After having uncovered some interesting records in my father’s genealogy several years ago, I came up against roadblocks and stopped progressing. I then abandoned my research for about two years and hadn’t looked at Ancestry for myself in that amount of time. When I accessed the database just this week I searched again the names on the Swedish side of my family and had quite a pleasant surprise with the results. A whole “LifeStory” appeared for a great- great grandmother who previously disappeared from the records after 1872. I was thrilled when I found that Kerstin Olsdotter lived until 1940 and the ripe old age of 91! She appeared on the Arvidsson-Slakttrad family tree connected through a sibling. This was the result of the database Sweden, Selected Indexed Death Records 1840-1860, 1878-1942 being added to Ancestry.
Previously, the method for searching all Swedish records was to page through the various actual parish registers or church books that are arranged by county, then parish, then smaller place, which was often a farm. The Swedish churches kept track of the people’s life activities in these books. The church books recorded and were divided into books for births (födde), deaths (död), marriages (vigsel), household examinations (husförhör) and also movement into (inflyttning) or out of (utflyttning) the parishes. The arrangement of the books was chronological by place, but prior to 1894 there were no standard forms for recordkeeping. So multiple types of records could be kept in a book and the arrangement was up to the particular parish. Before, in searching Ancestry, you would start at the Card Catalog, go to Sweden, Church Records and drill down a series of menus to get to the book you needed to “page” through and start digitally turning pages, looking through the entries. If you flipped through too quickly, the database would often crash, bringing up a page with a picture of a little boy and a message saying the database was unavailable. I saw that little boy frequently as I got more adept at searching and was apparently going faster than the search engine could handle! In addition to the cumbersome searching method, some of the Swedish cursive is quite ornate and contains some idiosyncrasies we are not used to. For example, in this record you can see that the third “s” in Isaksson is written differently than the previous two, more like an “f.” Also notice that “Olsdotter” is shortened to “Olsdr.” There was also a local practice of record takers crossing out names to indicate the person moved out of the area or died. Shortcuts and idiosyncrasies abound and although learning them can be a fun and rewarding aspect of genealogy, it could take many months of hour-long sessions to find a record. So to have these records indexed was a huge relief. There are still plenty of challenges left in Swedish research.
I was excited when I saw the timeline (or in Ancestry-speak, the LifeStory) of my great- great- grandmother’s life, although as any self-respecting researcher knows, you must do the searches yourself and realize that assumptions may have been made which led to inaccurate conclusions. I already had some information on Kerstin Olsdotter. Some years ago I had contacted a researcher in Sweden who was willing to search for my ancestors using the database for the Sveriges Dodbok, 1947-2006, which is readily available in Sweden. From him I obtained the birthdates for Kerstin and her son and many dates and details on his life, but could not find her beyond 1872. At that time, she left the farm where she lived with her small son for the large town of Karlsham, which had several industries,and although her son was traceable through his own children’s birth records, she seemingly vanished.
So once I found her name in the LifeStory I started re-doing the searches myself. From a record in the database Sweden, Selected Indexed Death Records 1840-1860, 1878-1942, I found that at the time of her death, she was known as Kerstin Isaksson, my family name. Death Records was added to Ancestry in April of 2015 and updated again just two months later. Before this, I had Kerstin’s birth record, baptism, the record of the birth of her son and her leaving Svalemala, the farm where she lived with him, and nothing else. But with the addition of just this one database and Kerstin’s death date the whole story of her life opened up.
Perhaps the reason I was intrigued by this relative was because of the bit of notoriety which surrounded her. We had always heard from my grandfather that his last name could have been Gunnarsson, but was Isaksson instead. He alluded to a scandal but never gave details and I was too young at the time of his death to press further. When I initially started my Swedish research I learned that Carl August Gunnarsson Isaksson (my grandfather’s father) had been born oäkta (meaning illegitimate) and had been given two last names. Kerstin Olsdotter had lived on a farm (Svalemala) at the time of his birth and according to the husförhör (household survey) there were two possible people who could have been named father to her child. I have since assumed that this was the scandal he alluded to. At this time in Sweden an unmarried mother was sometimes brought to court and asked to name the father of her child. This was to force support of the child on the father. An article from FamilySearch.org states that from as far back as the early 1800s, about one tenth of the births in Sweden were to an unmarried women. The term “Stockholm marriage” referred to the not uncommon situation of unmarried couples living together. This was more common in the larger cities and may have been a result of the churches strict requirements for the couple having a certain amount of money before they married. But in the countryside, on a farm, such a situation was most likely still scandalous as the church played a much larger part in rural areas. So had Kerstin been through the court process and refused to name the father? Or had she simply not known? Either way, prior to finding out the details of her life I had assumed, because I could find no record of Kerstin, that she had died early on or simply disappeared, a shamed woman, into an unforgiving society. Although I sensed a courageous spirit, I had always felt a sense of sadness about her life
Finding Kerstin’s death date and further records transformed her story for my family because I could trace her name and the concrete events of her life. My cousin always claims we come from a tradition of warrior women and Kerstin’s story was starting to look like a heroine’s journey to me. Whatever you call it, Kerstin Olsdotter had been a single mother working on a farm in the countryside. She left for a larger town fifteen miles away, not a short journey in those times and at 35 began a 56 year marriage to Sone Isaksson. Was this her son’s father? They shared the same last name as her son and came from the farm she lived stayed connected to her siblings, even becoming foster mother to her sister’s daughter after her death; and she remained connected to her son her entire life: he is listed on the household survey with her and her husband until age 23, and he and his children took the last name of her new husband, eventually dropping Gunnarsson. Carl August Gunnarsson Isaksson, Kerstin’s son, and his first several children had always been listed with two last names and he continued to be until his death, but most of his children, including my grandfather, adopted the name Isaksson. This probably points to Carl’s paternity which I will continue to research.
In addition to Sweden, Selected Indexed Death Records, 1840-1860, 1878-1942, Ancestry added Sweden, Select Marriages 1630-1920 in January, 2014; Sweden, Find-a-Grave Index, 1800s-current, September, 2014; Sweden Select Burials, 1649-1920, January 2014. Let’s hope these pave the way to even more progress on our Swedish research.