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Danish Ancestors: Why Did They Emigrate from Denmark?

Lene Dræby Kottal, Certified Genealogist®
Danish Ancestors: Why Did They Emigrate from Denmark?

Many of my clients want to know why their Danish ancestors emigrated, and they are interested in more than the general explanation of unemployment, financial difficulties, etc. When the story has not been passed down in the family, the question cannot always be answered. However, in this blog post I give two examples of how you might find the reason for your ancestor's emigration.

If you haven't already found your Danish ancestor in the original Copenhagen Police Emigrant Register or the Danish passenger list, you might want to read my previous blog posts on how to do that.

The Danish Emigration Archives: Letters, Diaries, Memoirs

The Danish Emigration Archives hold thousands of manuscripts and photos, as well as audio and video recordings related to emigration from Denmark. The holdings include photographs, letters, diaries, memoirs, etc. written by emigrants, and some of them have been imaged and are available online for free. The collection covers Danish emigrants to many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Argentina, Sweden, Germany, and England.

You search the collection using this search form: https://www.aalborgstadsarkiv.dk/UA_SoegISamlingen.asp

You can limit the search in time by adding from (Fra) and to (Til) years, and by one or more of the source types:

  1. Arkivsfonds are not really a record type, but rather the creator of the collection.
  2. Billeder means images.
  3. Film means video recordings.
  4. Lydklip means audio recordings.
  5. Andet means other

Beware that all types are preselected. When the check box is filled in black, it is selected. Click the box to unselect that type.

Below the search button (Start Søgning) is a check box. If you check it, the results will only include digitized material (Kun digitaliseret materiale).

The search field is free-form text (Fritekst), so you can search for anything you might find relevant. However, you should consider the following:

  • The database only contains a brief description of each document and not a transcript of the entire document. Therefore, you might want to search just for a surname or a surname and an occupation or a place.
  • Do not limit your search to your ancestor. Search for your ancestor's friends and family members. Perhaps your ancestor is mentioned in someone else's diary, memoir, or letter.
  • Letters are usually in Danish because they were sent to someone who had stayed behind in Denmark. Some of the diaries and memoirs are in English, but the description thereof is in Danish.
  • You cannot use any wildcards, so you may have to do multiple searches to cover all alternate spellings.
  • You cannot use quotation marks to search for a specific combination of words or names.
  • The search engine automatically adds the percentage wildcard to the ends of all search terms, so a search for Pauls includes Paulson and Paulsen.
  • Some words and places may be abbreviated or names may be listed as initials. For instance, Californien 8Danish for California) may have been abbreviated "Calif." Consider searching for Calif instead of California to include collections where the place name is abbreviated.
  • The order of the search terms doesn't make a difference, so you don't have to worry about that.

When you have searched, you are given a list of results, as well as the option to limit the results by more source types:

  1. Alle means all.
  2. Arkivsfonds are not really a record type, but rather the creator of the collection.
  3. Billeder means images.
  4. Film means video recordings.
  5. Lydklip means audio recordings.
  6. Kort means maps.
  7. Tegninger means drawings, e.g. drawings of buildings and persons.
  8. Skrifter means manuscripts.
  9. Udklip means clippings, such as newspaper clippings.
  10. Genstande means items, such as a flag.

Example: Memoir of J. P. Paulsen (1880-1963)

I searched for Californien, which is the Danish version of California. One of the results was the memoir of farmer and carpenter Jens Peter Paulsen of Concordia, Kansas, and San Diego, California; written in English.

The J. P. Paulsen memoir is a good example of why you shouldn't limit your search to your own ancestors. Here is an extract:

"Uncle Lars died on his birthday the day he was seventy-eight. I visited him that day at the St. Joseph Hospital in Concordia, Kansas. His wife's sister married Peter Gertson and to them were born thirteen children. Their farms were about three miles apart."

Four short sentences packed with information. If that doesn't convince you to do cluster research, I don't think anything can.

I quoted the passage from the memoirs before the website was changed in 2024. Unfortunately, the digital images of the memoirs are no longers available online. I hope the website will be updated to include the images again soon.

For the direct link to relevant materials, copy the link labeled Direkte Link in the black box with the details for that collection.

Letters Published in Newspapers

Not all letters that emigrants sent back home told the truth, but nonetheless it is a treasure to have an emigrant ancestor's own account of things. Some letters were published in the Danish newspapers.

You can search the digitized, Danish newspapers for free at Mediestream: https://www2.statsbiblioteket.dk/mediestream/

Besides from searching for relevant names, try these search terms to find letters in the newspapers:

  • "Brev fra Amerika" or "Breve fra Amerika" (letter(s) from America).
  • "Beretning fra Amerika" or "Beretninger fra Amerika" (account(s) from America).
  • Replace Amerika with "De Forenede Stater" (the United States) in the above search terms to cover that variant.
  • Replace Amerika with Australien, New Zealand, England, or another place name to search for letters and accounts from those countries.

Example: A Letter from Chr. Nielsen in Sydney, Australia, 1912

I searched for "Brev fra Australien" and came across a letter from Chr. Nielsen to a socialist union in Denmark. The article starts with an introduction by the union but continues with a transcript of the letter. The article provides evidence that Chr. Nielsen traveled to Argentina in November 1911, complained about Argentina in a letter a few months later, and then several months later this letter came in which he explained that he had traveled to Sydney. Furthermore, it explains that he wanted to fight for union rights abroad. That was his reason to emigrate.

Do You Need Help with Your Research?

I can help you research many aspects of your Danish ancestor's lives, including their emigration. If you want to hire me, you can request a free preliminary survey.


Source References:

The image at the top of the post: Adapted from "Et Brev fra Australien," Solidaritet (Copenhagen, Denmark), 28 September 1912, p. 4; image, the Royal Danish Library, Mediestream (http://hdl.handle.net/109.3.1/uuid:20b19cc2-f68b-48b4-b9c0-2f88650aff68 : accessed 15 September 2023).