Analyzing relationships among people with a rare name. In 2014, only 117 Swedes had the non-patronymic surname Wändahl in any of its spelling variations. It seemed reasonable to assume that all these Wändahls were descended from a common male ancestor, perhaps one born in the 1700s. My research revealed that the Wändahls belonged instead to five unrelated families. One family was indeed descended from a Wändahl born in the 1700s. In the four other families, the surname had been acquired—usually as a soldier's name—in the late 1800s.
Identifying the unknown Swede. Several images of a handsome man with large soulful eyes were found in a family photo album in Jönköping County, Sweden. All the pictures had been taken in the United States. They were a mystery, not only because they were unlabeled, but because the owner was certain that none of her close relatives had emigrated. I eventually found, on a distant branch of her family tree, three brothers who had emigrated to America. My research led me to conclude that one of the three was indeed the unknown man. Verification came when I traced his descendants in the U.S. and found a great-granddaughter who owned copies of the same photos.
Cases: Some Favorites from Previous Research
Uncovering a false identity. Albert, a man born into a middle-class family in Västernorrland County, emigrated to Canada with his wife Sally in 1911. The 1916 Canadian census showed Sally as a widow, but I suspected that Albert had not died. I found him living in the U.S. under a slightly altered name and claiming to be Dutch. Despite the fact that he had only basic schooling, he also asserted that he had studied at two of Europe's premier universities. Rumors—almost certainly started by him—even identified him as a baron who had given up his title to go to America.
Clarifying uncertain relationships. In the early 1900s, a boy living in Stockholm believed that the older couple whom he visited in Älvsborg County were his farfar and farmor, parents of his father, Sven. But later generations of the family discovered some interesting issues. Sven's surname was not the same as farfar's, nor was it a traditional patronym based on farfar's first name. Was Sven really his son? And church books showed that farmor had had a brother whose name was identical to farfar's. Were farmor and farfar siblings rather than a married couple? Resolving the mystery required not only extensive research into official records, but also familiarity with the complexities of Sweden's naming systems in the late 1800s.
Searching for a man lost in America. In 1834, an army officer died near Stockholm. His assets at the time of his death were canceled by his gambling debts, leaving his family penniless. His wife and two sons moved out of the parish, giving no indication of their destination. The younger son subsequently seemed to disappear; his name was not listed, for example, in the first national census of 1880. Descendants of the older brother heard stories that the younger one had emigrated to America, but they were unable to trace him in the United States. I discovered that he had never left Sweden, had become a businessman in Stockholm, and had died of cholera there during the 1857 epidemic.
Explaining the strange legal status of five brothers. A woman living in Blekinge County in the middle 1800s was engaged to three men and ended up living with yet another. She bore five sons, fathered by three of the men. All the sons appeared in civil records as illegitimate, but church book entries about two of them suggested another legal status. In one of these two cases, the son was initially labeled as legitimate but was later shown as illegitimate. To explain the apparent conflicts in the records, I needed to consider the complex history of marriage in Sweden and how different types of engagement affected legitimacy.
Explaining the missing grave. In 1928, a 62-year-old widow from Loshult in Kristianstad County emigrated to America, where all of her children had gone before her. But her Swedish relatives, looking for her grave in the United States many decades later, were unable to find it. I couldn't find it there either, so I considered alternatives, such as the possibility that she had come back to Sweden. And that, in fact, was what she had done. She remained in Loshult the rest of her life and died there in 1954 at the age of 88 years.
Determining the true identify of a Swedish widow. A Swedish immigrant woman, living in Rhode Island with her four sons, appeared in official records under numerous different names. She was also inconsistent regarding her marital status, claiming sometimes to be widowed and sometimes to be married, although no husband appeared in the American records. Who was she? I discovered her identity and her remarkable story. She and her young children had been deserted by her philandering husband, leaving them in destitute circumstances. Her almost inevitable fate was life as a prostitute or an inmate in a poorhouse. Heroically, she managed to escape to America, to bring all four of her boys across the Atlantic in two batches, and even to help her aged mother immigrate.