Danish West Indian Records Will Soon Be Accessed Worldwide

On Saturday, Danish archivists Asbjoern Hellum and his wife Ruth Hedegaard, presented to the Caribbean Genealogy Library and raised the interests of audience members. They provided updates on the digitizing project of old Danish-West Indian archival records, content of records, and the importance of the archives.

Asbjoern Hellum takes images of archival records from the Danish West Indies. (Screenshot from Genealogy Library presentation)

“It’s very important to do what we can, which will only be a little share of how to bring the archives and the history back to the Virgin Islands,” said Hellum. “We are trying to digitize as many of the records from the period where there was Danish rule on the islands.”

Both Hellum and Hedegaard expressed that the archival digitization is helpful as it not only allows the public access to the records but it allows some of the Danish records to be transcribed from Danish to English as well.

“Even for most Danes, it’s difficult to read the old handwriting which most of the archives before 1817 is written in. Only a few Danes can do that now. Therefore, it’s very important to have them digitized,” said Hellum.

One of the original Danish West Indian records that was digitized. (Screenshot from Genealogy Library presentation)

Hellum and Hedegaard have been working with the archives since 2009. Many records were sent to Denmark after the transfer to American rule in 1917, but the team is working with the records that remained. They received a grant from the Danish Foundation Civilingenioer Knud Noergaard og Hustru Grethe Noergaards Fond to digitize the archives written in Danish that are held in the Enid M. Baa Public Library and Archives and the Florence A. Williams Public Library.

Thus far, 225 Danish volumes have been identified, each containing between 200 and 800 pages. Most of the volumes are of court related documents.

Hellum works alongside a volunteer for the digitization of archives. (Screenshot from Genealogy Library presentation)

“It’s really material that gives details of everyday life because it describes what people have done that they mustn’t do, it describes what people are doing,” said Hellum of the court documents.

Though the efforts to digitize the archives have been steadfast, the project has not gone without hiccups. To start the digitization project, the team was met with a challenge of securing a location.

“You know, the Turnbull Library, where we were supposed to be, is not functioning. So we got access to the Baa library on Main Street where we started on the first of March,” said Hedegaard.

The Baa library has water issues it is experiencing as well, mentioned Territorial Director for Libraries Amy Patrice DeSorbo.

Ten days after the start of sorting records for their project, the archivists were able to send their first sample of digitized images to the National Archives for quality testing. By March 20, they were in full production.

Ruth Hedegaard stands with some of the volumes of Danish West Indian records she is assisting with digitizing. (Screenshot from Genealogy Library presentation)

“The importance of these archives is that many of the colonial powers burned their records,” said Hedegaard. “For some reason all of the records from the islands have been kept.”

Archives include police court records from 1841 to 1917. There is other material from that period as well, however, records from 1846-1850 are missing, which involves the period of emancipation of the enslaved in the territory. The oldest record that archivists have found in the records is from 1825.

Hellum mentioned that he and other volunteers “have digitized around 35 volumes and a little more than 15,000 pages” of records since March.

Digitized images of records shown to the audience included contract books from 1879, values of enslaved workers, shop and lamp taxes, and arrest books. One arrest book from 1877 listed a man who was arrested for stealing chickens and was lashed ten times with a branch.

Audience members from in-person and online were engaged and provided with opportunities to ask questions throughout the discussions. Some asked questions about the records, how to get assistance with accessing them, and the status of libraries in the territory.

Entities affiliated with the digitization project for the territory are the National Archives of the United States, the Danish National Archives, the Danish Royal Library, and the Danish National Museum.

For more information on the digitization project, reach out to the Caribbean Genealogy Library https://cgl.vi/.