Download PDF

How to find a person

The population of the Danish West Indies was different in many ways from the population in Denmark. The enslaved laborers and later free workers were either Africans or descendants of Africans from many places in Africa, but also the European part of the population came from many countries.

The largest group was the enslaved and later free laborers. There is less information about them in the archives than many other groups in the community, but if you want to find a specific enslaved or farm laborer, censuses, parish registers, reports from religious congregations and slave lists are a good place to start. They contain the most basic personal data, e.g. name, place of residence, age, civil status and affiliation with a religious community. The second largest group in colonial society was the free, civilian European population, i.e. plantation owners, merchants and employees in the colonial administration and their families. Personal data about them can also be found in censuses, parish registers and reports from religious congregations. In addition to these two large groups, a middle group existed during the time of slavery, namely the free colored population, called ”de frikulørte” (the free colored). This group consisted of former enslaved laborers who had purchased their freedom or had been freed, and of colored people who were born free. Personal data about this group can also be found in censuses, parish registers and reports from religious congregations but also in special lists of free colored persons where their free status is documented. Finally, military personnel constitute a smaller and special part of the European population. There is a great deal of personal data about them in payrolls, muster rolls and service records, while there is less to be found in censuses, parish registers and reports from religious congregations.

An example of how to use archives with personal data to find information about a specific person could be the plantation owner Moses Elias Williams (1841-1895), who was born into slavery. The story about the plantation owner Moses Elias Williams is described here. It is possible to follow Moses’s life in the censuses from 1850, 1855, 1857, 1860, 1870 and 1890 from boy to family man, butcher and later plantation owner on St. Croix. The censuses establish a framework for his life where other information can be filled in, e.g. from the land registers, where it can be seen that he bought the plantation called The Sight and several properties in Christiansted (cf. the article on sources for the history of property).

The most important groups of sources

Censuses, 1835-1911

  • You will find the following in the censuses
    The censuses can help you to find out where a person lived at a given point in time and inform you about the person’s age, civil status, title and status in the household, occupation, place of birth and religion. The censuses from before 1848 also tell whether a person was enslaved or free and about the person’s physical condition and moral character. Twelve censuses were conducted and each of them provides a snapshot of every household in the colony in a given year.
  • This is how the censuses are structured and organized
    There are censuses for the following years: 1835, 1841, 1846, 1850, 1855, 1857, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1901 and 1911, but the censuses for 1835 and 1890 are not complete. The censuses are organized according to each of the three islands and by town and rural areas on each island:

    • Town: The censuses are divided by street name and organized by house number.
    • Rural areas: The censuses are divided by quarters (districts) and by name of plantation within the districts. The quarters on the three islands were:
      • St. Croix: Kompagniets quarter (Company quarter), Dronningens quarter (Queens quarter), Kongens quarter (Kings quarter), Prinsens quarter (Princes quarter), Westende quarter (West End quarter), Ostende quarter A (East end quarter A), Ostende quarter B (East end Quarter B), Nordside quarter A (North side quarter A), Nordside quarter B (North Side quarter B).
      • St. Thomas: Oost Ende quarter (East end quarter), Røde Huck quarter (Red Huck quarter), Frenchman’s Bay quarter (Frenchman’s Bay quarter), Nye quarter (New quarter), Store Nord Side quarter (Great north side quarter), Lille Nord Side quarter (Little north side quarter), Syd Side quarter (South side quarter), Vestende quarter (West end quarter).
      • St. John: Cruz Bay quarter, Maho Bay quarter, Reef Bay quarter, Coral Bay quarter, Oost Ende quarter (East end quarter).

      Some of the censuses from before 1848 are also subdivided according to free persons or enslaved laborers. The censuses are written in Danish (Gothic) or in English (Latin).

  • What you should know when using the censuses
    • When: You should know approximately when the person lived
    • Where: You should know where the person lived, and preferably as precisely as possible: on which island and in which town and street or on which plantation
    • Who: You should know the person’s name. In the case of censuses before 1848, you should also know whether the person was an enslaved individual or free. Enslaved laborers will be registered by first name (or names) only because they did not usually have official surnames
  • The censuses are archived here
    The censuses are archived under the archives of two authorities:

    • The censuses from 1841 and 1846 are archived under the Chamber of Revenue (archive no. 303), Danish Department, The Table Commission, West Indian census 1841 and West Indian census 1846.
    • The censuses from 1850, 1855, 1857, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1901 and 1911 are archived under Statistics Denmark (archive no. 1308), West Indian census 1850 – 1911.

Parish registers, 1691-1920

  • You will find the following in the parish registers
    Parish registers are important sources of knowledge of life, death, religion and personal relations in the colony. They contain not only information about baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals, but often also about family relations, status as enslaved or free, age and occupation:

    • Baptismal records often state the date, the name of the person who was baptized, names of parents, whether the person was enslaved or free, and the names of the godmothers and godfathers.
    • Confirmation records often state the date and the name of the confirmand. They were often adult enslaved individuals in their twenties.
    • Marriage records often state the date, the status of the couple as enslaved or free and the names of the witnesses. Marriage across different Christian communities was not unusual. In the decades before 1848, some enslaved persons were also married to free persons.
    • Funeral lists often state the date, the person’s status as enslaved or free, age and occupation.

    Unlike Denmark, there was no state church in the Danish colony in the West Indies, but several large religious communities. The Danish National Archives keep parish registers from three of these:

    • The Evangelical Church.
    • The Black Lutheran Mission Church.
    • The Dutch Reformed Church.
  • This is how the parish registers are structured and organized
    Parish registers exist for the period 1691-1920, but many have been lost and therefore there are none for all communities for the whole of this period. The books are written in Danish (Gothic or Latin), German (Gothic), Dutch (Latin) or English (Latin).The Danish National Archives’ collection of parish registers is organized according to the three religious communities and under this geographically by island. The structure of the parish registers vary widely according to the point in time and the religious community. Some were kept chronologically with columns for every church ceremony, while others are structured by each ceremony: baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals.
  • What you should know when using the parish registers
    • Which religious community: You should know to which religious community the person belonged
    • Where: You should know which island the person lived on
    • When: You should know approximately the year the event took place
    • Which ceremony: It is advantage to know which ceremony (baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral) you are looking for

Reports from religious congregations, 1805-1918

  • You will find the following in the reports from religious congregations
    The reports from religious congregations can supplement the information you find in the parish registers. They were reports to the local administration from the religious communities on the islands. Here you will also find information about names, dates and status as enslaved or free and other valuable information:

    • Baptismal reports state the name of the father and mother, place of residence, religion and the names of godmothers and godfathers.
    • Confirmation reports state name, age and place of residence.
    • Marriage reports state the names of the bride and the groom and witnesses to the marriage.
    • Funeral reports state place of residence, cause of death and civil status, whether the person was enslaved or free and if enslaved who the owner was.

    The reports are excerpts from the religious communities’ parish registers and therefore could cover any holes there. Reports exist for 1805-1918. At the same time, the reports cover the Roman Catholic Church, from which there are no church records in the Danish National Archives’ collection. Thus, there are reports from five religious communities:

    • The Danish Lutheran (Evangelical) Church.
    • The English Evangelical (Anglican) Church.
    • The Dutch Reformed Church.
    • The Missionary Society (Moravian Church, Brødremenigheden, Herrnhut).
    • The Roman Catholic Church.

    The reports are written in Danish (Gothic or Latin), German (Gothic) or English (Latin).

  • This is how the reports from religious congregations are structured and organized
    In general, the reports from religious congregations are organized according to ceremony (baptism, confirmation, marriage and funeral). They are then first organized chronologically in intervals of varying lengths (from 5 to 40 years), then geographically by island and finally according to religious community.
  • What you should know when using the reports from religious congregations
    • Which ceremony: You should know the ceremony you are looking for (baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral)
    • When: You should know the period in which the event took place
    • Where: You should know the island the person lived on
    • Which religious community: It is an advantage if you know which religious community the person belonged to

Slave lists (Land tax register forms for plantations ) 1772-1821

  • You will find the following in the slave lists
    Each year, every free citizen in the colony had to make a list of the persons residing on his or her property, both free and enslaved persons. You can use these lists to look for information about the enslaved individual and their conditions and about life in the country and the town and life on large and small plantations. The slave lists are very different but often state the enslaved laborers’s:

    • Name, gender and place of birth
    • Work function (”field slave”, ”house slave”)
    • Religion
    • State of health
    • Status (able-bodied, partly unfit for work, newly arrived adult or adolescent or child)

    The enslaved are usually only listed with one first name, but can be listed with two (”Jack James”) or a first name and a nickname (”John Bomba”).

    • This is how the slave lists are structured and organized

    The lists were drawn up annually between 1772 and 1821. They are very different – from pre-printed forms to handwritten forms and lists in a continuous text. They are written in Danish (Gothic) or English or Dutch (both Latin).

    The lists mainly cover St. Croix, and very few have been preserved from St. Thomas and St. John. The collection of slave lists is organized according to town and country district, including:

    • For town: Divided chronologically and then alphabetically by the name of the owner of the enslaved laborer.
    • For country: Divided chronologically and then by quarter (district).
  • What you should know when using the slave lists
    • Country or town: You should know whether the person lived in the town or the country
    • Where: You should know where the person lived: which island and in which town/on which plantation. Please note: the lists mainly cover St. Croix
    • When: You should know the period when the person lived
    • Owner: Your search will be easier if you know the name of the owner of the enslaved laborer

Lists of free colored persons 1744-1831

  • You will find the following in the lists of free colored persons
    If a person has disappeared from one slave list to the next, it may be because the person has been sold or is dead – or that his or her freedom has been purchased. You can investigate the latter through the lists of free colored persons (in Danish ‘frikulørte’ or ’frie farvede’). The lists are a sort of census of free Afro-Caribbean men, women and children in the jurisdiction of Christiansted on St. Croix (i.e. the Kompagniets, Dronningens and Kongens quarters as well as Ostende quarters A and B). The lists can provide you with information about persons whose freedom had been bought and those who were born free and of the life they lived. They state, inter alia, name, place of birth, the name of the owner, if any, who had set the person free, the number of years the person had lived in Christiansted, occupation and religion.
  • This is how the lists of free colored persons are structured and organized
    Lists exist for 1744-1783, 1791, 1794-1798, 1800, 1802, 1805, 1811, 1816, 1826 and 1831. After 1834, free colored persons were no longer registered as a special group, but included in the group of free persons together with the Euro-Caribbean population.In general, the collection of lists of free colored persons is organized chronologically. Then each list is organized after sequence number only – neither geographically nor alphabetically after the person’s name. The lists are written in Danish (Gothic) and English (Latin).
  • What you should know when using the lists of free colored persons
    • When: You should know when the person lived
    • Who: You should know the person’s name
    • Where: The lists only cover persons living in the jurisdiction of Christiansted at the given time

Payrolls of the military forces in the West Indies, 1762-1770

  • You will find the following in the payrolls
    A payroll (zahlrulle) is an annual list of soldiers in the West Indian military. In the payrolls you can find information about each soldier’s name, rank, number in the roll and any events that took place during the year (e.g. if the person was promoted, resigned, dismissed, deserted or died).
  • This is how the payrolls are structured and organized
    The payrolls cover the period between 1762 and 1770. After 1770, they were called mandtalsruller. The collection of payrolls is divided chronologically. Each roll is also organized after rank with the officers first. The payrolls are written in German (Gothic).
  • What you should know when using the payrolls
    • Who: You should know the person’s name
    • When: You should know when the person lived

Muster rolls of the West Indian Military Forces, 1771-1860

  • You will find the following in the muster rolls
    A muster roll (mandtalsrulle) is an annual list of soldiers in the West Indian military. In the muster rolls you can find information about each soldier’s name, rank, number in the roll and any events that took place during the year (e.g. if the person was promoted, resigned,  dismissed, deserted or died).
  • This is how the muster rolls are structured and organized
    The muster rolls cover the period between 1771 and 1860. They were called payrolls from 1762 to 1770. The Danish National Archives’ collection of muster rolls is divided chronologically. Each roll is also organized after rank with the officers first. In the 1770s the muster rolls were mainly written in German (Gothic). From 1780 all were written in Danish (Gothic).
  • What you should know when using the muster rolls
    • Who: You should know the person’s name.
    • When: You should know when the person lived.

Service records 1799-1916

  • You will find the following in the service records
    The service records are overviews of soldiers recruited in Denmark for the military force in the West Indian colony between 1799 and 1916. They contain information about every soldier including name, rank, date of recruitment or posting, whether he came from a Danish regiment, which ship the person sailed on to the West Indies and when and how he left the service again.
  • This is how the service records are structured and organized
    The collection is organized chronologically in two periods: 1799-1872 and 1873-1916. The records are then in alphabetical order after the soldier’s surname. As soldiers were often given their name after the area they came from as an extra surname, the soldiers are often entered twice: e.g. under the surname (fx ”Andersen”) and under the place name (fx ”Allindemagle”).
  • What you should know when using the service records
    • Who: You should know the person’s name
    • When: You should know when the person lived

Get help from

This is a list of inhabitants in the Danish West Indies approx. 1650-1825 collected by the genealogist Hugo Ryberg and edited by Rigmor de Vicq in 1945 (A list of the names of inhabitants: The Danish West Indian Islands (The VIRGIN ISLANDS) from 1650-c. 1825). It contains a long list of persons who mainly appear in different West Indian documents in the Danish National Archives but also in books about the Danish West Indies and newspapers from the islands. The list is drawn up alphabetically by surname, although there are a number of inconsistencies, and it has an index at the back (pp. 602-682). Unfortunately, the references to which documents the information comes from are not very precise (cf. list of sources used pp. 594-601). Therefore, the list can only be used to provide inspiration and a guide to searching the Danish National Archives, and not as a source of fully credible information.