A new resource

 Photo courtesy of Neil Hofland. Neil Hofland works on his website, www.norwayancestors.com.

Photo courtesy of Neil Hofland. Neil Hofland works on his website, www.norwayancestors.com.

Are your Norwegian ancestors from Inner Sogn? There is a new way to find them

By Linda Sharp

Finding your Norwegian ancestors just got easier if you are descended from the Inner Sogn. Neil Hofland’s website, www.norwayancestors.com, is the brainchild of a man who has made a 25-year hobby of a childhood dream that he recalls having from early childhood. In an interview last month, Neil, born in 1934 in Estelline, South Dakota, said that he recalls wanting to create something unique from his earliest memories. A combination of fate, choice and heredity led him to making his website the brainchild of his dreams. The only child of a school superintendent and a stay-at-home mother – both 100% Norwegian – Neil had many choices how he could develop his interests.

Inner Sognefjord website storyHofland’s ancestors in his mother’s family were on the second ship from Norway to America arriving in 1836. His father’s family emigrated in 1870. All of his ancestors were Norwegian, many immigrants over the generations, so keeping Norwegian traditions was a given. As a young man, Neil was a ‘computer expert’ before computers were a common word. He liked to explore, research, invent and do detective work.

In 1963 Neil went to Oslo, Norway for two years as a consultant to the Norwegian Air Force. He knew his Hofland relatives had come from the Sognefjord, the longest fjord in Norway. Research led him to Årdal, a county at the very head of the fjord, 125 miles in from the North Sea. His parents came to Norway for a visit and they went to Årdal to see if it was the right place. Norwegians there helped them search for emigrant ancestors in the Årdal bygdebok. Bygdeboks are local history books that contain not only area history but the names of everyone who ever lived at any location in the county. They found the names of their emigrants

who had settled in Hansonville Township, Lincoln County near Hendricks, Minn. and Toronto, S.D.

When Hofland retired in 1989 he began working on finding more Årdal relatives in the Midwest. One elderly relative gave him a copy of an old bygdebok for Årdal and he began putting together family lines. He found out that an updated edition of the bygdebok had be published and got a copy. The new addition had many more people listed in it. When building family trees, you start with yourself and go backwards in time identifying all the grandparents you can find. Going back ten generations, you will find over 2,000 possible direct ancestors. It is a complex, time consuming task. Hofland decided to try a new approach. He started on page one of the bygdebok and entered everyone into a genealogical program and identified family relationships as he entered the names. Over a thousand pages and two years later, he completed the entry process and had a database of over 16,000 individuals linked genealogically. As people provided descendants of the emigrants they were entered as well and the database has grown to over 37,000 individuals. If you know the name of any emigrant from Årdal, you can instantly see his/her pedigree on every line back as far as records exist. He has continued entering the bygdeboks of the Inner Sogn into the databases available on his website. These are the only existing databases that contain almost every person who lived in each county, linked genealogically.

Norwegian record-keeping

Norway has kept immaculate records for centuries, with Lutheran priests paid by the federal government to oversee the documentation of everything from birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage to burial; from land ownership to moves from farm to farm or village. Bringing their language, culture and faith to America, Norwegian immigrants and their Lutheran churches imitated this record-keeping in detail. Check the area your ancestors settled, died or are buried. Then check the area Lutheran

churches established before 1930. If you don’t know those details, check the ELCA website for church names in that area. Call or visit the church to inquire about records. Most ask a donation of $25 or $50 for their

time to assist you.

State vital records can be an outstanding source for birth and death data. North Dakota’s website (below), for example, has led to the discovery of many such facts that families themselves did not have on record.

Grave records

Along with churches established by Norwegian immigrants, many websites can assist in finding your ancestors’ graves. Www.FindAGrave.com gets new postings daily and also contains many obituaries. Many states or counties require a burial permit, which can also help to identify where and when one was buried, along other information such as cause of death, who got the permit, etc.

Norwegian spellings

Just to make our detective jobs more challenging, our ancestors sometimes changed their names entirely, and most of them used various spellings of their names, sometimes simultaneously. Example: Erik Nilsson, 18, left Skien, Norway in 1881, dropping his last name (Sanvik) on the ship’s manifest. He alternatingly spelled his name Erick Nelson, Erik Nilson, Erik N. Sanvik, Erick Nilson Sanvick, and probably more variations, while living in Dodge County, Minn. until his death in


Norwegian naming traditions are covered in another article, but suffice it to say that a name ending in ‘son’ (or ‘sen’) was the middle name of any man emigrating out of Norway in the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. They used a patronymic naming system and didn’t have permanent surnames. When an individual emigrated they had to pick a surname. Many used JohanneSON, OlSON, HanSON, AbramSON, etc. as a last name, but in Norway it was the middle name of the male children of Johannes, Ola, Hans or Abram. The daughter’s middle name in Norway would have been Johannesdatter, Olsdatter, Hansdatter or Abramsdatter. The last name was the farm they lived on. Thus, a move from farm to farm changed the last name. What we think of as a last name was really their address, and was also used as a permanent surname in America.

Computer assistance

If you don’t have a computer, or don’t have good luck with the suggestions herein, ask a teenager to help you. Most of them grew up with computers like our ancestors did a horse-drawn buggy. Good librarians are often happy to give you a little coaching and assistance. Computer consultants charge from $25 to $150 / hour.

Ideas for searching for your ancestors:

Neil’s Inner Sogn Fjord website: www.NorwayAncestors.com (Neil’s site gives a terrific overview of basic Norwegian genealogy) .



http://NDHealth.gov/vital (a sample of one state’s vital records site).

Norwegian Genealogy Workshop in Kasson, Minn. in June: date, time and place TBA. Norway Trip 2014: May 17 to early June. Options from one to two weeks. For both of these, contact Lsharp@alaska.net or call (907) 227-0036 to register.

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.