A walk in their footsteps

Sam Carlsen in his Coast Guard uniform, ca. 1940s.

My great-grandfather was born in Wisconsin in 1901, just about a year after his parents and older sisters immigrated from Norway. His father, a sailor who was once “honored by the King of Norway,” settled the family on the shores of Lake Michigan and began a long career with the U.S. Life Saving Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Though this man, my great-great-grandfather Søren “Sam” Carlsen, died in 1955, long before I was born, he has always been a central figure in the family lore. His portrait is displayed proudly and prominently at my grandpa’s house, and many of my grandpa’s childhood stories feature “Grampa Carlsen” swooping in to save the day.

Olga Hansen Carlsen with her daughter, ca. 1897.

Though Sam Carlsen has always seemed like the ancestor with which everything began, at least on my grandpa’s line, that is of course not true. Grampa Carlsen had parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and a wife who had a whole lineage of her own. A few years ago, I was able to uncover much more about the family using census records and parish registers digitized by the Norwegian State Archives. I traced both Grampa Carlsen’s line and that of his wife, Olga Hansen, back to the mid-1700s.

Earlier this year, I got a chance to walk in their footsteps, so to speak. I traveled to Norway on a family vacation and we dedicated one day of our trip to visiting sites related to our ancestors. As our family hailed from Østfold (the region on the eastern side of the Oslofjord) and we based our vacation out of Oslo, this was quite easy for us.

We rented a car one morning and headed out of Oslo to Fredrikstad, which is a small city about sixty miles to the south. This was where we had always been told the family “came from,” though my research had shown that while both Sam’s and Olga’s families were living there around the turn of the twentieth century, both had in fact been born in smaller villages outside Fredrikstad.

In Fredrikstad, we visited the Fredrikstad Cathedral, formerly known as the West Fredrikstad Church, where Sam and Olga were married in 1895. We went to the train station, which we had seen in photos from Grampa Carlsen’s photo album of his visit to Norway in the 1920s. I brought a copy of one of those photos along with me (one that shows a man, back to the camera, loading a wagon, and contains the annotation “man standing at the wagon is Olga’s father”) and we attempted to line it up with the real skyline. This was more difficult than anticipated, especially as it was cold and raw out. However, we did end up with a passable image.

With my sister at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

After lunch and a walk around the Gamlebyen (Old Town), which was very picturesque but completely deserted, we got back in the car and headed about 12 miles east to the village of Skjeberg. Skjeberg is where Olga’s family lived for at least three generations before they moved into the city. Our destination was the thirteenth-century church at Skjeberg, where I believed Olga, her parents, grandparents, and at least one of her great-grandparents had been baptized. We drove through the quiet countryside, ending with a final turn up a steep dirt road, which really added to the sense that we were somewhere quite rural. (This atmosphere was somewhat ruined once we reached the top of the hill, where there was a paved road coming in from the opposite direction, and which was being used by a driver’s ed student.)

The church was open—I hadn’t been sure if it would be—and inside several teenagers were practicing for their upcoming confirmation ceremony. We chatted with one of the adults there, and it felt amazing to see that this small church to which my ancestors had once belonged still served the local community.

After leaving Skjeberg, we drove back to Oslo, stopping briefly in a few other villages along the way, in which there either wasn’t very much historic left to see or everything was closed as it was nearing dinnertime. We returned to our rental apartment, where we cooked dinner and went over our plan for the next day’s sightseeing activities, feeling very much in touch with our Norwegian roots.

Hallie Borstel

About Hallie Borstel

Hallie Borstel has a BA in history with minors in art history and German language from American University, as well as an MA in historic preservation from Tulane University. She joined NEHGS after several years working in architectural restoration and preservation in New Orleans. She has also worked at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, the West Virginia Railroad Museum, and Bender Library at American University. Her research interests include Germany, New York City, immigration history, and 19th-century America.

10 thoughts on “A walk in their footsteps

  1. Are you used to the fact that Scandinavian families did not have true surnames but patronymics? I know a lot of Scandinavian Genealogist that are very used to this fact but for Americans, once they go into the old country it might be more difficult with all those Anderson’s and Gustavsson’s out there

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with that! Grampa Carlsen was the son of Carl (or Karl) Johannessen, who was the son of Johannes Andersen. But around the turn of the 20th century, many Scandinavian families moved away from the traditional patronymic system and adopted surnames that were passed from generation to generation. I have located some census records where Grampa Carlsen appears as Soren Johannessen, not Soren Carlsen!

    1. Hi Jane, Norwegians use the patronymic endings -sen or -son for males and -datter (or an abbreviated form) for females.

  2. Thank you so much for your tracing the footsteps of our family. You and your family have done incredible work that will be cherished for future generations!

  3. Hi Hallie,
    I really loved reading about your trip to Norway. Thank you for for efforts to trace our family’s history! You inspired me to pull out my copy of “Sketches of My Life at Sea,” the awesome account of our great-great Grandfather’s harrowing adventures at sea when only a teenager.
    Thanks for this, Hallie!

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