Norway has always seemed magical to me. I was especially close to my Norwegian grandma, Gudrun Marie Nilsen Nelson, and my love for her fostered a curious interest and pride for this “Land of the Midnight Sun.” My fascination with all things Norwegian was surprising, given that my Norwegian grandparents were immigrants who left the old country and its customs, anxious to become Americans. I wasn’t raised with personal stories from my grandparents about their homeland. Grandma would answer questions about Norway, but the answers would be brief and end with her adding "Why do you want to know about Norway? We left that country." Grandma did have contact with her family in Bergen and received letters occasionally. Mom knew the names of her aunts, Grandma's sisters. One of these aunts sent Mom pieces of Norwegian silver plate flatware on a regular basis, some of which were engraved with her initials or my initials and my birth date. I still have this flatware. There were certain Norwegian foods that we enjoyed, usually at special times of the year.

Grandpa, Harold Dreyer Nelson, never talked about the country of his birth; in fact, he was so tight-lipped about his background that none of his children even knew where specifically he was born nor did his co-workers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, know that he was married and had four children. Grandpa had two first cousins in the United States; however, when I started my genealogical work no one knew how these three first cousins were connected to each other.

Grandma was the only sibling in her family to leave Norway permanently; her remaining five siblings lived their lives in Bergen. Grandma never returned to Norway to visit. She had one niece who lived in Eugene, Oregon, who had come to the United States after World War II. Family lore has it that Grandma's aunt (Tante Lina) in Brooklyn owned or worked in a candy store. This aunt returned to Norway several times to visit and during her visit in 1921, she asked if one of her nieces (Grandma or her siblings) would come to America to help her. Grandma leapt at the opportunity and came to the U.S. in December 1921. I've not yet found any connection to a candy store and suspect that Grandma went to serve as a domestic in Tante Lina's home.

Norway has done more than any other country to put all of its genealogy-related documents online, with free access to these resources. This includes all of the parish registers covering births, confirmations, marriage, and deaths, and the various censuses conducted throughout Norway for which records exist. Norway’s homogeneity, the fact that record books exist for almost all of its rural farms, and the fact that the Church of Norway (Lutheran) was the state church make Norway a country whose genealogical information can be fairly easily researched.

As I pursued my genealogical research on my Norwegian families, I began to appreciate the importance of a number of issues affecting genealogical research for Norwegian family members. I'd like to highlight these six topics: 1) Norway’s political administrative structure; 2) Church hierarchies and records; 3) Development and management of farms in the rural areas 4) Bygdeboks 5) Personal naming conventions, especially in rural areas prior to standardized last names mandated by the Norwegian government in 1925. 6) Emigration and Immigration

Norway's Political Administrative Structure

Counties of Norway

Norway is divided into 19 counties. A county is called a “fylke” in Norwegian.

Each of these counties is subdivided into municipalities, or local administrative units, called “kommune” (singular) or “kommuner” (plural). As of 2011, there are 430 kommuner in Norway. In addition, there are 96 settlements with city status in Norway. Usually, city borders are coterminous with the borders of their respective municipalities.

Grandpa Nelson (Harold D. Nelson, my mother's father) was born in the far northern part of Norway's Nordland County on the island of Andøy on a farm now located in the Andøy kommune. Before he was two, his mother took him to a different farm, now part of the Sortland kommune on the island of Langøya. Both Andøy and Landøya are islands in the Vesterålen archipelago.

Grandma Nelson (Gudrun M. Nilsen, my mother's mother) was born in Bergen, in the south of Norway, in Hordaland County. Her mother’s family was from the area of Hol in Buskerud County and her father’s family was from the island of Stord, south of Bergen, also located in Hordaland County.

Church Hierarchies and Records

Norway has had a state church for hundreds of years. Church registers served as civil documentation for births, confirmations, marriages, and deaths. Church registers also provided information on the movement of its constituents, recording names and destinations of people who were leaving the parish and the names and earlier residences of the people moving into the parish.

The constitutional head of the Church is the King of Norway. Administratively, the Church of Norway is divided into eleven dioceses, called bispedømme. Most of the dioceses correspond roughly to the Norwegian counties. Each of the dioceses consists of parishes, called “prestegjeld”, which often correspond roughly to a kommune. There are over 1200 parishes in Norway. If there is only one parish in a kommune, that parish is the prestegjeld. If more than one church exists within a parish or prestegjeld, each of the churches will have a separate name, and are called “sokn.”

Microfilming of all parish registers has been completed and these images are now available on the Arkivverket Digitalarkivet (Digital Archives), a free government service. These church record books are organized first by county (fylke) and then by parish. Obviously, ease of access to these records varies considerably. For individuals living in small rural areas, it is quite easy to scan all possible records in a brief period of time. For individuals living in larger towns and cities, patience is needed if you don't know the parish in which your family members were baptized, confirmed, married, etc. You may need to scan through hundreds and hundreds of records looking for the specific records associated with your family member(s). Name indexes are now being generated for the parish registers.

Development and Management of Farms in the Rural Areas

Throughout the centuries, Norway was a farm-based country, with the family farm serving as the core unit from county to county. Initially, much of the land was held by the Church and/or the Crown; eventually these lands were sold to individuals. The organizational structure for managing farms throughout the country was extensive and highly evolved. Land registers, hundreds of years old, were used for oversight of real estate and for taxation purposes.

Each farm (called a “gard”) throughout Norway was named, listed, and numbered (the number was called a “gardnummer”) according to the kommune in which the farm was located. This numbered list, starting with the number “1” and continuing upward, along with the farm name, was maintained by each kommune. As populations grew, these initial large, single-family farms were subdivided into smaller farm units; each of these smaller farm units was called a “bruk”. All of the bruks on a given farm were also numbered and listed. There were also smaller pieces of leased property in existence on the farms, parts of bruks or part of the main gard. While they did not have their own separate numbering systems, they often had their own names. Most of the farm names are quite old and have remained constant (with spelling variations) through generations.

An extraordinarily challenging project focusing on Norwegian farms was undertaken by Oluf Rygh over a hundred years ago. The results of these efforts, an 18 volume encyclopedia, [] "Norwegian Farm Names ("Norske Gaardnavne") are now accessible online through a cooperative digitization project among four universities within Norway. The introductory page for Rygh’s Norwegian Farm Names encyclopedia contains the following:

“In the late 19th century a new and complete land registry was compiled in Norway. A central member of the land register commission was the Norwegian philologist and archaeologist Oluf Rygh. On the basis of his work in the commission, Rygh started to publish a complete catalogue over the names of the main Norwegian farms (45,000 in 1886). For each farm, the name is given together with its pronunciation, etymology and reported variants in an impressive list of historical sources. The editing and publication of the catalogue was done over nearly 40 years and was completed long after Rygh's death.”


Almost all of the rural kommunes in Norway have published bygdeboks. Bygdeboks contain a wealth of information: a description of the kommune, its history, its geography, its settlement development, etc. One of the most important sets of data in a bygdebok is the detailed information about the farms in the kommune. In this section, you can read about each farm’s history and find genealogies of the families who lived on the specific farm. Usually, the bygdeboks for a specific kommune will consist of a multi-volume set of books. Those volumes that are subtitled “Gård og slekt” (farm and family) contain the farm- and family-specific genealogical and historical data.

Personal Naming Conventions

Until 1925, consistent use of surnames in rural areas was not mandated. Instead, a combination of given name, patronymic, and/or main farm (gard) name was used by each individual. In 1925, the Norwegian government mandated the consistent use of surnames from generation to generation.

Prior to 1925, there were several ways in which an individual’s name could be expressed. The first segment of a Norwegian name was always the given name, also called a person’s Christian name. This given name could be one word or several words. The second segment of a name was either a patronymic or the name of the farm on which a child was born. If this second segment was a patronymic, then there could also be a third segment used that would be the name of the farm.

To illustrate these naming choices, here are some examples of full names:

  • Margit Asgrimsdtr
    • Given name: Margit
    • 2nd segment, patronymic, meaning “daughter of Asgrim”: Asgrimsdtr
  • Asgrim Olson Løyte
    • Given name: Asgrim
    • 2nd segment, patronymic, meaning “son of Ole”: Olson
    • 3rd segment, farm name where born: Løyte
  • Ole Thorsen Hellehaugen, Moen
    • Given name: Ole
    • 2nd segment, patronymic, meaning “son of Thor”: Thorsen
    • 3rd segment, two farm names, the 1st indicating place of birth, the 2nd indicating place of death: Hellehaugen, Moen
  • Helga Pauline Dorthea Vik
    • Given name, three words: Helga Pauline Dorothea
    • 2nd segment, farm name: Vik

After the legal mandate to use consistent last names was put in place in 1925, individuals from rural areas had three choices regarding the legal form of their name:

1. They could adopt their current patronymic as their last name, e.g., Asgrim Olsen. Asgrim’s children would all have the last name of “Olsen” rather than the patronymic Asgrimsen or Agrimsdtr.

2. They could adopt their their farm name as their legal last name, e.g., Ole Vik, whereby all of Ole’s children’s last names would be “Vik” rather than Olsen or Olsdtr.

3. They could select a completely different last name. These were usually linked in some fashion to a family name of some sort, but not necessarily reflecting the current father/child patronymic construction.

The form of Grandpa Nelson’s name in various Norwegian records illustrates the challenges that personal naming conventions can pose for researchers.

His given name in his birth/baptism record is: Harald Paulin Dreyer, son of Thore Nilsen and Kristine Margrethe Hansdtr. Note that the church register does not give a last name. It is assumed to be a patronymic, in this case “Thoresen.”

His name at the time of his confirmation is listed in the church registers as: Harald Paulin Dreyer Thoresen.

The 1900 Norwegian census lists his name as: Harald Torsen.

His emigration record when he left Norway in 1904 lists his name as Harald S. D. Hansen, reflecting the use of his mother’s patronymic as his last name.

His immigration record when he crossed into the United States from Canada lists his name as Harald P. D. Thoresen.

In 1920, when he applied for his passport so that he could return to Norway to visit his mother, his name is listed as: Harold Dreyer Nelson, the form of name that he would continue to use during his lifetime in the U.S.

Emigration and Immigration

Between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to the United States—about one-third of Norway’s population. With the exception of Ireland, no single country contributed a larger percentage of its population to America than Norway. While emigration from Norway initially started as a way to escape religious persecution, economic concerns quickly became the primary reason for moving to the United States.

Norway has maintained fairly good emigration records. These datasets are now online and have a wide variety of search access methodologies. Given the wide variation with naming conventions, it is important to use "contains" or "starts with" searching rather that "exactly is", especially when you are unsure of dates of departure.

Norwegian immigrants arrived in North America at a variety of ports; every immigrant did not go through Ellis Island. Many of my family members disembarked in Canada and then entered the U.S. at one of the border crossings on their way to their final destination. The amount of data available on a U.S. immigration record varies considerably, depending on year of immigration. Least helpful are the records for the late 1800s. Most helpful are the records used in the early 1900s. They consist of two pages of extraordinarily useful data.

When working with U.S. passenger lists, you may encounter records for individuals who were detained upon arrival. If you encounter these, make sure to locate the original record in the passenger list, since the record for detention is extremely brief and heavily coded.

My grandfather, Harold D. Nelson, emigrated from Nordland County, Norway in 1904. In February 1921, he returned to Norway to visit family, including his mother, who at that time lived in Dverberg, Nordland County, Norway. He returned to the United States, arriving on December 20, 1921, on the S.S. Stavangerfjord that departed from Bergen. Also on this ship was the woman who would become my maternal grandmother, Gudrun M. Nilsen. They met on the ship, were married in Garretson, South Dakota, moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had four children there, and died and were buried in Sioux Falls.

My grandfather also had a number of first cousins who emigrated to the U.S. Karen Vik Hanssen (his aunt) arrived in South Dakota in 1904 along with her youngest daughter, Ragnhild, Grandpa's cousin. In 1905, Karen Vik's four remaining children born in Norway, Grandpa’s first cousins, arrived (Arthur, Helga, Kalmar, and Inga). Grandpa Nelson also had a first cousin, Eilif Smevik, son of his mother’s half sister, Hilda Hanssen, who came to the United States in 1925. Eilif also settled in southeastern South Dakota and then moved to southern California. A number of my grandfather’s relatives also settled in Canada.

My grandmother had one niece, Ingrid, who emigrated to the U.S. Ingrid’s mother, Olga Nilsen Lien, was a sister to Grandma Nelson. Ingrid settled in Oregon. Grandma Nelson also had two aunts, sisters of her mother, Ingeborg, who emigrated earlier to the United States. One aunt’s full maiden name was Oline Malene Helgesen and the other’s full name was Marthe Helene Helgesen. Oline Malene, called “Tante Lina” by my grandmother, married in Brooklyn, New York, and settled there. Marthe Helene, called “Tante Lena” by my grandmother, settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota.