Finding your roots and discovering Syttende Mai

The story of a Norwegian immigrant who landed in NYC on May 17, 1899

Photo: Max Stevenson
Hundreds of Norwegain immigrants traveled on the ship SS Hekla to New York City, depicted here in a famous painting by maritime artist Antonio Jacobsen.

Norway Art®, Minneapolis

If you have watched the PBS television series Finding Your Roots, you have seen celebrities searching online genealogy sites for clues to their family history. When they suddenly discover amazing information, they often gasp or exclaim, “Wow!” or “Look at that!” I recently had a similar experience.

I was doing a little more research on the hundreds of Norwegian immigrants who arrived on the ship SS Hekla, when a light bulb of an idea lit up. It occurred to me that I should try to find more information about the immigration of my own ancestors now that passenger ship lists (ship manifests) are available online. (See story about the SS Hekla and Antonio Jacobsen’s important painting of the ship in The Norwegian American, Nov. 12, 2019).

Grandpa Rasmus Thorsheim emigrated from Norway in 1899. His destination was Radcliffe, Iowa, where Austin Sevold from Bømlo had settled.

Searching showed that Rasmus “Torsheim” was listed as an incoming passenger on the SS Servia of the Cunard Line that had sailed from Liverpool to New York in 1899. He was 24 years old. Four other young men from his community were also listed as passengers. This newfound information was very interesting, of course, but the most intriguing revelation was the date of his arrival in New York: May 17, 1899—SYTTENDE MAI!

At the same time as this discovery, I was thinking about the article that I would write for this Syttende Mai issue of The Norwegian American. Grandpa’s arrival in America on Syttende Mai long ago seemed to be a natural theme. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to explore more sources, or at least to formulate questions about Syttende Mai customs in Norway in the late 1800s and the new bits of information about Grandpa’s history that cried out for expanding. After all, his history is our history. His immigration set our destiny.

Photo courtesy of Norway Art
The painting“Baking Flatbread” by Eivind Nielsen depicts mother and daughter preparing for a feast.

What were Syttende Mai celebrations like in Norway, what kind of celebration was Grandpa missing at home on the day he arrived in New York 122 years ago? His home on the rocky West Norway island of Bømlo with its small towns and villages would not have had a large enough population for large gatherings or parades. And—maybe devout people on the island would have preferred to honor the day at churches or prayer houses (“bedehuser”)? Another question: if celebrations were held in nearby larger places such as Haugesund or Bergen, what were they like?

Marta Thorsheim of Oslo grew up on Bømlo. I turned to her for help. She immediately came up with historical photos of a commemorative medal that was issued and a scene from Syttende Mai in Bergen. She also obtained an old picture of her family’s home on Bømlo from a cousin there. (What a peaceful contrast to the busy New York harbor that Grandpa sailed into on Syttende Mai, 1899!)

Would Grandpa and his Bømlo friends or relatives have joined Bergen celebrations? It was likely they did because many people were accustomed to making frequent trips there, for a variety of reasons. He would have been in Bergen often to visit family or to travel through to Thorsheim where his father grew up at Seim in Lindaas, north of the city.

Celebrations in nearby Bergen on 17th of May 1899 were already featuring school marching bands, and 1899 marks the first inclusion of girls in the parades. Commemorations such as medals picturing prominent Norwegians were created. A speech by an important leader was featured.

Although we know that Norwegian Americans abroad have celebrated Syttende Mai for years, there was a time gap between the first events established in Norway and those in America. Apparently, large American celebrations did not begin until the 1950s, in Brooklyn. (Readers will probably have more information about their families’ history of celebrating the day. It would be fun to hear their recollections or family stories.)

The differences in special foods for Syttende Mai, then and now, are striking: Today, hot dogs, cakes, ice cream, and orange drink are customary treats. In the “olden days,” flatbread was served with the popular celebration food spikekjøtt (dried beef) and rømmegrøt or fløtegrøt for the main dish (this menu is still popular in Norway but not usually part of Syttende Mai).

The traditional process of baking flatbread was documented in a fabulous painting by Eivind Nielsen (1864 – 1939). This well-known Norwegian painter/illustrator from Haugesund was able to capture realistic scenes in colorful and charming compositions that are similar to the art of Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978). Nielsen is credited with illustrating the first Norwegian picture book for children, published in 1890. His talent is shown in this appealing oil painting that is now at Norway Art.

“Baking Flatbread” shows a mother baking the large thin sheets of dough in a very old, open oven, long ago, probably in Haugesund. Her daughter has rolled out the dough, and she knits while she waits for the next step (under the supervision of her kitten).

Both women seem “so dressed up,” as one observer commented. Yes, they would have been wearing their best if they wanted to be ready to welcome guests soon after baking fresh flatbread on Syttende Mai or to quickly leave for events of the day when the baking was finished. And the mother is wearing a typical Norwegian silver brooch at the neck of her blouse. As Laurann Gilberton, Vesterheim curator, commented: The brooch seems to be reflecting the golden flames of the open fire. (She also noted the interesting features of the clothing and the interior of the room, including the drop-down table mounted on the wall.)

Although flatbread was an essential part of a festive meal, it was also a staple of daily diets. Sheryl Hovland Hove’s Norwegian cousin Karen Hovland interviewed some older Bømlo residents to get information for us about early days on the island, and specifically Syttende Mai. One of them observed that “times were hard back then, and many had trouble even providing daily bread.” Looking forward to Syttende Mai, Bømlo whaling boats that had gone far north in Norway returned with “ammunition” (fireworks) for the kids, he said.

This article focuses on one date in 1899, one person’s immigration, one Norwegian holiday, one food, and one painting. Combined together, these separate themes provide a unique time capsule that broadens our understanding of our heritage.

This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.