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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 digital collection includes letters, diaries, memoirs, etc. written by the emigrants. 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: http://www.udvandrerarkivet.dk/soegeside/

The default database selection is Udvandrerarkivet, which is what you want for this search. You can limit the search in time by moving the sliders in the timeline, and by one or more of the four record types:

  1. Fotografier means photographs
  2. Breve & Dokumenter means letters and documents
  3. Filmoptagelser means video recordings
  4. Lydoptagelser means audio recordings

The search field is free-form text, 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.
  • The letters are usually in Danish because they were sent to someone who stayed in Denmark. Some of the diaries and memoirs are in English, but the description thereof is in Danish.
  • You could add the record type to the search, but then you want to use the Danish words such as:
    • Brev (letter)
    • Erindringer (memoirs)
    • Dagbog (diary)
  • You can use the underscore character as a wildcard for one character.
  • You can use the percentage sign as a wildcard for any number of characters.
  • The search engine automatically adds the percentage wildcard to both ends of all search terms.
  • You cannot use quotation marks to search for a specific combination of words or names.

Example 1: 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.

When you've done your own search, click a search result to see the description and the scan. Once you have the result open, you can enlarge the image by clicking it. That also gives you some tools to zoom, adjust the contrast (kontrast) and brightness (lysstyrke), and rotate the image (rotér).

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.

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 2: 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 my help, 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).