Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Learning from Swedish parish records: The lives of Gustaf Elg and Maria Sophia Bork

In 1892, like many Swedes at the time, my great-grandfather’s uncle Gustaf Elg brought his family to Minnesota. The family’s history in Minnesota has been well documented by great-grandson Todd Lindahl but I wanted to see how much light Swedish parish records could shed on their early life in Sweden.

Gustaf Elg spent his whole life in Sweden in the ironmaking industry. He was a third generation master blacksmith, and his sons also learned the trade before emigrating to America. For more about the blacksmith trade, see my previous blogpost.

Online sources for Swedish parish records

The main source of information for genealogists in Sweden are the parish records of the Swedish Church. The Swedish Church (Lutheran) was a state church and retained the responsibility for keeping the official population records until 1 July 1991. Most records, from the late 17th century until the early 20th century are now available online. There are three competing fee-based services offering slightly different coverage and quality:

Genline ( ) (just acquired by

SVAR ( )

Arkiv Digital ( )

Genline and SVAR are based on scanning the old black and white microfilms once produced by LDS church volunteers. However, Arkiv Digital has undertaken to rescan the original records in full color and higher quality (SVAR has recently started to do this also). All examples in this post are taken from Arkiv Digital (with their permission).

Background: History of the parish records

As part of the church law of 1686, the parish minister was to “keep certain rolls of all their listeners, house to house, farm to farm, and know their progress and knowledge of the assigned sections of the catechism, and diligently admonish children, farm helpers and servant maids to read in book and with their own eyes see what God bids and commands in his Holy Word.”

The actual process was carried out by organizing the parish into “examination groups” that would meet at a designated time and place annually. Once everyone was gathered the minister would go through a planned protocol. The examination results were recorded in a book, along with other information which can vary according to the minister. Although the Household Examination was an annual event, the minister would use the same book for about 5 to 10 years before starting a new one.

In addition to the Household examination book, separate chronological records were kept of births, deaths and marriages, as well as of individuals moving in or out of a parish. Usually these records reference the relevant page of the household examination book, which was organized by household, not by date.

Gustaf Elg spent his whole life in Sweden in the ironmaking industry. He was a third generation master blacksmith, and his sons also learned the trade before emigrating to America. To learn more about their trade, see my previous blogpost "The role of blacksmiths in ironmaking".

Learning from the parish records

The birth and baptismal records list not only the parents but also witnesses at the baptismal, i.e. godparents ("faddrar"). These will give you a glimpse of social life as they will show you social ties outside the immediate family: Sometimes relatives, sometimes neighbors or colleagues.

The household examination rolls list not only the immediate family but everyone in the household, including hired hands. In a small rural community there were often social ties connecting these to their employer. In my case, many of my male ancestors were craftsmen, master blacksmiths in the iron making industry. Here I can see how the young men start out as apprentices, learning the trade with an older brother or in another blacksmith family, and also moving between employers to learn new aspects of the trade. In the same way, young women learned to run a large household, necessary as in addition to a growing brood of children, a master blacksmith would hire his own helpers, and also provide room and board.

Since the household examination rolls cover a period of time you also get a sense of the mobility, as maids or hired hands move in and out of the household.

An example: Tracing the lives of Gustaf Elg and Maria Sophia Bork

Birth record of Gustaf Elg1834
(source Arkiv Digital )

Gustaf Elg was born on April 1, 1834, the youngest son of Lars Elg (b 1789) and Lisa Gråberg (b 1792). I am descended from their oldest son, Petter Elg, so this is where we are related.

Gustaf Hellsing, who is listed with his wife as godparents, was a nephew of Lars Elg’s stepmother Kristina Berg, and also a fellow blacksmith. I have not been able to identify the third person, but Engelborg Elg is Lars Elg’s half sister.

Lars Elg family 1825-1834
(source Arkiv Digital )

This record shows the family Gustaf Elg was born into. At this time, my ancestor Peter Elg, who is 20 years older, has already left home (his name is crossed over). Another record shows that Peter is now an apprentice with blacksmith Peter Hellsing – father of the Gustaf Hellsing mentioned above.

Birth record of Maria Sophia Bork, 1838
(source Arkiv Digital )

Godparents, master blacksmith Johan Geschwind and his wife Eva Liljman are next door neighbours of the Peter Bork family. Nils Bork is a cousin of Peter. Anna Maria Bork is most likely another cousin.

Peter Bork family 1838-1844
(source Arkiv Digital )

Peter is listed as “hammarsmedsmästare” which means he was in charge of a team operating a hammer mill. (Large waterpowered hammers were used not only to shape the metal but also to alter its metallurgical structure). As a master, Peter employed his own assistants, as well as providing room and board for them. This explains the number of helpers (“drängar”) listed in the record. And with such a large household to run, Lisa also need a number of helpers (“pigor”) to run the household. Note that one of these is Johanna Liljman, no doubt an unmarried sister – or cousin – of godmother Eva Liljman.

Lars Elg family 1845-1854
(source Arkiv Digital )

During this period, the last children are moving out. At age 15, Gustaf moves to Liljendal. His older brother Lars Elg (jr) has moved back with his family, apparently preparing to take over the family business ( Lars sr dies in 1851). There is a long list of helpers, but the mobility is high (column “Ankom” lists year of arrival and place of origin, column “Bortflyttad” lists year of moving out, as well as destination).

Johan Elg family 1845-51
(source Arkiv Digital )

Here we can see that when Gustaf moved to Liljendal at age 15, it was to live with his older brother Johan Elg (b 1817) who is already established as a blacksmith, with a large family. This was Gustaf’s first step in learning the trade and following in the footsteps of a number of ancestors.

He is living close to his future wife: The Bork family are on page 130, and the Johan Elg family on page 134 of the same volume.

Note that another Gustaf Elg (b. 1825) has preceded him in the household as a helper, between 1842 and 1845. This Gustaf was a cousin of Johan and “our” Gustaf Elg.

Peter (or Petter) Bork family 1847-1851
(source Arkiv Digital )

In a serious blow to the family, master blacksmith Peter Bork dies in 1851, aged only 39 years. Maria Sophia is only 13 at the time. We can also see that two younger brother have died in childhood, Carl Johan (age 7) and Anders Fredrik (age 1).

Johan Elg family 1852-57
(source Arkiv Digital )

After three years with his older brother, in 1852 Gustaf Elg moves to Gåsborn parish.

We can also see that the following year, Johan Elg’s wife Cajsa Håkandotter passes away, in December 1853. Johan eventually married again, to Anna Stina Olsdotter, in Jan. 1857. An interesting point here is that there is no mention of this marriage in this volume, but the first child, Reinhold, is listed, born in June 1857. In total there were seven children from Johan’s second marriage. Only the youngest daughter stayed in Sweden. One daughter died in infancy, four emigrated to Butte, Montana, where they were involved in gold mining. The oldest, Reinhold, moved to Oslo, Norway. This was a popular departure point for emigrants from their part of Sweden, and it is possible that Reinhold was planning to join his siblings in Montana. However, his first wife died in Norway. Eventually he marries a Norwegian girl, and the last record I have found shows in as a day labourer, doing construction work in Oslo.

Peter Elg family 1846-55
(source Arkiv Digital )

When Gustaf Elg left Liljendal for Gåsborn parish, he becomes an apprentice with his older brother Peter/Petter Elg (b. 1814), who is then a master blacksmith at Gustavsström, Gåsborn parish. Petter is my paternal great-great-grandfather, and when Gustaf arrives, my great-grandfather Karl Gustaf Elg is a nine year old boy. This is the closest direct connection I have found between the two family lines. Gustaf stays two years with his brother, and then returns to Liljendal.

Marriage record Gustaf Elg & Maria Sophia Bork 1856
(source Arkiv Digital )

Two years after his return to Liljendal, Gustaf is ready to marry Maria Sophia Bork. Gustaf is only 22 at the time and Maria Sophia is 18. In order to marry, Gustaf needed to be able to provide for a family, and their young ages indicate that he was well on his way to establish himself as a blacksmith. At the time, most men were not able to marry until in their thirties.

Gustaf Elg family 1857
(source Arkiv Digital )

In the next household examination record, Gustaf is listed as “mästersven” or assistant master blacksmith, already at 23. The first child, Emma Elisabet is born in 1857.

Apparently, Gustaf has taken over this post from Maria Sophia’s stepfather. The listing at the top of the page shows Maria Sophia’s mother Lisa Stålberg, and her siblings. Lisa is now remarried to assistant master blacksmith Olof Jonsson Rot, but they moved out in 1856, the year of Gustaf’s and Maria Sophia’s marriage.


The family of Gustaf Elg and Maria Sophia Bork is now established, and Gustaf is well on his way to become a master blacksmith. In a following article, I will continue this story, until their emigration to Minnesota in 1892.

The role of blacksmiths in ironmaking

Making iron was a two-stage process: Iron ore would first be melted with charcoal in a blast furnace, to separate the iron oxide from waste rock, and to remove the oxygen from the iron oxide. Blast furnaces have been used since the 11th century, although of course sophistication and size increased over the centuries.

The cast iron produced in a blast furnace still had a carbon content of around 4%, which made the cast “pig” iron too brittle to work further. The job of a blacksmith in the iron work’s hammer mill was not to produce finished items, but to reduce the carbon content in a combination of re-melting and mechanical working of the iron.

The pig iron was remelted on an open charcoal hearth. To increase the heat, air was blown into the hearth by a pair of leather bellows powered by a waterwheel (to provide an even flow of air, one bellows was blowing while the other bellows was being filled with air). The oxygen in the air reacted with the carbon in the molten iron and formed carbon monoxide, which then burned with more oxygen to form CO2.

Low-carbon iron has a higher melting point than the original pig iron, so as the carbon content was reduced, it started to solidify into doughy clumps of hot iron. These clumps were lifted to the top of the hearth and remelted to reduce the carbon content further. Clumps of solidifying iron were taken to a large hammer, also waterpowered, where they were hammered into sheets of iron, which were cut apart into suitable sizes, reheated on the hearth and hammered into iron bars which were the final product of the hammer mill. The hammering not only shaped the iron but also solidified it and altered the metallurgic structure of it.

In a manufacturing mill, these bars would later be reheated and reshaped into tools, nails etc.

The hammer mill was usually operated by a team of three: The master blacksmith (“mästersmed”), an assistant blacksmith (“mästersven”), and a helper (“smeddräng”) who was often learning the trade. The master blacksmith was fully trained in all aspects of operating the hearth and the hammer, and could oversee one or more hammers in a larger mill. The assistant blacksmith was capable of operating the hearth and hammer when the master was not around, and the helper would do whatever he was ordered: feeding the hearth with charcoal etc. The master blacksmith was an independent contractor who hired his own assistants and helpers, and also provided room and board for them.

What I have described above is the so-called “German” method, prevalent in Swedish mills from the 15th century until the late 19th century. The “waloon” method, imported from Belgium, differed mainly in that two separate hearths were used for the initial melting of the pig iron and the subsequent reheating.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

An update on Erik Johan Elg, b. 1844

In my previous post I noted:

One Johan Elg, b abt 1844, emigrates to Chicago in Nov 1869, with wife Christina. I have no evidence that this is Erik Johan, except matching year of birth, and Johan comes from the same region of Sweden.

I have now found this family in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, where Johan is employed as a blacksmith. Johan and wife Christina are listed in the 1880 US Federal Census, along with a son, Carl Johan, born 1875.

In the 1895 Wisconsin census, the household consists of three males and one female. Only the head of the household is named in this census, but most likely another son has been added.

I still have no direct evidence that this is "my" Erik Johan Elg. The fact that John is a blacksmith, and the name of his son are circumstances in favor of this hypothesis. Erik Johan came from a long line of blacksmiths,and the name Carl Johan is used a lot in the family. Still, this is not unique, as this was the name of the Swedish king between 1818 - 1844..