Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in the Records:
Getting Started: Pre-Research: Hints for Getting Acquainted with European Research

First published in the Sept/Oct issue of The Genealogical Helper

After discovering a place and date of birth for my Swedish great-great-great-grandmother, I eagerly ordered the microfilm containing parish records for this town to my local family history center. When the film arrived, I put the microfilm on the reader and settled in, ready for an afternoon of discovery. Instead, I encountered an afternoon of frustration. I couldn't read the words, didn't recognize the place names, and in general, felt disoriented.

When beginning research on a family in a new foreign place, many people have experiences similar to mine. However, it doesn't have to be like this. With a little preparation, foreign research can get off to a smoother start.


An unfamiliar foreign language can at first seem like a nearly insurmountable barrier to tracing your family. There’s no doubt that looking at a record and having no idea what it says is intimidating! However, knowledge of only a few basic words will make many genealogical records accessible. This is particularly true in the case of parish records, which are by far the most widely used source for tracing families in Europe. Luckily for those working with a new language, parish records usually rely on a minimal amount of words to convey their information.

Many parish records are written in a table format, making the needed information easy to find. Even those written out in paragraph form, often follow the same basic wording in every entry. Although it might be a struggle to figure out a word the first time, once you become familiar with the format in a new parish, you won’t have to re-figure out every entry. A simple knowledge of the words for the names of family members (mother, father, etc.), ordinances (baptism, marriage, burial), and months of the year can often make the record meaningful. Add a few more words, such as the names of occupations, and many records become readable.

Several resources can help make this task easier. First, genealogical word lists are available for many countries. You can access these on-line (see the sidebar on internet resources for more information). These lists provide translations for the most commonly found words in genealogy records. For more in-depth research, consider purchasing a language dictionary. For many areas, specialized genealogy dictionaries exist. These include dated and specialized words that you may not find in standard, modern-day dictionaries. Finally, several websites offer loose translations for free. Although these websites generally don’t work well for long passages, they can be helpful for translating words or phrases.


Understanding places is a very important part of tracing a family. If you can’t figure out the hometown of an ancestor, you won’t be able to locate the records needed to make progress tracing that family. You will probably discover that finding the hometown of your ancestors is not a one-time job, but instead an on-going process. Many European families in the nineteenth century and earlier moved often. If your ancestors belonged to the large group of landless workers, they likely had no choice but to relocate every few years as they searched for work. Luckily, nearly all of these moves were done within a small radius. For example, a study of southern Sweden in the early nineteenth century showed that while only thirty percent of people resided in their parish of birth, seventy percent of those born elsewhere lived within fifteen kilometers of their birthplace.1

Becoming familiar with the geography of an area can be as simple as looking at a map, preferably a detailed one for the area in which your family lived. If the area has undergone a lot of boundary or town name changes, an older map will provide more accurate guidance. Maps of the parish jurisdictions, counties, or other relevant divisions also make research easier. Sometimes you can even find a map showing individual homes or farms in a town.

After locating the appropriate map, take a few minutes to study it. Become familiar with the area and the layout. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll recognize names of new places that appear in the records. You will also be able to identify to what parish these new towns belonged, enabling you to access the correct records.

Of course, there are many ways to get copies of useful maps. Research outlines (see the sidebar for information on how to access these online) or other research books usually provide general maps, showing the country and its major divisions. Many bookstores sell detailed modern maps. Also, some places have tourist information centers that send out maps of certain areas for free. You can sometimes find older genealogy maps at specialized bookstores, by searching online, or by contacting an archive in the area your ancestors lived.


(For specific information about the history of Mecklenburg, Skåne, or Buckinghamshire, see their individual sections.)

Although it isn’t necessary to become an expert on the history of an area before starting to research your family who lived there, a little background knowledge can go a long ways. For one thing, major historical events often affected the way records were kept. Familiarity with these events will help you understand sudden changes or differences in records.

Many countries in Europe changed boundaries or were temporarily controlled by other places. For example, my ancestors’ home in Sweden belonged to Denmark for much of its early history. Similarly, from 1658 until 1803 Sweden controlled an area in northern Germany which included the hometown of another one of my ancestral families. In fact, Germany didn’t even exist as a country until 1871. These changes could affect the language in which the records were written as well as the level at which records were recorded. German records illustrate this. Records between the German states are inconsistent until 1871 since no national government existed. Some states kept periodic census records, some kept detailed immigration records, and others kept totally different kinds of records.

Other events in history also impacted record keeping. Wars, for example, left their mark on the availability of records, sometimes destroying records, and sometimes inspiring certain records to be created. In addition, wars sometimes changed the way records were kept. During the wars of the French Revolution, for example, many areas that came under French domination suddenly began using a completely new calendar, known as the French Republic Calendar. When tracing a family in this area, you’ll find that time suddenly starts with year one again. The months in this period also have completely new names. When the French were finally expelled, time keeping returned to normal again.

Learning a little about the history of a place can do more than help you figure out the records, though. It can also make the lives of the families that lived there more meaningful. Even knowing that your ancestors lived through an invasion, large-scale agricultural reorganization, or a time of increasing religious tolerance will give you a better concept of what their lives were like. As you understand the historical context of their lives, your ancestors will seem more like real people and less like a list of names and dates.

Gaining a basic understanding of the history of an area doesn’t have to be time consuming either. Research Outlines or other research sources usually give a timeline or short synopsis of major events that happened in the country, particularly the events that affected record keeping. If you would like to learn more, you can check out a book about the general history of that country from your local library. Also, try doing a search on the web for the time period and place in which you are interested. Often, you can find short, easy-to-read summaries of the major events that affected your ancestors on a history website.


(For more information about peasant society, see the Daily Life and Demographics sections.)

Related to understanding history, learning something about the society in which your ancestors lived can be useful in numerous ways. Knowledge of only a few basic trends and demographics can help you focus your search for information about your ancestors and process the information when you find it.

First, you should recognize that most people’s ancestors were peasants, or part of the common people. Only a very small percentage of the people in nineteenth century Europe and before were members of a higher class (such as nobles, clergy, or even middle-class professionals). Up until the close of the nineteenth century, the majority of people lived in small villages and made their living off the land (although industrialization did come at different times to different places – most notably reaching England before much of the European mainland). If your ancestors owned a farm, they probably stayed in one place throughout their lives, making your job as a researcher easy. However, as mentioned earlier, if they lived the more destitute life of a landless worker, they probably had to move from place to place often, in search of employment. If this is the case, you’ll have to continue to check the records of surrounding villages to determine the location of your family.

It can also help to familiarize yourself with some of the trends that surrounded the major life events such as birth, marriage, and death. For example, when searching for marriage records, keep in mind that the average age at marriage for Western European males was twenty-nine. The average female married at age twenty-seven.2 In order to save up enough money to begin a household of their own, young people needed to work for a number of years before marrying. Also, check first in the bride’s parish for the marriage record, since weddings were traditionally held in her hometown.

When gathering birth records, search a wide range of years to ensure you don’t miss a child. Start your search for a couple’s children several years before their marriage. This is important because illegitimate births were relatively common throughout Western Europe. Between ten percent (in France) and thirty-seven percent (in England) of first births fell into the category of premarital conception.3 Before ending your search, take into consideration that with little available in the form of birth control, it wasn’t unusual for couples to continue having children until the wife was in her early forties.

Finally, remember that early death plagued nearly all families in the nineteenth century and before. Nearly a quarter of all babies died before their first birthdays (although rates varied considerably from place to place).4 Because of this, always check the death records carefully for children in your ancestral families. Many people also lost a spouse in the prime of life. If this happens in your family, look for a remarriage within the next couple of years after the death.5 People usually didn’t continue long as single parents. Two parents were essential to fulfill the tasks required to raise and provide for a family.


Finally, before jumping into research, it’s helpful to get an overview of what kind of sources are available. Parish records are almost always an important source. However, less obvious sources that could save a considerable amount of time may be available as well. For example, parish indexes may exist either in the local parish or for the entire locality. Large compiled sources may include genealogical information about many families in a particular area.

It only takes a minute to discover what sources are available for your locality. Checking the Family History Library Catalogue for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is a great place to start (see sidebar for more information). Here, you can search by town or by a larger jurisdiction. Consulting the Research Outline for the area is another quick and easy way. You might also try searching online for records or indexes available there.

Finally, many areas have active genealogical societies with information online. Their websites usually include ways to contact them by email or mail. Studying these websites or contacting someone in the society can be very rewarding. I discovered this after spending countless hours searching unsuccessfully for the marriage record of one of my English ancestors. After stumbling upon a website for the county genealogical society, I paid a small fee to have them search an unpublished marriage index. Within a week, I had a copy of the record that had eluded me for over a year.

After my frustrating afternoon attempting Swedish research, I went back home and spent a little time learning more about Sweden and how to do research there. The next time I sat down with the microfilm, the experience unfolded much differently. With a little background knowledge of this new area, I was able to trace my family back in Sweden much further – and I enjoyed doing it!

Although the steps outlined above may require a small investment at first, in the end, they can save you a huge amount of time and frustration. Understanding a few basic facts about the places your ancestors lived will also make the research results - and their lives - more meaningful.

Website to Help You Get Started on European Research:

(For more websites specific to Mecklenburg, Skåne, or Buckinghamshire, see the “Useful Sources and Links” section of their individual pages.)

Word Lists:

Research Guidance 2.0: World List - This website provides links to word lists for several languages. The lists contain numbers, months, and other words commonly found in genealogy records.

Translation Assistance:


These are just three of the numerous options available online. As mentioned in the article, translations for longer passages may be confusing. However, these websites can be very helpful in figuring out a word or phrase. You can also choose to pay for a more correct translation.

Research Outlines:

Research Outlines This site contains dozens of links to Research Outlines for states in the U.S. and numerous foreign countries. The outlines provide information about important sources to search, geography, major historical events, and many other things.

Other Information:

http://www.worldgenweb.org/ Similar to the U.S.GenWeb project, the WorldGenWeb project is a volunteer-based project that provides free genealogy information. From the main page, you can choose a region and then country. The quality and extent of each page varies. Many contain excellent links and information on a wide range of subjects including history, available sources, and genealogical societies.

http://www.cyndislist.com/ As always, Cyndiï's List is a good place to start. Many foreign countries are listed as categories here. The countries have links to an array of websites which provide information on research, internet sources, geography, history, genealogy societies, and other topics.

http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/ If your ancestors were from England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland, this website can be a great help. Often you can find the specific town and county in which your ancestors lived with a host of useful links to helpful sources and information.

http://www.ajourneypast.com/researcheurope.html This website provides links to other useful websites that gives hints and directions on doing research in France, Germany, and Norway.

http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp The website for the Family History Library Catalogue for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City does more than give you film numbers. It lets you know what sources are available for certain localities to ensure you aren't missing something important.


1 Dribe, Martin. Leaving Home in a Peasant Society: Economic Fluctuations, Household Dynamics and Youth Migration in Southern Sweden, 1829-1866 (Sodertalje, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiskell International, 2000), p. 4.
2 Ehmer, Josef, "Marriage" in The History of the European Family, volume two: Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1913, David Kertxer and Marzio Baragli, editors, (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2000), p. 301.
3 Ibid., p. 317.
4 Hamerow, Theodore, The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1983), p. 79.
5 Fauve-Chamoux, Antoinette, "Marriage, Widowhood, and Divorce" in The History of the European Family, volume one: Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789, David Kertxer and Marzio Baragli, editors, (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2000), p. 242.