What Did You Say Your Name Was?

By Richard A. Pence

© Copyright 2001

The Norwegians who came to America in the 19th Century weren't always sure what name they should use in the New Country. The author's Norwegian great grandparents appear in the records under several different names, some quite unexpected.

Experienced genealogists will tell you that it is not how a name is spelled that is important, it is how it sounds. But sound won't help you if you have Scandinavian ancestors who came to America in the 19th century. What you are apt to find is a strange mix of patronymic names and what are known as "farm names."

An example of the latter was told me by an uncle, husband of one of my Dad's older sisters. When my uncle's father arrived in South Dakota from Norway in the 1880s, he was known as Ole OLSON. He settled on a homestead in Brown County and discovered he was one of three men named Ole OLSON who lived in the same township! So he took as his surname the place where he was born, HAMAR (a fortuitous choice, as my uncle became a local merchant and operated the Hamar Hardware store!)

My mother's maternal grandparents were Norwegian and when I started the long search for their roots I knew only that my grandmother's maiden name was IVERSON and her mother, I was told, was another of the ubiquitous OLSONs. There was also this vague family tradition that "the name was changed." Undaunted, I set out in search of these folks, quite unprepared for the variety of names I would encounter.

Here is some of what I have found on my Norwegian great-grandparents (not necessarily discovered in the order given):

On their marriage certificate, their names are given as Albert E. THOMPSON and Anna S. LUNDE (1883, Goodhue County, Minnesota).

On the birth record of their oldest child, Anna (1884, Goodhue County, Minnesota), his name is given as Ingbrigt IVERSON, hers simply as Anna. When Anna died (1945, Pope County, Minnesota), her parents were listed on her death certificate as Albert IVERSON and Anna PEDERSON.

In the 1900 census of Jackson County, Minnesota, he is called Albert IVERSON, born Minnesota, and she is Anna IVERSON, born Norway.

In her obituary (1942, Jackson County, Minnesota), Anna IVERSON is said to have been born in "Sogn, Norway" and is called the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Peter PEDERSON. Among survivors is a brother, Jens PEDERSON, whose birth certificate says he was born Jens URNESS, son of Peter URNESS (1871, Goodhue County, Minnesota) and his death certificate (1951, Faribault County, Minnesota) called him Jens Edward URNESS. In her husband's obituary she was "Miss Anna PETERSON." Her death certificate says her father was Peter PETERSON and her mother was "Anna LUNDA" (the informant was a son, who mistakenly gave his mother's maiden name instead of her mother's maiden name).

In my great-grandfather's obituary (1932, Brown County, Minnesota), he is called Albert A. IVERSON. Among survivors is a brother, Louis THOMPSON of Washington state. Albert's place of birth is given as Minnesota and the 1900 census says his parents were born in Norway.

The obituary of Peter J. URNESS (1930, Goodhue County) said he was born in "Endre Sogn" Norway and on this basis I wrote the Norwegian Archives in Bergen, Norway, giving what details I knew. The response provided some important information.

The parish register of Hafslo, Norway, no. 18, fol. 145, states that the following family left Hafslo in Indre Sogn for America on 22 April 1870:

(The above Anna, age 7-1/2, was my great-grandmother; the Jens mentioned in these record is believed to have died not long after the voyage as another son, born the next year in Minnesota, was also named Jens.)

Information provided by a descendant shows they sailed aboard the ship Mercator, leaving Bergen, Norway, 29 April 1870 and arriving at Quebec 30 June 1870. They were listed as Peder, Andreas, Jens and Anna URNAES.

In the 1880 census of Goodhue County, he is called Peder J. URNAS and his wife is given as Anna (Andrine). The three children are Anna (shown as stepdaughter), James (Jens) and Jane (Jensina).

So far we have:

Anna was born LUNDE, was called URNESS (or variant) on ship and in the cnesus, married Albert THOMPSON under the name Lunde and died his widow as Anna IVERSON, nee PETERSON.

Anna's mother was born Andrine Olsdatter SVIGGUM, had a child by Soren Bottolfsen LUNDE, married Peder Jensen URNESS (whose obituary says her maiden name was Andrine OLSON) and had children by him who went by the name PEDERSON or PETERSON as well as URNESS. Her death certificate (1914, Goodhue County) gives her name as Andrine P. URNESS and correctly states she was the daughter of Ole Anderson SVIGGUM, with the information supplied by her husband.

For the surnames encountered above, there is a more-or-less "logical" reason for most of the variations. For example, my great-great grandmother Andrine was born Andrine Olsdatter SVIGGUM, according to her parish register, so there is at least some rationale for her being called "Andrine OLSON" by her children in her husband's obituary, for they were no doubt unfamiliar with the nuances involved in the use of Olson and Olsdatter.

It is the mix of the "old country" name concepts and how they are interpreted by succeeding generations in America that causes many of the difficulties. Peder Jensen URNESS, as he was called in his parish records in Norway, was called Peder URNESS throughout his life. In the birth and death records for his children they are given the surname URNESS. Yet nearly every mention of them during their lives lists them under the surname PEDERSON/PETERSON, their own adherence to the patronymic naming pattern of Norway. But even Peder URNESS is called Peter PETERSON on occasion, as in Anna (Lunde) IVERSON's obituary. Her children may never have known that their uncle, Jens PETERSON was actually her half-brother, and absent that knowledge it would have been natural for them to presume that her father (stepfather) was also named PETERSON.

After 25 years, although I pieced together half of my "Norwegian Connection," I still was lacking the roots of Albert Iverson. And his roots might well have remained a mystery had it not been for the modern marvel of the Internet.

I wrote an article for an on-line genealogy newsletter which pretty much included the findings as stated above ("Scandinavian Name Game," Missing Links, Vol. 6, No. 17).

Enter Lars E. Oyane <loya@online.no>, historian for Luster County, Norway, who a few days later sent me an e-mail which said in part:

"I have read with interest your article in the latest Missing Links about your Norwegian ancestors, and I am pleased to tell you I am very well familiar with the THOMPSON/IVERSON family and their background in Norway. Like the URNESS (PEDERSON) and SWIGGUM families, Albert's parents both emigrated from Hafslo parish (since 1963 part of Luster County) as well.

"I have for the past 25 years been working on a nine-volume county history book series for Luster County describing the farms and families in and from Luster County, and a major part of my work has consisted in tracing the whereabouts in America of some 6,500 emigrants from Luster County as well as about all of their children, i.e., the first generation born in the U.S.

"Five volumes have so far been published, and I expect the remaining four (dealing with Hafslo parish) to be ready for publication within three or four years. I am proud to say I have traced some 95% of all emigrants and their families.

"You are right about the family name being changed several times. Albert's parents were: Iver Trondson YNDESDAL, born July 1, 1823 in Hafslo parish, Luster County, Norway, married June 30, 1846 in Hafslo parish to: Anna Trondsdotter LOMMEIM, born June 8, 1824 in Hafslo parish, Luster County, Norway."

Mr. Oyane went on to say that this couple had 12 children, eight born in Norway before they immigrated to Goodhue County, Minnesota in 1861. In America, they had four more children, the oldest of these being Ingbrigt, also known as Albert - my great-grandfather.

And even though I never found Albert's family because I was never quite sure of what names to look for, it was as I suspected: The father of Albert IVERSON went by the name of Iver THOMPSON in Minnesota, as did all of his children - except Albert, who, the story goes, decided to be an IVERSON because there were a great many THOMPSONs about (most of them his close relatives).

Several times I did search for Iver THOMPSON, but never found a match. The reason: I was looking in the wrong place. Unbeknownst to me, the family had moved from Goodhue County to Jackson County, Minnesota, in 1867.

I had also asked the Minnesota Historical Society to search its indexes of federal and state censuses without luck. I suspect the reason this failed was that I knew only the names of two of the children of Iver and Anna THOMPSON: Lewis (Louis) and Albert. As Mr. Oyane pointed out, these two were known within the family as Lars and Ingbrigt! Absent the children's names, it is almost impossible to tell which of many Iver THOMPSONs was the right one.

Besides unlocking my long-standing dead-end, Mr. Oyane provided a bonus: He put me in touch with a researcher in Minnesota whose project is documenting the families of those buried in a small cemetery near his home. Among these are my great-grandmother, Anna Lunde IVERSON. Robert Brodin of Jackson County, Minnesota, sent me a copy of an extensive family history done by one of my second or third cousins in Minnesota. He also made a trip to the courthouse in Jackson for me.

My grandmother, known to me only as Lena IVERSON, told us she was born 27 October 1886 in Jackson County, Minnesota. I had written for her birth record in the 1970s and received a "not found" by return mail. The enterprising Mr. Brodin visited the courthouse and soon e-mailed me: "Regarding Lena's given name: Beside the spelling of Oleana in the 1895 census, I found her birth recorded in Jackson yesterday (with poor script) as 'Olianna, daughter of Ember and Anna THRONDSON.' . . . I'm sure this is your grandmother . . ."

Aside from the obvious reinforcement of my thesis about ever-changing Norwegian-American names, there are some other lessons a researcher can learn from this:

1. If a record is "not found" it doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't actually there.

2. The name that is in the record may not be the name you are familiar with.

3. There is no totally satisfactory substitute for personally researching the actual record (or facsimile).

4. When you can't personally search the records, learn to ask the right questions.

Asking for a birth record for "Lena IVERSON" wasn't the right question because of the fluid surname history of the family. After failing to find that record, I should have realized that birth registers are usually kept in chronological order and followed up by asking for the names of any children whose births were recorded on my grandmother's known birth date. Had I done this, I may have found the clue that could have unraveled the mystery of the parents of my great-grandfather years ago.

Much of the research on these families took place some 25 years ago. In going through my files recently, I marveled at my own persistence and also realized how much work was involved in "the old days." With only a couple of names and dates found in an old obituary, I began writing letters. Letters to courthouses. Letters to historical societies. Letters to vital records agencies. Letters to Norway. Letters to relatives. Nearly 50 in all. That seems to be the major lesson here. You have to look under every rock, for you never know what name you will next encounter!

Is my work done now that I have a firm grip on the origins of all four of my Norwegian great-great-grandparents?

Not quite. I just found Iver THOMPSON and his family listed in Belmont Township, Jackson County, Minnesota, in the 1880 census.

Iver is listed with his family, but after his name is this note: "In state prison."


A footnote that sort of brings this name merry-go-roung back to where it began for me: A cousin in Minnesota sent papers showing that In 1953, two of my grandmother's siblings - known throughout life as Emery Iverson and, until her marriage, Clara Iverson - went into court in Jackson County, Minnesota, and had their names legally changed. It seems they were actually named Thompson and needed to be Iversons to secure their interest in some town lots that had been owned by their deceased parents.

For more information on Norwegian names, try this site: Those Norwegian Names.