DNA test leads to new Norsk cousins
“When are you coming back?”
Janell Pape Bradley
It all began with a desire to get more connected with my Scandinavian heritage.
While I knew my parents and grandparents to be of German and Norwegian ancestry, I always felt more Norsk than Deutsch, with my blond hair, blue eyes and a proclivity for sweets like sandbakkels and pepperkaker. On the flip side, I have very little preference for sauerkraut, hot German potato salad, bratwurst, or the cooked goose and knödel (dumplings) my Grandma Vagts traditionally prepared for our Christmas dinners.
For my slightly Norwegian cousins and myself, it isn’t Christmas without a slathering of butter spread on a warm lefse or potato cake, sprinkled with sugar. Fladbrød is a staple too, even if we can’t pronounce it as well as our late grandmother.
As a child some 40 years ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear a Norwegian “brogue” at church or in the grocery store. Ole and Lena jokes told by some of the farmers that visited my parents’ implement and appliance store were tolerated and likely returned with an eye roll.
Until this past spring, I had pushed aside suggestions to take an ancestry DNA test, because I thought it would just confirm what I already knew: 75% German and 25% Norwegian ancestry. My paternal great- great-grandparents were born in Norway, while I believed my maternal grandparents to be both fully German, along with my paternal grandfather.
I never could have imagined how wrong those notions would be. To begin with, one doesn’t necessarily inherit an exact 50% of DNA from each parent. Getting my results in late spring, I learned my Norwegian bloodlines were intent on persevering as my pie chart indicates I am 34% Scandinavian. My German heritage wasn’t as clear-cut as I had believed, with evidence of Irish, Scottish, British, and Polish bloodlines.
From the ancestry program I’d chosen, I received a list of 1,158 others known to share my DNA—even if our common chromosomes were slight in number. Excited to think I might find living relatives in Norway, I browsed through the list and sent out a few query emails to potential cousins with Norwegian-appearing surnames.It wasn’t long before I connected with Gunhild Baldersheim, who shares my passion for genealogy. Quickly, we began trading emails and even daily messages through social media. Because she could read Norwegian and decipher old church records, her assistance was invaluable as I began to build my family tree online. As the weeks passed, Cousin Gunhild shared links to information about patronymics—the Norwegian method of naming one’s son for his father, ie: Osmund’s son becomes Osmundson.
I knew my great- great-grandfather Knut Osmundson Fundingsland and his wife, Leva Larsdatter (Hauge) had arrived in America in 1857. Sailing the seas with an infant son who died during the journey, they left their native Hjelmeland, a beautiful, but rugged terrain in Rogaland, in search of a new home where they could better eke out a meager living.
But while I had recorded history of this one Scandinavian branch of my family tree, I had no idea where to begin searching for other Norwegian relatives, with farm names that included Saeboe, Kvås, Kvitavoll, Åbestad, and many others.
As my emails with Gunhild continued, I received a response from a query to a fifth cousin, Liv Kirsten Rølland of Kristiansand. “Chris” and I were linked through my third great-grandmother, Gjertrud Hoskuldsdatter Åbestad, who grew up on a farm near Konsmo, Vest Agder, in southern Norway.
With two cousins now illuminating the various branches of my family tree, I became anxious to visit this homeland to better connect the dots. After booking airfare to Norway via Reykjavik, Iceland, I continued to search out cousins. I began to correspond with a couple of other cousins, but due to timing and logistics regarding their residences not being on our planned itinerary, a personal meeting, sadly, had to wait.
For five days in late October and early November, my husband and I drove from Oslo, to Sandefjord, Kristiansand, and eventually Lyngdal and Kvås, discovering as much as possible about my ancestors.
Our first night in Norway, Cousin Gunhild and her husband Tor Inge (also my cousin!) welcomed us into their home for a dinner of moose meat, winter vegetables and homemade ice cream topped with lingonberries. As we delighted in this warm welcome to Norway, Gunhild described a telephone conversation with a relative near Lyngdal who told her I had third cousins still living at Kvås! Although I’d booked us to stay near Kvås so we could explore the area churches and cemeteries, I had not imagined I would make face-to-face contact with living relatives!
The following day, we drove to Kristiansand, where we met with cousin Chris, who like Gunhild, had acquired a “gård og folk” bygdebok on Kvås through her local library. Some of the many pages in these local history books provided me with an interesting history on some of my ancestors, and the village where they had lived. Both cousins kindly provided translation. Yet that afternoon, we were once again on the move, driving to the Lyngdal area.
Early the next morning, armed with only a name and an address, my husband and I drove to the little village about 10 miles north of Lyngdal, where Kvås Kirke is a centerpiece amongst a scattering of homes set deep in a valley. After a walk among the gravestones, we drove a short distance up the road and stood in awe of Kvåsfossen, the waterfall. With a drop of almost 120 feet meters, the waterfall empties into the Lygna River, which flows to Lyngdal.
As the sun began to peek over the mountains that shadowed the valley, we were ready to seek out cousin Terje Kvås. Stopping to ask for directions on the main (kind of the only) street, a kind man who spoke a little English suggested we follow him in his car, and then he delivered us to Terje’s doorstep and made the initial introductions.
Although language posed a challenge, I did have a printed page illustrating how Terje and I were related. My great- great-grandfather Lars Christian Quass (the Americanized version of Kvås) was a brother to Terje’s great-grandfather, Bernt Kristian Kvås.
As we worked our way through knowing only a little of one another’s language, I learned Terje had spent much of his life as a beekeeper and fish farmer. Growing beautiful flowers and plants was obviously an art he had honed, evidenced by the photographs he shared. In an old black-and-white photo, he pointed out his siblings.
I asked Terje if he used email so we might possibly begin a correspondence. “Computer, kaput,” was his unfortunate response.
After some minutes had passed, Terje invited us into his kitchen for a light lunch and a cup of coffee. He and a fisherman friend who was visiting prepared generous plates of smoked laks (salmon) and fiske that had been in a brine for five to six months. We also enjoyed bread spread with Norwegian butter and Kvås honey. Nydelig!
As we ate, Terje attempted to tell us a couple of tall fish tales that reflected his quiet sense of humor. Not always understanding his Norwegian, we might not have gotten the true meaning of the joke, but it didn’t matter. It was evident my Norsk fetter enjoyed trying to put one over on his impressionable newfound relative. Seated at the kitchen table of a Kvås cousin, I felt honored that this man who had been a complete stranger an hour ago had taken a chance on getting to know an American cousin.
Not wanting to impose further, my husband and I explained we wanted to explore Åbestad farm and Konsmo kommune, so we made our way to the door.
As we stepped back outside into a crisp morning offering a rare glimpse of Sørlandet sunshine in what had been a very wet autumn, It was heartwarming to hear Terje ask, “When are you coming back?”
My answer? “Very soon, I hope!”
Janell Pape Bradley published several small weekly newspapers in Northeast Iowa from 1993-2010. She is currently an elected official serving as a county supervisor in Iowa. She loves travel, gardening, kayaking, and discovering more about her genealogy.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.