Norway History

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Effective family research requires some understanding of the historical events that may have affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends may help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. These events may have led to the creation of records, such as land and military documents, that mention your family.

Researching your ancestors will become more interesting as you learn about the events they may have participated in. For example, by using a history you might learn about the events that occurred in the year your great-grandparents were married.

Norwegian History - Online FamilySearch lesson

General History[edit | edit source]

800-1000: Viking Age

872: King Harald Fairhair united Norway into one kingdom. Before that, Norway was comprised of small, warring kingdoms.

1000: King Olav Trygvasson and King Olav Haraldsson "The Holy" brought Christianity to Norway.

1319: The old royal line died out. Norway united with Denmark.

1397-1523: Kalmar Union is established, in which Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were united under one king. The Union of Kalmar

1523-1814:  Denmark and Norway united under one king.

1536: The king of Denmark and Norway appropriates the land holdings of the Catholic church and declares the Lutheran church as the state religion.

1814-1905: Norway unites with Sweden. The Norwegian parliament rules under its own constitution, but there was only one king for Norway and Sweden.

1905-57:  Prince Carl Fredrik of Denmark (named Hakon VII) was elected king of Norway. He ruled as a constitutional monarch.

World War I:  (Norway is neutral, but in 1918 it is effectively blockaded. The Norwegian merchant fleet has great losses.

1940-1945 World War II: Germany occupies Norway.


Interesting facts about Norway can be found at the following Internet addresses:

History of Early Emigration from Norway:

The Family History Library has some published national and local histories for Norway. The following is available at the library and on film at Family History Centers:

Gjerset, Knut. History of the Norwegian People. New York, NY, USA: The MacMillan Company, 1915. (FHL book Scand 948.1 H2g; film 1,440,084)

You can find histories in the FamilySearch Catalog under:


Major works on Norwegian history are also available in public and university libraries.

Online History Books[edit | edit source]

History of Norway from the Earliest Times: From the Earliest Times to 1885 By Hjalmar Hjorth 1900

The Stories of the Kings of Norway Called the Round World (Heimskringla) By Snorri Sturluson, Eiríkr 1893

Norway By Sigvart Sorensen 1899

History of the Norwegian People By Knut Gjerset 1915

See Also: Norway Books

Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Local histories should be studied and enjoyed for the background information they can provide about your family's life-style and environment.

The Family History Library has many local histories for towns in Norway. The local histories (bygdebøker), give statistical information about the general area and genealogical information about the people in the community. (For more information, see the "Genealogy" section). Some of these histories are also available at major public and university libraries in the Midwest.

Epidemic[edit | edit source]

In the spring of 1918 a strange influenza was reported.  It was noted that World War I soldiers serving in the Western Front were getting sick with some kind of an influenza that included high fever that often was followed by pneumonia.  This was before penicillin was in use which made it a real hardship for its victims.  The sickness started in the US, then spread fast to the rest of the world.  In the early summer of 1918 it hit Spain, and since the King of Spain was the first one to die in Spain, it was from then on called the Spanish sickness or in Norwegian "Spanskesyken" or "Spanska".  By 1919 the sickness had spread to most of the world.  A total of about 27 millions world wide died from this epidemic in1918 and 1919. 

Calendar Changes[edit | edit source]

The Gregorian calendar is the calendar in common use in the world today. It is a correction of the Julian calendar which had been in use since A.D. 46. Leap years had been miscalculated in the Julian calendar. By 1582, the calendar was 10 days behind the solar year.

In Norway the last day of the Julian calendar was 18 February 1700. At that time, 10 days were omitted in order to bring the calendar in line with the solar year. The day after 18 February 1700 was 1 March 1700.

The early records in Norway often list a feast day rather than an actual date (for example, Dom. 7 p. Trin. 1818, or 7 Sundays past the Holy Trinity Sunday). You can use the feast day calendar to determine that the date is 5 July 1818.

The Feast Day Calendar was compiled by Inger M. Bukke and Finn A. Thomsen. It includes three parts: 1) an index to fixed and movable feast days, 2) the Gregorian calendar table from 1610 to 1833, and 3) the Julian calendar (for Sweden and Finland only) from 1700 to 1753 (FHL book 948 H3b).

The calendar is available at the Family History Library. It may also be available through other genealogical organizations.

Websites[edit | edit source]

A Calendar Converter

A wiki article desctibing an online collection is found at:

Norway Census, 1875 - FamilySearch Historical Records

Basic Elements of Research (Background and History)[edit | edit source]

Pre-historical and historical times are usually divided by the time when a written record appears. Historical times in Norway then starts around 800 A.D. Prior to this time the record depends upon archeological information.

The earliest settlements in Norway occurred around the coastline around 8000 B.C.; the rest of the country was still under ice at that time. As the ice decreased, the population and the areas they populated increased. The oldest known Agrarian Society was from around 3800-3000 B.C.

Until King Harald Fairhair united Norway in 872, the country was divided into small warring kingdoms. From that time forth the country existed, with few exceptions, much as we know it today. (The main difference is that the county of Jämtland and some adjoining areas and the Bohus part of Göteborg och Bohus County in Sweden were lost in the 1660s).

The Viking Age
The Viking age was a time of expansion. The population increased and new land was cleared. The expansion was not confined within the borders of the country, but the Viking sailed the seas and traveled by land. They settled Iceland and Greenland as well as conquering and ruling parts of France and Britain. Many place names in these areas are still reminders of the Vikings. For instance York in England was the seat of the Viking rulers, and the name York comes from the Viking farm name “Jørvik”. (Genetic studies in our time shows that the people of Yorkshire are genetically closer to Norwegians than to the Englishmen a couple of counties (shires) away).

Many of the Vikings, who traveled throughout Europe and elsewhere, accepted Christianity. One of King Harald Fairhair’s sons tried to introduce it nationally. However, it was not until Olav Trygvasson and Olav Haraladsson “The Holy” (canonized by the Catholic Church) that the nation as a whole under force, accepted Christianity around year 1000 A.D.

In 1319 the old Royal line died out, and Norway became unified with Denmark, under Kristoffer II. For a while Håkon VI, son of the Swedish King Magnus, was King of Norway. He married Margrete, daughter of Valdemar, the third son of Kristoffer II, and this strengthened the Norwegian-Danish ties.

Black Plague
A tragic chapter in the history of Norway began when the “Black Plague” came to the country. It landed in Bergen around 1349, and over the next years spread to the rest of the country. For over 100 years several kinds of pestilence surged through the nation and reduced the population by somewhere between one-half, and two-thirds. This was devastating to the economy as well, because much income was lost to the nation due to the fact that large tracts of land were unused. It was not until the mid 1600’s that all the farm land that was laid waste, due to the plague, was back in production. The Norwegian nobility was reduced from 300 families to only 60. Since the noble class had a lot of influence, and in essence ruled, Denmark became the stronger of the two countries in the union. Most of the higher education took place in Copenhagen, and most of the laws were common, although King Christian V made a major revision to the already existing “Norwegian law” that was written to accommodate the differences. One of the big differences was the ownership and usage of the farmland, because so much of Norway’s farmland was owned by the farmers themselves, rather than the nobility, as the case was in other Scandinavian and European countries.

Union of Kalmar
In 1397, although custom had not yet authorized a female succession to the throne, Princess Margrete became Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, under what is known as the “Union of Kalmar.” Thus all the three kingdoms were under one ruler. This Union lasted until 1523, when Sweden finally managed to break away after rebelling against it since 1448. The union between Denmark and Norway lasted until 1814. Norway’s constitution was written at Eidsvoll, Akershus in 1814.

In the meantime the reformation swept many parts of Europe and was adopted by Denmark and Norway under decision from Copenhagen in 1523. The church lost it power, and the church-owned land became the possession of the King and the strength and influence of the Danish nobility and king increased.

Norway in the 20th Century
In the fall of 1813 the Swedish crown Prince, Karl Johan, went against Denmark with 60,000 men. He had the support of England, who applied pressure on Denmark. It had for some time been a climate for a union between Norway and Sweden, and it now became a reality.
When Norway entered into the union with Sweden, it put an end to 100 years of constant border conflicts, sometimes more like a full scale war. Norway adopted its own constitution (under protest of the Swedish king), and the move for total independence grew stronger.

In 1905 the Danish Prince, Carl Fredrik, was elected King of Norway, and chose as his name, King Håkon VII. From then on the king was a titular head only.

Norway is located on the Scandinavian Peninsula in northern Europe. It covers an area of 150,000 square miles. It is a long narrow country, with borders to Russia and Finland to the north-east and Sweden to the east. Norway’s entire western border is to the Atlantic Ocean. The country consists of some of the most rugged and spectacular mountainous terrain in the world. The west coast is perforated with long inlet fingers of ocean called “fjords”. Because of these fjords, the coast line of Norway, if it was stretched out in a straight line, would extend more than halfway around the world at the equator.

Most of the land mass of Norway is made up of mountains and wilderness, much of it above the timberline. Less than 5% of the land is cultivated, with another 15% made up of forests. Because of the rugged nature of the land, the communities tend to be somewhat far apart, nestled in narrow valleys or coastal towns. Almost half the country, lengthwise, is above the Arctic Circle. The Gulf Stream, coming from the Gulf of Mexico, makes the climate fairly temperate, especially along the west coast.

Maps and Gazetteers
Various maps and gazetteers are available for reference use. These are generally good for getting oriented in the area of research, as well as pinpointing the locality of interest. The following maps and gazetteers are available at the Family History Library.

A. Statens Kartverk has produced a wonderful map collection for Norway with more than 800 maps. This collection is available here at the Family History Library for your use. It includes a place name index to the maps in a three volume set of books. You will find that each volume includes a code designation and instructions on how to use the indexes in English as well as in Norwegian. Volume 1 represents southern Norway, volume 2 mid-Norway and volume 3 northern Norway. Each volume includes an index of place names for each region they represent, with a reference to the coordinates for the place on the map. The maps are detailed and easy to use.

B. The 1972 Norsk Stedsfortegnelse (Norwegian Place Index), this 1972 edition is one of the most used gazetteers for Norway. It is an index to most current place names in Norway, such as farms, villages, towns, and cities.

C.The 1901 Norsk stedfortegnelse (Norwegian place index) is another much used gazetteer published by the Norwegian Postal Service in 1901.

D. Gaardnavne (Farm names) by O. Rygh, is a comprehensive work listing the farm names of Norway from early on up to the year 1900. It explains the origin of these names, as well as when a given farm split off from another farm and became independently owned. It is organized by registration number within each parish/and or herred (civil jurisdiction, generally the same as the clerical district), with one volume for each county. It is indexed by county.

The King was the absolute ruler, and he made the final decisions in all matters that came before him from any branch of the government. The higher level jurisdictions, that of the bispedømme (diocese), fylkesmann (county administrator), and overhovsrett (Supreme Court) often have the same geographical borders. The same was the case on the next level, which was that of the prosti (deanery),fogderi (bailiwick), and lagrett/sorenskriveri (middle court) as well as the lowest jurisdiction, that theprestegjeld (clerical district), lensmannsdistrickt (sheriff’s office), andherredsrett (lower court).

When you look closer at these different jurisdictions, you can really see how the geological features of an area influence the borders, something that you have to take into consideration when you do genealogical research. It shows the mountain range called Kjølen (The Keel). In the north it divides Norway and Sweden, in the south it runs down the middle of the country (more or less). Note all the lines on the map. These are valleys with rivers cutting into the mountains. To the outside the mountains are lower, towards the middle, higher mountains. Much of the country along the line is wilderness above the timberline. Here you can see Oppland County, showing the valleys, clerical districts, and parishes.

Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions
The highest level is the bispedømme and the next level down is the prosti. They are of little importance in regard to genealogical research. The next level is the prestegjeld (clerical district). A clerical district may have one to several sogn (parish). The parish records are the most important genealogical source in Norway. Record keeping varies from one clerical district to another, and from one period to the next, thus in some, all parishes within the clerical district were kept in the same record, while in others, the records of the different parishes were kept separately. The sogneprest (parish priest) was the head of the clerical district and sometimes served all the parishes in his district. Sometimes he had one or more residerende kapellan (curate) serving with him in the annex parishes.

The parish records are the vital records of Norway. There was no civil records kept prior to 1876, when a law was passed to send all information about births, marriages, and deaths to the Statistiske Sentralburå (The Central Bureau of Statistics), and in 1903 the law was amended to read that all parish priests should send a copy of the pages of their records that contained birth, deaths, and marriages. This information is not available for public use. Folkeregisterer (Registers of Vital Statistics) was by law established, on a community (city) level, in 1915. The information in this office is not readily available to the public, except one can prove relationship.

Civil Jurisdictions
The fylkesmann (county administrator) carried out the will of the King on the county level. He was functioning as a governor of the county. He hadfogder (bailiffs) working under him. The fogd collected the taxes, saw to it that the sentences of the court were carried out, arrested people, administered the Kings holdings (estates) in his area, etc.

The lensmann (sheriff) was often one of the farmers in the community, and he worked with the bailiff, witnessed probate proceedings, arrested people, assisted the bailiff in carrying out the order of the court.

Judicial Jurisdictions
Much of the business of the court was carried out on the level of the herredsrett. A panel of 12 judges (jury members) sat in judgment. At the next level, the probate court was the one of most interest as far as genealogy is concerned. The sorenskriver (probate judge) usually conducted the probate sessions at the home (estate) of the deceased, sometimes the fogd officiated for him.

More serious offenses, like murder, and more difficult property cases came before the lagrrett. Here you will also find 12 judges (jury members) who carried out the business of the court. The sorenskriver/tingskriver (judge) was at first the scribe of this court, later on he became the judge with the other 12. Finally he had the power over the decisions of the court.

Of the judicial records, the probate record is most important, as these sometimes exist before the parish records were kept. The mortgage records, and sometimes the court records, are helpful tools as well.

In the FamilySearch Norwegian wiki, under Research Tools you will find a section “Regional List”. Here you will find the names of all the regions in Norway, and the clerical district that belong to each region.

Ports to conduct trade around year 1100-1200
In early records you will find jurisdictions called “Skipreide, Skipreie, or Skiprede”. Early on it was an area that was assigned to outfit a ship for military use. Its size was determined according to the number of farms in the area and did not always include the whole parish. In some cases it could include several parishes. A skipreie may therefore include a number of farms of a given parish while another skipreie may include the remaining farms in the same parish. A skipreie was not confined to a parish border and may include farms in several parishes. As the population grew and there were more people in a given area, the skipreie became smaller and smaller. Today a Skipreie (Skipsrederi) is just a factory in a city or town where ships are being built.