Getting in Contact with Distant Relatives Abroad?

Have you wondered if you have distant relatives abroad? Do you know of any that you are not in contact with? This is my story about getting in contact with distant relatives abroad.

Eventually, the greatest challenges is not going to be getting in contact with distant relatives abroad. Actually, the most difficult part is how you are going to be able to confirm your connection.

For two years now, I have been building my family tree, researching the history of my ancestors and getting in contact with some amazing people. Today the tree has exceeded 8.000 individuals and it goes back to the 17th century. One major step for me was to build a connection with the distant relatives I found in my research. So, here I will try to help to answer the question: How to get in contact with distant relatives abroad?

One thing is for sure and that is: It is easy to make mistakes and create connections that never existed.

Heritage Research in Sweden

Heritage research starts with building your family tree. I have been quite lucky in the fact that Sweden has splendid records of its population going back to the 17th century. The Swedish king Charles XI’s church law dating back to 1686 required the church to keep track of the following:

  • A register of all inhabitants in the parish, house by house.
  • Also a register of all ordained couples in the parish.
  • Thirdly, a register of all born children in the parish.
  • The church also needed to have a register of all deceased in the parish.
  • Lastly, the church was to register of everyone moving in or out of the parish.

These registers make it possible to get quite reliable data of your ancestors and you can follow the families through the years as they move around. To be able to follow them from book to book gets quite important as we had a system with patronymic surnames for many centuries. This means that you might have a lot of people with the same name in the same parish.

Building Your Family Tree

Most countries have privacy laws making it harder to find information about the last 70 to 130 years. The limit in Sweden is 70 years, which means that it is today possible to look in the books for 1948 and back. Finding birth information for the younger generations is harder and will mostly be unavailable for you.

Due to this restriction, your best bet is to ask your parents and grandparents about what they know. An important rule is to always try to confirm their story in the written records.

Depending on your country, the available information will differ a lot. As mentioned, we do have a lot of information available in regards to Sweden and that has been my main focus since around 95% of my tree is from here. Here is what you need to do to locate distant relatives:

  1. Research your ancestors as far back as possible.
  2. Go generation by generation back and try to fill in all the descendants of your ancestors.
  3. Make sure to confirm each connection, both in the registers over newborns as well as by following them from birth until they marry and get children of their own.

A Swedish migrant?

So, have you found a migrant in your research? This will focus on Swedish migrants and especially those moving to the US about a hundred years ago.

In the 19th century up until the early 20th century about 1.3 million Swedes emigrated to the United States. This was far after the small Swedish colony on the Delaware River between 1638 and 1655. A lot of the Swedish migrants settled in the Midwestern United States.

If you have found a family member emigrating from Sweden:

  • Look in the Swedish church books for any note of destination. Sometimes the state of the area is mentioned early on.
  • Look at the passenger lists from the major harbors, especially Gothenburg.
  • Check the immigration registers available for arrivals in the US. The birth year might have a distortion of a few years as only age and not year of birth was usually mentioned. The name can also differ significantly. So make sure to think of any possibility and check the dates. Is it reasonable to cross the Atlantic in 2 days? Probably not. Did it take 5 years? Then you might as well have found someone with a similar name. Question the reasonability and always double-check. Their final destination will often be mentioned.
  • Find the person or family in the US consensus, search Google for any mentioning, use sites such as Ancestry to see if they are in the tree of anyone else.
  • Always try to find a way to confirm the connection.

If you have an ancestor that was born in Sweden:

  • Ask other relatives if they know approximately when the family arrived in the US.
  • Check the immigration registers for your ancestors to see where they came from. Swedes came with boats from many other countries as well, such as Denmark and England.
  • Check the passenger lists with people leaving Sweden, especially at the harbor in Gothenburg. The spelling of the name, as well as the birth year, might differ in the Swedish records.
  • Always try to confirm that your suspect actually emigrated and fits your description.

Getting in Contact with Distant Relatives Abroad?

Getting in contact with distant relatives abroad is the hard part. How to get to know about your distant relative’s life in another country? You might have found a Swede who emigrated to the US or know of an ancestor that arrived in the US from Sweden at the end of the 19th century. How do you connect these people, who passed away a long time ago, with living people today?

The main source will be published family trees, either on open websites or on sites such as Ancestry. If you find your family member in the tree of anyone else, try to ask them and see what their connection is. If you are lucky, then they can either confirm or deny the connection as well as get you in contact with others.

Once you have names for now living people, use sites like Facebook to reach out to them with a message describing both how you found them in your tree and a visualization of your possible connection. If you are lucky, you might get a reply.

If you have an ancestor in Sweden and you find the next generation in the Swedish church books, you can also start to follow their families through time towards today. Websites such as Arkiv Digital have the Swedish census for the years 1940, 1950, 1960, 1975 and 1985, making it possible to find younger more online available relatives.

How I Confirmed a Connection

Quite early on, when I was building my family tree I came across a family on Mörkö in Sweden. One daughter in this family emigrated with her husband and two children to Kansas. This was the aunt of my great-great-grandmother. Just to illustrate the name difference between the life in Sweden and the life in Kansas, the family’s daughter’s name Elin Amalia Lovisa Källberg was changed to Ellen Amalia Louise Kallberg. Ellen was a cousin to my great-great-grandmother Ebba and it is Ellen who will play the central role in confirming the connection.

The family left Sweden in 1888. They then appear from time to time in the censuses available for Kansas. I myself am, however, stuck here. I was unable to continue the lineage in the US by myself. Instead, I was lucky and got in contact with a few Americans who had published their family trees on Ancestry. They shared with me the family tree created by Ellen’s son Charles in the 80’s. Sadly Charles passed away in 2007, but this document was a gold mine. With its help, I was able to extend the tree with first- and second-hand information. This made it possible to send Facebook messages to several quite distant relatives and hope for a reply.

At the same time, I met a lady in Södertälje here in Sweden – a cousin to my great-grandmother. This lady was born at the same croft as Ellen – Rossholmen on Mörkö. What she had was a photo that once belonged to her mother, a photo of a cousin visiting from the US sometime after the wars. It was both a portrait taken in Los Angeles as well as a group photo from the visit.

So how to confirm that the Ellen in the US records and her descendants that I now was in contact with was actually the distant relatives that emigrated in 1888? It all comes back to the photo from the cousin reunion in Sweden. I eventually got in contact with a grandchild of Ellen, a man living in California. He was able to confirm that it was his grandmother on the photos and by that providing the third confirmation of the relationship.

  1. The tracking from Sweden to Kansas in the available records.
  2. Charles’ written story confirming the records.
  3. Photo confirmation from the reunion.

Be Careful

I have been in contact with several people, especially Americans, who believe that they have found the correct connection with a person in Sweden. Unfortunately there are often mistakes that are easy to highlight once you know what information is available. The most common mistake is that the person they have found actually never emigrated, and died in Sweden. Before continuing and building a large tree on the connection, try to find as many confirmations as possible and question the reliability.

Once you are certain there is a connection and get in contact with your distant relatives it is all up to you how well it goes. One thing is for sure, you will need to find convincing proof that you have the correct relationship. If accepted, it might open some amazing doors. We have recently been lucky to meet two distant relatives, descendants of Ellen, during our trip to California. Getting in contact with distant relatives abroad was great and it really made our trip more interesting!

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