Seven years ago, instead of being sad when a close friend informed me that she was moving thousands of miles away to Sweden, I was ecstatic. “Kristin,” I exclaimed excitedly, “did you know that I am part Swedish? Did you know that all my life I’ve wanted to go to Sweden?”

Not surprisingly, Kristin Guzman, who is Philippine-American, said she had no idea of my Swedish heritage. We had forged a friendship through shared interests — good food, good books, good times, our alma mater of the University of California Berkeley — and places we had lived: the San Francisco Bay Area and Orlando, Florida.


Suddenly, we had something else in common: Sverige!

Guzman’s relocation to Uppsala, Sweden, prompted me to resume researching my father’s father, Joseph Gustavus Hagstrom, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1891. He was the son of Swedish immigrants, whose 1888 marriage certificate in Lowell provided enough details for Stockholms Stadsarkiv (part of Riksarkivet) to identify his paternal grandparents.

After successfully jumping the Atlantic Ocean via the public records of the United States and Sweden, I planned my journey. Friends, co-workers and acquaintances — including Kristin and her husband Patrik Strömgren — questioned why I would travel to Sweden in the dead of winter.

For many individuals around the world, the dream vacation is to relax at a beach resort. In stark contrast, I prefer studying and reading in a warm, cozy library while it’s snowing outside. “Hey, I’m part Swedish,” I responded to the incredulous. “Shouldn’t I see Sweden as it really is, a land of ice and snow?”

Although many genealogists never leave home to trace their Scandinavian roots, thanks to digital records on the Internet, I prefer to be literally “hands on,” clad in white cotton gloves, leafing through Sweden’s antique church books containing vital statistics of birth, marriage, emigration and death. In January and February of 2009 and again in 2010, I had the privilege of reading and touching original documents that had not yet been electronically scanned by Stockholms Stadarkiv.

These two consecutive “research” vacations revealed that the chances of finding a living relative in Sweden were remote. Instead of being disappointed, I laughed.

My great-great grandfather, Gustaf Hagstrom, a shoemaker in Stockholm, had eight children. Most of them never married, married but didn’t have children or had children who never married. While growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s, when I revealed I was an only child, people reacted strongly. “What? You have no brothers? You have no sisters?” they asked as though I was from another planet.

Decades later at Stockholms Stadarkiv, I learned there was nothing strange about being an only child who never got married and never had children. I was just like many of my great-great aunts and great-great uncles who were the shoemaker’s children.

On those first two trips to Sweden, I didn’t have time to do what most tourists do in Stockholm, such as explore the Vasa museum or take a boat ride through the archipelago. I was busy creating the “Hagstrom heritage tour,” my own personal walking route, so I could photograph the home addresses and churches of importance to my ancestors in Stockholm.

My great-great grandfather Gustaf Hagstrom lived and made shoes on the Adam and Eve block of Drottninggatan, now a pedestrian-only shopping street in Stockholm. Although the original buildings no longer exist, to my pleasant surprise there are several shoe stores.

Near Drottninggatan and Stockholm’s train station is Klara Kyrka, where Gustaf Hagstrom got married in 1833 and subsequently baptized all his children. (One of his sons caught a boat to Boston in 1871, which is why I was born in the United States several generations later.)

During my second visit to Sweden in January and February of 2010, I decided to attend mass at Klara Kyrka on my birthday, which happened to be a Sunday. As luck would have it, the King and Queen of Sweden attended the same service!

Queen Silvia likes Klara Kyrka’s outreach to Stockholm’s immigrant and underprivileged community, so she persuaded the King to accompany her to mass. The royal couple rarely attends church outside their palace. Because I don’t understand Swedish, I sat in the section where volunteers provided translation in English and Farsi. Consequently, I had a great view of Sweden’s royalty!

This amazing coincidence more than compensated for not identifying any living Swedish relatives. As I took communion alongside the King and Queen of Sweden, I felt as though the stars had aligned themselves in my favor and that the universe was smiling at me.

My two vacations of family-tree research pointed to the Baltic Sea — specifically to Visby, the famous medieval city on the Swedish island of Gotland. The shoemaker’s father-in-law also was a shoemaker, who had moved to Stockholm from Visby in the 1780s.

The Regional State Archives (part of Riksarkivet) in Visby sent me a copy of my great-great-great grandfather’s birth record in the mail. It revealed that his parents had worked as caretakers of the church in nearby Sanda during the mid-1700s.

For the past five years, I have dreamed of seeing this church and resuming my family-tree research in Visby’s archives. I realized both dreams several months ago, after flying to Stockholm on Christmas Day!

I attended the Epiphany mass at Sanda parish on January 6. Although this commemorates the day when the three kings arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for Jesus, I also received a gift: I was able to sit in the church that my ancestors had maintained.

The following day I went to Visby’s archives, where to my astonishment two dedicated researchers had managed to find a living relative! Kjell Swebilius and Susanne Blomqvist were quick to explain that the work they had done was not standard procedure and that the outcome — identifying a distant cousin — was exceedingly rare.

Because I had notified the archive in advance that I was coming all the way from America to trace my roots, Swebilius and Blomqvist were allowed to do a little research on my behalf. The specific names, dates and places I had unearthed in Stockholm gave Swebilius something solid to go on. What’s more, he had some existing family trees researched by others to use as a guide, which facilitated and accelerated his work.

At random Swebilius chose a branch that extended to this century. By looking up birth, death and marriage records, he confirmed the information on the existing family trees.

By chance, Blomqvist looked over Swebilius’ shoulder at the list of descendants. She recognized a last name: Sigren. “I know this name,” she said to Swebilius. Sigren is the maiden name of Blomqvist’s former co-worker, Britt Svea Margareta Sigren Sandsjö. While working together at Forsakringskassan, another government agency, in 2011 and 2012, the two women became friends.

Blomqvist sent Sandsjö a message via Facebook to ask whether she would be interested in meeting a distant cousin from the United States. Sandsjö answered “Yes!” I had been unaware of this correspondence until January 7, the day I appeared at Visby’s archives. While Swebilius and Blomqvist explained what had transpired, I felt excitement, joy, disbelief, relief. Swebilius and Blomqvist asked whether I was interested in meeting Sandsjö. Although I was at a loss for words and at the brink of tears, I managed to reply “Yes!”

As luck would have it, Sandsjö’s government office, Försäkringskassan, is across the street from the archives. During her coffee break, Sandsjö came to meet me. Our mini-reunion was the culmination of a lot of hard work, a little luck and a big coincidence. I was nearly speechless.

Sandsjö is a happily married mother of two teenage children. I am a never-married, childless journalist. Our common ancestors are the couple who looked after Sanda parish in the mid-1700s: Anders Persson and Maria Persdotter.

Maria and Anders’ eldest child, Per Andersson Sandell, is Sandsjo’s great-great-great-great grandfather. Because most of Per’s descendants stayed in Gotland, Sandsjö lives in Visby. Maria and Anders’ fourth-born, Anders Andersson Sandell, my great-great-great grandfather, moved to Stockholm in the late 1700s, and one of his grandsons ventured even farther, to “Amerika,” where I was born several generations later. Is it any wonder that I like to travel and I now call myself the Swedish gypsy?

As an only child of only children, having relatives, living or dead, means something to me. Based on my prior research in Stockholm, I arrived to Gotland with no expectations of identifying — much less talking to — a 21st century Swedish relative.

Yet by traveling far and reaching back through more than 265 years of record-keeping, I found genealogical treasure — not only in the connection with Sandsjö but also in the dedication of Swebilius and Blomqvist.

As a result, I left Gotland and Sweden on cloud nine, and I’m still floating in midair. I feel as though the stars have aligned themselves in my favor and that the universe is smiling at me.

By Suzan Hagstrom
Recording secretary and editor for the House of Sweden in San Diego’s Balboa Park, freelance journalist and author of Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik, a nonfiction World War II history text.