel by train to Hamburg. From Hamburg they would often go to Hull, England, and thence by train to Liverpool where they would board a ship for the New World. The Hamburg passenger lists are an amazing source that have not been heavily used by Scandinavians, but contains many thousands of names of Danes and Swedes during this time period. Also there is a wonderful index to the Hamburg passenger lists which covers much of the time period when the largest numbers of Scandinavians would be listed called the Klüber Kartei:

  • Index von Karl Werner Klüber zu den Passagierlisten der Auswandererschiffe 1850-1871 (Index of Karl Werner Klüber of the Passenger Lists of Emigrant Ships 1850-1871). 2 indexes. (FHL #1961710)

Probably the only real example of mass migration from Denmark in the years prior to 1869 would have been the Mormon emigration. If you think your ancestors came with a Mormon group to North America, you should try some of the Mormon emigration sources. The most comprehensive index is the Scandinavian Mission Index which includes both emigration records as well as branch membership records. Among the biggest problem with this index is that it is strictly alphabetical which means you should try several variations of spelling and often the names were listed differently in Denmark than they were subsequently listed in America:

  • Scandinavian LDS Mission Index. 344 microfiche. (FHL #6060482)

Many people left from the area of Schleswig-Holstein which in 1864 became part of Prussia. They did not want to serve in the German military. One source in this area that might be helpful is the military rolls. These listed all of the men at the time of their birth and then twenty years later added notations about their military service. If they had moved away, emigrated, or disappeared, such notations were made in these records. Eventually it would be a wonderful project to have someone go through these lists and make a book or publish an index of those who had gone to Denmark (and subsequently to America) or North America or were missing at the time they were to report for duty:

  • Military Rolls for Schleswig-Holstein (example, FHL #0401480, 0401247, 0400988, 0339538)

Some of my colleagues have had wonderful success where other means have failed by writing to the Dana College who hold the records of the Danish Brotherhood of America. Many of our Danish ancestors joined this fraternity which application for membership include the town of birth in Denmark. They have not finished completing an index but if you can tell them the where the lodge was that your ancestor may have belonged to, for a moderate fee they will search the records. They are also working on indexes to these records through volunteer work:

  • Membership in the Danish Brotherhood of America (from 1882) or other organizations. The Brotherhood records available at: Danish Immigrant Archive, Dana College, Blair, NE 68008.

Perhaps the most useful source in Danish research is one that is now being developed by numerous volunteers through the DDD (Danish Demographic Database) hosted by the Danish archives through the government. They are compiling country-wide indexes to all of the census records in Denmark from 1787-1911. As this become more and more completed, it is becoming a very valuable finding tool for lost people. You can search county by county for a particular name and use various combinations to search it in different ways:

Censuses on Internet

If you know of links or additional resources and strategies that would fit well in the context of this article, let us know.


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