Saturday, April 17, 2010

Researching Norwegian Ancestors: What's the Deal with those Norwegian Names?

I enjoy reading genealogy forum discussions because I often learn tricks of the trade from the answers that are posted.  But there is one question that crops up regularly that really needs addressing on a wider scope.  It goes something like this: I am researching the surname Hansen in Norway.  My great-grandfather Johan Hansen came to America in 1880, and I would like to learn more about the Hansen name in Norway.  This person has obviously just started looking into his/her Norwegian family history and has no idea how names work in Norway.

Norway used a patronymic naming system until the Family Name Act was passed in 1923 .  From this point forward, a patronymic name was "fixed" and passed down, or some chose the current farm of residence as a final surname.  I should point out, however, that in some areas of Norway, or in certain families, fixed surnames started a bit earlier -- generally, the turn of the 20th century.  But before I go further, let me backtrack and discuss the issue of surnames before the law came into play. 

The truth is surnames did not truly exist.  Norwegian baptismal records, for example, only have the child's first or first and second names inscribed.  The next column on the record contains the name of the parents, which tells you how the child will go through life explaining who he is: I am Kristian, son of Olaus.  In Norwegian this is Kristian Olausen.  Kristian's son Johan will be Johan Kristiansen, and Johan's son Peder will be Peder Johansen.  Get the picture?  If the person is female, she would say: I am Hanna Marie, daughter of Anders... or Hanna Andersdatter. 

Now let's take this to the next level for more confusion.  Many names in Norway are extremely common, and even in a small town there may be several Kristian Olausens.  Kristian would, therefore, have to add the farm where he lived to explain who he was: I am Kristian, son of Olaus, who lives in Jordbaerhaugen farm... or Kristian Olausen Jordbaerhaugen.  As you may imagine, this practice can make you pull your hair out because sometimes the farm is used as a surname and sometimes it is the patronymic name, and worst of all, your ancestors may change "surnames" several times because they may move from farm to farm over the course of their lives.  For example, my great-great grandfather was Olaus Christensen Haugen when he was born but later became Olaus Christensen Jordbaerhaugen when he moved to Jordbaerhaugen farm.

Long-story-short, your ancestor who came to "Amerika" would have "frozen" his name a lot earlier due to lack of a patronymic system in the U.S.  He may have used his father's name with "sen" or "son" as his surname to pass down from that point on, or many preferred the farm of their last residence.  A woman would have traded "datter" for "sen" such as in Hanna Andersen rather than Andersdatter.  The good news is that this confusing system can provide some solid starting points to finding ancestors in Norway if you learn how to work the system.  A farm name can be traced easily in Norway, though there may be many with the same name.  In the case of a patronymic name, you know the father's name, so when you find the record of your ancestor and his/her father's first name matches the surname, it is one more item of proof to convince you this is the right person. 

Of course, when tracing back to Norway, it is essential to start with what you know now and move back.  Interview your family, go through your pictures, document everything.  It is much easier to find your Norwegian ancestors if you can attain a location in Norway to start, which will then point you to the right parish records  -- yes, Lutheran parish records are where your family history is located for the most part, along with census records.  Online national census records for 1801, 1865, 1875 (not complete), and 1900 may be the best place to look for someone if you are unsure of location.  Census records may be found at the Digitalarkivet site or The Norwegian Historical Data Center .  If you are a novice, you may find the latter site a bit easier to handle, but I often find more information using the Digitalarkivet site.  There are parish records also available in database search format at the Norwegian Historical Data Center and may also be easier for an initial search if your parish and year of need is available.  Otherwise, the Digitalarkivet site is much more complete, and if you want to see the original record, then this is the site you want.  Since many records in Asker Parish are available using the NHDC site, I search there first because it is easier, and I then go to the Digitalarkivet site to look up the original record.  But chances are you will have records you can't find with NHDC, and so yes, you will need to look for the record at the Digitalarkivet site page by page until you find it.  If you know the dates to search, or can guesstimate, then it is not too hard, so long as you have some patience.

One last piece of advice: when searching ancestors you will have to be creative with name spellings.  Most names can be spelled several ways and will vary from record to record for the same person; this is the only real "chaos" I find with the wonderful legacy of records Norway has left for us and made available FOR FREE online.  Ellen might be Elen; Birgitta could be Birgitte, Bergitte, Bergitta, Bergaetha; Christen or Kristen or Chresten or Xten (not kidding); Jon or John or Johan... you get the picture.  The same goes for farm names.  Some of this comes from Norway's Danish and Swedish influences.  "Kristian" is a Norwegian spelling, but "Christian" comes from the Danish influence.  The use of "Ch" could be from the period when Norway was part of the Danish kingdom, or perhaps the parish vicar was educated during the Danish period.  And sometimes there just is no explanation for the spelling differences except that it was written as the person thought it should based on his perception of phonetics.  In any case, you will soon find you can think of many creative ways to spell a name when searching the census records, for example.  On another note, when searching for ancestors who came to "Amerika" the same rules apply, except names were changed to sound and look more American -- so keep this in mind.

Finally, we come to the end of this lesson in Norwegian names.  So happy name hunting!

Oh, I forgot one piece of trivia: Do you know which country today still uses a patronymic naming system?.............................................................. Iceland!

I am providing two links below for two more articles that may be helpful when researching ancestors in Norway.

Part 2 of Researching Norwegian Ancestors: The Basics of Online Parish Registers

Finding Ancestors with DIS Gravminner -- A Grave Database


  1. Good lesson, Astrid. I have tried to put this in to some stubborn Americans - some Olsens out there... I am researching my Olsen line... (that is even worse than Hansen)....

    So, I will bookmark your lesson, and just give the link to anyone asking for the Olsen family next time :-)

  2. Very good indeed. My US family has Jensen and Johannessen/Johanesen/Johanessen (Johnson) to deal with. :-)

  3. Olsen IS worse than Hansen! Thanks both for the kind comments. :-)

  4. Astrid,
    Thanks for a wonderfully informative piece --- and with a nice touch of humor. Thanks for a good read.

  5. A very good post about a fairly complex subject. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Astrid, I am so happy my google search brought you to me! I am just beginning my search for my Norwegian maternal grandparents who came to this country in the late 1900's singly, then met and married here. I have to say your info on names is daunting but I hope I can find some info using the parish registers. Wouldn't you know that my grandmother's name is "Olsen!" My grandfather's name is a little less common, I believe: Haaland. I will be back "here" I am sure!

  7. Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. Let me know if I can help point you in the right direction.
    Thanks again.