Tracing Your Norwegian Roots

by Andy Likins | Sep 6, 2011

Andy Likins

With the exception of Ireland, no other European country in the 19th century lost a larger percentage of its population to emigration than Norway. Today the number of Americans and Canadians who can claim Norwegian ancestry is greater than the population of Norway itself. If you're one of these lucky folks, you have a great number of excellent and often free resources at your disposal for researching your ancestry.

The Name Game

Before jumping into your Norwegian research, it is vital that you understand Norwegian naming practices. Give up any preconceptions you have about how names are passed from generation to generation. Up to the late 1800s, Norwegians used a patronymic naming system meaning that your surname was based on your father's given name. If you were Peter the son of Hans, you were Peter Hansen. In turn, Peter's son Ole would be Ole Petersen. If you were Dorthea the daughter of Hans, you were Dorthea Hansdatter. Traditionally, women did not adopt the surnames of their husbands, but they would continue to use their patronymic surnames from birth to death.

In addition, most people also had a farm name which would distinguish you from others in the community. So if Ole Petersen lived on the farm named Aarneberg, he would be Ole Petersen Aarneberg. But if he moved to Hornes next year, he became Ole Petersen Hornes. However, by the 1870s and 80s, the traditional naming patterns were being used less frequently and families were starting to hold on to their surnames, either the patronymic name or the farm name, and were passing them on to their children as was common in English speaking countries. Moreover, women were starting to adopt their husbands' surnames at the time of marriage. During these transitional years when the rules were changing, it can be very difficult to predict what surname a person would chose to use. As an example, Torkel Gulliksen Nygaard had three sons. Hans chose to be known as Hans Torkelsen while Herman chose of be known as Herman Gulliksen. Gunder appears sometimes as Gunder Nygaard but was later known as Gunder Torkelsen.

The surname an immigrant chose to use in the United States or Canada varied from person to person, and again you will often find that even siblings made different decisions. Some chose the patronymic name, but they might have changed the spelling from a traditional -sen ending to an easier to spell -son ending. Instead others might have adopted their farm name, but did they choose the name of the last farm they lived on or the name of a farm that had been significant for the family in the past? Some just adopted English sounding surnames to better fit in with the host culture. As an example, my great great grandfather was Hans Peter, the son of Olaf Eriksen. On his marriage record in Norway he was known as Hans Peter Olafsen Lisleby as he lived at Lisleby. In the United States, he became known as Hans Peter Olson, but his younger brother Oscar was known as Oscar Erickson. Notice the changes in spellings. Avoid getting hung up on spellings; they were much more fluid in the past than they are today. About half of Hans' children also took the name Olson, but some found it to be too common in their community in Wisconsin, so they grabbed on to the old family name of Lisleby, but Anglicized it into Leslie. So the lesson is to be flexible with surnames; your ancestors probably were.

Jumping In

Once you've grasped Norwegian naming practices, it's time to plunge into your research. As with any genealogical research, you want to start at home and with your immediate family, interviewing older relatives, digging out family Bibles, scrapbooks, and albums. Then you want to dive into all the resources you can on this side of the ocean, including census records, local histories, newspaper articles, vital records and naturalization records. Any mention of where your family came from in Norway will greatly aid your search. When checking the 1900-1930 censuses, note that immigrants were asked to provide their year of immigration. If the date given is accurate, it can be a useful clue when searching passenger lists.

The Big Move

A great thrill is seeing your ancestor's name on a passenger list recording the momentous event of your family's arrival in their new country. Remember that many Norwegians arrived at Canadian ports and then crossed into the U.S. Many passenger lists can be accessed at no cost. Excellent resources include:

Lovin' The Digitalarkivet

Digitalarkivet was mentioned as a source for passenger lists, but it offers so much more. Through this website, the National Archives of Norway also provides transcriptions of the Norwegian censuses, church records and many, many other rich resources. Censuses were taken in Norway in 1801, 1865, 1875, and 1900, and the 1910 was recently released. All of these have been transcribed for the whole country with the exception of the 1875. These are searchable by first name, last name, farm name, and many other fields. And even the 1801 is an every name census! Can you imagine if the U.S. had an every name census for such an early date? Remember to be creative with spelling in your searches. The censuses are invaluable in showing groupings as those living on the same farm were often related. The censuses also tell family relationships, occupations, and interesting details such as how many horses a person had.

The crown jewel in Digitalarkivet's offerings is a set of images of all existing Norwegian church registers starting as early as 1623 and going up to around 1930 for most parishes. These are organized by county (fylke) and parish (prestegjeld or sokn). Available records include baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials. In addition, there are records telling when parishioners migrated into or out of the parish which can be extremely helpful if your family moved often. Small pox vaccinations were also recorded by the church. These can be useful if you can't find your ancestor in the baptism records or if those records are difficult to read. As you dive into these records, you will want to consult Ancestors from Norway which offers a translation of the column headings used in the church records. That site also provides a list of commonly used genealogical terms which will be invaluable as you build your Norwegian research vocabulary.

Penmanship Counts

Generally, the church records of the later 19th century are not too difficult to read as a cursive script similar to ours was used. Just hope the pastor had good penmanship. However, as you go back to the early 1800s, you will find more and more scribes used gothic script, a style of writing that sometimes bears little resemblance to the cursive we are used to. Check out Scandinavian Records Extraction - An Instructional Guide for a course in reading gothic script. While it is not easy to read, don't get discouraged; with some practice you will get used to this form of writing and the particular handwriting of the pastor of your ancestor's parish.

If you are having trouble finding your folks in the church records or you are not sure what parish they came from, there are some indexes which may help you out. Digitalarkivet has some church records indexed and has also indexed many. Some localities in Norway have posted indexed church records. If you know the parish your folks hailed from, try googling the parish name to see what comes up.

Getting started with Norwegian genealogy can be intimidating at first with the different naming customs and the language barrier. However, with a little perseverance, you will be rewarded given the richness of records that are available.

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