Solving a family heritage mystery -- Sweden vs. Denmark
April 2, 2016 1:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to figure out why my great-great-grandparents told the 1900 US census they were from Denmark, when really they were from Sweden. Would there have been some reason for the lie at that time?

I was looking into my family's history, and managed to find them in the 1900 United States census. According to that information, they came from Denmark in 1888 and settled in western New York state. The thing is, we have documentation that they were from Sweden. We've got a copy of their marriage certificate which shows them as being from small towns (Vollsjö and Harderup; they were married in Franninge) in southern Sweden. My grandmother remembers them speaking Swedish when they didn't want anyone to understand them. I know this might just be a simple mistake on the part of the census-taker, though he has correctly listed everything else about the family. He also had to specifically write "Denmark" enough times on the form that surely he would have caught it had it been a mistake.

I've tried googling this to see if there was a border shift, or if there was a specific reason to prefer being considered Danish over being Swedish (quotas? prejudice?), but my google-fu is weak on this topic. Would there have been a reason for these people to have said they were from Denmark when they were from Sweden?
posted by Janta to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Two possibilities: even though they came from those small Swedish towns, were they perhaps *ethnic* Danes? Or did the ship they traveled on make port in Dennmark before continuing to the US?
posted by easily confused at 1:10 PM on April 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Maybe the census taker filled in notes after the fact and misremembered?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:26 PM on April 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Check the whole page - some Census takers pretty clearly got their information from a neighbor or just sort of wrote something that might be true-ish.

Which is why my uncle Sol is listed as "Charlie" in 1920.
posted by SMPA at 1:31 PM on April 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Those villages are in Skania, which was part of Denmark until the late 1600s and only considered Swedish in the mid 1700's. Its a stretch, but it is possible that their families maintained the idea that they were Danish?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:35 PM on April 2, 2016 [11 favorites]

Quick googling in Swedish suggests that a wave of Swedes immigrated from Skåne to Denmark in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Maybe your relatives went to Denmark first and then moved from there to the US?
posted by bluebird at 1:35 PM on April 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

Here is my census takers altering nationality story: my father's parents were immigrants from Ireland in the late 19th century, and lived in a neighborhood that was largely Irish with a few Black families thrown in. I looked them up in the 1910 census and was surprised to see in the hand-written census list that for "place of birth" my grandparents and others had said "Ireland", but someone had later gone through and crossed this out and written "England". I guess this was some bureaucrat's nod to the British Empire and that there was no Irish state yet, but I would bet he did not do this on the street when interviewing or he would not have escaped without a beating.

I do not know about the Scandinavian countries, but in Eastern Europe the borders changed so often, my Polish relatives and my husband's Jewish ones from that area were listed as coming from "Austro-Hungary." It was a matter of who had overrun those countries at the moment.
posted by mermayd at 3:09 PM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

The best answer is clearly Sweden. This is a joke from someone in Norway :)

The reality lies in the control of passing - you have to remember Sweden and Denmark have a long history. It is quite possible and even more probable citizenship was determined at issuing authority and migration point at the time. The point of demarcation.

Also, the concept of free travel was alive and well by then. You could be a swede, end up in Denmark or a Norwegian in Sweden for all intents and purposes.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 3:24 PM on April 2, 2016

I have been told by my family that my ancestors were from Sweden, but were just a ferry ride away from Copenhagen, and perhaps even worked there. Could it be that they identified with Denmark, even though they lived in Sweden?
posted by umbú at 5:50 PM on April 2, 2016

The border fluidity is certainly a thing. Like mermayd, I also have ancestors from the Austria-Hungary area, and depending on the year, I've seen it called Austria, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Poland. I think by the time your ancestors emigrated it may not have been an issue with Denmark vs. Sweden, but finding the passenger lists upon entry to the US or the records upon leaving Sweden could resolve the question of whether they sailed from Copenhagen and could thus be considered "from" Denmark in some sense.

With most US censuses, we can't know for sure who actually gave the information to the census enumerator. It might have been someone in the household (who may or may not have known the correct information), or it could have been a neighbor ("Yes, I think Ole and Anna came with that group from Denmark in 1888 or so") or someone else the enumerator could find who could give information. Sometimes a translator was required or there were misunderstandings because of a language barrier (think about answering something like "Where did you come from?" as opposed to "Where were you born?" or "Where did you emigrate from?"). Sometimes the enumerator just entered what he/she thought was true, though there were penalties for knowingly entering false info. Sometimes the original census schedule would have to be recopied before it was submitted to the supervisor, introducing yet another opportunity for error.

So I always take census records with a grain of salt and correlate them with other available records---other census years as well as other types of records. If I was finding that the other evidence points to Sweden, then I'd be likely to chalk the Denmark entry up to an error of some kind.
posted by percolatrix at 6:09 PM on April 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I look at censuses all day. I find it's unusual when there isn't an error in an family. Add immigrants using a second language, enumerator's fatigue, and regular old misunderstandings... you can't believe a thing you read.
They could have moved to Denmark to work or just disembarked from there.
I see so many errors, most seem like just that, errors.
In this case, since they've put the correct place on other documents, I think it's just a simple mistake.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:13 PM on April 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

My family came from the Lofoten Islands to NYC to Winnipeg in the early 1900s. Great-grandfather was listed as being from Oslo, and great-grandmother as being from Kristiansand. Those cities are reeeaaally far from their actual hometowns in the Lofoten. Thankfully my grandfather remembered their stories (also, my great-grandmother and namesake was still alive when I was born so their story was a relatively fresh memory for my grandfather when I was a kid in the 1980s), so he shared how it went. Edited for pertinence to your story: my great-grandparents found work in port cities so that when the time came, they could go to NYC more easily. Great-grandfather was a ship's carpenter and as such, earned free passage for himself and my great-grandmother. They weren't yet married; she came a year later (this too was planned ahead, he got a homestead outside of Winnipeg and prepared everything for her arrival). Great-grandmother worked as a tjenestepige, hired hand on a farm just outside of Kristiansand. As a matter of fact, she made friends with the farm owners, who also came to Canada (via NYC) eventually.

I was pretty lucky because my great-grandmother worked on that farm in a census year, and earlier as a tjenestepige on a different Lofoten farm in 1900, and her parents were listed on their home farm in Flakstad (Lofoten) in the 1900 census. So it was easy to verify their oral history.

My money is on your family finding work in Denmark in a port city. That or yeah, clerical confusion/error.
posted by fraula at 3:58 AM on April 3, 2016

Maybe they wanted to avoid being discriminated against in the U.S.
Swedish Stereotypes
posted by canoehead at 12:05 PM on April 4, 2016

On further discussion with my grandmother, I learned that the entry immediately preceding her family's in the census form was that of the family's landlord. Makes me wonder if the census-taker got some of all of his information from the landlord. Thanks, everyone -- these answers are all great, and I think it's particularly useful to be reminded that just because it's written down doesn't necessarily mean it's true!
posted by Janta at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2016

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