First published in News of Norway, issue 5, 1999
Why would your Norwegian ancestors use the name of a farm to identify their family? In Norway, the use of fixed family names was not made compulsory by law until 1925. Using farm names is an old naming pattern that no longer exists in Norway. But at the time of the great exodus to America, Norwegians were identified by their names and by the place in which they lived.
Yngve Nedrebø, author of "How to Trace Your Ancestors in Norway," says your surname can be a valuable clue when conducting genealogy research. "Special attention should be paid to names," says Nedrebø, whose booklet has been published by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in nine editions between 1958 and 1996.
"In the old days, Norwegians were identified by their Christian name and their father's name plus the appropriate suffix (i.e. -sen or -datter). In addition, a third name was often used. This surname was usually a farm name, that did not necessarily identify a family or a relationship - rather it signified a place of residence."
So if a farmer or a laborer moved, his surname would also reflect the new farm. For example, if Tor Iversen Sørbø moved from the Sørbø farm to the Lia farm, his new name would become Tor Iversen Lia. If you use a Norwegian farm name, it does not necessarily signify that your family had a blood relationship with the owning family. Nedrebø says a tenant farmer (a cotter or "husmann") was often listed in the official registers under the name of the farm to which his little home belonged.
Upon arrival in the United States, Norwegians either already had three names or, in many cases, adopted a third one. Usually this third name was the name of the farm they had just come from, says Nedrebø.
"Or sometimes the immigrants might take the name of another farm where they had once lived."
Immigrants were not very particular about which surnames they adopted. The most important factor was apparently whether the name could be written and pronounced in English. And many times names underwent spelling changes so they could be understood in English, or because a clerk misunderstood the foreign pronunciation. For instance, Kvernum might become Vernum or even Vernon. Norwegian names containing one or more of the three Norwegian letters not found in the American alphabet also were changed to make them easier to spell and pronounce in the New World.
"Farm names are important clues for the genealogist, but they also carry lots of interesting cultural history with them," says Johan I. Borgos, historian, genealogist and writer of local history in Norway. "Some farm names are very old, perhaps 1,500 years or more. The great majority of farms are more than 200 years old. The spelling may have changed quite a bit through the centuries, and even more after crossing the Atlantic as a surname."
Farm names are usually a description of the farm. The oldest are either short "nature words" or names ending with -stad, -set, -heim/-um, -land or -tveit/-tvedt. My surname, Isum, for instance comes from the Norwegian word "is" or ice. And "-um" is an abbreviation for "heim" or home. So the name literally means "ice home." The Isum farm, located in Gudbrandsdalen near Hundorp, is not literally made of ice. But the current owner of the farm, Pål Isum, says the farm is located on the northern side of the mountain and is cold because it does not get much sunlight.
The biggest and best resource on Norwegian farm names is an encyclopedia by Oluf Rygh. 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 of the names of the main Norwegian farms (45,000 in 1886).
The encyclopedia gives with each farm its pronunciation, etymology and reported variants in an impressive list of historical sources. The editing and publication of the catalogue was done over nearly forty years and was completed long after Rygh's death. The etymological explanations are "colored" by the desire of the national Romantic Movement to find the "original" name. In Norway at the turn of the century this meant an Old Norse name. In Southern Norway most names have an Old Norse origin. In Northern Norway there are lots of Norwegian sounding place names with a Saami origin. The entire catalogue has been converted by the Documentation Project into an electronic text with SGML mark up. The source references to Diplomatarium Norvegicum (a collection of medieval documents concerning Norway) are made into Internet links. A click will bring you to the electronic Diplomatarium.
This database currently covers the following volumes of Rygh's series on Norwegian farm names: 1 through 12, 14, 15 and 17. These volumes cover farm names in the following modern counties (fylke) Østfold (Smaalenenes amt), Akershus og Oslo (Akershus amt), Hedmark (Hedemarkens amt), Oppland (Kristians amt), Buskerud (Buskeruds amt), Vestfold (Jarlsberg og Larviks amt), Telemark (Bratsberg amt), (Aust-Agder (Agdenes amt),Vest-Agder (Lister og Mandals amt), Rogaland (Stavanger amt), Hordaland (Søndre Bergenhus amt), Sogn og fjordane (Nordre Bergenshus), Sør-Trøndelag (Søndre Trondhjems amt), Nord-Trøndelag (Nordre Trondhjems amt) and Troms (Tromsø amt). The names in parenthesis are the older county names used in this database.
The database is searchable and includes a lot of interesting information about Norwegian farms. It's important to note that users need to know a little Norwegian to navigate. Bygdeboks are another important source of information about Norwegian farms. Those with Norwegian ancestry know what "bygdeboks" are. All people who lived and worked on farms in Norway throughout the years are listed in the bygdebok, which in a sense "farm histories." If you are lucky enough to have a bygdebok that exists for the farm where your Norwegian ancestors lived, you should be able to trace your family back several generations. These bygdeboks pull together information from church records, censuses, land records, and other historical sources.
The Chester Fritz Library on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks, North Dakota, is a major repository for bygdeboks, having at least 700 in its special collections department. The library offers its own Guide to Norwegian Bygdeboker, which is a free guide to bygdeboks in general and the Chester Fritz collection specifically. Request your copy from Bygdeboker Guide, c/o Chester Fritz Library, UND, Grand Forks, ND 58202.
While the Chester Fritz Library does not lend out its bygdeboks, there are several other libraries that have collections of these books, and that do have interlibrary loan programs: Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.; St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.; and the University Wisconsin, Madison, Wis. If you wish to borrow books from these libraries, work with your local public library's loan programs. You may want to contact the regional historical society for the area in Norway, which the farm is located, to see if they may have the bygdebok available for sale.
Nedrebø's publication "How to Trace Your Norwegian Ancestors" can be found online at http://www.ide-as.com/fndb/howto.html
The URL to Rygh's "Norwegian Farm Names" is http://dina.uio.no/rygh_ng/rygh_form.html where you can search the database and find more information on Norwegian farm names.
Information from Johan I. Borgos about Norwegian farm names can be found at http://www.nndata.no/home/jborgos/jborgos.htm (Norwegian) or http://www.nndata.no/home/jborgos/jborgose.htm (English)