The first Norwegians to arrive in North America, in about the year 1000, were led by Leif Eriksson, whose grandfather was born in Norway but exiled to Iceland. The Vikings’ “Vinland” settlement failed to take, however, and it would be more than 800 years before Norwegians returned in numbers.
The great migration from Norway to the United States would see more than 800,000 emigrants catch “America fever” between 1825 and 1925. In the peak immigration years, Norway sent a greater percentage of its slim population (fewer than 2 million in 1885) to the United States than any country besides Ireland. Today, Norwegian-American ancestry, at a population of more than 4.5 million, is the most numerous Nordic ethnicity.
Much as with other countries, the earliest Norwegian arrivals sought religious freedom, although economic opportunity and hardships back home soon became more important factors. A band of 52 Quakers and other dissenters left Stavenger aboard the ship Restauration on 4 July 1825, arriving into New York Harbor where they were hailed as Norway’s version of the Mayflower. Descendants of those “sloopers” still live in upstate New York, though later Norwegians spread out to Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and the Pacific Northwest.
Whether your ancestors were Vikings, sloopers or just everyday migrants to the New World, here’s how to find your Norse ancestors who came to the United States.
Identifying Immigrant Ancestors from Norway
Tracing your ancestors’ roots in Norway starts at home, with family interviews, old letters, documents in the attic, and family Bibles. You can also find clues in obituaries, death certificates, naturalization records and passenger lists.
As you travel back in time, keep your ancestors’ faith lives in mind. Most Norwegians were at least nominally members of the state Lutheran church, and those detailed church records back home continued in their new country. Ancestry.com has a collection from more than 2,000 US Lutheran churches that may contain useful clues to a family’s origins. Burial records often include the deceased’s place of birth in Norway, for example.
Such details are crucial because success in exploring Norwegian records depends on specifics not always found in US records like censuses or passenger lists. You’ll need to determine your ancestor’s name back in Norway (which may not be the same as in the United States) and your ancestor’s parish there.
If you strike out in US records, don’t despair! You might have more luck in passenger records from across the Atlantic. Some Norwegians departed from the German port of Hamburg, whose records are available from FamilySearch and on Ancestry.com (indexes and searchable lists). The Hamburg records typically give names, ages and—crucially—places of last residence.
If your ancestors sailed from a Norwegian port, you can search the National Archives of Norway’s invaluable Digitalarkivet site. Click “Find Source” and then “Emigration Records” in the center column. Organized by port, such as Trondheim or Kristiania (Oslo), these records give the emigrant’s home parish.
The state Lutheran church also tracked congregants’ comings and goings, both between parishes and all the way to “Nordamerika.” Digitalarkivet has scanned many of these records under Church Books/Parish Registers of tilgangslister (arrivals) and afgangslister (removals, also called udflyttede, “relocated”) beginning about 1814.
Unpacking Norse Naming Patterns: Patronyms
Finding your ancestors in these and other records still requires unpuzzling their original surnames, which are infamously difficult.
Start with what many Norwegian researchers consider the biggest head-scratcher: the patronymic naming system. For many years in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, surnames changed with each generation to reflect the father’s name. For example, Lars Rasmussen’s son Ole would be named Ole Larssen (Lars’ son), and daughter Johanna would be surnamed Larsdatter (Lars’ daughter). Norway didn’t officially require permanent surnames until 1923, although many families made the switch before then.
There are upsides to this confusing-seeming scheme, however. You know that Lars’ father’s first name was Rasmus, so that’s a start. And women usually retained their maiden names, so you can still find Johanna as Larsdatter (or sometimes, especially in later years, Larssen or Larsen even for females).
Some Norwegians also adopted the name of their farm as a surname, initially often in combination with a patronymic, such as Lars Rasmussen Oddan. You can use the database of Norwegian farm names to connect farms with parishes.
Once in America—or even upon boarding the boat—emigrant families often changed their names again. They might have dropped the patronymic entirely and gone by a farm or other geographic name. Others “Americanized” their names, so Peder Erickssen became Peter Erickson. Later arrivals might even adopt the surnames of those who’d emigrated first, so Lars Lorentsen would become Lars Larsen to match his Americanized son Anton.
Check all possible spelling variations, use wildcards in online searches where available, and consider even seemingly unlikely options. Birth dates and the names and ages of other family members can help confirm that Jon Olsen Moslet is “your” John Olsen.
Also keep in mind that Norwegian employs three additional letters of the alphabet: Æ (æ), Ø (ø) and Å (å), alphabetized after Z. Prior to 1915, Å (å) was usually written as Aa (aa).
When you’ve gathered enough clues to dive into Norwegian vital and census records, it helps to understand some basics about the country’s geography. Known as Norge to its citizens, Norway occupies the western part of Scandinavia, bordering Sweden and smaller stretches of Finland and Russia.
Norway’s rugged coastline, with dramatic fjords and thousands of rocky islands, covers more than 1,550 miles as the crow flies. About the size of Montana, at almost 149,000 square miles, Norway stretches like a finger toward the North Sea.
For hundreds of years, Denmark (just across the North Sea) dominated Norwegian life. The kingdom ruled over both Norway and Sweden until 1814, when its ally Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated. Sweden then took the reins of Norway until 1905, when Norway gained independence.
Once heavily rural and impoverished by its rocky landscape, Norway flourishes today. More than 30 percent of Norway’s 5.3 million residents live in the metropolitan area of the capital, Oslo. Other large cities include Bergen, Stavanger-Sandnes and Trondheim.
Because of its history of rule by its neighbors, Norway borrows its administrative jurisdictions from both Denmark and Sweden. From the beginning of the 1500s until 1660, Norway was divided into four principal counties (Len), each headquartered at one of the country’s great fortresses: Bohus, Akershus, Bergenhus and Trondheim.
In 1662, Denmark brought its county system (Amt) to Norway. The country was divided into 9 main counties and 17 subsidiary counties. This lasted only until 1671, when Norway was divided into four principal counties (Stiftsamt) and nine subordinate counties.
Another county division was put into place in 1730, which mostly aligns with the county borders (but not necessarily county names) used today. The counties were renamed fylke in 1919. Today, these fylker are grouped into 11 administrative regions—and it’s these regions you’ll encounter first when you search Norway’s Digitalarkivet, with counties under each region.
Within each county, you’ll find a long list of parishes (prestegjeld), which are the most important unit for Norwegian record hunting. FamilySearch has an alphabetical listing. Other useful geography tools include a 1901 postal guide to Norway, Norsk Stedfortegnelse (two parts, part 1 and part 2), and a searchable map of parishes and farms.
Finding Norwegian Vital Records
Norway’s official Lutheran church began keeping parish records (kirkebøker) in the 1600s, with the oldest dating from 1623; these were required by law beginning in 1688. Church recordkeeping was standardized by royal ordinance in 1814, with updates in 1820 and 1870.
The ordinance also created a system of duplicate registers called klokkerbøker (clerk books), kept in a separate location for safety; the FamilySearch catalog denotes these with a kl label. FamilySearch also has a useful guide to how parish register headings changed over time.
As with other Norwegian records, Digitalarkivet is the easiest, most complete, and cheapest (free) way to access digitized parish records, many of them now searchable. Once you know your ancestors’ parish, you can use the dropdowns on the Find Source page to hone in on records from the right place and time. The Norwegian Historical Data Centre also has an ongoing parish-record transcription project.
In the United States, FamilySearch has some searchable Norwegian records. Both MyHeritage and Ancestry.com have collections of 42 million searchable parish records, spanning 1815/1812 to 1938 and created in collaboration with the National Archives of Norway.
Births and baptisms
Parishes generally recorded only baptisms (døpte) prior to the 1814 standardization, and even subsequent records may give only the exact baptism date. You can still closely estimate birth dates, since children were baptized within a few days of being born. Early records may give only the name and residence of the father (far), while later registers add the mother (mor) and godparents (fadder)—worth noting since godparents were almost always relatives.
From 1820 to 1870, the standard column headings meant:
- Entry number
- Reported birth date
- Baptism date
- Child’s full name
- Legitimate or illegitimate birth
- Parents’ names, status, and residence
- Witnesses’ names
- Who performed the baptism if at home
- Illegitimate children reported by a child’s mother or parishioner
Besides names of the groom (brudgom) and bride (brud), Norwegian records for marriage (viede) typically list the date and their place(s) of residence. Post-1814 records might add information about the couple’s ages and occupations. After the 1830s, you may also find their fathers’ names and birthplaces, as well as bondsmen or witnesses.
Standard column headings for marriage records from 1820 to 1877 were:
- Marriage date
- Groom’s name and status; bride’s name
- Groom’s birthplace and residence; bride’s birthplace
- Bride’s and groom’s ages
- Groom’s father’s name
- Bride’s father’s name
- Bondsmen’s names and residences
- Dates of banns
- Person requesting banns
- Reason if banns weren’t declared
- Smallpox or vaccination certificate
- Information about groom’s contribution to a widow’s fund
- Information about any former marriage
Deaths and burials
Parish registers of burials (begravede) list the date and place of burial and, after 1814, the deceased’s age (sometimes only a guess), residence and occupation.
When selecting death records in Digitalarkivet, note that date ranges may differ from other vital records in the same volume, and volumes may overlap. Deaths in Malvik parish during 1834, for example, are spread across a few different books. Also note that the pages may be divided into upper and lower parts, separating men (mannkjønn) and women (kvinnekjønn). Other death records may be on the same or facing pages with baptisms.
Beginning in 1820, death registers used printed pages with these column headings:
- Death date
- Burial date
- Full name and status
- Cause of death
In addition to moves, births, marriages and deaths, churches kept track of when a child—typically as a teenager—was confirmed and ready to receive first communion. These records may list details such as parents’ names and residences, and can even partly substitute for missing birth records. Digitalarkivet is the best source for these konfirmasjon records, found under “Church books/Parish registers” and “Confirmation”; it’s difficult to look specifically for confirmations in other online sources. Even on Digitalarkivet, fewer of these records have been indexed and made searchable, so you may have to browse digitized pages. Start by skipping to the years when an ancestor would have been 16 or 17, then work backwards and forwards if necessary.
Parishes also recorded when people were vaccinated. Vaccination against smallpox was a key driver of Scandinavian emigration, as the protection enabled the population to grow. Norwegian vaksinasjon records, found on Digitalarkivet but generally not searchable, can establish where a person lived in a specific time, much like a census. They may also give ages, which can be used to estimate birth years.
Studying Norse Censuses
All the most genealogically important censuses of Norway—1801, 1865, 1870 (incomplete), 1875 (incomplete), 1900 and 1910—are searchable at Digitalarkivet. (FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage each have at least a couple of these censuses as well.) Digitalarkivet also has a few rural headcounts, a partial 1891 enumeration, the 1920 census (just relased in 2020), and municipal censuses for some cities.
Enumerations between 1801 and 1865 were strictly statistical, creating an unfortunate black hole for genealogists. Otherwise, however, these records are enormously valuable, usually listing all family members and others in the household, along with relationships, ages, occupations, and marital status or history. Birthplaces were added beginning in 1865, and 1910 asked for exact birth date. You can find common census abbreviations and a guide to occupations.
Census searches work best with as few filters as possible, narrowing only if you get too many results. Make use of wildcards, especially at the end of surnames (Rasmus*), which were often truncated, abbreviating –sen or –datter. Working back and forth between censuses and parish records is a smart strategy.
Other Norse Records
Find your Norwegian ancestors using these additional kinds of documents.
Probate and estate records
In Norway, probate records are among the earliest and most accurate sources of genealogical information. Only about one-quarter of the population had estates that were probated, however. Many probate books include indexes (alphabetical by the first letter of the person’s given name), and the Norwegian regional archives also created a card index/extract for most probate records.
You can search index cards from 1640 to 1903 at FamilySearch or at Digitalarkivet using the Advanced Person Search; select “Probate records,” then “Probate index cards” under Category. The Family History Library (FHL) also has microfilmed Norwegian probate records, and Digitalarkivet has scanned probates.
Land and property records
Also limited to wealthier ancestors, land and property records prior to 1865 can be found in regional archives and have been microfilmed by the FHL, catalogued by parish. Most are not indexed, however.
Digitalarkivet has begun digitizing property and mortgage records, found under “Property and Registration” on the main page. Digitalarkivet also has some indexes to lands and farms called matrikkel.
Digitalarkivet has a wealth of scanned military records—some searchable—and the FHL has microfilmed all available Norwegian military records. Early records may give only the person’s birth date and parish. Later military records can be quite detailed, however, with family information, physical characteristics and service history.
Unfortunately, you won’t find whether ancestors “served” with the Vikings, but you can still salute them with a hearty “Skol!”
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine.