Tag Archives: Norway

Reindeer and Rana Roots

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

Say what you will about the Internet, it’s a wonderful resource for genealogy.

I got interested in family history about 15 years ago  after attending a family reunion in Fort Ransom, N.D, and since then I’ve traced my roots back to the 1650s in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  Found a link to  some Finns as well among Swedish ancestors in the area known as the Finn Forest around Lekvattnet, Varmland, but it’s tenuous. Bottom line: I have Viking blood in  my veins, and I’m proud of that. I have a drinking horn and tattoo to prove it.

My biggest genealogy breakthrough came from  a website called Ancestors From Norway, which took me over the pond and put in touch with Norwegian census reports, tax roles and local church and farm histories, some as far back as the 1600s.  By posting on genealogy message boards for specific locales, I also found helpful researchers, as well as distant cousins eager to share family history from overseas in exchange for family information from the USA. Message boards also put me in touch with distant Swedish cousins.

I’d hoped to find family links back to the Viking Age, but the closest I’ve come to that is a weak (non-blood) link by the marriage of a distant aunt some 300 years ago to a man from another family tree with lineage back to the year 800. 

My paternal Viking line is rooted in a Norwegian farm called Vesteraali outside the town of Mo i Rana in Nordland county (formerly known as Helgeland). Vesteraali lies in a river valley known as the Dunderlandsdalen, where the river Ranelva flows southwest from the Saltfjellet mountains and empties into Ranfjord at Mo, about 80 miles below the Arctic Circle. Tax records from 1865

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

and 1875 indicate my ancestors raised reindeer and also kept one horse and a few cows, sheep and a pig or two and planted barley, rye, oats and potatoes in the rocky soil of the Dunderlandsdalen, where the growing season is short but the summer daylight is extensive. I think that the spuds were mainly grown for animal fodder, but I’ve also heard that Norwegian farmers pooled their extra potatoes to distill aquavuit. They also built fishing boats during the winter months and skidded them to market on the frozen Ranelva. Vesteraali is no longer a working farm. It was sold to mining interests in the early 20th century, and it is now under the site of Arctic Circle Raceway. My grandfather was a fifth-generation farmer at Vesteraali. He was in his early 20s when he immigrated to America in 1893 and joined other Rana folk living in or near Fort Ransom, N.D. 

There’s a dead end in my paternal line, which dates back to two brothers, Lars and Jakob Mortensen, born in Rana in the 1690s.  But it’s a fascinating dead end, as the brothers almost certainly descend from a man named Morten. And while data on Morten remains sketchy in the municipal records, there is a Rana folk tale  about a foundling child discovered wrapped in a bolt of cloth purchased by a Rana man  from a coastal trading site in the 1650s. According to the tale, the

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Rana man and his wife adopted the child and had him baptized as Morten, which I’m told was then an uncommon name in the region. For me, the tale provides an element of  immaculate conception for my paternal line. Both my granddad’s parents descended from Morten. Grandpa John’s father was a great-grandson of Jakob Mortensen, and his mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Lars Mortensen. I’ve found other family trees with Lars and Jakob linked to Morten Sølfestra, born around 1629, perhaps in Bergen, but that data is not sourced. According to tradition, Morten was the first resident at Naevermoen, a cotter’s farm in Storli, and he later moved to Mo and owned property at Sør-Mo. 

I come from a long line of farmer/fishermen, including my dad, who was a Fort Ransom tenant farmer when I was born and an avid sport fisher all of his life. I’m the youngest in a generation of Olsons as my dad was nearly 42 years old when I was born, and his dad was 42 when he was born, so I never really knew my granddad. His name was Johannes Möller Olson, or Olssa in the parochial spelling of Rana, son of Ole Jakob Johannessa, who died when Grandpa John was quite young. My dad said Möller, pronounced like Miller, probably would’ve become the family surname if Grandpa had remained in Norway, as the patronymic naming system was then going out of fashion.

Most Norwegians spell Olson with an “sen” rather than “son,” but we’re an exception to that rule.  Don’t know why that is, but it makes this clan of Olsons exceptional in at least one sense.

Mo church, Mo i Rana.

Mo church in Norway, source of many of my family records. (Wikipedia photo)


Filed under Memoirs

Lutefisk Leftovers

English: A fork next to a serving of lutefisk ...

A fork next to a serving of lutefisk at a Norwegian celebration at Christ Lutheran Church in Preston, Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had lutefisk for lunch the other day and invited  all my Facebook friends. No one accepted, but many sent their happy regrets.

Around here, stating publicly that you like lutefisk could haunt you later in any civil action in which your judgment is questioned.

I eat it because my heritage is Norwegian, my folks ate it every year at Christmas time, and my sister maintains tradition by serving lutefisk at our joint family Christmas dinner. My sister and her husband, another fellow with Viking blood in his veins, like the stuff well enough, but my late brother wouldn’t touch it, nor do either of our wives or any of the kids, who double-down on the meatballs and gravy.

Back in the day, my mom made Christmas lutefisk the old-fashioned way. She bought it in frozen blocks that came  in a wooden crate from somewhere in Minnesota. Classic lutefisk is codfish that is cured in lye as a preservative, and you had to the boil the fish in cheesecloth to get the lye out while maintaining at least a degree of solidity in the fish. The process left a gelatinous mound of product and a stink that could cover up a meth lab.  And I can recall the occasional poisonous zing of biting into a pea-sized bit of lye that somehow survived the boiling and made it onto my plate.

For me, biting into a bit of lye was the ultimate “nasty” associated with lutefisk.

My dad enjoyed his lutefisk spread onto potato lefse and bathed in melted butter. Others mix their fish with a forkful of mashed potatoes to get it down. Some folks also serve it with bacon and onions. Like my dad, I prefer the lefse method, and refer to it as a Norwegian taco. Wash it down with dark beer and a shot of aquavuit, and you can ski, skate or copulate like an Olympic medalist.

I’m not sure how lutefisk is processed these days, but it no longer comes in lye. My sister, who sent her uncooked leftovers home with me,  got hers from an outfit named ScanSpecial, Inc., in Poulsbo, WA, and paid $11.99 a pound, which made it more expensive than fresh salmon or beef steak.  She bought lefse, too, although homemade lefse isn’t that difficult to come by. The kids at my church make and sell lefse as a holiday fundraiser. And, you know, the commercial lefse  sold under the name Mrs. Olson’s isn’t half-bad, and, by golly,  it lasts longer than the homemade stuff by several weeks in the refrigerator.

My sister sent me home with one pack of lefse and about a pound of fresh lutefisk. The cooking directions on the bag were partially obscured, so I called the phone number for ScanSpecial, Inc. to ask whether boiling or baking was the best method, and a polite female American voice told me to do both. I boiled some salted water and simmered my lutefisk for awhile before rinsing it and baking it in a 400-degree oven till it was done. Notice that I do not provide cooking times here. As they say, cooking times vary with elevation and appliance types, and I won’t be held responsible for anyone’s undercooked, overcooked or bad-tasting lutefisk.

Old Norwegian joke: What’s the difference between good lutefisk and bad lutefisk? Church attendance.

Flavor? I would almost categorize lutefisk as essentially tasteless. But that would be heresy! How about saltines with the texture of raw oysters. Without salt. Unless you add some salt and pepper yourself, as well as melted butter, to give it some flavor.

No one came by for my lutefisk lunch. But I had three helpings, eating in the living room while watching SportsCenter. Oddly, none of my dogs came over to sniff my plate or beg for a morsel. Guess my training methods are finally working.

Since my dogs wouldn’t eat my leftovers, I deposited them in a plastic bag in my garbage can outside, and sprayed the kitchen and living room with aerosol cleaner to disperse any lingering smell. I then went out and skied a quick 10 kilometers while smoking a cigar and satisfying a sudden craving for pickled herring.

Ten Good Things About Eating Lutefisk

1. Not as bad as people say, and a little goes a long way.

2. Attests to your Scandinavian mettle.

3. Keeps cats away from your door.

4.  Leftovers will remove wallpaper.

5. Farts or body odor go undetected.

6. Codfish get their revenge.

7. Someone somewhere makes a killing, shoveling fishy stuff into a bag.

8.  Promotes hair growth (especially blond)

9. Turns women into electric blankets of lust turned up to 10.

10. Makes men horny, too, with no need of medical attention for an erection lasting longer than four hours.


Filed under Memoirs

Witch Story

Karen Persdatter wasn’t as wicked as some folks thought. She had a reputation in the Dunderlandsdalen as a trollkjærring – literally a Norwegian troll woman, but more like a witch or sorceress in the English translation. They say she could throw a spell that would make your hair fall out, or perhaps make your cow give blood instead of milk. But she never did anything like that without a reason. Folks mostly just kept their distance.

Born in 1734 at Østerdal farm in Nordland near the head of Rana Fjord, Karen married Jon Larssa from nearby Vesterfjelt farm and they had several children, most of whom died young under mysterious circumstances that were never recorded in the parish archive, which at that time kept the whole family ostracized from the church. But there were two daughters, Ragnhild and Ane, who supposedly learned a few tricks from their mother.

No one knew where Karen picked up the witchcraft, because those who knew her as a girl saw nothing odd in her behavior. It was not until Karen was married and cartoon witchbegan losing children that folks who crossed her began suffering misfortune, although there was nothing to link any of that to Karen, except for her freely expressed contempt for anyone or anything connected to the church. That and an ugly redness that developed in one eye.

Jon Larssa froze to death on a hunting trip when Ragnhild and Ane were still young, but folks say Karen was able to provide for them from a slab of shoulder meat that hung in the shed and mystically restored itself whenever portions were cut out. They also kept some chickens, a milk goat and a few sheep, and along with a rocky garden patch, they managed to raise everything needed except the one thing Karen wanted most – grandchildren.

When both daughters came of age, Karen asked them which of the parish bachelors they fancied most, and she then mixed a special drink that made the two favored men fall in love with her daughters and marry them. Karen warned her daughters that the spell could be broken if they ever told the husbands how they’d been tricked. Years passed and both couples produced children before the two sisters one day argued over whose kids were cutest, and Ragnhild blurted out that Ane was so ugly she was lucky their mother had a magic potion to even get her a man.

Ane’s husband overheard the fight and instantly became so enraged over Karen’s trickery that he cut her down with an ax before killing everyone else in like manner. He then set fire to the house and perished himself by remaining inside.

Neighbors saw the flames and rushed over, but it was too late. The stock was dispersed, and someone even made off with the shoulder meat from the shed, but it was consumed in a matter of days, and that was the last that anyone thought about Karen and her brood.

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt based on four tarot cards: the Ace of Wands, the Sun, the Stars and the Four of Swords.  The story is loosely based on a  nineteenth century Norwegian folk tale told by Mikkel Mikkelsen Saghaug Tørrbekkmoen (1805 – 1894) to Rana researcher Ole Tobias Olsen. Karen, Jon and their daughters are real people from my family tree.  For more on Norwegian witches, check this link about the Vardø witch trials of 1662-63.)

Lisbeth Movin portrayed the historical Norwegian witch Anne Pedersdotter in the 1943 film “Day of Wrath.” Unrelated to my ancestor Karen Persdatter, Anne was burned at the stake in Bergen in 1590.

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Filed under Memoirs, Prompts