Genealogy Detective

A monthly column putting people in touch with their Norwegian roots

Bergen ancestry

Photo: Linn Chloe Hagstrøm
Bergen’s Bryggen at Syttende Mai 2017. Rob Schnelle gets his German name from a German-born ancestor who was a member of the Hanseatic League.

by Liv Marit Haakenstad + Kathy Anderson

Genealogy Detective is back with a new inquiry! This time it is Rob Schnelle, who writes: “I would like to request a Genealogy Detective inquiry that may differ somewhat from others you receive: my ancestors were from towns, not farms, and the German name I carry suggests a pre-origin origin. In question are my great-grandparents, Oscar Schnelle from Bergen and Aagot Fredericksen from Lillehammer. They seem to have immigrated to the Philadelphia area in the 1880s or ’90s. Oscar was a civil engineer, and he had a sister, Fanny Schnelle, who is supposed to have underwritten a chemistry lab at the fledgling U. of Bergen after the occupation. … I would be delighted to know more.”

Our research team found that Oscar Schnelle was born Jan. 11, 1865, in Bergen, Norway. His parents were merchant Gerhard Joachim Cappe Schnelle (1828-1908), and Bergitte Christine Krüge (ca. 1837-1924). Gerhard was listed as a “Broker” in the 1865 Norway census. He earned his trade license on Sept. 12, 1854, in Bergen, and married Bergitte, a 19-year-old maid, in the Nykirken church in Bergen on March 15, 1857. Gerhard’s parents (Oscar’s grandparents) were Gerhard Joachim Schnelle (1796-1873) and his wife, Catharine Marie Lexau (ca. 1799-1877). A census taken in Bergen on Feb. 1, 1801, shows three generations from this family living in the same Bergen neighborhood.

Oscar Schnelle’s great-grandfather also had the name Gerhard Schnelle (ca. 1771-1845), except his middle name was Ludolf. The 1801 Norwegian census does not list his place of birth, so we have to see if other sources will give any information. Examining his death record for Aug. 8, 1845, we find that ship broker Gerhard Ludolf Schnelle’s birthplace is listed as Lüneburg, a part of Niedersachsen in Germany, about 35 miles southwest of Hamburg. His business was not doing well in the last years of his life because his estate shows he was bankrupt. Gerhard Ludolf Schnelle owed “258,18 speciedaler” (the basic monetary unit of Norway in the mid-19th century) at the time of his death, which is about 83,530 NOK or $10,735 in today’s valuation.

The ancestors of Oscar Schnelle were Hanseatic merchants, men who, as part of the Hanseatic League, sailed from Norway to the southern shores of Africa to trade goods. It appears that great-grandfather Gerhard Ludolf Schnelle (ca. 1771-1845) earned his Norwegian citizenship March 30, 1792, and his trade license in Bergen, Feb. 13, 1794. In my research, I found he was registered as a man from Hannover, Germany, which is 87 miles south of Lüneburg.

According to the 1910 Bergen census, Fannie Schnelle (1866-1953) was living with her mother and a housekeeper after her father’s death in 1908. She was working in a private medical clinic, probably as a nurse. Research shows us that she was very involved in politics as a member of the Liberal Party. In 1936, she received the King’s Medal of Merit and did, indeed, donate money to the chemistry department at the University of Bergen.

If you visit Norway, you should take time to visit the Hanseatic Museum in Bergen. The very famous photo of Bergen’s Bryggen, or “dock,” shows a group of colorful buildings established by the Hanseatic League. This area has been on the UNESCO list of world cultural sites since 1979. It is beautiful to see, but be prepared for the smell of fish!

Liv Marit Haakenstad has been doing genealogy research for more than 30 years. She is now working on her master’s thesis in non-fiction writing. She has published several books on Norwegian emigration and genealogy, and dozens of articles. She is a frequent contributor to the research staff of the Who Do You Think You Are? television show. Many of her distant relatives immigrated to the United States and Canada, including several who settled in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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