This page covers the most important sources for a genealogist doing research in Norwegian ancestry. The list is limited to "primary sources" - registers that were made at the same time as the actual happenings they record, or immediately afterwards. I have focused on giving the reader some information about the contents of the registers, and also included some hints about their limitations.
A couple of conventions used in this text:
- Norwegian terms are enclosed in square brackets: [ ]
- Different spellings are separated by a slash: /
You can read about a very useful type of "secondary sources" - bygdebøker - on another page. However, not every parish has a "bygdebok", and I know that finding the answers in old documents gives a greater satisfaction than reading what other persons have found.
Use the link to jump directly down to the following registers:
- Church registers [kirkebøker]
- Censuses [folketellinger]
- Probate registers [skifteprotokoller]
- Mortgage registers [panteregistre]
- Tax registers [skattelister]
On another page you'll find a list showing the oldest church registers for every parish in Norway. You'll also find some useful notes about them there.
The Norwegian church registers cover the vast majority of the population. The last hundred years some dissenter churches have kept their own registers, but they never had any high percentage of the population as members. However, in some regions the number of dissenters has been high.
Before 1820 most of the church registers were written as continuous listings of every religious event that took place in the church. For a given day you may find a couple of christenings, a burial, perhaps a wedding, and also announcements of various kinds. However, some priests divided the register in sections, one for each of the religious events.
Early in the 1800s the church registers became standardized. The protocols got sections for most of the events that took place in the church, and each section had columns for the various bits of information that had to be written down. Since then the columns have been changed in certain ways and some new "chapters" are added, but the principle remains.
Many church registers were destroyed by fire when vicarages or churches burned down. After 1800 the priest and the parish clerk both had to keep separate and hopefully identical registers to avoid future losses. The books were compared each year to ensure that both had right information.
It is important to bear in mind that church registers contain religious events, which in most cases are paired with demographic events. This table aim at making the distinction a little clearer:
|Demographic event||Religious event|
In the 1700s the children were christened very soon after their birth. Later on the time gap widened to several months. If a child was so weak that the parents feared it could die before being christened, they could do the ceremony at home. This "home christening" [hjemmedåp] had to be confirmed afterwards in the church. As a rule we can say that very few children born alive are missing in the church registers. In some cases you may have to search in more than one parish, because children could be christened in another church for some reason.
Marriage is at the same time a religious and a demographic event, at least today. However, in older times a couple started to live together after their engagement [trolovelse], which took place some weeks or months before the wedding. That's the main explanation in quite many of the cases where the first child arrived less than nine months after the wedding night! On the whole very few marriages are missing in the church registers, but you may have to search for a while. A couple could be wed either in his home parish or in her, or in quite another church.
You'll soon discover that many deaths are missing in the church registers, especially in older times. There are several reasons for this. If the body couldn't be found, then there was nothing to bury. That explains why the death of many fishermen never shows up in the church registers. The burial of poor people and small children could be forgotten by the keeper of the registers, and when epidemics struck, there could be so many burials that it was impossible to keep tally of them all. There are other sources that fill the holes, most notably the sheriffs death registers [lensmannens dødslister], which start approx. 1815 in many parishes.
Censuses represent an easy way to quickly find person or families, but with some major limitations. First of all, there are relatively few of them. In Norway the situation is this:
|1666||Men and boys and some widows||Called "Prestenes manntall". Some parishes are missing.|
|1701||Men and boys and some widows||Called "Fogdenes manntall". Some parishes are missing.|
|1768||Men and women, but not all children||Names missing for children and women in many parishes. Unreliable.|
|1801||The first real census||Searchable on Internet. Some parishes are missing.|
|1865||Census||Searchable on Internet.|
|1875||Census||Searchable on Internet.|
|1891||Census||With a few exceptions not searchable on Internet yet (one person on each document!).|
|1900||Census||Searchable on Internet. The most recent made public.|
Between 1801 and 1865 there were censuses in 1815, 1825, 1835, 1845 and 1855, all of them numerical (giving only the size of the population), except for a handful of parishes, where name lists exist. The 1910 census will be made available for the public in 2010.
Censuses are "snapshots" of the population and mention only those alive. It's easy to see that big families could live and die between 1801 and 1865 without any of their members being mentioned in any census. And if you find the family you seek, children already dead or yet to be born will of course be missing.
All the censuses up to 1801 are incomplete for some ethnic groups, most notably the sámi [samer, finner, lapper] and the Gypsies [omstreifere, tatere]. In 1845 a separate census for the Gypsies (Romany) was set up, and starting with the 1865 census ethnicity was registered (not very reliable information!).
Remember that the information in the censuses was written down by collectors, and in very many cases they weren't born in the parish. This situation gave room for numerous errors and misunderstandings, especially regarding a persons name and age. To sum it up: Census information should be used with care. If a church register and a census contradict each other, let the church register get the upper hand.
>A census can either give the age of a person or the year of birth. The 1865 census and the older ones use the first method, from 1875 you'll find the second method, which is the most reliable (but not 100%!). Exact age wasn't a very important fact to remember for most people in older times. It was much more important to know the seasons of a year.
When a person died a register counting the belongings of the deceased was made, along with a list with the names of all the heirs. This information ultimately was written in a probate register [skifteprotokoll], or at least some of it.
There are relatively few probates compared with the number of deaths. If a dead person left very little or nothing behind (children, poor people, old people), then you probably won't find any probate and therefore no heir names. This may also be the case when the debt was far greater than the values in the estate. As a rule you will find that the probates from the 1700s are much better sources then later probates are.
When information about the heirs is present, it usually will be quite reliable. Who were the heirs? This table gives a simplified overview:
|Unmarried||No||The parents if they were alive; otherwise living brothers and sisters of the deceased, and the heirs of dead brothers and sisters.|
|Unmarried||Yes||In many cases the illegitimate child, otherwise as above.|
|Married||No||The surviving spouse (half of the estate), the parents of the deceased if they were alive; otherwise living brothers and sisters of the deceased, and the heirs of dead brothers and sisters.|
|Married||Yes||The surviving spouse (half of the estate), the descendants of the deceased.|
|Widow/widower||No||The parents of the deceased if they were alive; otherwise living brothers and sisters of the deceased, and the heirs of dead brothers and sisters.|
|Widow/widower||Yes||The descendants of the deceased.|
If one of the heirs was a married woman, her husband may be named. You may also find information telling where the heirs lived. In some cases the estate was divided according to a will, but even then you may find reliable if not complete information about the heirs.
Don't forget to take a look down the long list of things that the deceased owned. You may find some very interesting information there. Before 1814 silver spoons with engraved initials often appear in the estate. A man called Hans Anderssen would use H.A.S. as initials (Hans, Anders' son), and a woman called Ellen Hansdatter would use E.H.D. (Ellen, Hans' daughter). Is some cases the silver spoons were inherited from earlier generations, and then they may give valuable clues when other sources are thin.
A mortgage register [panteregister] contains more than information about mortgages. When farms were split or their borders changed it was written down there. Farms often were divided between the heirs of a deceased owner, and then the information may prove valuable for a genealogist. Sometimes there appear bits of information like "X is married to Y" or "x has married the widow of Y", but I think you'll find better documentation in the sources mentioned above.
Tax registers [lensregistre (before 1666), amtsregistre (1666 and later)] are almost the only sources from the 1600s, a century with very few church registers. Taxes were mostly paid by married men, but at least one tax - the "leidang" were paid by unmarried men, too. The only women you'll find in these registers are widows, and in most cases the name is missing. Instead you'll find the word "Enken" - the widow.
It's not easy to find the right relationships using tax registers as the only source. You'll need a very good training as a historian and a method suitable for the regions your ancestors lived in. The most common error is to draw conclusions based on names alone, and another big error is to think that generation after generation lived on the same farm. In most cases the tax registers can only be use to build "educated guesses".