Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gudbjørg Østensdatter Sørum (1657-1733) (52 Ancestors #15) Theme: "How do you spell that?"

So what's with those three slashed o's in this name? If my 7th great grandmother's name isn't difficult enough for non-Norwegians, those unusual letters make it even harder to spell. She isn't alone - many of my Norwegian ancestors (and many living distant cousins that show up today as matches for my DNA) have names that use this and other letters that the English language simply doesn't have.

Hedalen Stave Church, Sør Aurdal, Oppland from Wikimedia Commons 2015 April 04
Creator of Photo: Jeblad   ~ Credit: John Erling Blad
Not knowing the language, I postponed my Norwegian research in favour of focusing on my more accessible English and American family histories. Eventually, when it was clearly time to tackle my Scandinavian ancestors, I learned that the Norwegian alphabet contains 3 extra letters that aren't found in English: Ø (ø), Æ (æ) and Å (å). These fall at the end of their alphabet as follows: . . . x, y, z, æ, ø, å. Compounding the confusion are the changes in the language over time. The language is Germanic but has two dialects. Because Norway had been under Danish rule for much of the period of time that I am researching, most of these records are said to be closer to written Danish than to modern-day Norwegian in either dialect. In many of the older records Å is often written as Aa and filed at the beginning of the alphabet, whereas it would otherwise be expected to fall at the end. Typing these three letters on the computer in various programs (including this blog) is a slow painstaking process which often does not work very well. As a result, my records have been inconsistent in their usage and I must confess to (far too often) "rounding them off" to the nearest English equivalent - o, ae and aa. In this I am not alone and many online searches will return the correct ancestor with these incorrect letters used.

Traditional Norwegian naming practises are also foreign to us. In prior centuries, the patronymic naming system was used with children adopting their father's first name with the suffix "son" (or "sen") or "datter" added at the end. Even with the unfamiliar name of my 7th great grandmother, you can tell that Gudbjørg is female because her name contains "datter" (daughter). You can also tell that her father's first name was Østen. Gudbjørg Østensdatter would be Gudbjørg Østensdatter for life, even after she married. In many respects this name retention makes it easier to follow a Norwegian woman's path through life.

The third name that shows up (Sørum) can change over a person's lifetime. Because the patronymic naming system resulted in so many people with similar names, this third name would often link a person to the location where he or she was living at the time a particular record was made.  This third name (usually a farm name) was not always used and when it was, it didn't necessarily signify relationship or family but simply a place of residence. "Farm" can be a bit misleading to North Americans who tend to think of a farm as a single-family unit; the "farm" in Norway may have been home for several families and is really more of a region or locality.

The use of family names in Norway was not made compulsory until 1925. By then, my ancestors had moved to North America and adopted names to fit into their new culture. Some retained the patronymic name that the immigrant ancestor arrived with and passed that on to their descendants, for example my Nelson ancestors, whereas others used the name of the location from which they had come in Norway (the "farm name"), such as my Bardahl, Heimdahl and Elton ancestors.

Begnedalen area in Oppland, Norway
Google Earth image

Getting back to the woman with the name Gudbjørg: she was born in 1657 north of Oslo at Begnedalen, Aurdal, Oppland, Norway to Østen Haraldsen Sørum Strømmen and his wife Ingebjørg Olsdatter.  She married my much-older 7th great grandfather Ole Jonsen Tollefsrud in about 1675. He was 44, she 18.

She and Ole had a family of at least 4 daughters and one son, including my 6th great grandmother Gudbjørg Olsdatter Tollefsrud born in 1687. Her husband Ole lived to the age of 99, dying in 1731. Gudbjørg Østensdatter outlived him by just two years, dying at the age of 76 in 1733. Note that because she had moved to Tollefsud farm after her marriage to Ole, the name in her burial record now includes Tollefsrud. Norwegians who died in the winter would often not be buried until the ground thawed in spring so it is difficult to know how long before her burial date she had actually died. Both she and Ole are buried in the cemetery at the Hedalen stave church in the photo at the top of this story.

Gudbjørg's Burial Record for 25 March 1733,  Sør Aurdal, Oppland


  • Digitalarkivet digitized church records for Aurdal, Oppland
  • Documents provided by Tom Larsen, Oslo, Norway to Kenneth Bardahl in 1997 (Ådal av chr, Lunde 1907, Tidskriftet til Ringerike Skektshistorie lag (1991-1996) og historie lag (1926-1996), manusskripter i Ringerike biblotek's lokal samling + 6DSR Genealogisk Datasentral Ringerike)


  1. Wow - that is so fascinating! I think I'll stop complaining about some of my oddly-spelled surnames. :)

    1. Thanks, Celia. I agree - some of my other ancestral names now appear quite simple, the biggest concerns being whether there are 2 t's or 3 in Wescott/Westcott and whether Bullen has one or two l's!