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Resources for Norwegian genealogy

Posted by Sean Daly on Apr 12, 2024
Norwegian couple in traditional costume and a church in the snow

Do you have ancestors from Norway? Here is a list of resources as well as some key facts about Norwegian genealogy which will help you unearth the stories of your forbears!

A brief history of Norway

The Vikings

Norway — the land of the Norsemen/Northmen — with its coastal fjords facing the Norwegian and the North Seas, sent Vikings throughout Western Europe and down the Eastern European rivers to Constantinople and even to North America from the 8th through the 11th centuries. Norway’s history is closely intertwined with Denmark’s and Sweden’s; indeed, historians are unsure if Rollo, the Scandinavian first duke of Normandy, was Norwegian or Danish. In any case, the energy of the Norsemen in conquest, trade, and administration — and their willingness to adapt to local cultures — had a great impact throughout Europe until the end of the Viking Age in 1066 when Harald Hardrada, founder of Oslo and former chief of the Varengian Guard in Constantinople, was slain in battle in England three weeks before Norman duke William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings.

Heddal Stave Church, Notodden. Source: VisitNorway

Christianity and unions with Denmark and Sweden

By the 12th century, Christianity had become widespread (although the gods of Norse mythology were never forgotten) and during the 13th century, Norway’s Golden Age, cities grew in size and prospered while more farmland was cleared and divided. The Black Death in 1349 was disastrous for Norway — farm fields lay fallow — and in 1397, the country entered the Kalmar Union with Denmark and Sweden. From 1536, the Reformation was imposed by King Christian III and Norway entered a personal union with more populous Denmark (someimes called the “Twin Kingdoms”), under effective Danish control for centuries until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Norway was then joined in a personal union with Sweden (keeping however its own administration and laws) from 1814 to 1905, when it finally gained full independence in the context of mass exodus of Norwegians to the United States.

Norwegian immigrant Ole Rynning wrote an influential book about life in the United States, Sandfærdig Beretning om Amerika, til Oplysning og Nytte for Bonde og Menigmand (A True Report on America for the Enlightenment and Benefit of Farmers and the Common Man)

The exodus of Norwegians to the United States

The century from 1825 to 1924 saw a massive exodus of emigrants to the United States. A first ship in 1825 brought six families (the “sloopers”) to New York, who subsequently moved west. An 1838 book by Ole Rynning, Sandfærdig Beretning om Amerika, til Oplysning og Nytte for Bonde og Menigmand (A True Report on America for the Enlightenment and Benefit of Farmers and the Common Man), extolled the virtues of American settlement and influenced the emigration that followed. The peak period was from 1860 onwards. All told, some 800,000 Norwegians left their homeland and for the most part settled in the upper Midwest region, as the Swedes did: Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas. Why did so many leave? There was a rural population boom in the first half of the 19th century which encouraged young adults to emigrate for better opportunities, where farmland wasn’t limited. As in Ireland, the potato blight of the mid-1840s in conjunction with the increased population created hardship (although the blight’s effect was far less severe outside of Ireland). Following the US Civil War, the Western railroads were laying transcontinental track quickly and needed farmers to settle their new land along the tracks and provide revenue. Scandinavian emigrants often landed in New York City’s Castle Garden immigration center (or its federal successor from 1892, Ellis Island) and boarded westbound trains the same day, on through tickets to their destinations.

About the Norwegian letters Æ/æ, Ø/ø and Å/å (and typing them)

The Norwegian alphabet has vowels we don’t have in English : Æ/æ, Ø/ø and Å/å. Note that these are not considered A or O with diacritical marks, but completely separate letters which follow Z in the alphabet. Prior to 1915, Å/å was often written as Aa/aa. Don’t have a Norwegian keyboard handy? See the useful keyboard shortcuts here, here, or here. Be aware that when searching some databases (including Geneanet), these characters will be transliterated to ae, o, and a; meanwhile, others won’t return effective results without the correct Norwegian letters. If the database you are searching allows wildcards, you can likely use an asterisk “*” or question mark “?” to substitute for these letters.

The 15 modern fylker (counties) have had border and even name changes in the past century. See for example the N-AGA maps.

Norwegian genealogy notes

Here are a few things to keep in mind about Norwegian genealogy:

  • It’s key to identify a place of origin for your Norwegian ancestor. As always, work back from most recent documents to older. For example, for Norwegians in the United States, you will want naturalization documents, censuses, and passenger lists any of which may provide clues to the town of origin in Norway.
  • Norway has two official Norwegian languages, Bokmål (similar to Danish, and spoken by most Norwegians today) and Nynorsk. The written forms are mutually intelligible.
  • Records may be in Norwegian, Danish or Swedish, and documents prior to 1875 were often written in blackletter Gothic typeface — which is readable with a bit of practice, but does require an effort for the untrained eye
  • The patronymic + farm naming system is another challenge: a father’s first name became a his childrens’ last name, and had the farm name added to it! Moreover, if a person changed farms, his or her name changed too. As this system was confusing and does not scale well in large populations, permanent last names became official in 1923. Helpfully, some families named their firstborn son and daughter after the paternal grandparents, and the secondborn son and daughter after the maternal grandparents. Remarried widows and widowers sometimes named their children after the deceased spouse. Remember that as is the case elsewhere, spelling of names did not become standard until the 20th century.
  • Birthplaces were often farms; as larger farms had names, databases are available linking those farms to parishes.
  • Bygdebøker (“village books”) available at the National Archives of Norway and elsewhere are very useful when researching farming families.
  • The official Lutheran church began keeping parish records in 1623; these were required by law from 1688.
  • Norway switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1700.
  • From 1814, duplicates of local parish records called klokkerbøker (clerk books) were begun.
  • Available national censuses are from 1663-66 and 1701 (men only), 1769 (numeric only, no names), 1801, 1815/1825/1835/1845/1855 (numeric only, no names), 1865, 1870 (towns only), 1875, 1885 (towns only), 1891, 1900, 1910, and 1920. Cities have some census data as well. More information is here. Geneanet has full or partial indexes for many of these.
  • Many 19th and early 20th century Norwegian emigrants sailed from Hamburg, Germany.

Norwegian collections at Geneanet

Geneanet is available in Norwegian, with millions of archival records and indexes, and thousands of family trees built by Norwegians and descendents in the diaspora. Are your cousins among them? Our forums are available for your genealogy questions — in English here, in Norwegian here!

  • Vital records (birth/marriage/death): over 28.5 million individuals (Premium)
  • Half a dozen censuses from 1801 to 1900 are fully or partially indexed at Geneanet, with 9.2 million individuals (Premium)
  • Over 31,000 individuals have been indexed by Geneanet volunteers.

Resources for Norwegian genealogy


Did we miss any resources? Please let us know in the comments!

5 comments

I happen to have connections to Norway on both sides of my tree, about 30% Scandinavian DNA in total. To all, keep up the great research and publishing of findings.


One source that seems to be missing is Digital Archives,
https://www.digitalarkivet.no/en

Answer from Geneanet: Good catch, we started off our list of resources with the National Archives, but neglected to mention their portal to the Digital Archives! We have added the link. Many thanks!


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