BREAKING THROUGH BRICK WALLS IN DANISH GENEALOGY
By Betty Jack, Denmark Rootsweb list member
The first rule of genealogy research in general is to start with what you know and can prove about the most recent generation you are working on, document everything possible, and only then move back to the previous generation. Perhaps the most common reason for getting “stuck” in your search for your Danish ancestors is that you have accepted as gospel the information you do have. Your first task in resolving a brick-wall situation is to start at the beginning and re-examine all the information you do have, taking into consideration the possibility of error in your premises. Perhaps you are starting from someone else’s unproven research or your mother’s memories of what her great-aunt Mette told her sixty years ago; perhaps you haven’t examined handwritten records closely enough, or couldn’t read the handwriting at all; perhaps you haven’t noticed conflicts between the records; and perhaps you haven’t considered the possibility of errors in the original records.
In Danish genealogy, problems abound because of the nature of the available resources. The farther back you go, the worse the problems get. The pages of the records are black with age or fuzzy due to water staining, or torn away at the edges just where the parents of a child are named. The old Danish script is hard to read even if the paper and ink are in good condition. The pastor recorded wonderful detail but he also had truly atrocious handwriting even for his time. The part of the churchbook where your ancestor’s baptism must have been recorded was lost when the rectory burned down. There are at least six other people in the parish who have the name as your ancestor and who were born within couple of years of the time when, according to the only census record available, your ancestor was born; the only one whose birth year is “spot on” to his died at the age of three months. People pop up in the parish out of nowhere, produce one or two children (including your ancestor), then disappear from the records without leaving forwarding addresses. Were they abducted by aliens?
This page is being offered to help you get around the obstacles, identify your brick-wall ancestor, and prove that you have made the correct identification.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 1:
Trust No One—Including Yourself!
Perhaps the most important pitfall in genealogy everywhere is the very common failure to question whether your findings are reasonable. It’s a trap especially easy to fall into in Danish research, because there are so very many people with the same name.
Researcher X is looking for his third great-grandmother: he finds a baptism for a girl with the right name in the right parish and happily adds her to his family tree, which he hastens to put on the Internet. He fails to notice that the girl he’s calling his direct ancestor was only nine years old at the time she supposedly had her first child. Or perhaps she was born so far before the wedding that she was supposedly still having babies while in her seventies. Or perhaps her husband is still fathering children ten years after his death, or bringing in babies for baptism that were born only five months apart. Some folks even post marriages and children for people years after their death dates. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But people publish such gross mistakes every day, and the people who don’t apply a little logic before incorporating Researcher X’s findings into their own are doomed to future embarrassment when someone else points out the errors.
Look for and use possible internet shortcuts but treat them only as leads to the original records. Don’t accept them as fact until you can independently verify what is published. This is especially true of family trees: if there are no dates, places or sources given, they’re useless. But even if that information is given, you need to look at the original records yourself to determine whether they say what the other person says they say. Other people have the same problems reading the records that you have.
Every couple of months I do a series of online searches for brick-wall ancestors to see if anything on them that I don’t already know has come up. I search for them on Google, I search for them at the LDS (Mormon) website www.familysearch.org/, I check out what Ancestry.com and rootsweb.com have. Even family trees that are riddled with errors may have some facts correct.
There are many generous people who make extractions of churchbooks, probates, and other major Danish records and put them on the Internet. Some of the most helpful extractors to my research have been:
Bente Feldballe: (churchbooks in Jylland and links to probate extractions): http://milloup.dk/bf/index.htm
Neils Sørensen and Britta Halleby: (churchbooks and probates in Jylland): http://www.niels-sorensen.dk/?Velkommen
Aurelia Clemens (probates all over Denmark, heavy emphasis on Sjælland): http://aurelia-clemons.dk/
Erik Brejl (probates and land records in Jylland): http://www.brejl.dk/skift.htm
Kurt Kermit Nielsen (diocesan records including permissions to marry; fæstebreve; testaments; texts of laws and regulations; and many other difficult records for Jylland): http://www.kkermit.dk/index.htm
Extractions can be enormously helpful as leads to the original records, provided you then examine the original records for yourself. Making extractions is hard work, and even an expert can mis-read a probate or a churchbook record. Besides, extractions generally leave out the most interesting and sensational details.
Old documents are notoriously difficult to read anyway, and the older forms of Danish handwriting are an obstacle even to modern Danes. However, with practice, you’ll get better at it. If you revisit the Danish records you already have, you’ll probably find that you can now read what was once an undecipherable squiggle. That’s what I mean when I say, “Trust no one—including yourself.”
Once you find an original record, you still must evaluate its accuracy for yourself. What many people fail to realize is that original records can be full of errors and misinformation.
EXAMPLE 1: Place-Name Errors: Can’t find your ancestor in a Danish census or the churchbook for what you think is the right parish? You may be looking in the wrong place, even if the place has the right name. If, for instance, your ancestor was supposedly from “Balle, Denmark”, but you can’t find her in the parish so named in Viborg Amt, the first thing to realize is that there are at least 9 villages in Jylland alone named Balle and dozens of places in Denmark where “Balle” is part of the name. You can locate most of them using Krabsen’s site or, for the most complete results, use J. P. Trap’s Danmark, a gazetteer of Denmark (you can order this on microfiche through the Family History Center nearest you). Then you can start looking in those parishes. Another useful source is the Genealogical Guidebook & Atlas of Denmark by Frank Smith and Finn A. Thomsen. I wore out my first copy and am now working on my second.
You should not overlook the fact that the boundaries between parishes, between Herreder, and between Amter are lines drawn on the map, not physical barriers like the Great Wall of China, and over time some of those boundaries have changed. Denmark is a very small country, and rural parish churches are often in sight of one another. Even during Stavensbåndet, people who technically lived in one parish may have left records in nearby parishes, particularly if the farm or village is closer to the other parish’s church and especially if your ancestor’s pastor had charge of more than one parish. (Pastors of two or more parishes sometimes put a record into the wrong register.) If you don’t find your ancestor in the “right” parish, check the nearby parishes even if they are in another Herred or Amt.
Place of birth as stated on an 1845-or-later Danish census record may be incorrect. For example, if a family moved when the oldest children were very young, the children may grow up with no memory of living anywhere else and may give the new parish as the birth parish in honest mistake. There is such a case in my own family files, but fortunately for me, another daughter did remember where she was born and gave it correctly in the 1845 census. That led me to her parents’ missing marriage record and thence back to ancestors born in the mid-1600s.
The birthplace of an immigrant ancestor is often stated in the new country’s records in general terms even if a town or city is given. A great-uncle of mine gave his birthplace as the town of Grenå in his naturalization papers, but if you look for his birth record in Grenå, you won’t find him. Was he a liar? No, he was trying to be helpful. Grenå could be readily located on a map of Denmark, so saying he was born there at least gave people a general idea of the area he came from. Like his siblings, he was actually born at tiny Glatved Mark in nearby Hoed sogn.
EXAMPLE 2: Errors or Variations in Personal Names: You should be aware that Danish names were subject to regional dialects and accents, and spelling was creative (to put it mildly) at least before the 20th century. Basically, everyone who was literate spelled everything the way it sounded to him (or her). Lars, Laurs, Lass, Laurits, Laurids, Laust could all be the same man in different records; I have seen cases where the same person’s name is written with three different spellings in the same record. Birgitte is another example: in certain areas, the “g” in the middle of that name virtually disappeared when spoken, so Birgitte might be recorded as Birthe or Berthe or even Berette. (Someone once said that Danish is not so much a language as a pathological condition of the throat.)
In addition, a name may not be recorded completely or accurately in every church record. One example: it seems that the pastor at Haldum, Vitten, and Hadsten during the 1730s and 1740s simply didn’t hold with middle names for peasants and didn’t record any. But when he passed on to his (presumably) heavenly reward, the parish records suddenly became full of adult peasants named Ane Marie, Mette Cathrine, Niels Peder, Jens Christian, and so on.
Pastors are not infallible. One of my ancestors was recorded as a Christensdatter at the time of her 1784 betrothal (trolovelse) but as a Sørensdatter when the wedding took place. The two records are on the same page, so this is clearly a simple case of carelessness on the part of the pastor. Other records for her make it clear that the pastor got it right the first time.
Even pastors in the standardized-churchbook period (ca. 1812-onward) who made the effort to be careful and thorough could and did make mistakes, especially in death records and most especially in the case of the very elderly. Age, place of birth, and even patronym can be wrong. I have an 1865 death record for a 78-year-old direct ancestor which correctly states the parish where he was born (which was not the same parish where he died) and his correct age at death, but gives the name of a completely fictitious person as his father. I suspect the pastor got the wrong information from a son-in-law who was making a very uneducated guess.
EXAMPLE 3: Errors in Age: Before modern governments began demanding proof of age and birthplace all the time, many people did not celebrate birthdays or keep track of their own ages or the ages of their children. Therefore, when the Danish census-taker arrived on the doorstep, or when the local pastor asked how old someone was when she or he died, they’d take a guess. If the person was elderly, age might be exaggerated a bit (greater age = greater respect in the community).
Sometimes a pastor would go back through earlier records to find the birth record of a recently-deceased parishioner and calculate age at death by subtraction (you can sometimes see the calculation in the margin of the churchbook). And sometimes you can actually spot an error he made in his calculation!
Errors in age are the most common error in military records, too, especially in the first lægdsruller (1789) and the pre-1789 reserve rolls and muster rolls. Every year the pastor or lægdsmand would go through the churchbook looking for boys who were of the right age and class to go onto the reserve lists, and often he would not bother looking through the burial records to make sure each boy was still alive. This could, and often did, lead to boys being entered on the reserve rolls while they were actually too young, simply because they had been named for an older brother who had died.
Stated age or birth date in immigration records (and subsequent naturalization records and census records) is also quite commonly wrong. Sometimes it’s a matter of people having forgotten, or having been unable to calculate, the correct age for themselves or their children. But sometimes it’s not the immigrant who’s responsible for the error.
My great-uncle (the one who always gave his birthplace as Grenå) was born 28 June 1878, but all his American records say 28 June 1879. (And yes, I do have the correct Danish record, and no, there’s no record for him in Grenå or Hoed in 1879.) Somewhere along the line, someone read the 1878 as 1879 and the mistake was perpetuated.
When my father came to the USA in 1924, he traveled with two maternal first cousins, whose stated age on the passenger list is off by about 9 years. Why? Well, the new pastor of their home parish provided “birth certificates” for all three young men. And unfortunately, there were two Andersen families in the parish, each of which had two sons born about a year apart, with the same names as my father’s cousins. The pastor picked the wrong pair of brothers to certify.
EXAMPLE 4: Relationship Errors. The people who created those original records were only human. Sometimes they made really big mistakes. Take, for example, my great-great grandfather Niels Pedersen. Imagine my dismay when I found that, according to the churchbook, Niels had died and been buried at the age of 8. The churchbook gives the names of both his parents and the correct home village, so there is no question about which Niels Pedersen is meant.
You might think that continuing to call him my direct ancestor is an extreme example of failure to test for reasonableness, but it’s not. A tragic early death did not prevent this same Niels Pedersen from remaining on the military levying rolls, being confirmed at 14 (his birthdate and parents’ names being cited in that record), serving a stint in the army, and going on to marry and produce children, finally dying and being buried for the second (and final) time in 1884. The second burial record includes the names of his parents and the date and place of birth as well as the information as to his widow’s name and his place of residence at death, so again there is no question as to his identity.
What’s the explanation? Simple. He was born in a rather large parish, and the pastor got confused. There were two Peder Nielsens living in the same village, each with a son named Niels, and the boys were about the same age. I don’t know what led the pastor to forget this fact (he was usually very careful), but he recorded the wrong set of parents for the dead boy. The military levying rolls, however, proved that mine survived and that the Niels who died was the son of Peder Nielsen Muurmand. The ultimate proof came in the form of two documents filed as civil death notifications to the Herred, the first naming Indsidder Peder Nielsen’s son Niels as the dead child, the second saying, in effect, “Oops, Indsidder Peder Nielsen’s boy Niels is still alive,” and apologizing for the error.
Probates can also be wrong, especially in situations where the heirs are collateral relations of the deceased. There’s a probate in one of my lines where the deceased’s elderly heirs are described as the children of his brother. There are a number of other people researching this same family who have gone to great, indeed absurd lengths to interpret the parish records to conform to this “fact”. The heirs are actually the children of the dead man’s father’s brothers (note the plural), and the parish records, taken literally, prove it. In the probate of a woman in another line, the daughters of her deceased morbroder (mother’s brother) are described as mosters (mother’s sisters): either there was a scandalous amount of incest in the family, or the probate authorities got confused or careless.
The moral of all this is that you, the researcher, need to (1) re-evaluate the records you already have found and consider the possibility of errors, including your own, and (2) look for and examine every possible record that may exist for your ancestor, in order to spot and resolve conflicts in the evidence and prove his or her identity. You simply can’t take anything on trust.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 2:
Know and exploit the Danish patronymic system and the traditional naming customs.
For detailed information on how the Danish patronymic system worked and the evolution of tilnavne into true surnames, see the Danish Naming Traditions page of this site.
You should be aware that a tilnavn is not always used consistently in reference to a particular person, nor is it necessarily applied to all the members of a particular family. Niels Krog may have a brother commonly called Søren Friis, both of them being so described when they bring a baby in for baptism, and only their marriage and/or probate records prove that they are both Jensens. Moreover, you may overlook some of each man’s family records because the pastor or the probate clerks didn’t include the tilnavn in those records and referred to the men as plain-vanilla Jensens instead.
Even if all the sons of the family use the same tilnavn, it’s very likely that the daughters will not. However, when a tilnavn “pops up” in your line seemingly out of nowhere, it may have come from the female side of the family.
There is, however, one situation where a tilnavn is always used and is extremely useful: military records. By the 1780s the Danish military authorities recorded the name of every Danish-born soldier using the village of birth as a military tilnavn even if he had a civilian tilnavn already.
A discharged soldier might resumed his original tilnavn if he had one; he might continue to be recorded by the military tilnavn; or he might drop the use of any tilnavn or acquire a new one. The military tilnavn sometimes became a normal tilnavn which might be used by children or further descendants down the line. Often a military man who married and/or had children might be recorded in the churchbook as a soldier, but some pastors didn’t include that information consistently.
Tilnavne are useful indicators, but you can’t depend on them. Patronyms are there for the person’s whole life.
Even common patronyms are helpful: when Mette Rasmusdatter’s husband died in 1777, his probate named as her guardian her brother Niels Pedersen. These are both extremely common names, but the different patronyms told me that Niels must have been a half-brother on her mother’s side. Knowing that her mother had produced both a Rasmusdatter and a Pedersen narrowed the field enough for me to finally pick my Mette out of the dozens of Mette Rasmusdatters in this area.
Danes being a practical people, there was a certain flexibility in the traditional naming customs. If, for example, a Jensen married a Jensdatter, they might name each of the first two sons Jens (in which case conversations around the dinner table must have been confusing), or they might name only the first son Jens, in honor of both grandfathers. If a couple had reason to suspect their first son might be the only son (if they already had six daughters, for example, or a tragic series of miscarriages and stillbirths) they might give that son the names of both grandfathers: the son of a Christensen and a Pedersdatter might therefore be named Christen Peder. The same practices could apply with daughters as well as sons. In a desperate family with numerous daughters but no sons, a new daughter might be named in honor of one or both grandfathers using a feminized version of the masculine name: Jensine, Andersine, etc.
A common European-based custom was to memorialize a child who died young by giving a later-born child the same name. In Denmark, this can lead to confusion as to the second child’s age in later life. Some pastors would note in the margins next to the first child’s baptism the fact that the child died and the date of burial to avoid future problems with the next child with the same name, but most didn’t. Your ancestor’s stated age at death may be incorrect because of this situation.
When a widow or widower married again, it was customary to memorialize the deceased spouse by naming the first child in the new marriage (usually, but not always, of the same gender as the deceased) after him or her.
If, in 1762, you find that the first son of Rasmus Jensen and Margrethe Pedersdatter is named Søren, there are four likely explanations: (1) Søren isn’t Rasmus’s first son; Margrethe is a second or later wife, and Rasmus already has a son named Jens by a prior wife. (2) Margrethe is the widow of a man named Søren. (3) Margrethe is a widow who already has a son named Jens, and the stepfather doesn’t want the confusion of having two boys with the same name in the household. (4) One or both parents are of foreign origin, perhaps only one or two generations in Denmark proper, and they don’t feel obliged to follow the Danish naming customs.
The naming customs can help you deduce the name of your female ancestor whose name is not given in any records you have found. (Sometimes even her own probate won’t tell you her name.) You look at the names of her granddaughters: if all her children named their first or second daughter Kiersten, you can be reasonably certain their mother was Kiersten. If her husband was Jens Sørensen and the couple’s first two sons are named Søren and Peder, you know that Kiersten was either a Pedersdatter or the widow or mother of a Peder. This greatly improves your chances of finding the couple’s marriage record, even if—as sometimes happens—the marriage record describes her only as “Peder Skræders Datter” or “Peder Bondes Enke”.
As for Peder himself, you can deduce his patronym and the personal name of his mother the same way, by looking at the names he gave his children.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 3
In rural parishes, villages are the key to success
This is especially true in the common situation where you have an ancestor with a very common name and two or more other persons with that same name born in that parish in the same time frame. The early Danish pastors were aware of this, and even those who recorded as little as possible in their churchbooks generally noted the village of residence. The village of residence is often the only way you can distinguish between other persons in the parish who have the same name, particularly before the 1780s and 1790s, where the names of wives were commonly not recorded in the baptism records of their children. In the case of people with duplicate names in the same village, most conscientious pastors used a tilnavn or other descriptive term to distinguish them.
Bear in mind that during the Stavnsbåndet period (1733-1788) men still could and did move around from village to village and even to other parishes provided they stayed on property belonging to the manorial estate which had jurisdiction over them and got permission (or orders) from the estate to do so. Therefore, you may find records for your Jens Andersen in one village for a few years, then in another village in the same parish, then perhaps in a village in a nearby parish. You’ll be able to tell it’s the same Jens Andersen by the names of people associated with him (more about this later). If Jens Andersen moves to a village where there’s another Jens Andersen already in residence, the pastor might give one or both of them new tilnavne to distinguish them: for example, Lille Jens and Store Jens (which can refer either to age or to physical size); or the newcomer might have his previous village or his trade added as a tilnavn. If one of the Jensens died, the tilnavn was often dropped.
This means that if your ancestor suddenly appears out of nowhere in the churchbook during this era (or suddenly disappears) you should look for him in other villages where the manorial estate had property. There may be several estates which had property in the village where you find him, so this may require a lot of searching before you pick up his trail.
Women, of course, were not bound by Stavnsbåndet, but let’s face it, this was a sexist age and you can be sure that females generally lived with or at least very near the male relatives who were considered responsible for them. So you can track down your Dorethe Jensdatter, who was living in a particular village when she married, by looking at the villages where her father and brothers probably lived. Her sister Maren, however, will be more difficult to find, because Maren and Jens are such common names that every village probably had several Maren Jensdatters.
To find the manorial estate (gods) which had property in the village where your brick-wall ancestor lived, the fastest way is to do a place search at the Family History Library website’s original catalog search site at
http://www.familysearch.org/eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp for the name of the parish. (Be sure to use the special Danish characters if the parish name uses them.) This will bring up, among other things, the category for probate records for this parish. Click on that, and you’ll find a list of all the FHL holdings of estates which had property in that parish. The listing for each estate will tell you whether it had property in the village you are interested in and the time span of the available records. Even if your ancestor’s probate isn’t available, the listing will tell you what other parishes (and the villages within those parishes) might have more records about your brick-wall ancestor and his/her family.
There could be a dozen different manorial estates which owned property in the parish, but usually only two or three have property in the right village. Once you have the right manorial estate, you can also look for your ancestor in the land records (fæsteprotokoller, jordebøger, matrikler), tax records, and military reserve rolls records for that estate.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 4:
Remember that half your ancestors were female
There are still a lot of researchers who seem to think that only the male line is important, or who think it’s “just too complicated” to find the females. They think that if they have line of Bible-style “begats”, that’s enough. It’s not.
Some of your most interesting and/or prominent ancestors will remain unknown to you if you don’t investigate the female line in every generation. You may have nobility or even royalty on the female side, but if you think that only fathers are important, you’ll never know it.
In particular, even if all the generations of your male ancestors lived in the same parish, you may not find some of their marriage records or the baptism records of some of their children there. That’s because marriages, then as now, were generally held in the bride’s home parish (either where she was born or where her parents were living at the time). In other words, you’ll have a hard time finding the men if you don’t make an equal effort to find the women.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 5:
Research the entire extended family, not just the individual
In Danish genealogy, where you often have a choice of several couples who could be your proven ancestor’s parents, you need to identify his siblings and extended family. This means you have to re-examine the records you have, look for other records pertaining to the same family, and squeeze every scrap of information contained in those records for leads to still more records.
You may have the right Jens Rasmussen identified with a solid chain of documentary evidence for every connection down to you, and you may have found a Rasmus Jensen who had a son named Jens in the right time and place, but you have to document the connection between the infant Jens and your ancestor Jens. Anything less, and you have only speculation.
So how can you turn your speculation into proof? You fit your proven ancestor into his or her family group so that there is no other remotely reasonable explanation for all the evidence which is available.
Note that if you can’t find certain records for your direct ancestor, you may have an easier time tracing his brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, which may enable you to run across that missing marriage or baptism or death record where one of those relatives is living.
There are three principles that can help you identify those relatives.
(1) Godparents and witnesses at baptisms are usually close relatives, especially before the 20th century.
(2) Married women retained their own patronyms in all records until the era of permanent family surnames. The 20th century censuses usually give a wife the same surname as her husband, but their maiden names are often added to the census record. In the church records, they are still recorded under their original patronym or surname.
(3) There was a strong tendency for marriages to take place “within the occupation or class”. Clergymen tended to marry the daughters of other clergymen; nobles married other nobles; prosperous landowners looked to marry daughters of other landowners; military oficers often married the daughters of other military officers. More in the middle of the social scale, schoolteachers and skrivers (clerks and scribes) tended to marry educated women or women whose families were fairly well off; millers (often wealthy) tended to marry millers’s daughters. A little farther down the scale, blacksmiths tended to marry blacksmiths’ daughters; bakers, masons or bricklayers, weavers, skræders (tailors), and career military, officers and noncoms (sergeants and corporals), all tended to follow the same pattern.
The class distinction is very important; there was not a lot of upward mobility for the lower classes. Day laborers and field hands generally did not marry the daughters of prosperous millers or farm owners or schoolteachers or commissioned officers in the military.
This means that if your mystery brickwall ancestor is a blacksmith, chances are fairly good that his wife Kiersten Sørensdatter is a blacksmith’s daughter and not the Kiersten Sørensdatter who is the pastor’s daughter. And since men with a trade often learned it from their fathers, your brickwall blacksmith is likely to be the son of a blacksmith, and it’s also fairly likely that his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith. Blacksmiths and their wives who serve as godparents to your brickwall blacksmith couple’s children are especially likely to be close relatives.
But probability is not proof.
So how, exactly, can you solve what a genealogical Sherlock Holmes might call “The Perplexing Problem of the Duplicate Names”?
What works for me is what I call an Associated Names Analysis. This is a fancy name for a very detailed group sheet for an extended family. It enables me to determine the names of a brick-wall ancestor’s parents and at least partially reconstruct the parent’s family.
Step One is to collect the baptismal records of all of my proven ancestral couple’s known children and record all the details given. Since the children’s godparents are normally close relatives of one parent or the other, I make a chronological list of the children’s baptisms, recording for each the date, child’s name, names or other identification of each godparent, place of residence if given, and whether male godparents were called godparents (faddere) or witnesses. I take special note of which female godparent carried the infant to the baptismal font (a considerable honor, not given to any casual acquaintance). I put all of this into a spreadsheet format because I find that to be a good way to organize and sort information, but index cards or any other handwritten format can be used. I leave a column free for speculation or comments as the information accumulated, such as the notation in the record that the woman who carried the infant is stated to be the sister of one of the parents.
Step Two is to look for matches: with my spreadsheet, I can do it quickly by sorting the records by the name of the godparent. If a particular man and/or his wife are godparents to three out of six children, that’s a big clue that there is in fact a close kinship. People with the same patronym or tilnavn as the father or mother may be siblings. In general, anyone who is a godparent more than once to your ancestor’s children is very likely to be related by blood or marriage to that ancestral couple.
It should be noted that in some parishes, the pastor’s wife carried all legitimate babies to the font (the midwife carried the illegitimate ones), so if that’s the case, you can’t count her as a meaningful match. If, however, the pastor’s wife did not have a local monopoly on that honor but does carry one or more babies for your ancestral couple, treat her as any other match and look for a family connection or for other indicators of your ancestral couple’s having higher-than-average wealth and/or status.
Step Three is to go through the churchbook to learn as much as possible about the godparents and their families, in order to determine what the relationship is to the target couple. Key evidence may be found in the baptism records for the godparents’ children; I look particularly at the names the godparents gave their own children as well as for the names of my proven ancestors among those children’s godparents.
In fact, I look for my proven ancestral couple appearing as godparents to other people’s children anywhere in the neighborhood. The more mentions I find of my target couple, the better my chances of finding out the wife’s actual name when her own children’s baptism records don’t include that information. I can also further identify other family members of both husband and wife; indeed, the relationship may be stated in one of those baptisms.
Step Four is to sort out all the people involved according to whether they are or appear to be (same patronym) from the husband’s side or from the wife’s, and then examine each of the two sets for common naming patterns. People on one side who gave the same male name to their first or second sons as your proven ancestor did, and/or the same female name to their first or second daughters, are likely to be siblings of your ancestor.
Once I have garnered this information, I can pick my proven ancestor’s parents out of the crowd. For example, I knew from my proven ancestor’s baptism record and military levying roll entries that his father was named Niels Sørensen; however, there were several Niels Sørensens in the parish and at least two in the right village. The situation was complicated by the fact that during Stavnsbåndet there was no bar to anyone moving to another village; there were several estates that had lands in every village in the area, including those in adjacent parishes.
Judging by his stated age in the first two censuses and in his death record, my Niels was born between 1747 and 1752. There were 2 possible Niels Sørensens born in that time frame who had survived to adulthood. The analysis of the extended family group for my proven ancestor told me that my Niels’s mother was named Birthe or Inger and that he appeared to have brothers named Jens and Søren and sisters named Kiersten and Karen; his wife was almost certainly an Anne. Only one couple fit the picture, and the probates I later found for him and his wife confirmed that I had picked the right couple.
Taking this back a generation, I found that both Søren Nielsen and Søren Jensen died young, while their sons were small children, so their probates weren’t much help, and the names of their children were common names. When I did the Associated Names Analysis for Niels and Anne, I found that some people were godparents to the children of both Søren Nielsen and Søren Jensen. But ignoring the overlaps, each Søren called on a different set of people to be godparents to his children; some of those godparents lived long enough to be godparents to Neils Sørensen’s children too, or had children who were godparents to Niels’s children. The people associated exclusively with Søren Nielsen did not serve as godparents to my Niels Sørensen’s children, but those connected to Søren Jensen did. Søren Jensen was the correct ancestor. The fact that Søren Jensen’s wife was a Birthe was significant, in that son Niels gave that name to his first daughter, in due accordance with naming customs.
Why were there overlaps? I found the answer when I took the analysis back to the previous generation. The two Sørens turned out to be cousins on the maternal side. Eventually I found additional probates which corroborated my findings, but I already was positive, because there was no other reasonable explanation for the names the extended family groups gave their children and the group who were godparents for those children.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is a lot of work. But it will get you through a lot of ancestral brick walls where the churchbooks are available. Best of all, you will have proven that you have picked the right set of parents for your known ancestral couple and can now take the family line back another generation if the records have survived. If this parish’s records don’t go back far enough, try probates, military records, land records, and so on. Even if your ancestor’s probate did not survive, once you know who your ancestor’s relatives are, you may be able to find one of their probates which just might have the information you need.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 6
Examine every possible source of a useful probate
First of all, be aware that not all early rural probates (Skifteprotokoller) were handled by manorial estates; you might find a probate handled by the cavalry district, by the Amtstue, by the local Herredsret, in a judicial district (Birk), or in the records of local civil authorities (Tingbog justitsprotokol). A few people left wills, and if the wills have survived they would be found in the records of the notary who drew them up (Notarialprotokoller). Probates of clergy and their families were usually handled by the Provsti (Deanery) for the Herred. Probates of military personnel, especially those who died in København, were handled by military authorities. A catalog search for probates for a parish usually will list only the manorial estates and the relevant Provsti; you’ll have to search separately for the other types of authorities.
Many market towns (Købstader) were small and in rural areas, and local manorial estates often had property within the Købstad, but every Købstad had its own probate authority (Byfoged). København in particular has excellent finding aids for the probates of people who died there. Check the Family History Library’s website for its holdings on other finding aids for probates.
Of course you’ll look for your brick-wall ancestor’s probate, but don’t despair if the available records which *should* include that probate don’t go back far enough in time, or if his or her probate isn’t on the microfilm. (Many large estates had several contemporaneous probate books, but only some of those have survived.) A probate for someone in a previous or subsequent generation might have information you can’t get any other way. After all, your ancestor did not live and die in a vacuum; he/she had relatives and so did his/her spouse. You’d be surprised how much useful information you can get from the probate of a nephew or cousin-in-law or a maiden great-aunt.
But, I hear you cry, I don’t know who those people were! How can I look for their probates? Answer: Start with an Associated Names Analysis as discussed in the previous section if possible. If you can’t do that, you can
order the microfilms of probates which cover the area where your ancestor lived, including non-manorial jurisdictions (Amtstue, Herredsret, and local Birk).
Looking only at the register (index) of a volume of probates is a common mistake. Look at every probate on the film even if at first glance it appears to have no connection. You don’t have to read through all the pages of every probate: the heirs and their relationship to the deceased are usually listed on the first page and on the last, and you can skim the intervening pages, looking only for names, to see if your ancestor owed or lent money to the deceased.
A probate for anyone in the right time frame (i.e. who died within one or two generations before or after your mystery ancestor’s death) and who lived in the same general area (especially if they were under the jurisdiction of the same estate), can pay off for you; those probates might mention your ancestor in some other capacity.
Your ancestor may be mentioned in an unrelated person’s probate as a Verduringsmand (appraiser of the deceased’s property), as a creditor or debtor, as a deceased prior spouse, as married to an heir, or as a guardian for the widow or children. You may even have the thrill of seeing your ancestor’s signature on a probate document. The juiciest probates of all are those of persons who died without surviving children or grandchildren. A widow or widower would inherit part of the dead person’s property, but the rest would go to the nearest blood relatives of the deceased. In effect, such a probate can give you three or four generations of the extended family line. A childless uncle’s probate gave me not only the name of his brother’s daughter but that of her husband and where the couple were living. Until I found that, I was unable to determine which Kiersten (in a field of 4) was my ancestor. I’ve been able to take that line back 3 generations more as a result.
When I first began looking at probates at my local Family History Center, I had so much difficulty with the handwriting (and the condition of the original documents) that I decided to keep most of the microfilms which covered areas where my ancestors lived on Indefinite Loan, on the theory that ancestors I didn’t yet know about might be in them. Occasionally I revisited some of those films, picking up more details each time. At the most recent examination I had learned so many more names than on previous go-rounds that I decided to look carefully at every probate, and to my astonishment, I broke through two long-standing brick walls in one day. So examining every probate is my new standard practice, and I highly recommend that you do likewise once you get as far back as the early 1800s, when the probate records are still full of detail.
As a general rule, the later the probate year, the less useful information is to be found in it. Many documents from about 1820 onwards filed under “Skifteprotokoller” are simple 1- or 2-paragraph death notifications to the civil authorities. But even those can tell you for certain that the Jens Sørensen whose death record you have found is the one whose children include your proven ancestor.
Brick-Wall Rule No. 7
If all else fails, fall back on a parish-by-parish search.
Sometimes there is simply not enough information available in the records you’ve found to point you to the missing records. This is particularly true for the period before the standardized churchbooks were distributed beginning in 1812 (some parishes didn’t get their new churchbooks until 1815 or even 1816).
Some early pastors apparently didn’t quite grasp why they were supposed to keep churchbooks in the first place. It appears that they simply made lists to prove that they were doing their jobs; either that, or they were determined to use as little paper and ink as possible. An entire baptism record by one such pastor in 1785 reads “Dom: 18 a. Trin: Smedens søn i Keilstrup—Hans.” No godparents, not even the father’s name. You can’t do an Associated Names Analysis if the associated names were not recorded.
This same pastor apparently wrote down his records during the year on any scrap of paper that was handy, then sat down at the beginning of the next year to enter the records into the churchbook. Some years, it seems he managed to lose all those slips of paper, so that in his two rather large parishes, there are several “miracle years” when no babies were born, no marriages were celebrated, and no one at all died. And of course, the “miracle years” coincide with the years which should have had the vital records of certain of my ancestors.
In that situation, the solution is to find more records: easy to say, not so easy to do.
I’m assuming at this point that you have already looked in vain for any mention of your brick-wall ancestor in every possible probate microfilm that seems to cover the general area where the ancestor lived. But you’re still not out of options.
If all you have is one or two unhelpful baptism records, and no census records, you can still calculate a very general notion as to the ages of the parents. Males were not supposed to marry before age 20 and females not before age 16. Therefore, if they first appear as a married couple in 1772, you can say with fair confidence that the husband was probably born no later than 1752 and the wife no later than 1756 unless they obtained a royal dispensation (Kongebrev) to marry younger. Since women in general even now rarely have babies after the age of about 45, you can also say that the wife was probably born no earlier than 45 years before the birth of her last known child, and more likely no earlier than about 40 years. That’s a little help in narrowing down the possibles.
Before the period when censuses and military levying rolls are available, if your brick-wall ancestral couple pops up out of nowhere just long enough to produce your proven ancestor and then disappear, consider the possibility that the husband is in the army (even if the baptism record doesn’t say so), and that his unit has moved out of the area and billeted him to another parish. If the godparents are clearly neighbors rather than relatives, an Associated Names Analysis won’t help, but it’s just possible that you may find the father on one of the surviving reserve lists or muster rolls. A knowledge of Danish military history is a great help here: if you know when there were wars and military reorganizations you can tell whether your ancestor’s disappearance coincides with one of those situations.
During the Stavnsbåndet period (1733-1788) your best bet is the records of the likely manorial estates for the place your mystery ancestor lived. The estates were responsible for providing a regular quota of eligible males for the army, so if those manorial reserve lists have survived, your man might be on it. You might also find him on the land records (matrikler, jordbøger, fæsteprotokoller) or tax lists of those estates; some fæsteprotokoller do give a birthplace for men who became fæsters.
If the churchbooks covering the right time span for the parish your brick-wall ancestor lived in have not survived, or if they are lamentably short on useful information, you may still learn something about that family from the churchbooks of other parishes. Your ancestor may appear as a godparent in a nearby parish, for example, even if the other set of parents don’t appear on your Associated Names list and even if the other couple were under the jurisdiction of a different estate.
In addition, you can search the churchbooks for every other parish where one of those estates also had property, even if it’s relatively far from the parish where you have some of his records. Your male ancestor was not forbidden to cross estate lines to marry a girl whose family were bound to a different estate, so to be thorough you need to check out all the parishes near the parishes where your ancestor’s possible estate had other lands. This can lead you to dozens of churchbooks, but sometimes this is the only hope of finding the missing records.
A really thorough search of all possible records that might contain information about your brick-wall ancestor can lead you into some pretty deep waters, such as civil court records (Tingbøger) or manorial accounts (Godsregnskaber) which are notoriously difficult to read and full of specialized vocabulary. But they’re worth the effort of finding them, because the early censuses commonly tell you only what his housing status is (Indsidder, Inderste, Huusmand etc.) and not how he made a living. Early churchbooks may tell you which village he lived in but often likewise fail to tell you what work he did. Even his probate may not tell you that, although the inventory of his property certainly gives you an idea of how prosperous (or poor) he was.
The trouble with genealogy is that it can tell you everything about your ancestors except the things you really want to know: what sort of people were they? Kind, good-natured, generous, much loved all over the parish? Cranky, quarrelsome, abusive, alcoholic, violent? Hard-working or lazy? Shrewd or dim-witted? Optimists or pessimists? Did they love their spouses? Were their lives made harder because of domestic tragedy? Were they solid, responsible, trustworthy? A record for one dispute settled in civil court can give you something of a window onto your ancestor’s life that answers some of those questions.
Sooner or later, of course, in every line you will come to a brick-wall ancestor only to discover that the churchbooks and surviving Tingbøger and land and tax records and other useful records simply don’t go back far enough. You eventually may have to record your brick-wall Rasmus Sørensen’s parents as “Søren UNKNOWN” and “Soren’s Wife (possibly Mette) UNKNOWN,” and let it go at that. But don’t do it until you are positive that you have examined all possible sources of information.
Genealogy is not for the faint of heart.
Photo above is part of ruined castle at Kalo near Aarhus Denmark.