Genealogy - how to get started

To conduct research about any particular person it is necessary to start with some basic information: their full name; the date and place of their birth; marriage, death or an exact address in a year during which a population census in Denmark took place.

What you need to know before you start

It would probably be impossible to find your great-grandmother if, for example, the only information available is her name, and the fact that she came from Denmark. The records contained in The Danish National Archives have been gathered from hundreds of local agencies – however, there is no master index or computer file that covers them all, so you will have to know which records to search in.

An example of the type of basic information required is:

  • Full name
  • Date and place of birth, marriage or death
  • An exact address in a year when a population census was conducted.

Things that would be helpful…

If only scant information is available about your ancestors, the first step would naturally be to try and get details from elderly relatives or friends. Make note of names, places and dates – even though they may not be totally accurate. If there is no-one left to ask, valuable clues might be found in documents such as:

  • Certificates of Birth, Death or Marriage, etc. Make sure to bring copies with if you come personally to the Archives.
  • Old letters – look for names, locations and so on.
  • Envelopes – look for addresses and postal stamps.
  • Photographs – look for the name and address of the photographer.

Beware of family myths

Most families have an assortment of stories regarding their ancestors. Such ‘history’ may contain valuable information – but beware!

Family tradition – particularly stories handed down verbally from one generation to the next – is often colourful and vivid, focusing on what sounds exciting, and what appears to make the history of this particular family unique.

Not all stories are reliable, and it often happens that an alleged illegitimate daughter of a local count will turn out to have parents who were smallholders or farmers – not necessarily less interesting, but factually incorrect!

Beware of strange-sounding names and places

Parents or grandparents may have given you the names of certain ancestors. You might also have been told where they came from, or where they lived. Such information is not necessarily accurate.

Remember, many emigrants changed their names. Possibly local authorities in the new country had difficulty spelling or pronouncing the original name. Perhaps the emigrants changed their name in order to “blend in”.

Places of origin you were told of might also have been inaccurate. Many mistakes, incorrect spelling and so forth could have occurred during the journey across the Atlantic.

If an emigrant was asked where she come from, the answer might not have been the place of birth, but rather the name of the city or village that was the last place of residence before emigration. Alternatively, if the residence was near a market town or a large city, the name of this more “important” landmark might have been given. Thus “Marie Jensen” from the suburb of Valby might easily have become known as “Mary Johnson from Copenhagen”.