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!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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?