At the annual Viking Market in Gudvangen, Western Norway, new generations of Vikings from all over the world come together and celebrate. (Photo: Njardar Vikinglag)
By Caroline Guntur
Do you descend from the Vikings? If you claim heritage from any of the Scandinavian countries, there’s a good chance you have Viking blood. Wouldn’t it be amazing to trace your connections to that culture?
As a Genealogist, I can tell you that discovering your heritage and your ancestors’ journeys is one of the most rewarding experiences you can imagine. Understanding where you came from and how you got to where you are completely changes your outlook on life. It makes you a more open and tolerant person because you start to realize that everyone is connected – it’s just a matter of how and when.
So where do you begin? Here are a few steps to get your started:
Step 1: Write Down What You Already Know
The first thing you should do is write down what you already know. You probably already have the basic information you need to get started, such as your own name and birthdate, your parents’ names, your grandparents’ names, and so on.
Do you know if your ancestors were Swedish? Were they Danish? Norwegian? Compiling the facts you already have available to you lays the foundation for your research and lets you define what questions you want to get answered. Start by recording all of this information and the respective sources.
Step 2: Interview Your Family
Before you look for any official records on your family, ask your relatives if they might have something to share. More often than not, your family is sitting on a goldmine of information, like documents and old photos.
The older generation may remember a great deal that you’ve never known about, and I recommend asking them for help while you have the chance.
Try to reach out to extended family as well. You never know what you might find! When you get to this point, you’ll inevitably have some questions pop into your mind about what else you want to find out.
Now the real fun can begin!
Step 3: Define Your Scope
If you’ve ever seen those nice commercials for Ancestry.com that tout “you don’t have to know what you’re looking for, you just have to start looking,” you may be thinking that it’s not very important to define your research questions. Au contraire. As much as I love Ancestry (and their marketing team), I have to disagree.
Defining your research questions is one of the most fundamental steps you need in order to see results. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you find it? You need to write down a specific question, so that you can begin to look for the right answer. Genealogy works best when you ask a specific question and then find the answer to that question before moving on to something else.
How much do you want to find out? “As much as possible” is probably the most common answer, but it isn’t the best one. Genealogy is one of those fields where the more you research, the more questions you will have, and if you’re not careful, it snowballs out of control. You need to define your scope and set an attainable goal. Once you have reached that goal, set another one.
Don’t start by trying to link your family tree to that of Charlemagne. Instead, try starting by finding solid evidence on what village, town, or country your ancestors emigrated from. I guarantee that you will not run out of whys because the answer to a question always leads to another question. Start small, so you don’t get overwhelmed.
Organize Your Information
As you start to accumulate more and more information, you’ll need to stay organized. Decide if you want to keep your information digitally, or if you’d rather go the old fashioned route (by using a pen and paper). Both ways work just fine, but understand that as you continue to gather information, it’ll get harder and harder to keep it all organized. If you’re set on working traditionally, get a set of dedicated binders, and set up a system to keep it all in order.
Invest in a Software
If you’d rather go the digital route, you need to be tech-savvy enough to understand how to grab screenshots, download PDFs, and backup your computer. Once you have that information, you don’t want to lose it!
These programs may carry a small out-of-pocket cost, but they will be invaluable to you as you continue on your journey. A software will keep your information organized and easily accessible, and you’ll be able to analyze your sources better, create charts, and much more. The better organized you are, the more you’ll discover.
A good place to start looking for records is online. There are very few costs involved and it’s a good place to start exploring. You’ll want to look for a reputable sources that can give you more clues about where to find copies of your family’s original documents.
Two great places to start are Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. When you find information on your family, make a note of the source citation, so that you can look for the original document if it’s not yet available online. If you find that original, make a copy of it, record the information, cite it, and file it for future reference.
Researching in Norway
For those of you who want to research Norwegian records, I suggest starting with DigitalArkivet. This is a digital archive by the National Archives of Norway that holds a lot of digitized records, like censuses, parish records, and land records. You can search for free, but you’ll need to know the basics about your family, such as their names, the dates the lived, and the area where they were from.
Researching in Denmark
If you’re family emigrated from Denmark, you can start by checking out Dansk Demografisk Database by the Danish National Archives. This online database is a great place to search digitized census records that may include your family. You will need to know where your family lived as well as their names and the correct time period.
Researching in Sweden
You have many options when it comes to looking for Swedish records. The Swedish National Archives has a digital database called SVAR, which holds everything from census records to estate inventories. You do need a subscription, but it’s reasonably priced, and you have the option to subscribe for a day or two if you only need to look up a few things.
Another worthwhile investment is a subscription to ArkivDigital, a Swedish company that continually digitizes records and makes them available through their database. They have over 65 million records available to you with just a few clicks.
Visit a Repository
Unfortunately, not all of the world’s information is online yet. Digitization projects are well underway all over the globe, but it will take decades before even a fraction of the world’s documents will be available via your computer, so at some point, you’ll need to visit a library or two.
If you live in a different country than the one your ancestor lived in, it may be a bit trickier, but there are ways to overcome this obstacle. Many repositories offer scanning & copy services that you can take advantage of in exchange for a small fee. You can also hire a local genealogist to retrieve information for you (visit the Association of Professional Genealogists to find one).
Nothing replaces in-house research, so don’t hesitate if you get the chance to visit a repository in person to look for sources.
Analyze Your Evidence
Being a genealogist is much like being a lawyer, you’re just working in a different time period. You have to be able to prove your conclusion with sound reasoning and reliable sources, otherwise what good is it? Did aunt Bertha really know what happened, or did she just overhear some gossip? Does that family tree online really have original source records for 11,000 people? And what about Nelson and Nilsson – are they the same person, or two different guys?
Without analyzing the evidence you find, you can’t draw a valid conclusions about what really happened, so try to learn about the different types of evidence and how to best use it. For an excellent resource on citing and analyzing evidence, pick up a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ genealogical masterpiece Evidence Explained.
Learn about the Genealogical GPS
Genealogy has its own set of ethical, moral, and scientific standards, which are collectively known as the the GPS (the Genealogical Proof Standard). These guidelines will help you become a better researcher, help you analyze your evidence, and help you draw conclusions to accurately determine exactly what happened all those years ago.
Let the GPS be your navigation system!
To find out more about the standards, visit BCG (the Board of Certification for Genealogists) online. You can also purchase a copy of the book Genealogy Standards.
Connect with other Researchers
Today’s media society makes it easy to connect with other people who are searching the same areas (and maybe even the same people!) as you. If you find that this type of detective work is a hobby you’d like to continue, reach out to other genealogists and educate yourself as much as possible.
In the genealogy world, there are webinars every day of the week (often free). There are hundreds of great blogs you can follow, and amazing classes you can take. You can even reach out for help on social media. I happen to have a wonderful Facebook group called the Scandinavian Genealogy Group that caters to hobby genealogists with Scandinavian heritage, and I know that mine’s not the only one out there.
When you bounce ideas back and forth with others, you’re more likely to make progress, so don’t be a stranger! Connect!
Let’s Get Started!
I can’t promise that you’ll be able to trace your heritage all the way back to the Vikings, but it isn’t an impossible feat. Genealogy is a complex topic and it takes years to master the craft of how to research efficiently, how to cite your sources, and how to analyze evidence, but it just takes curiosity to begin.
What is one thing you’d like to know?
About the Author:
Caroline Guntur is a Certified Photo Organizer, Family Historian, and Genealogist. A native of Ystad, Sweden, Caroline now resides just outside of Chicago, IL, where she runs The Swedish Organizer, LLC., a company that helps people discover, and preserve their family stories.
She is a member of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO), the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), the Association of Personal Historians (APH), and the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).
You can find her at SearchingScandinavia.com.