Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Understanding Virgin Islands Records at Rigsarkivet

In a previous post, New Ancestry.com VI Records-First Impressions, I discussed some new records  posted to Ancestry.com from several sources.  In that post, I described how to recognize and source records from NARA RG 55.  I had begun a follow-on article on how to understand the records from Rigsarkivet (RA), the Danish Archives.  Sadly, the collection only lasted a week before it was withdrawn (Virgin Islands Records Vanished from Ancestry.com), and so I never completed the post.  As I'm watching Gabby Douglas struggle on the Balance Beam in London, I figured I'd complete that post.

First of all, you need to know that any discussion of the collections at RA are crammed full of acronyms and initialisms.  Since they are mostly drawn from Danish names, they can be quite difficult for Americans who are not familiar with the collection to understand.  Luckily, there are tools to help.

Rigsarkivet (RA) in Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) holds the largest collection of documents for the Danish West Indies.  The records are held in two major groups, records of the Central Administration of the West Indies in Copenhagen (Centraladministrationen, CA), the West Indian Local Archives (vestindiske lokalarkiver, or VILA), and a collection of special topics (saerlige emner).  The VILA collection is composed mainly of documents produced in the West Indies. It contains documents by the colonial government and private citizens. According to Gøbel, there are some 800 running meters of documents in VILA.

The CA collection is fully described in a book by Erik Gøbel, A Guide to Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies (U.S. Virgin Islands), 1671-1917, 2002.   Unfortunately, there is no similar guide to VILA, although Gøbel states in his introduction that he plans to cover the additional archives in sequel books.  Alas, it hasn’t come out yet so we’re on our own.

Fortunately, we’re not entirely on our own.  Rigsarkivet’s website has a detailed finding list (in Danish and in English).  This site will prove very helpful.

RA citations typically include a combination of abbreviations and call numbers. The numbers can be confusing if you aren’t familiar with the Danish Archives.  Here are some examples:



Documents from the Danish Archives usually begin with "RA" (RigsArkivet). Following that, "VILA" shows that it is from the West Indian Local Archive.  The next abbreviation shows which Archive Group the set belongs to.  There are 57 Archive Groups in VILA, and the abbreviation is in Danish. 

In this case, "VR" is the abbreviation for Archive Group #3, Vestindiske Regering (West Indian Government).  The full name of the group is Den vestindiske Regering / Guvernementets Sankt Croix afdeling 1723 – 1912, which is abbreviated RA/GSTX above.  On the RA web page, it is the third collection in the VILA record group as shown by this clip.  It would be great if they listed this number on the site, but alas, you have to count.  Luckily it is group 3 and not group 30.


So, apart from some often used archives, how do we decode all the possible the abbreviations?  Even more critical, how are we to interpret the source when only call numbers are used?  The RA website makes it possible.

Let’s consider these three sources: 3.81.588, 3.56.2, and 3.57. It should be simple to look up this number, all of them begin with 3, so they are from the VR group. We just look up the rest of the numbers, right? It’s a tad more complicated. Here’s a view of part of the VR Group (in Danish):


Notice that, again, there are no numbers.  The archives are listed in order though, so you just count down to, say, number 56 (for the militia rolls) and we see:


Here we see that 3.56.2 is titled “Indgåede skrivelser til den engelske generalguvernør, 1809 – 1810”
If you want to see the listings in English, choose “English” from the home page and use the Finding Aids:


So, the 3.56.2 is titled “Letters received by the English Governor General 1809-1810”.  The VISHA title “Militia Rolls” is more helpful. Similarly, the collection identified as 3.81.588, St. Croix Burgher Briefs 1799-1911 is under:

3 – West Indian Local Archive
81 – Subject files 1755 – 1917
588 – Subject files: 9, Social and cultural matters: Lists of individuals having been granted citizenship 1799 – 1911

So, with a little patience, the collections from the Danish National Archives can be sourced from the call number and the Rigsarkivet website.


  1. Very good, thanks for the help.

    So... how does one access these records? They don't seem to be online. Do I have to go to Denmark to see them, or is there another facility here in the states that has copies?

  2. As of right now, they can be accessed only in the Virgin Islands. Hopefully, they will be reposted soon. Maybe if we let them know how much we want to see them, they'll get put back.