How large? Well, the coastline, counting indentations of the famous fjords, is 15,600 miles; the coast as measured along the sea front is almost 1650 miles. This is the seventh longest coastline in the world. The nation starts on the border with Sweden, and faces the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea looping up and around to Finland and Russia in the far north.
This connection with the ocean helps to explain Norwegians and their movements throughout history. Well before the year 1000, the famous Vikings flourished. At various times, Norway was united with Denmark and Sweden. From 1523-1814 Denmark and Norway were united, and from 1814-1905 Sweden and Norway were united. There was parliamentary rule, but only one king. As far as records go, Norway made the change from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian one (in wide use today) in 1700.
And like so many other areas, there is a great deal of information available and searchable on the web. There is much left to do, but compared to 20 or 30 years ago, genealogical research is far easier and quicker. As with most genealogical research, you start with what you know and work backwards in time using various resources and gaining a better understanding of the records and the information that they contain. Fortunately, Norway has very good records. The LDS church has filmed a large amount of them and, for example, there are lists of doctors back into the 1470s. The earliest census that has been filmed by the LDS is 1664. Ancestry.com has almost a million indexed births and christenings. So, there is already a large amount of source material for the reader to work with.
There are considerations about language as well as the old handwriting. From about 1530 to about 1815, Denmark ruled Norway, and Danish was used as the standard written language. The upper classes and nobles spoke a Danish-Norwegian, which is a form of Danish with a Norwegian pronunciation. When the countries separated in the early 1800s, that Danish-Norwegian remained as the official language of Norway, gradually developing more modern linguistic forms. But in the early 1900s, a linguistic movement started to more closely reflect what the average person spoke in daily life. Nordic languages have 29 letters and are written in the familiar Roman script.
So what this means is that there are two languages that you may encounter in recent Norwegian research: Bokmal (book-language, a Norwegianized form of Danish) and Nynorsk (new-Norwegian, based on dialects and a general opposition to Danish.). Of course Danish and Norwegian are Germanic languages (but they are not German); and Latin would be used in Catholic church records (Norway has been a Protestant (Lutheran) country since the Reformation of the mid-1530s established a state church in Norway. Confused? Don't be. I have listed below some web sites and books that deal with this at greater length than I have in this article. And we have not even touched on Davvisamegiella, or Northern Sami, which appears on the official Norwegian Archives web site.
No discussion of Scandinavian research would be complete without talking about the naming practices. Like other Scandinavian countries, names were derived from the father's given name. Children were given a name (say, Ralf), and if the son's father were named Jon, he would be Ralf Jonson or Jonsen. His children would be Anders Ralfson, and so on. But that would be too easy. A daughter would be Ann, for example, and in this example she would be Ann Ralfsdatter. This is in written records. In daily practice, these were often shortened on made into a dialect version, which was then used in local records. And women kept their name when they married. But again, too easy.
Then there are the farm names, as Norway was a very rural country. Bakke means a hill, so our friend Ralf could be known as Ralf Jonson Bakke, Ralf the son of Jon, who lives on a farm by the hill. Unless he moved to another farm, when he would acquire the name of that farm as a suffix. But in 1923 it was made compulsory to choose a family name. Okay, but in 2003 the law was changed again to allow people to choose their father's or mother's names as their family name.
The reason for going on about this is that you have to be really careful that you are researching the correct person. The names before 1900 especially are a good clue to the parents.
Most people who left Norway to emigrate to North America, did so for economic reasons. They would usually leave from a seaport in their own country. Sources I consulted suggest that between 1825 and 1925, about a million Norwegians came to North America. Norway comes in second only to Ireland when considering the percentage of its population that emigrated. People who left their homes and went out from a Norwegian port, would be entered in migration registers. The Familysearch cataloging for these (over 170 of them) say that the registers contain the emigrants record number, name, age and/or year of birth, marital status, place of residence, occupation, destination, name of ship and when it sailed, and other miscellaneous information. But a lot of people who eventually did migrate went somewhere else in Norway before they left. People from southern Norway were in a more crowded area, but they could also move north in their own country where there was plentiful land. So, many went north instead of west. As a matter of fact, some historians have named Northern Norway 'poor peoples America.'
As was written in a Familysearch guide to Norwegian research, farm names are very important in locating people in Norway. Through these names you can find parishes and then your ancestors in the parish registers. You can also view a Photo Album of Farms as part of the digital archives of the Norwegian National Archives. It contains user-submitted photos of 1900-era farms. There is a link in the album between a farm photo and the respective farm in the 1900 census list, so that one can find information on the farm and household. There is also a Norwegian Farm Book Extraction Project. And you can also view photos of churches in Norway (see below).
Although Norwegians settled all across America, large concentrations and populations settled in the upper Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and North Dakota. Minnesota has the highest number of ethnic Norwegians. There are about 1.5 million Norwegian-descended people in Minnesota, about 30 percent of the total population of Minnesota. North Dakota has the highest percent of Norwegians: estimates put it as high as 70.1 percent of the 642,000 people living in North Dakota are able to trace their family roots back to Norway. There are also significant populations in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana, Washington and the city of Chicago, which each have a 10-15 percent Scandinavian-descended population (including Chicago). Where you can find large Norwegian populations you can most likely also find large Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, and particularly large Swedish populations as well. Just like the Norwegians, Minnesota has the largest number of Swedes in America and outside of Sweden. 15-20 percent of the Minnesota population is Swedish. In a lot of parts of northern Minnesota & in North Dakota, people still speak Norwegian or Swedish, and some cities have their first language of the city enlisted as Swedish or Norwegian.
They did at first try to live on the East Coast like the Irish, but the egalitarian Norwegians didn't like being treated as unskilled, immigrant labor and being discriminated against. Then a lot moved to the newly colonized northern states, which had a climate and nature much like Norway, and bred quickly and prodigiously. Eleven or twelve children wasn't unusual, meaning that today there are millions of Norwegian-Americans, all descended from the same 30,000 who came in the first early waves.
Also, Norwegians did come to Canada. Sources I consulted showed the largest number of Canadian of Norwegian descent are found in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta - the Canadian areas north of the American Midwest.
Let's get one thing out of the way. The fictional Minnesota city of St. Olaf was the hometown of Rose Nylund in the TV show "The Golden Girls." Betty White, the actress from the Golden Girls, often joked about her being from there. But St Olaf College has a remarkable archive for Norwegian research.
Places to Look, Books to Read
While there is a lot to be said for paper books, much more recent information is usually found online. Always plan to use both kinds of sources. Listings found in this article are just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended). There are many places to look and these are only suggestions of where to start.
Energy of a Nation: Immigration Resources - explains a lot about Norwegian emigration: why, when, and to where
Churches in Norway - photos of churches in Norway
FamilySearch - example of one city's work
Norwegian naming practices - personal website
Worldcat - pre-constructed search for Norwegian genealogy books
Naming Practices - another guide
Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library, Madison Wisconsin
Sons of Norway, Vennekretsen Atlanta - this group's useful web page.
A selection of subjects available in the Norwegian Digital Archives, includes the following:
The National Archives of Norway, in English.
Books & Other Publications
It should be noted here that many of the handouts that I mention here have been superseded or can be downloaded from the Familysearch.org web site. The WIKI there has much good information. Actual places which hold these titles can be found using Worldcat.org.
- "Research Outline: Norway. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, 2001.
- "Norway: Research Outline." Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, 1992.
- "Norway: Non-British Research Starter Kit." Genealogical Society of Victoria International Settlers Group. Melbourne, Vic., 2008.
- "Finding your Scandinavian Ancestors," by Penelope Janet Christensen. Heritage Productions. Toronto, Ont., 2001.
- "How & Where to Research Your Ethnic-American Cultural Heritage: Scandinavian Americans," by Robert D Reed and Danek S Kaus. R&E Publishers. San Jose, CA, 1994.
- "Norwegian Research Guide," by Linda M Herrick; Wendy K. Uncapher. Origins. Janesville, WI, 2001.
- "Finding Records of Your Ancestors: Part A, Norway 1827 to 1900." Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, 2001.
- "How To Trace Your Ancestors in Norway," by Yngve Nedreb. Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oslo, 1996
- "Beginning Norwegian Research," by Nancy Ellen Carlberg. Carlberg Press. Anaheim, CA 1991
- "The Probate Records of Norway." Genealogical Dept. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1978.
- "The Church Records of Norway." Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1968.
- "The Church Records of Norway." Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, 197-?
- "The Census Records of Norway." Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 197-?
- "Genealogical Guidebook & Atlas of Norway," by Frank Smith and Finn A Thomsen. Everton Publishers. Logan, UT, 1979 printing
- "Research in Norway," by Jan H Olstad. Southern California Genealogical Society. Burbank, CA, 1989
- "Major Genealogical Record Sources in Norway." Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1972
- "Major Genealogical Record Sources in Norway." Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1977.
- "Genealogical Maps & Guide to the Norwegian Parishes," by Finn A Thomsen. Thomsen's Genealogical Center, Bountiful, UT, 1987.
- "The Beginner's Guide to Norwegian Genealogical Research," by Finn A Thomsen. Thomsen's Genealogical Center. Bountiful, UT, 1984
- "Finding Records of Your Ancestors: Part A, Norway, 1827 to 1900." Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, 2001