Finding My Roots in Norway

This is Part 1 of a two-part series about combining travel with genealogy. Check out Part 2, A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing Your Roots Overseas.

When I was sixteen years old, my dad, stepmom, brother and I drove nearly seven hours from Shoreview, Minnesota to Bismarck, North Dakota for a family reunion.  I remember two things from that weekend:  one, we seemed to be the only people staying at the Holiday Inn in downtown Bismarck.  And two, my dad was brave enough to let me drive most of the way through North Dakota even though I only had a learner’s permit at the time.  Needless to say, tracing my family history was not in the forefront of my mind.

Over a decade later, I was cleaning out a box of old mementos in my apartment in Chicago and came across a typed document (typed on a typewriter!) that was a family tree from that Bismarck reunion.  On the first page I saw the names of my great-great-great grandparents who came over from Norway in 1868 and their many children. The following pages were devoted to each child and his or her descendants, going all the way up to 1992 (the year of the reunion).  I also saw my own handwriting, in pencil, making notes about some of the cousins or aunts or uncles that I must have met that weekend.  Even though I have never been particularly close with my extended family, this family tree immediately intrigued me. An interest in Norwegian genealogy was born!

Stalheim, Norway

Online research at home

In the months to come, I spent hours online researching and adding to the family tree, often staying up well past midnight without even realizing it.  I subscribed to Ancestry.com and bought the Family Tree Maker software to keep track of everything.  I hit the jackpot when I found the digital archives for Norway online.  The site was mostly in Norwegian, but it contained enough English that I could figure out how to search.  I knew from the 1992 family tree that my ancestors hailed from a town called Selbu and it wasn’t long before I was staring at census information for that town from 1801 and 1865!

A few months later, I started thinking about a possible trip to Norway.  Even though I also have German, English, Irish and Swedish roots, my last name is Norwegian so I feel a closer connection to Norway.   I carefully planned an itinerary to include Selbu, a town of only about 4,000 people, about an hour and a half outside of Trondheim.  I couldn’t find any accommodation options in Selbu so I decided to stay in Trondheim and take the bus to Selbu for a day.  I also discovered a website for the town library and went out on a limb and sent an email to the address listed on the site.  To my great surprise, a woman named Oddbjorg Oiberg responded and offered to meet me while I was in town.

Tracing my roots in Selbu

Fast forward to May 16, 2006, when I stepped off a bus outside of a small station seemingly in the middle of nowhere and soon saw a red-headed woman not much older than me standing by a car.  We headed straight to the town library, where Oddbjorg was a librarian, and spent the next few hours going through the town “bygdeboks” – local history books that tell the stories of all the local farms.  A typical entry looked like this:

A section of the Selbu bygdebok decscribing my great-great-great grandfather's family.

Once we exhausted the resources in the library, Oddbjorg and I squeezed into her tiny car and she drove me all around Selbu, showing me where my family farm was (no one from my family still lives there, but it does still exist) and driving me to the highest point in town for a great view of the entire countryside.  Our final stop was the local church and cemetery where I wandered around looking for headstones with my last name (kind of morbid, I suppose). I snapped pictures of the few headstones I found, wanting to have something to rely on for future research – just in case any of those headstones belonged to distant relatives!

View from the highest point in Selbu. My family's farm was on the far side of the forest.
My family farm in Selbu (no one from my family still lives there)
Oddbjorg and me in the Selbu cemetery

Oddbjorg dropped me back at the bus station a couple hours before my bus was due to leave for Trondheim.  I used that time to explore what appeared to be one of the few stores in town, just across the parking lot from the station.  To my great surprise, they had a shelf full of the same bygdeboks I had poured over at the library with Oddbjorg!  I was so excited that the cost was irrelevant.  And it didn’t matter that the books would add about 10 pounds to my backpack that I had drag around Norway for 2 more weeks.  And I ignored the fact that I had spent the entire morning copying most of the relevant pages of the books anyway.  What mattered was that the set of bygdeboks would provide a permanent reference tool for me to research my family in Norway, so of course I bought them.  Being somewhat sensible, though, I only bought the most relevant three books in Selbu and ordered the remainder of the set from the store once I returned to Chicago.

My stack of Selbu bygdeboks.

Altogether I spent 2 weeks in Norway.  I celebrated the country’s national holiday in Trondheim – the entire town came out in traditional dress for a day’s worth of parades.  I cruised up the coast to experience the magic of the Norwegian fjords and embarked on the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour from Oslo to Voss, traveling by train, boat and bus through incredibly diverse landscapes.  I explored the country’s maritime history at museums in Oslo and learned about its musical and literary figures.  I even learned how to pronounce my last name – the hotel clerk corrected me with the Norwegian pronunciation when I checked into my first hotel in Bergen.

The most rewarding part of my trip, though, came when I returned to the USA.   I visited my grandfather in his nursing home in Brainerd, Minnesota.  We loaded my pictures onto the computer and blew them up as large as possible so he could see them clearly.  His ability to communicate was somewhat limited at that time, but when I saw the tears welling up in his eyes, I knew it meant a lot to him that I was able to visit the land where his great grandfather once lived.  When he passed away just a few months later, the Norwegian flag that I gave him was proudly displayed at his memorial service.

Epilogue

Thanks to the bygdeboks I got in Selbu, I was able to trace my family back several more generations, to the early 1700s.  I also learned that at least a few other ancestors also left Norway for the United States, but due to the naming practices in Norway at the time, it has been impossible to track them down (children typically took on their father’s name, adding –sen or –datter, as their last name, later adding on the name of the farm on which they lived at the time.  Norwegian immigrants sometimes used the patronymic last name when they arrived in the United States, but other times used their farm name.  Spelling also varied widely).

New information continues to introduce itself every now and then.  Three years after my trip to Selbu, I got an email from a man who had gotten my name and email address from Oddbjorg – his wife, Inger, is a distant cousin and they were planning a trip to Minnesota.  My dad, aunt and I were able to meet with them, piece together how we are all related, and swap family stories.   Last month, I received an email via Ancestry.com from a man who believes we are related and, just a few weeks ago, a local historian in the Selbu area reached out to us because he is writing a book focusing on what happened to the families who emigrated to the United States.

I’d love to return to Selbu someday and have distant cousins to greet me.  But for now, I’m turning my attention to my other roots…Germany, Sweden, England and Ireland, here I come!

Have you traveled back to the country of your roots?  What did you discover?  If you haven’t, would you like to?


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20 thoughts on “Finding My Roots in Norway”

  1. What a great story! I just found your website from your twitter #genealogy hashtag, and I’m glad I did. That was a very interesting post.

    I have a similar story with my ancestors. In fact, I have a blog about roots travel (traveling to places that your ancestors are from) and a travel agency specializing in roots travel (www.familyrootstravel.com). Contact me if I can be of any assistance when you plan your roots travel to Germany, Sweden, England or Ireland.

    1. Thanks Adam! Germany will likely be next as I know from family records where my ancestors are from – the trouble has been actually tracking down any information over there.

      As for Sweden, Ireland and England, I haven’t made it far back enough to know when or from where my ancestors came over to the US – those are all on my mom’s side and the family record-keeping wasn’t nearly as good.

      I will definitely have to check out your blog – I love the idea of a travel agency specializing in genealogical travel!

  2. What an interesting story. I honestly thought all those ancestry website were a scam… Now I know they aren’t. That is so damn cool. I would love to explore more of my families past and see just where we came from. I love talking to my grandparents about old stories. I would sit with them for hours and just talk talk talk. I would ask so many questions and would just be in awe at how much times have changed.

    I am glad you were able to find a lot about your family. Can’t wait to read part two!!!

    1. Thanks Jaime! I can’t vouch for all of them, but Ancestry.com is definitely not a scam – I was able to access actual copies of census records, draft registration cards and the like. I’ll be doing a follow up post to this one on how to get started researching your family history – keep an eye out!

    1. oh great, I’ll check it out.

      Yeah, with my English/Irish ancestors, I’ve only been able to go back as far as the late 1700s in Virginia. We are part of a DNA project with my maternal grandfather’s last name that has identified us as belonging to an Irish line but right now we don’t even know who initially came over or when. It is fascinating stuff though!

  3. What an enriching experience! I actually just got back for Ireland where I knocked on the door of a third cousin. He showed me all around, introduced me to some more cousins. It is great to find those connections in places so foreign.

  4. That’s a great story. I began researching my ancestry last year spurred on by a combination of “Who Do You Think You Are” and my grandmother passing away. (In the case of the latter, I took it upon myself to scan all of her photos so everyone in the family could have copies.) I found out some information about my family on Ancestry.com, but didn’t take the next step of travelling to Poland/Russia where my family originated.

    Just out of curiousity, did you have to pay the librarian anything to help you research the local books? In the TV show, they’re always having historians and other people helping them and I always wonder how much something like that costs.

    1. I didn’t pay Oddbjorg (the librarian) anything – she wasn’t a professional historian or anything like that. I just emailed the library’s general email address on a whim and she happened to respond and was willing to meet with me.

  5. As a part Norwegian who is looking into her genealogy, I really appreciated this story. I hope I can get over back to the old country one of these days. Thanks for posting!

  6. How cool!!! I love genealogy. During his retirement years, my grandfather became obsessed with our family history and spend endless hours at libraries looking at microfiches and putting together the most complicated family tree I have ever seen. He traced us back many centuries to one of the English kings. It was really cool being able to see when that side of the family came over from England. They helped settle Nantucket, Massachusetts, and in high school my dad took me there. I was able to see some of their original homes and learn more about them. It was pretty incredible to feel that connection! Your experience must have been awesome–it’s great that you were actually able to go back to where your family started before they came to America!

  7. Katie,

    Loved your story! I have been researching my family roots from Norway and understand the difficulty of finding relatives. My great grandmother was from Selbu! My 2 aunts, my cousin, my daughter, and myself are going to Norway in June 2013. We plan on doing Norway in a Nutshell that goes from Bergen, to Oslo, to Trondheim. I was hoping that we could take a bus from Trondheim to Selbu to see my great grandmothers home town. And now that I read your article, I see that we can do this! I know that we must have some distant relatives there and it would be nice to meet them. Granny did go back to Selbu once and visited, but she didn’t leave any of that information for us. I will have to track down your librarian to see if she can help us! Thank you so much for posting this article. It has given me hope of finding some possible long lost relatives in Norway!

  8. Hi Katie! I loved your story!! I too have roots from Selbu! I’ve always wanted to travel there and visit the old home land. My great grandfather came over in the early 1900’s and immigrated to Washington. Our family had lived here every since then. His name was Bjarne Morseth. I have a book I found named Draxen-Folket. It names over 10,000 relatives from that area. I would also love to speak with the person that contacted you about the people who immigrated to the US from Selbu. I have become very interested in my family history in the last 15 yrs or so. I hope someday I make it to Norway and visit the old family farm and meet the great people from Norway. Let me know if you would like to swap info sometime or even pass on the contact info for that historian who is doing the immigration history. Thank you for sharing your story with us!!!
    Jared

  9. I too will be tracing my Norwegian roots when I travel next month. I am in contact with a distant relative and plan to see the statue of my ancestor Bisop Wexelson at Nidaros Cathedral. It is so gratifying to get in touch with our roots -our family name was Wanvig and they lived in Trondheim.
    I enjoyed your blog, Katie!

  10. Hi,
    I also am of Norwegian descent, and am trying(mainly in vain) to locate relatives. My grandfather emigrated to the United States circa 1923 from Namsos(kind of near Trondheim). He had five siblings, most of them also came to America. I’m extremely curious about genealogy and was thrilled to come across your article! It gave me some extra tips to searching for relatives!
    And it’s crazy, we could even be distantly related!
    Again, thanks for the article and best wishes in your travels!
    Sincerely,
    Rebecca Aune(granddaughter of Oskar Aune, great granddaughter of Ludwig and Maren Aune)

  11. Thanks for your story! I too made my way to Selbu and found the Draxton and Langli farms, Also Slind cousins. They were so helpful at the heritage center, also arranged a home visit. We were not related but were treated wonderfully. Selbu is charming and one of their own is credited with designing the rose pattern seen on many sweaters. Selbu models of the clothing designs,bands, and many distant cousins have come here to Minnesota. Their newspaper followed the immigrated, telling news of WW1, WW2, and pride of those who left poor even to be indentured servants (my great-grandmother ). She sent for all her family and they all did well! My Selbu family includes the founder of the Sons of Norway. The more we search we find out how we all are family.

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