Lars E. OYANE: Family research Ė a presentation of emigration research methods


Since 1976, after graduating from the Norwegian school of Business Administration, I have been associated with the writing of a Farm and Family History Book series for Luster Kommune (County) in Sogn og Fjordane Fylke (Province) of Norway. This has mostly been a parttime activity, representing a total number of about 16 countable years. My activity has resulted in five volumes published between 1984 and 1994 each counting about 900 pages, and a manuscript of another four volumes expected for publication between 2001 and 2003, which will then give a complete description of all 211 farm units with all subdivisions as well as of all the families connected to any of these farms as far as they can be reliably traced. Luster Kommune (County) has since a merger in 1964 also included the former Kommunes (Counties) of Jostedal and Hafslo. There are still three parishes in Luster carrying the old County names, but the borders between the parishes have been changed to make them more equally sized.

Some of you will probably react to the fact that I refer to Luster Kommune as a County, so let me explain my point of view in this matter: In the United States the nation is divided into 50 states, and each state is subdivided into counties, perhaps with the exception of Louisiana where I have been told the state is divided into parishes. Next each county, or parish, is divided into townships which in several states are referred to as precincts. The nation of Norway is divided into 19 fylkes, and each fylke is in turn divided into a number of kommunes.

Considering the geographical size of an American County, many of them are very close to a Norwegian Kommune, and this is also true as far as population figures are concerned, although you do find Counties in some of the Mid-Western and Western United States, for example St. Louis Co., Minn., which in size can be compared to the smallest states on the East Coast, such as Rhode Island and New Jersey! But you also find Norwegian kommunes, for example Luster kommune, which is indeed larger than Vestfold fylke! Still I feel more comfortable comparing the Counties with our Kommunes, and the expression "County History Book" sounds more logical than a "Township History Book". For a long time I have suspected certain traditional historians to compare our country with the United Kingdom, where the counties are a lot larger and really correspond much better to our fylkes or the American states! When I refer to Sogn og Fjordane as a province, this is a way for me to avoid confusion with the Norwegian word "stat" which is being used about the Norwegian Federal government.

Like most other young people interested in family research, I started out about 15 years old asking my closest relatives what they knew, soon continuing studying church records and whatever literature existed about various branches of my family, which on my fatherís side entirely descends from Luster County. However, it wasnít long until I ran across one of the most classical sentences in Norwegian County History Books: "emigrated to America." And since noone had ever done any extensive resesarch to find out what had happened to these emigrants from Luster County who were my relatives, I became almost obsessed with the idea of doing something about it! As a kid I read books and stories about pioneer life and the various hardships they faced on their way west, and I imagined that doing research into the matter would make me able to better understand those hardships, at the same time as I could put a real name tag on the people to whom it happened!

In 1975 I published my own Family History entitled the "Aaberge Family History Book". This book included all known descendants of my own great great great grandfather, Torkel Larson, who was born at the Aaberge farm in Luster County in 1768. Torkel was married twice and had

* 10 children (2 emigrated)

* 72 grandchildren (39 emigrated)

* 188 great grandchildren (42 emigrated)

* 425 great great grandchildren (4 emigrated) etc.

In 1975 there were about 3,500 descendants of Torkel Larsonís, half of whom were 25 years or younger. A total of 2,900 were still alive, of whom 93% lived in the United States and Canada. The ones in the US were spread in 39 states, but only half of them lived in the "classical" emigrant states, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. In fact about 10% of my American relatives lived in California! In 1975 three children were born into the Aaberge family every two weeks, a real "explosion"!

I have no exact account of the later evolution in my own family, but I have reason to believe there are today close to 5,000 nowliving descendants in the United States and Canada alone from my great great great grandfather. The number of emigrants in his direct family amounts to 87, suggesting that each one of these emigrants in average has more than 50 descendants. And I have no reason to believe that my family was any different from other families in Luster County!

It was following the publication of my Aaberge Family History Book that the Luster Farmersí Wivesí association (Luster Bondekvinnelag) contacted me expressing the desire that I go ahead making a series of County History Books for what was originally the County of Luster. In particular they were interested in tracing the numerous "husmann" families which had been entirely left out of the old County History Book from the 1920ís, as well as tracing the emigrants. Every citizen of Luster County has a mass of relatives accross the ocean, but since the majority of the emigrants had left Norway more than a hundred years before, the contact between the population in Luster County and their "cousins" in America was about to be lost, if it wasnít lost already! Since no such "complete" emigration research had ever been done anywhere in Norway before, at least to my knowledge, in connection with a regular County History Book project, I saw an enormous challenge in trying out my working methods on a whole countyís population. Therefore I had no problems accepting the proposal.

A couple of years later the former Counties of Jostedal and Hafslo were added to the project, and since 1980 I have been an employee of the Luster County Administration. To give a short description of my working situation back in 1980, I found myself with a current population in Luster County of about 5,000, but whose ancestors between 1838 and 1930 had provided for some 6,500 emigrants to America alone, in addition to all those who had left Luster County for other parts of Norway, at least another 1,000 prior to 1930.

The question has been raised several times how many people are living in America today with roots from Luster County? Noone will ever be able to give an exact answer, but I feel that my own Aaberge family, a typical Luster County family, can produce a fairly good estimate. You may recall I told you above that every single one of the emigrating individuals within the Aaberge family has an average of more than 50 living descendants today. However, we know for a fact that several of the emigrants within the Aaberge family married other unrelated emigrants from Luster County, while American-born children of some of them married American-born children of other Luster County emigrants. But there are also three or four cases of Aaberge family descendants marrying eachother, i.e. marriages between 1st and 2nd cousins in America! And as the generations go along, there is an ever increasing number of individuals who marry "Yankees" or persons descending from other countries. As a consequence I feel confident there has to be an average number of descendants from each Luster County emigrant of at least 30-35, suggesting a total number of some 200,000 Ė 225,000 people, although many of them quite certainly have 50% or less Norwegian blood in their veins!

Obviously it would be an impossible task to trace that many people; however, in order to bring the emigrant families closer to our time and also to keep up with the many name changes which occurred between the emigrant generation and the 1st American-born generation, we agreed that I, in addition to including brief biographies of every single one of the 6,500 emigrants and their spouses, also include biographies of all of their children born in America, including spouses, what I refer to as 1st American-born generation, ending by saying how many children were born in the 2nd generation!

After about 16 workyears of research, including more than one spent in the United States, I have almost completed my task, tracing just about every single emigrant and also the next generation. However, I need to accentuate the fact that my success would never have been possible if it hadnít been for the enormous interest and support I have received from politicians from all parties as well as from the administration in Luster County since the very beginning. And I feel that I have had the entire population of Luster County in my back all the time, even if the project has lasted a lot longer than what was originally planned.

And this brings us to the main topic of my presentation here today. How have I managed to trace just about every single one of these 6,500 emigrants who left Luster County for America, the majority of them prior to 1870? My education as a business graduate may not apply very much to family research, but I do feel I have brought along with me a couple of important qualities, such as to be able to:

* work systematically, and

* be persevere and patient in what I do.

When I started working with family research, hardly anyone had ever heard of a computer capable of processing words. We all know how the world of research has changed the last ľ of this century with a steadily improving computer hardware and software technology; the Digital Archives, Rootsweb and are typical examples in the field of family research. But no matter how sophisticated the computers, you need an adequate basis for your systematical research work, and the sources of information will always be the same, whether they have been computerized or not, although the accessibility has been largely improved!

Even if modern technology is about to turn everything up-side-down, I still find it practical to divide the sources into two main categories, the ones from Norway and the ones from America. My personal experience and sense of a systematical approach tell me how important it is to completely exhaust the Norwegian sources before delving into the ones across the Atlantic. And this is how to do it if you, like I did, want to analyze the emigration and trace as many as possible of the emigrants from one single county or community in Norway:

You have to start constructing a database including all of the emigrants from the area in question. And I would also try to include individuals who first have moved to a neighboring area and then emigrated from there, although this at time may be very difficult. Since you may need very exact information about a potential emigrant in order to identify him at a later point, I feel that, in addition to the full name of the emigrant in question, you should also obtain his exact date (and place) of birth, the full names of his parents, some notation of siblings, information about a possible marriage in Norway and then of course the necessary reference to the spouse and any children they may have/bring along to America. The emigration year is important to include as well.

A) I would start building up an emigrant database by going thru the lists of "Utflyttede" in the church records. Unfortunately these "Utflyttede" lists are not always very complete. There will be people who emigrated without receiving a Pastorís certificate, or the Pastor simply forgot to keep up his records! Therefore you also depend on other sources such as:

B) Passport records and passenger lists which exist for most of the main ports in Norway from about 1870. The passport records and passenger lists have for the most part been computerized and are now searchable thru the digital archives, while there is still a lot of work left to computerize the "Utflyttede" lists from the church records, depending on the area in Norway.

C) If there exists a reliable and "good" County History Book for the area in question, it may be very worthwhile paging thru it, for example to add the emigrantsí parentsí names as well as any names of emigrants which for some reason or other donít appear in the "Utflyttede" list from the church records or the passenger lists.

Since I was also working on the general population history including everyone in and from Luster County, I was able to include in my emigrant database all "disappeared persons" as well, i.e. persons who apparently did grow up but who just "disappeared" from Luster County. And I am happy I did. Hundreds of these "disappeared persons" from Luster County alone ended up in the United States where I have found them thru various other sources described later!

Once your emigrant database has been completed as far as identifying the emigrantsí identity is concerned, youíre ready to start "hunting" for them in America to describe their destinies:

D) Old letters received from America may have been kept within various families with information as to where in America the various emigrants settled and lived. There may also exist letters of more recent date from descendants of emigrants who tell about their ancestors, where they settled etc., and quite a number of Norwegian-Americans have prepared their own family histories which often include branches of the family still living in Norway and who may have a copy of such books in their possession. These sources need to be studied in detail. In some cases you may also run across nowliving people who can tell about uncles and aunts or even about great uncles and great aunts, what happened to them, but since the majority of the emigrants left Norway too long ago, those sources are extremely rare.

E) Yet the best "Norwegian" source I have ever found to trace the whereabouts of the emigrants, is no doubt the numerous probate records that are on file in the various States Archives in Norway and with them the socalled "death announcements" where the sheriff was supposed to give the names and addresses of the heirs of anyone who died. So far most researchers have spent time looking into the older probate records, i.e. prior to about 1830. Those records are of course also quite interesting and important in order to trace family relationships for earlier centuries, as well as for culture historical purposes, but the probate records go on up until the present time, and along with the written probate proceedings referred in "big books", there are also the "probate documents", which is where I have found my "treasures". There are letters from emigrants sent to the County sheriff after somebody died in Norway; for example, one large letter sent from Spring Prairie in Wisconsin sometime in the late 1850ís gives a very detailed and interesting account of how much was cultivated of each species, how much they got paid etc. Also there is a description of various other emigrants from the same neighborhood in Norway and what had happened to them in America! In another estate I found several letters written to the County sheriff from the Anamoosa State Prison in Iowa where this inmate who had been sentenced to 10 years of prison for incest, and who, as I later found out, had been released after 7 years for good behavior(!), wrote home asking for his heritage, and where he also described life in prison! Then of course there are numerous certificates from various towns in America where the American heir needed a Notary Public to sign for his identity, and these certificates are often co-signed by other emigrants from the same neighborhood in Norway! A rich source indeed!

F) In many cases the passenger lists may tell us the destination of the emigrant. The Bergen passenger lists include this from about 1903, others start earlier. This information should be noted, but I have seen numerous cases of inaccurate addresses. The destination may simply be a railway station, such as Minneapolis, Minn., while the emigrant actually went to some little town up in Northern Minnesota or even in North Dakota!

G) Another source I feel is worthwhile mentioning and which is available in many libraries in Norway, is the two volume book series written at the beginning of the century by Martin Ulvestad entitled: "Nordmændene i Amerika". In one of the volumes Martin Ulvestad has included lists of emigrants from various Counties in Norway with an indication of where they lived in America. In general Mr. Ulvestadís information is very reliable.

H) And at the same time, let me also mention the late Professor Gerhard Naeseth, the founder of the Vesterheim Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library in Madison, Wis., who for many years compiled genealogical information about all of earliest emigrants who left Norway for the United States. Two volumes of his "Norwegian immigrants to the United States" covering the period from 1825 thru 1846 have so far appeared, and the current staff of the Vesterheim Genealogical Center carries on the work Gerhard started, thus providing for a pretty near complete coverage of emigration period up until 1850.

After having exhausted the abovementioned sources itís time to take a look at American records, and there are numerous possibilities. Unfortunately the various American sources are generally being kept at many different locations such as courthouses, state offices, historical societies, churches, funeral homes and federal records centers, just to mention the most important ones. The LDS church has tried to centralize many sources in their huge international collection, and they indeed have a large variety of good sources as does also the abovementioned Vesterheim Genealogical Center, specializing in Norwegian genealogy.

I) So far one of the most popular and useful American sources for our Norwegian emigrant database has been made available for use on the Internet, the Norwegian entries in the 1880 federal census for Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Dakota territory, totally about 330,000 entries, and the Norwegian entries in the remaining western states and territories, including Texas, but excluding Oklahoma territory, which was then Indian (and "outlaw") territory, will follow, thus covering a vast majority of the Norwegian settlement areas in the United States. The most important area then missing will be New York state, which, however, represents an almost mountainous task with its huge population and, after all, rather few Norwegian entries! Professor Naeseth started back in the early 1970ís to transcribe from film reels all Norwegian entries in the 1850, 1860 and 1880 censuses. I had the privilege of being a close friend of Gerhardís, and he trusted me with copies of all of his transcripts from the, in my opinion, most interesting ones of these, the 1880 census. About 1988 I agreed with Gerhard to computerize these transcripts which was subsequently done by Yngve Nedrebo and myself, the database which you now find on the Internet thru the Digital archives. Many names have been kind of "twisted" in this census since the census takers in many cases were "Yankees", but most of the names are possible to figure out, and anyone working with an emigrant database can easily search for the various individuals who emigrated prior to 1880. However, once again a systematical research accompanied by perseverance and patience are absolutely instrumental to succeed.

All of the sources so far described, with the exception of the Norwegian probate records, can be used from Norway as well as from the United States, but in the US the church records must be borrowed on microfilm.

J) The American 1900 and 1920 federal censuses are also important sources to locate emigrant families, and there exist good statewide Soundex Indexes to both of them. There are also various other federal and state census records, varying in quality from census to census and from state to state. The 1910 federal census is particularly detailed, but unfortunately it was never indexed (except for a few states), so in order to make proper use of it, you must know exactly where to look! To my knowledge, none of these other census records are yet integrally available outside of the United States, with the exception of, interesting to us, the 1885 territorial census for the North Dakota part of Dakota territory, but sooner or later I expect most of these census records also to be computerized, some of them very likely by the LDS church. I understand that the LDS church research centers have copies of both federal and state census records, while the approximately 20 nationwidely spread Federal Records Centers, branches of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., will have all of the federal census records.

K) Parallel to researching the United States census records I would also suggest that you go ahead researching the original American church records, i.e. records kept by Norwegian Ministers in the Norwegian communities throughout the Mid-West. Thanks to the census records you will in many cases have identified specific areas where emigrants from your particular County or area in Norway settled, and from the church records you will easily be able to secure additional detailed information about most of these emigrants. You will recognize the Norwegian spellings of the names, at least in the older records, but in addition to that, many of the old church records in America will list the exact birthplaces in Norway of the various individuals. This is particularly true when using membership, confirmation, marriage and death records. Norwegian researchers have no difficulties using these American church records; however, since all of the names are spelt in Norwegian, using the Norwegian letters æ and ø, sometimes even å, most American researchers I have been in contact with, seem to have trouble interpreting the names correctly. Most American church records have to be viewed at the church in question, but most of them have been filmed, and films can be purchased from ALC and sometimes from the church office. The Norwegian Emigration Museum at Hamar is in possession of most of the reels. Despite the great utility of church records very few of them have been computerized, but I am personally encouraging as many people as possible to do "their share" since these church records are really very helpful to provide the exact dates of the various events in the emigrantsí lives. I have computerized early church records from several counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota myself, for example in Fillmore Co., Minn. where I have a database including almost 6,500 birth records prior to 1882 covering most of the Norwegian churches in the Eastern half of the County. And I must say, every so often I make new discoveries even in files I have looked thru ten times before! It is so easy to oversee people when they only use their patronymic, particularly with names like Ole Anderson or Andrew Johnson! And I can almost guarantee you that you will discover names of "disappeared" emigrants when you go thru the church records, for example women who married men originating from other parts of Norway and whom you would never manage to identify in for example the 1880 census!

L) However, there are families that you may never find in the local church records, for example families where one of the spouses was of a non-Norwegian origin. Then you depend on using the vital records, i.e. the offical birth, marriage and death records, which in most states are being kept both at the County courthouse (Register of Deeds, Clerk of Courts or County Recorderís office) as well as at the State vital records office Ė a section of the State Health Department. However, itís often difficult to gain access to the State offices, and the records kept on county level are normally (varying from state to state) easier to research, and they do go further back in time. I should add that vital records in many states are in the process of being computerized; some Counties have done it on their own, but their databases are never online and only for internal use. However, the records computerized by the state offices become much more accessible. In some states indexes exist on microfilm or on microfiche, but more and more of the indexes are being made accessible on the Internet, such as Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Texas marriage records prior to 1900, South Dakota birth records prior to 1900, California death records from 1940 thru 1997 and Michigan death records from 1971 thru 1996. And, particularly interesting for us, from my recent visit to the Minnesota Vital Records office I got the understanding that an index to the Minnesota death records from 1908 thru 1961 may become accessible online some time next year.

M) Other important sources found in the various County courthouses are probate records, land records and school records, all of which, depending on which needs you have for further information, may prove very helpful. In particular have I been happy to discover numerous details about early emigrant families thanks to the probate records. They can in fact be just as good in America as in Norway! Some land records, particularly pertaining to old homesteads, can be found online, but, unfortunately, noone appears to have given the probate or school records much attention at all. How many times havenít I experienced to page thru old probate files which contain more dust than paper!

N) The next source I would like to pull forward, is the Social Security Death Index with which most researchers are presumably familiar. The SSDI is searchable on the Internet thru several different providers in the US, including and rootsweb, and is an excellent source to find information about people who died somewhere in the United States after about 1963, which will be the case with many of my "first American-born generation". In fact I have succeeded tracing several very "elusive" families thanks to the SSDI, even with common last names like Johnson and Anderson and without knowing a personís exact birthdate!

O) Once we manage to locate a personís death date, the road is very short to an obituary search. Searching for obituaries becomes more and more important as time goes by. In fact I have noticed a considerable deterioration of peopleís memory of older relatives during the ľ century I have been doing emigration research. Today I am facing a later generation of people, and, unfortunately, they very often donít have their parentsí knowledge about the family, making the use of obituaries a lot more important. Obituaries can be found in local newspaper offices, but a more reliable and better place to look for them will be either the State Historical Societies of the various states or the local historical societies, often referred to as County Museums, found in most counties throughout the Mid-West. The local historical societies may also have other interesting sources like cemetery records and copies of various vital records. Sometimes these records may even be computerized!

P) But, talking to nowliving descendants of the various families may still be helpful, indeed. Some of them are very knowledgable. Their names may show up in obituaries or as informants of their parentsí death, found on the death records at the courthouse, and I very often contact them by phone after searching for their numbers thru one of the telephone directories available online. In fact, with our low calling rates of today (I pay approx. 20 cents a minute when I call the United States from Norway), it has become a very interesting way of doing research from Norway and a practical way of following up on research previously conducted in the United States.

Q) In many cases, particularly in the larger cities such as Chicago, Ill., Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Seattle and Spokane, Wash. and Portland, Ore., where families may be harder to locate, I have also used the telephone from Norway contacting cemeteries as well as funeral homes most of whom have excellent vital records and who in general are very helpful. I must say most of them have indeed been very accomodating to me when I say I call them from Norway, but I do have a "hunch" I am pretty much alone about doing that, so maybe if 100 Norwegians started calling, the attitude would change?

R) I would like for a moment to come back to the Vesterheim Genealogical Center in Madison, Wis. as a resource. In my opinion they have one of the largest collections of Norwegian-American literature in America, many Norwegian county histories, but maybe more important is their collection of local family histories, most of them written by American descendants of Norwegian emigrants from all over Norway. Also Vesterheim has numerous transcripts of various vital records, church records and, not to forget, their huge computerized database of cemetery transcripts covering most of Wisconsin, the majority of them originally made by hand by Gerhard Naeseth during the 1970ís and early 1980ís. The computer age has indeed revolutionized genealogy and family research, and I can understand some institutionsí, including Vesterheimís, fear for running out of business as more and more records are being made available on the Internet. I think this fear is exagerated. We have the old expression that "business creates business". As more information becomes easily available, the hobby of genealogy will "catch" more and more people, also the ones who used to be far too impatient to do thorough research into family history by themselves. And people will always need "expert" assistance which, for example, Vesterheim is capable of giving them!

S) Let me also mention the Norwegian American Historical Association in Northfield, Minn., located at St. Olaf College. They have the original copy of the Rowberg newspaper file, a file basically containing obituaries and various random family news from all of the old Norwegian-American newspapers, such as Decorah-posten, but also from a number of local newspapers. I have used many of their obituaries to extract information about various people.

T) Finally I have to tell you that I, after so many years of emigration research, have managed to construct my own "network of informants" throughout the interesting areas in the United States, people that I can trust and who will do local research for me if I discover "new" emigrants having settled in their areas. Thus I have one informant in Chicago, Ill., three or four informants covering most of Wisconsin, four or five informants covering most of Minnesota and Northern Iowa, one or two covering North Dakota, one covering Montana, one covering Washington, one covering Oregon and two or three covering California. In addition to this the staff at the Vesterheim Genealogical Center has always been extremely helpful to me in my efforts to trace all of these emigrant families, and finally I have a good contact person who is a librarian at the largest LDS library in Salt Lake City, Utah assisting me with nationwide census lookups whenever needed.

So I indeed consider myself a lucky person being able to, all the time, all year around, do something that I love, and which, at the same time, may be useful and interesting to so many people out there. And what is so unique about it: I feel I am doing research which noone else did before me, and yet, Iím still just a "business graduate"!