Tracing Danish Ancestors

Tracing Danish ancestors back to Denmark can certainly be challenging. Realize that up until 1826, when the use of patronymic surnames was legally abolished, there was quite a system in use. If you study the diagram below, you can see the pattern of naming that was used. Consider Jens Sørensen to be the father and Kirsten Mortensdatter to be the mother. You can see that Jens’ last name is a combination of his father’s first name, “Søren” + the Danish word for “son” – “sen” = Sørensen. Kirsten takes her father’s first name for her surname but it is a combination of his name, “Morten” and the Danish word for “daughter” – “datter” = Mortensdatter. This is simple.

For Jens and Kirsten’s children, the names are a combination of the grandparents and parents names, depending on if you are first born or not. First-born children get the paternal grandparent names and second-born children get the maternal grandparent names.

Tracing Danish Ancestors chart

I have been tracing Danish ancestors of a family and I will give you some of the things that I have run into and how you can find the answers if you let your imagination create possibilities. So, although this was a system in use, there were always exceptions like everything in life.

Okay, so the use of patronymic surnames was abolished, so realize that from 1826 to around 1870, you will find a mish-mash of last names.

For first names, there were times when it was customary NOT to use the first name of someone who was living, or to use someone who was more distantly related to the family. Also, for instance, if the child’s maternal grandfather had a higher social status than the paternal grandfather, the couple might decide to use his name for their first son; likewise, if they had inherited a farm or house that had originally belonged to that grandfather.

If someone lost a spouse, it was customary to name the first child from the new marriage after the deceased spouse. A child could have been named after a parent if it was born after the father’s death, or if the mother died in childbirth. A baby might also have been named after an older sibling who had died.

Another variation could be that the child was named in memory of a deceased relative even though they were of a different sex. For instance, a little girl could be baptized as “Sørine” after a deceased grandfather named “Søren”. Likewise, a little boy could be named “Marinus” after a grandmother named “Marie”.

Hopefully, you are getting the idea of what possibilities exist when you are tracing Danish ancestors. However, if you know the possibilities, you will be able to spot that that may be the person you are looking for when searching records.

A few examples that I ran into while tracing Danish ancestors are:

  •  Sørensen is the current surname for the family. The great-grandfather’s name was Peder Sørensen, but no father for him could be found. Peder was born in 1841, right in the middle of the surname confusions. There was also some family story that their real last name could be Stenstrup and not Sørensen at all. Okay, so looking at the Danish records, a Søren Olsen was found with a son named Peder born in the right year. That would make sense and it would be following the patronymic system for surnames. Looking closer, I found that Søren was born in Stenstrup By (“by” is the Danish word for “city”). Mystery solved – Stenstrup was where he was from. Just to show you how the system actually went, we had:

 Peder Sørensen -> Søren Olsen -> Ole Nielsen -> Niels Olsen

  • A second example is the use of Ravnholt as a surname for the maternal side of the family. The grandfather’s name was listed as being Anders Christensen Ravnholt. Tracing him further back was proving very difficult. One thing that happened here was that Christensen was an Americanized version of the actual name – Kristensen. Anders was born in 1846, again, mid the changing of surnames. However, there were virtually no Ravnholts to find. Remembering my Stenstrup example, I dropped the Ravnholt part of the name and did find Anders’ father – Kirsten Andersen. Anders was born in Ravnholt By and the actual Danish Census that lists he and his family has his daughter with the last name of Ravnholt. This is an example of a family’s last name actually being a place of birth.
  • A third example is that a couple of the people were listed in different records under different, but explainable last names. One woman was listed as Inger Jensen and Inger Thestrup. Per the old system, she should have been Inger Jensdatter as her father’s name was Jens. Jens took on a variation of a place-name for HIS last name and so it was Thestrup (actual city is Testrup, which is near where he was born). So, Inger was both Jensen and Thestrup.
  • Another female had the same thing – she was both Ane Marie Jensen and Ane Marie Poulson – the first being her father’s first name with the masculine ending. The second was her father’s last name (which was HIS father’s first name).

I suggest when you do start looking, to have open on your computer a Danish/English translator and a map that lists current and past place names in Denmark. The names and spellings have changed over time, so be sure to be open to variations. It helped me tremendously to have a map printed and next to me so I could see that there was a consistency in locations for people.

I found good websites for searching to be:

Danish family search = – it is free and was very helpful. Generally here, you will not be looking at the originals. Know that there may be errors in transcription.

Danish state archives = – this is also free. You can see the actual records here, but must know where exactly to look by parish. This is possible when you get the information from the above website. Have to hand, examples of Danish handwriting from the 1800s and your translator. This site has a lot of tips to help you find what you wish.

Good luck, or as the Danish say it – held og lykke,   


3 Responses to “Tracing Danish Ancestors”

  1. […] search.  It probably should have been the first one in the series, which started with the post Tracing Danish Ancestors,  as what I cover pertains to the others as well, but there you go.  I hope you find these posts […]

  2. […] help you build your family tree.  This is the fourth in the series that started on 1 Jan 2014 with Tracing Danish Ancestors.  I hope these prove useful to you in your family history […]

  3. Michelle says:

    Hello from New Zealand.
    A great site.
    I have sent you a Facebook message for help with a Danish ancestor.

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