Interested in family history? Your surname should be the first place you start looking. Even if your name is common you just might find an interesting story behind it – especially if you have some Norwegian heritage in your family tree.
Norwegian Americans are an important part of American make up the 10th most common European ancestry group in the US. Popular Norwegian surnames include Olsen, Nielsen, and Johansen – some of the most recognizable American surnames today.
Your name can tell you a lot about your family, how your ancestors lived, and who your forebears were. If you are interested in your family roots and/or have a common Norwegian surname, read on! You’ll get a little history primer on Norwegian surnames and how they came to America.
The first Norwegians that came to the Americas were the Vikings that landed in Canada. They called their discovery “Vinland” – named after berries they found there, which looked similar to berries used for making wine. But while they showed up in Canada in the 1000s, they didn’t settle there because of conflicts with the natives.
The earliest Norwegian immigrants to migrate to the USA came over in a sloop called Restauration in the early 1800s and were aptly called Sloopers. They first arrived in New York City but many moved towards the midwestern and the Great Plains States.
More Norwegian immigrants came to the US in the late 19th century, fleeing the potato famine in Europe. They also came through New York but moved westward to start new lives in the farms of the midwestern United States.
Although there wasn’t a standard at the time, the earliest Norwegian surnames were patronymic for most of Norway’s population. However, last names were reserved for medieval noble families, while regular families didn’t share a common surname.
In 1923, the government of Norway made everyone decide on a family name to follow western naming conventions of first name-last name, with families all sharing the same family name. Because of this, Norwegian names follow a lot of the same trends that other western European surnames follow:
Because patronymics are so prevalent in Scandinavian countries searching your history can get confusing. But if you look a little closer at Scandinavian naming conventions, you could find a lot about Norwegian culture and your family’s own back story.
In some countries in Northern Europe where patronymics are prevalent, last names didn’t always mean surnames in the way we think of them today. Many families didn’t have matching surnames, but they had other ways of sharing names – each child would be given the name of the generation that came before their parents.
So names would go like this: if your grandfather was named Hans Pedersen married to Anna Andersdatter, your father would then be called Peder Hansen. Meanwhile, you would be either Hans Pedersen or Anna Pedersdatter depending on your gender. Sometimes, a toponymic or habitational surname like the name of a Norwegian village would be added, like Hans Pedersen på Korsmo (meaning Hans son of Peder from sandy meadow).
The first name naming convention according to Norwegian Ridge would go like this: the first child would be named for the paternal grandfather, the second child would be named for the paternal grandmother, the third child would be named for the maternal grandfather, the fourth would have the name of the maternal grandmother and so on. Any children coming after them would be given the names of great-grandparents.
For example, let’s say Hans Pedersen på Korsmo has four children with a woman named Sonja. Their first male child would be Peder Hansen, their second female child would be Anna Hansdatter, their next male child would then be named for Sonja’s father, and so on.
However, this is not a hard and fast rule. There are obviously exceptions to this naming convention, but knowing that these patterns enlisted could be really helpful on your search and could reveal some interesting family history.
If the family moved to the bride’s rather than the groom’s farm, as was the convention, then the order would be flipped – the first children would receive the name of the maternal grandfather and so on. Or, if a parent died, then one of the children would take on that name instead. It can be confusing because so many family members share the same name, but it does teach you a lot about your family tree!
If your surname comes from Old Norse origin or has Old Norse elements, you may have little trouble tracing the patronymics from person to person – you could just pick a male ancestor and follow the “sens” and “datters”. If you’re lucky or do some sleuthing, you might even be able to follow the patronymics back through the generations to ancient times!
In 1923, Norway decreed that families needed to choose their family names. Suddenly, there were a ton of Haugens, Bergs, and Hoves, many of whom were not related.
Many chose the name of the farm they lived on or the patronymic they had at the time, which is why so many of the common surnames in Norway are either patronymics or habitational names. It might be hard to find connections to your ancestors after this time since many people picked common surnames.
Then, in 1965, a bill was passed allowing a Norwegian woman to keep her maiden name. While this was a major step toward gender equality, it does complicate surname research! So, if your family came from Norway relatively recently, you’ll have a little more to research to do as your forebears’ names might not match.
After Ireland, Norway sent the most people to the United States. There are around 4.5 million Norwegian Americans living in the US today, which is very close to the actual Norwegian population (5.3 million.) North Dakota has the highest percentage of Norwegian Americans, while Minnesota has the highest population of people of Norwegian descent.
Because of this, Norwegian surnames have become popular in the US. But it’s a myth that immigration officers at Ellis Island changed names upon allowing immigration to the US – instead, names were changed to make them easier to pronounce to the English-speaking ear.
Many Old Norse words sound a lot like English, but Norway has a unique culture with its own alphabet, special characters, and sounds that we don’t have in the English language. In fact, the Norwegian alphabet has three more letters than the English one: Æ, Ø, and Å.
When settlers came to America, many of them changed their names to eliminate these letters and Americanize them. For example, names like Sæther got changed to Setter or Sather, and Kjølvik was Americanized to Colwick. Because some Norwegian family names had to be changed or Americanized to make the same sounds but with different spellings, it could make your search a little more challenging.
The 10 most common Norwegian surnames are mostly patronymics:
Not all Norwegian names are patronymic. If you are looking for a name and you are searching for something that doesn’t end in “sen”, here is a list of 15 different Norwegians names that are not patronymics and contain Old Norse elements and Norwegian words:
Since Norwegian names are some of the most common surnames in the US, it’s easy to dismiss them as just patronymics or just boring surnames, but there is so much history in each last name! Once you start digging into it you can learn a lot about your heritage.
Norwegian American surnames are so ubiquitous in parts of America that you might not even realize you have a Norwegian surname until you start researching. Keep looking into your ancestry – you never know what you might discover.