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Understanding Pre-20th Century Norwegian Naming Cu
By Sarah Nowak
Posted: 2024-07-20T18:41:22Z

By Sarah Nowak (the heritage perspective) with help from Tor Taklo (the native Norwegian perspective) 


The Norwegian naming customs before the 20th century are quite different from American naming customs. It is helpful to understand these customs to further your genealogical tree. I found the attached article from Family Search especially useful and have made several references to the information in this article:

Norwegians did not adopt fixed surnames (last names) until the mid to late 19th century. Most of the population up to that point used patronymic surnames taken from the the father’s first name. This naming system was used since before the Viking era and is still being used in Iceland. Below is a copy of the Norwegian Church Record recording the baptism of my third great-grandfather Isach Taraldsen. Isach was born in Norway in 1820. From this record, although hard to read, we can see that Isach’s father was Tarald Nielsen. Isach’s last name was Taraldsen (son of Tarald). Isach’s mother was listed as Ane Helene Knutsdr. The dr is an abbreviation of datter (daughter) which can also be abbreviated as dtr or simply d. According to the attached Family Search article, it is best to fully spell out surnames when entering them into your tree and forego any abbreviations. There can be different spelling versions of “son-of” and “daughter-of”: -sen / -sønn / -son and - datter / -dotter / -dottir. “Bokmål”: Sen/Søn/Sønn and Datter. “Nynorsk”: Son and Dotter (possibly also Dottir, but this is more common on Iceland). Also, when the father's name ends with s, both one and two "esses" can be seen for the children's name. Examples: Hansen or Hanssen, Johannesen or Johannessen. In other words, there may be many different versions of the same name. Such as Johanesen, Johaneson, Johannesen, Johanneson, Johannessen (in Tor's mother's case) or Johannesson.  

Isach Taraldsen’s baptismal record (Photo is from Ancestry)

The picture below shows another branch of my Norwegian ancestors listed in Norway’s 1801 census. Following American naming customs, one might not understand how the people listed are related. Hans Kittelsen is the head of household. Ingerie Halvorsdatter is his wife. Women kept the surname they were born with until the mid to late 19th century which can make searching for female ancestors much easier. The Hansens and Hansdatter are Hans and Ingerie’s children. Halvor Halvorsen is Ingerie’s brother.  

Norway’s 1801 Census Record (Photo is from Ancestry)

Another problem for those of us trying to find our Norwegian ancestors is that you will find different name variations recorded for the same person. If the surname listed in a record does not end with sen or datter, it is usually the place (maybe city or farm) where your ancestor was born or lived.  This was for recording purposes only to differentiate those with same names such as Hans Hansen (see Name Frequency in the attached Family Search article). It is not part of their name and should not be recorded as such, unless your ancestor adopted the place as their surname which started in the mid to late 19th century. To add more confusion, sometimes the place listed at the end of the name will change if the person moved. For example, if Hans Hansen Eeg moved from farm Eeg to farm Rue, he may be listed as Hans Hansen Rue from that point forward. It can be hard to tell if this is the same person especially when they have a common name. It is best to see if this person has the same family members such as wife and children living with or near him.  


Another reason for different name variations is because language and spelling reforms did not start until 1862. You will see these changes of more standardized spelling go into effect in the cities first and later in the more rural areas. According to the Family Search article, “records were created by a person educated in Denmark or taught to write by a person educated in Denmark”. My third great-grandfather Isach who I mentioned above had Ørvik listed at the end of his name. I have also seen this spelled as Ørvig. I believe that the correct spelling of his first name is actually Isaak because that is the first name of his maternal great-grandfather and his maternal grandmother’s last name was always listed as Isaaksdatter. However, I have seen his first name spelled as Isaak, Isak or Isach as shown in the baptismal record above.  The spelling of names can vary from region to region. Even if your ancestor never moves, their name may be recorded differently based on the recordkeeper’s education. You may also see the three additional letters in Norwegian; Æ, Ø and Å - often written as ae, oe and aa.


These naming customs were often dropped as soon as our Norwegian ancestors immigrated to the U.S. regardless of when they immigrated. My 3rd great-grandfather Isaak immigrated to the U.S. in 1849 (see passenger list below) with his widowed sister Marie, her children and Isaak’s wife Jacobine Halvorsdatter. I am unsure if Isaak and Jacobine were married when they immigrated since I cannot find their marriage record. Isaak’s sister Marie is listed as Isaak’s wife. I am also unsure at this time if that was due to immigration or emigration laws of the time. Hopefully I will have the answer to that question in my next blog - the story of Maria’s immigration to the U.S. What I do know is that Isaak is listed as Isak T. Orvig (the correct spelling is Ørvik). So, once again his name has been recorded differently and is now adding where he was from (see map below showing Ørvik).  

Isaak and family 1849 arriving passenger list – Port of New York (Photo is from Ancestry)

Ørvik shown on Google map in Norway (Taken from Google Maps)

The names change again once Isaak and his family settle in the U.S. In the 1870 U.S. Census Record, Isaak now Isaac has changed his name from Taraldsen to Thompson. I don’t know the reason for this change but in all records from the time of his immigration to the U.S. until his death, he is listed as Isaac Thompson. His wife Jacobine and his children all adopt the last name of Thompson as seen on the census record below. Included in this record is my second great-grandmother Emma Thompson who marries Olaf Johann Hansen (grandson of the Hans Hansen mentioned above in Norway's 1801 Cencus). There is also a Harwel Lossen listed as living with the Thompson’s. This is Jacobine’s father and the correct spelling of his name is Halvor Larsen. Jacobine lists her maiden name as Larsen instead of Halvorsdatter on all U.S. records where a maiden name is required.  


Isaac Thompson and family 1870 U.S. Census Record (Photo is from Ancestry)

In summary, I am not sure that I would have been able to find all the records on my third great-grandfather Isach Taraldsen who was really Isaak, who changed to Isak T. Orvig then finally to Isaac Thompson without the help of my native Norwegian friend, Tor Taklo and articles like Family Search’s Norway Naming Customs.  Understanding the local customs is imperative in finding your Norwegian ancestors. I hope this article helps in the search for your Norwegian ancestors. 

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