Census and Sensibilities for Crossing the Pond (part 1)

A proponent of thorough research, I believe that this is how we build the stories that puts flesh and bones on our ancestors. Knowing my relative’s trials and tribulations helps me make sense of my life. It allows me to compare my lot in life, to theirs. Sometimes this gives me comfort, but other times it gives me a kick in the pants to dream bigger. Either way, I find my family fascinating, and I know the facts about their lives better than anybody else on the planet today.

As a professional researcher, when I am hired to find a client’s family abroad sometimes they have done an incredible job of doing thorough research but other times they provide only scant information and believe there is a shortcut to take.

Johannes Andersson Census

1880 Sveriges Befolkning, Tåstarp Parish

A foreign census can be very helpful to finding your ancestor abroad. In cases of unique names, large targets of several people, or knowing a general location where somebody immigrated, all make using a foreign census an extremely handy tool.  Short cutting the thorough research approach is an intermediate skill that should be used sensibly and cautiously. A researcher cannot rely on one record alone and must use a combination of records, documents, stories, and other evidence to confirm conclusions.

Case in point, a client, called me and asked if I could help him find his great-grandparents in Sweden. He told me the story of Johannes Andersson and Amanda Charlotta Nilson. His grandmother had been searching for thirty years to discover their nativity. His mother started helping ten years later, and she had been researching them for 20 years. My client jumped into the fray about ten years earlier. All totaled they had about 60 years of combined research on this family, and they could not find them in Sweden. They blamed Johannes’ common name for the root of their difficulties.

We went through the story of how his great-grandfather had started a stair company in New York City, Andersson’s Stairs, with his brothers (note: the brothers created a larger target of people to find in Sweden), and my client gave me their names; Edward, Axel, and Carl. The brothers also had a sister that immigrated to the United States. They also had some family stories about two siblings that had died in Sweden when they were young.

The client had also engaged another professional previously to no avail. They were at their wits end with this case. I was their last ditch effort to discovering the origins of their ancestors in Sweden. The client emailed me one document, the marriage record of their great-grandparents. While on the phone with them I started to analyze the information.

The 14 May 1890 marriage record was very rich with information (see picture). If you had family members in downstate New York in the late 19th century, you are blessed with some incredibly bountiful records. One of the first things I noticed was the handwriting. The minister used Swedish spelling of names, the style of the writing consistent with 19th century records in Sweden, he used Swedish diacritics and date formats for the birth dates. This minister trained in Sweden. That means he probably knew the proper spellings of place names.

Another thing that struck me was Johannes Andersson’s father’s name was Magnus Andersson. The possible issue, I saw here, was Sweden was going through a change in their naming conventions in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They were switching from a patronymic naming structure to that of a surname structure. It was very common for Swedes coming to the United States during this period to adopt the surname of their father but in Swedish records, they were still referred to by their patronymic name. In this case, Johannes is the son of Magnus, thus, his name would have been Johannes Magnusson.

I asked the client who they were looking for in Sweden, and he said, “Johannes Andersson of course.” I said, “You may be looking for the wrong person.” When I explained the patronymic naming convention to the client, they were dumbstruck saying, “We have always wondered why the youngest brother Carl used the surname Magnusson.”

Finding your family abroad is fraught with many twists and turns. It is imperative that we not only have a working understanding of the laws, language, records, customs, religions, naming conventions, and such in the United States but it is equally important we have the same knowledge of the foreign country of our ancestor we wish to find. Absent that, we run the risk of searching for decades without a positive result.

Part two of this post will examine how a basic working knowledge of names, records,and censuses pays huge dividends. Everybody can become proficient at finding their ancestors abroad.


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