Southern California Genealogical Society

Norwegian Research
By Jo Anne Sadler

This article was originally meant to focus on doing Norwegian research on the Internet. However, in order to do any Norwegian research, one needs an understanding of the patronymic naming system that was used in Norway until the early 1900s and how that affected naming patterns in America.

Nobility and upper middle class people did not use this system; but the great majority of Norwegian immigrants to North America were rural farmers and followed the patronymic system.

A person’s first name was his or her given name. The first children were named after their father and mother’s parents. If, for example, both the father and mother's mother was named Gjertrud, then it was not unusual for two daughters to both be named Gjertrud. Children were also named after deceased siblings.

The second name was the "patronymic name" ,which was based on the first name of the father: Gundersen or Gundersdatter. This was what we consider our "last" name. A wife did not take the name of her husband but retained her patronymic name.The third name was the farm (gard) name. It functioned as an “address.”

If one moved to another farm, the entire family, including the wife, would use the new farm name. The farm name would be indicated on the emigration records when they left Norway and on the ship passenger manifest.

It was usually dropped when they came to America, as they no longer lived at the farm. Generally, the second patronymic name became the American “last name.” Hence, so many Johnsons, Olsons, Andersons. This was a decision made by the immigrant. The incorrect assumption is sometimes made that the U.S. government changed immigrant’s names when they arrived in North America.

Sometimes an immigrant, after a few years in America, decided there were too many Olsons, etc., and went back to using a variation of his old farm name to become more distinctive. It is not unusual in census records to find brothers with different last names, some patronymic and some farm names.

The Norwegian alphabet has several characters in it that do not translate into English, and this also led to a change in the spelling of their names after immigrating.

Until the early 1900s, unless one were of the nobility or upper class or was a property owner, surnames were not important in Europe and the North America. This was before Social Security registration, widespread civil registration, computers, credit reports and such that complicate our lives in the modern world.

It is very difficult to research in the “old country,” and the patronymic naming system makes it even harder to find anyone in Norway unless you know the exact county (fylke) and parish (sogn) that your ancestor came from, as well as the name of their parents. The Norwegian language used in old records varies by region, utilizes local dialects and was subject to the whims/education of the census taker.

In researching the same farm in the 1801 and 1865 census, one can’t help but notice the huge increase in population between the two censuses. In 1801, there were usually only one or two families at a farm. By 1865, the farms were broken down into smaller and smaller subfarms and occupied by several different families. This shortage of land contributed to the large emigration from Norway in the 1800s.

After immigrating to America, different families might retain the same common farm name but be unrelated. That said, rural Norway was very isolated and marriage between cousins was common. As the old saying goes: “Love only traveled as far as one could walk.”

Some Norwegian genealogy resources:

Church registers –kirkebøøker–baptisms (døøpte), marriage (vielse), moving out (utflytning) of parish. These are available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Centers and to a very small extent, on the Internet.

Censuses –folketellinger–1666 (partial), 1801, 1865, 1875 (partial) and 1900 censuses are searchable on the Internet. The 1666 census (manntall) was a military census and only includes men and boys.

Bygdebok –history book of an area and the farms in a district; sometimes these include pictures. There are over 950 Bygdebok books, issued at various times, but most are out of print. Many of these are available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Centers and through interlibrary loan. The Vesterheim Genealogy Center in Madison, Wisc., has a large collection of these books and has a research service.

There are Web sites belonging to people who own Bygdebok books and will do volunteer lookups. One should have very specific information for these lookups or you probably won’t receive a response.

And now for some Web sites

Cyndi's List

Haven’t we all been here?

Ancestors From Norway

This is an excellent Web site for general information. It has research guides, many links, general interest articles and a 68-page Norwegian-English dictionary geared to genealogical and archaic Norwegian words. A modern Norwegian-English dictionary isn’t much help in translating old records.

Solem, Swiggum & Austheim Ship Index

This is a passenger ship index strictly for Norwegian immigrants. It has more than 100 transcribed passenger lists, ship’s pictures, links and many articles on the immigrant experience, shipping lines and shipping routes.

Slekthistoriske Kilder 1500-1900

Various church, census records by county and parish. Currently only in Norwegian.

University of Tromso

1865, 1875 (partial) and 1900 census. Sorted by county and parish. This is a rather frustrating site, as you must enter exact spellings to do a search.


A volunteer lookup service for farm history books, with a picture gallery and guest forum. There is an English option but sometimes it is hard to access.

Translation service

Translates English to Norwegian and several other languages. Helpful in writing inquiries.

Vesterheim Genealogy Center

A leader in Norwegian research, based in Madison, Wisc.

National Archives of Norway

Absolutely the best source of Norwegian research on the Web. It has the 1666 (partial), 1801, 1865, 1875 (partial) and 1900 census for Norway on line. There is an English option; just click on the American flag. The actual records, however, are still in Norwegian, but once you translate the basic words, reading the records is not difficult.

It has complete censuses for Norwegians in the U.S. for several states; 1880 Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New Mexico to date. Every person is included in the search option, not just the indexed head of households. This is a continuing joint project with the Vesterheim Genealogy Center. It is found under “Other Sources”–censuses.

“The Digital Inn” has over 100 databases of various records as submitted by individuals in Norway and North America.

The databases take some doing to figure out how to search for information. Be sure to go into the help section to acquaint yourself with the system.

In searching through a census, you can do a search for the entire country, but then you will get 40,000 Oles!! Searching by county (flyke) and parish (sogn) will narrow your field down considerably. When searching for a first name, surname or farm name, instead of entering a specific name, I change to “show all,” and then search through all the names that may apply. One is dealing with multiple spellings, i.e.: Thomas, Tomas, Thos. and the extra Norwegian letters.

All of these Web sites are great resources to search for your ancestors in Norway, but they should be considered a “secondary” resource, as they are subject to errors and should be validated by the actual church/civil records.

©Copyright Jo Anne Sadler. Used with permission.

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