Ancestry Research in Finland – Seven tips to get you going

First of all, I want to congratulate you. Having Finnish or Swedish ancestors, you can call yourself lucky. Why? Because of all the countries in the whole world, here you stand the best chances of finding ancestors even up to 20 generations ago without being noble. In other countries records for common people mostly start around 1800-1900, anything before that is sheer luck. Be it you find that noble ancestor, or someone who committed a crime.
In Finland and Sweden it was enough to be born to be noticed. The Swedish king needed soldiers and tax payers so he wanted to make sure that no person was born without his knowledge. And the church wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Catechism, so they also had to keep acribic records. In addition: Sweden was never conquered by a foreign power (at least not during the time we are talking about), so there was no war during the last centuries that would have destroyed a lot of the old records.

This is my first blog in English and I’m very excited about it. Let me introduce myself: My name is Claudia Jeltsch and usually I blog in German about Helsinki and Finland as a tour guide. I have been working as a tour guide for the last thirteen years with both German and English as working languages, but this summer of course everything is different. Fortunately I also have experience as a lecturer of German as a foreign language, so this is what keeps me floating in times of Corona. And I can use my time also for writing scientific articles with the aim of completing my PhD at the University of Helsinki.

Actually for some years now I have also been offering special tours for persons with Finnish roots. Here an example of someone whom I was able to help finding his lost Finnish family. John gives me five stars and writes (you can check it yourself on my profile on
John C T., United States
Tour: Helsinki sightseeing by foot and tram, Helsinki, Finland, 
Date: Sep 8/19
„Claudia is well-informed and knows all the history of all the locations we visited–and with her laptop using My Heritage online, she was able to find one of my relatives in Finland and we were successful in contacting one over the phone. Without her translation skills, I would have been lost.“
Of course the whole thing also works without guiding and without you coming to Finland! I started with ancestry research as a teenager (ask my mother, we did it together!) and I am able to help just about almost anyone with Finnish ancestors. But of course it is a very good idea to start with checking the main sources in Finland before you hire me. So here I want to give you some help in case you want to do it on your own. Any work that you have already done I don’t need to do.
1. First ask all living persons in your family and put the information into a kind of digital family tree. Don’t forget to ask about the places where everything took place. Put the places names down as exactly as possible. The main thing is that you will soon give up if you think pen and paper is enough. And you won’t be able to share the information with anybody else either.
2. It might also be a good idea to take a DNA test, this way you might find some connections in Finland that you don’t even know of. I strongly recommend using My Heritage (even though I don’t get a single penny for saying this!), for a number of reasons. First, it is definitely the most popular company in Finland when it comes to DNA testing. A number of persons have made the experience that they only got matches when they finally uploaded their results to them. Check my blogger colleague Varpu commenting on this subject, she also has a ton of helpful advice on the whole subject: Secondly it is the only service where you can use Finnish as user language. This comes very handy when you get to know older relatives in Finland who don’t speak English. You simply tick “Finnish” and your 90 year old uncle is able to understand the site. That is exactly what I did with my 90 year old aunt! I use My Heritage, but there are also others. If you have already done your test with some other company, you can upload the results to My Heritage and it won’t cost you anything.
3. The page you should start with is: Here you find all the municipalities and their records. So you will need the place names of your ancestors, see number 1. Sorry, there is no way around it.
4. Please, don’t overlook the dots. Mäkäräinen is not the same name as Makarainen. To demonstrate this, I usually use a sentence that every Finnish teacher uses. Nain hänet. Means “I married him / her.” Näin hänet.” means I saw him / her. And nain häntä means “I f***ed her / him.” So please pay close attention to the letters, they make a big difference.
5. The records you find will often be very misleading. In the sense that you will think that a record is not about the person you are researching. Let me give an example. Your grandfather has told you that his Finnish grandfather’s name was “Heikki Antinpoika Martikainen”. You check the records and find “Henrik Andersson Martikainen” with the same birthday. Unfortunately you think that this cannot be the same person. But it is the same. The reason is in the language. The pastors who did the job of recording very often only knew how to write Swedish and not Finnish (Finland used to be a part of Sweden until 1809, a little bit of history also comes in handy!). So the Finnish “Heikki” becomes Swedish “Henrik” and the patronym “Antinpoika” (which means son of Antti) becomes “Andersson.” Only the family name is the same. The same works for women, Finnish Katariina in Swedish is „Cat(h)arina“ and Finnish “Lassentytär” becomes “Larsdotter”, sometimes abbreviated into “Larsdt.” or only “Larsd.”. In my own family tree (about 6000 persons so far, oldest record from an ancestor born in 1475) I have got numerous examples of that. In fact, it is more often the rule rather than the exception.
6. There are regional differences when it comes to family names. In the Western parts of Finland one usually adopted the HOUSE or estate name as a family name when one moved to another place. This way also a male person would change his name, for instance when he got married to the only (surviving) daughter of the house, in Finnish this is called “kotivävy”, he became a “house step son”. So don’t think that this is a different person, it could very well be the same.


left: Daniel Samson (aka. Taneli Kokkoniemi); right: Kalle Kotilainen, changed his name to Charly Kotila, died 1929 in Hanna, Wyoming; our man in the middle: Israel Rekonen aka probably Jack Jackson, taken 1900-1903

7. To make things more complicated, Finnish persons emigrating to the US (altogether about 300.000 in the whole history) frequently changed their names. This has been researched, fortunately it even touches one of my research interests at the University of Helsinki, onomastics, the research of names. I recently had a very tricky case of a guy named Israel Jakobsson Rekonen. First of all, while still in Finland, he adopted the name of the house Parikunta. Entering the US, in the papers it became Pasikunta. The change between “r” and “s” even has got its own name in linguistics, it is called rhotacism and it is a very common phenomenon that takes place all over the world (if you have “r”s or “s”s in your family name, I would check on that!). Both letters are pronounced so close to each other that we frequently find pairs like “water” (in English) / “Wasser” (in German). But then this person seemed to disappear. Through reading the literature I found out that in many cases Finnish persons dropped their original family name altogether and made their patronym – and often the Swedish form of it – their family name. So I checked “Israel Jakobsson / Jakobson / Jacobson / Jacobsson”. Still no findings at all! Finally it came to my mind and I tried Jackson. Continuing with “Israel” I did not get any decent results, but the results I got revealed that this kind of name usually was only given to persons with Jewish background. It must have been strange for Israel to find out that just about everyone thought he was Jewish, while his name was a perfect choice at the time in Finland, also for Lutherans. To avoid confusion he must have chosen another first name. And then I got it: He must have chosen Jack Jackson. After that I cross checked if any Jakob Jakobsson emigrated to the States during the same time who might have had the same idea to change his name to Jack Jackson. But there was no-one with the same birth year and the same year of immigration. So that was Bingo and I found the right guy, with the right birth year and the matching year of immigration, of Finnish decent, living in a place where also some of his brothers and sisters had migrated. I found him both in the US census of 1940 and in a Minnesota census of 1905. I’m very excited because this summer some of the descendants of that family are going to check if they find some document of the name change, maybe in a local archive. Of course I still cannot be 100% sure that I found the right person, but it comes very close.

Bonus: Don’t make assumptions about the sex of a person if you are not 100% sure. First of all, some of the Finnish names end in a way that you usually combine with one of the sexes. “Heikki” is a man, despite of the fact that Kati, Judie and Kathy are female names. But “Heini” is a female. So the ending -i does not automatically mean that this is a female. If you have letters from your old folks and someone talks about “hän”, this could mean he or she. Yes, in Finnish we have a gender neutral third person pronoun.
NB: My language skills with English, German and Finnish, and understanding also written French and Swedish and having read Latin at school creates a package that will help YOU if you have roots in different European countries, for example Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Finland.

Do check out what I can do for you in three hours and decide afterwards if you want to know more!
 Always grateful for your referrals!

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