Finding my ancestors in Norway

 

Until recently, all I knew about the origins of the Ringness family was that my great-great grandparents, Herman and Petrina Ringness, came to the United States from Norway. I didn't know where they settled in the United States, when they came over, or where they lived in Norway. I hope that the story of how I learned about my ancestors will help you in your own search.

The story starts when a friend of mine, while researching her own family history, ran across the Ringness name in newspapers from Stevens Point, Wisconsin in the 1880's. She checked with me, and this turned out to be my great-grandparents! My friend subscribes to Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com), and using that service she was able to get copies of Herman and Petrina's obituaries from the Stevens Point newspapers.

Advertisement from a newspaper in Stevens Point, Wisconsin dated 1879

Obituaries are a valuable source of information, and from them I learned that my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in 1866, and that they settled in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

I now had several valuable pieces of information:

  1. The names of the immigrants.
  2. What country they came from, and in what year.
  3. Where they lived in the United States.

Next I turned to the Internet. The best web site I have found to start your family history search is Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com). This sites has links to thousands of other genealogy-related web sites, and it is well organized so you will be able to find what you need.

On  Cyndi's List I found some web sites about searching for ancestors in Norway. A site that helped me a lot is Ancestors From Norway (homepages.rootsweb.com/~norway/index.html). This site contains articles which explain the customs and culture in Norway, and the different sources of information that are available -- both on the Internet and in books and microfilm.

A  web site called Norway Heritage (www.norwayheritage.com) has a database of many passenger lists from Norwegian immigrant ships in the 19th century. By entering "Herman" and "1866", I got a list of men named Herman who immigrated to the U.S. from Norway in that year. One of them came from a farm named Ringnæs -- which must be my great-grandfather! The passenger list showed his residence as a place called Romedal.

A portion of the 1866 passenger list showing "Herman Ringnæs of Romedal with wife and 3 children."
 

Next I wanted to find out where this Ringnæs farm in Romdal actually is. I went to Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) and looked up Romedal. It is a municipality (a town), now located in the area called Stange, in the Norwegian county of Hedmark.

On the Ancestors From Norway web site I also learned about an online database of historical Norwegian census data: Digitalarkivet at www.digitalarkivet.no. It turns out that there was a census in 1865, just a year before Herman and Petrina emigrated. It seemed likely that they would have been living at the Ringnæs farm in 1865, so I visited Digitalarkivet and by searching on first name starting with "Herman" and farm name starting with "Ringn" (to account for the spelling variations), I found that in 1865 in all of Norway there was only one such person -- he lived in the township of Løten (which is next to Romedal!), on a farm named Ringnæs nordre. The census also showed his wife was named Pettrine, and they had three children: Emma, Hanna and Elias.

Now I knew the exact location of the farm that Herman and Petrine came from -- pretty good results from just using the Internet!

At this point, I could learn more about Herman and Petrine and their relatives from the Norwegian church parish registers. Some of these registers have been digitized and can be viewed online at Digitalarkivet, but the registers for the years I needed are not yet on-line. However, the LDS (Latter Day Saints) church has a vast library of genealogical information -- called the Family History Library -- located in Salt Lake City. Many of the documents in their collection are available on microfilm, and I was able to view the parish registers I needed on microfilm at the North Seattle LDS Family History Center. You can search the entire Family History Library catalog at their web site: www.familysearch.org.

One other important source of information about Norwegian families are local history books, called "bygdeboks" (pronounced "big-da-books"). Over several months I have been able to borrow bygdeboks for most of the communities where Herman and Petrine's ancestors lived. Bygdeboks are somewhat rare, but the Inter-Library Loan department at the Seattle Public Library arranged for me to borrow bygdeboks from the research libraries at some universities all over the United States (for free).

By using resources on the Internet, microfilmed parish registers, and bygdeboks, it has been possible to trace hundreds of Herman's and Petrine's ancestors, going back as many as ten generations.

And what about the descendents of Herman and Petrine who were born in the United States? In addition to what I learned from my relatives, I subscribed to Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com), and have access to complete U.S. Census records and newspaper collections from all over the country. Also, many states in the U.S. have published their "vital statistics" information (births, deaths, marriages), on the Internet -- for example the Illinois State Archives at http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/databases.html.


Section of the 1880 U.S. Census form from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, showing Herman and Petrine Ringness, and their children Alex, Ole, Henry and John.

Eventually, my cousins and I hope to create a complete history of our family.

I learned a few lessons that may be helpful to you:

  1. Names of people and places are often spelled differently than you would expect. When searching a database, be sure to search using  "sounds like" or "starts with" options, instead of searching only for the name exactly as you spell it.
  2. Take some time to learn about the customs and history of places and times you are researching. This will help you make sense of the data you come across.
  3. Always question the accuracy of the sources you are viewing. Just because you find a person with the name you are looking for, it may not be the right person. Try to find a variety of sources referring to the person and ask yourself if they all make sense. If not, keep looking.

Good luck in your family research!