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By the middle of the 19th century, one tenth of all children born in Sweden were born out of wedlock. As a result, researchers often encounter the word “oäkta” (illegitimate) with the notation “fader okänd” (father unknown) in birth records. The odds of finding the name of the father are often slim, but there are a number of strategies that can be tried.
In 1734, “oäkta” was defined as a child born out of wedlock whose mother was without betrothal or promise of marriage. If the parents married later, the child’s illegitimate status was revoked. Illegitimate children had no right to inheritance until 1866, at which time they were granted the right of inheritance from their mothers. It was not until 1970 that such were entitled to inheritance from their fathers.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, laws against sexual offenses were very strict. For “lönskaläge” (sexual relations between unmarried persons) the punishment was fines (in the 1600’s, punishments ranged to and including execution). If the offense was repeated, the fines were doubled. According to a 1686 church rule, the guilty were punished publicly by sitting before the entire congregation on the “skampallen” (literally: “stool of shame”) during services. In 1741, ecclesiastical punishment was changed to a private form that took place in the more secluded sacristy. Ecclesiastical punishment was done away completely in 1855 with private punishments continuing in some instances for several decades.
A movement towards milder treatment came with King Gustaf III’s legislative initiatives in 1778 which gave women the right to bear a child anonymously (which lasted until 1917). The purpose of the so-called “Child Murder Manifesto” was to reduce the incidences where illegitimate children were born in secret and then killed. As a result of this reform, we find in some birth records, especially in larger cities, the notation “okänd mor” (unknown mother).
In 1810, the secular punishment of unmarried women having sexual relations the first or second time was abolished. As a result, few were ever formally charged in a court. Prior to this, unmarried women who became pregnant were always charged since they could not conceal their “transgression.” It was easier for the men to escape punishment. In the absence of witnesses, a man could declare himself innocent. A woman could always sue the father for support, but it was most common for them to settle amicably. The father’s ability to provide support was better if he didn’t have to pay additional fines. If formal charges led to an acquittal, the father could avoid paying any support. The risk of this was something most unwed mothers were not willing to take. In 1864, a new law eliminated any punishment for either partner. At that time, determining paternity of an unwed mother’s child became merely a civil process and such legal cases became less common.
Household Examinations (Clerical Surveys) / Parish Books (församlingsböcker)
As a first step, it is recommended that researchers follow the mother and child forward through life in the Household Examination and other parish records. There one may find notes regarding the child’s father, sometimes long after the child’s birth. If the mother eventually marries, the child may be noted as “legaliserad” (legalized or legitimate), which means that the father acknowledged his paternity and the child is regarded as legitimate. Occasionally, the researcher will find noted “s.f.äkt.” (son före äketenskap /son prior to marriage) or “d.f.äkt.”(dotter före äktenskap/daughter prior to marriage).
A link to the father may be found in the child’s name. It was not uncommon for an illegitimate son to receive the same first name as his father. Regarding surnames, an illegitimate child often took the same name as the mother or maternal grandfather, but when this was not the case, there were clues leading to the father. For example, if the child was named Larsson/Larsdotter and neither the mother nor maternal grandfather bears that name, the researcher may want to look for men with the first name of Lars somewhere nearby, perhaps a young man working on the same farm where the mother was serving. When a “suspect” is found, the researcher should follow him forward in the records to see if any notations occur that could verify him as the father.
Second Series in Church Archives
Those punished under ecclesiastical law were recorded in avlösningslängder (also known as absolutions- or kyrkopliktlängder) which were at times preserved. These are normally found in Church Archive Series G. Women are most often found in these records, but occasionally men as well. A portion of the fines for fornication remained in the parish where the transgression occurred. As a result, notes regarding payment of these fines may be found in kyrkans räkenskaper (church accounts) Series L. At the beginning of the 19th century, women were charged 32 shillings and men twice that much (1 rikdaler 16 shillings). In searching the church accounts (called fattigspecialräkenskaper) check to see if the mother paid a fine and if so, if a man paid a fine twice her amount at about the same time, there is a good chance he is the father. In cases involving anonymous mothers, the mother placed her name in a sealed envelope, some of which have been preserved as part of bilagorna till födelseböckerna (Series H III). Occasionally, these may even include information about the father. But chances of finding an unknown father by any of these means are minimal.
Up until 1810, most cases of “lönskaläge” were tried in court and are found in “Häradsrätternas” (District Courts) and “Rådhusrätternas” (City Courts) records. After 1810, cases involving these offenses became less frequent and were eliminated in 1864. Following the minutes of every court there is usually a “säköreslängd” (list of fines paid). This includes a record of every case where fines were levied and there is a reference to the case number. Be aware, however, that if either party was married, the punishment was jail. In addition, fines assessed to poor persons could be changed to time in jail or a workhouse. In such cases, there is no record in the säköreslängd”. Occasionally, the lists of fines paid have their own series in the court record archives (often found in C VII). In certain cases, these may also be found in “länstyrelsernas landskontor” archives. If the säköreslängd are missing, one must look directly in the court minutes. The accused man did not always appear in court and was then charged a fine for “uteblivande” (contempt of court). Therefore it can be worthwhile to look even closer at those convicted for this crime.
If the mother sued the father for support the case can be found in a stämningslista (summons list). These lists include cases that never came to trial because the parties settled the matter out of court. If the summons lists cannot be found in court records, they may be in Inneliggande handlingar (most often found in series F).
Acknowledgement of paternity and numbers of children supported can be found in the archives of district child welfare boards (kommunernas barnavårdsnämnder) which have been maintained since 1903. Where these organizations did not exist, school boards filled a similar function. From 1926, all kommuns (districts) were to have a child welfare board. Minutes are maintained in district (not provincial) archives. School board minutes, however, may in some cases be found in the Landsarkiv (provincial archive).
RESEARCH STRATEGIES (to identify unknown fathers of illegitimate children)
Prior to Gustav III’s “Child Murder Manifesto” issued 17 Oct 1778
Check notes in birth records and household examinations (clerical surveys) for any indication of the father’s identity.
• Search minutes of härads- (district-) and rådhusrätt (city courts) for mothers’ names. The mother is always identified in the case and the fines assessed her will be found in the säköreslängden (record of fines) which usually follows the minutes of every court. The courts often ruled on both secular and ecclesiastical punishments. Look for the name of a man who is charged a fine double that of the mother in the same time period.
• Church account records may also reveal the fines paid to the parish by the mother and father.
• The “Name Game”. It was not uncommon for an illegitimate son to receive the same first name as his father. Regarding surnames, an illegitimate child often took the same name as the mother or maternal grandfather, but when this was not the case, there were clues leading to the father. For example, if the child was named Larsson/Larsdotter and neither the mother nor maternal grandfather bears that name, the researcher may want to look for men with the first name of Lars somewhere nearby, perhaps a young man working on the same farm where the mother was serving. When a “suspect” is found, the researcher should follow him forward in the records to see if any notations occur that could verify him as the father.
From 1778 to 1855
• Follow same procedures as outlined above when mother’s name is known.
• When the mother’s name is not known (the Manifesto allowed unwed mothers to be anonymous), the researcher may only have the child’s name, birth date and birth place in a birth record. The challenge is to find the child in a Household Examination and follow his/her growing up. These are most often found in neighboring parishes (mother’s wanting to be anonymous often gave birth outside their home parish. It was especially common to go to one of the larger cities where birthing facilities and orphanages were more common and the chances of being known or recognized more remote.) Unwed mothers sometimes went to the homes of relatives in other areas to bear their children.
• The “Name Game”. Applies during this time period as well.
• “lönskaläge” (fornication) is no longer punishable, therefore civil court records now include only those cases relating to suits for support. Rural parishes were slower to move away from punishing offenders so some fine and punishment records may exist in parish records for a few decades after 1864 in those areas.
• Check notes in birth records and household examinations (clerical surveys) for any indication of the father’s identity.
• The “Name Game” still applies.
• The researcher may also go back 9 months in time from the birth of the child to see what men were in proximity to the mother (e.g. young men working on the same farm or estate, neighbors, etc.)
- This page was last modified on 20 October 2011, at 12:02.
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