Four years ago, 100 genealogists in Norway adopted 112 ghosts and followed their trails to, among other places, Viroqua, Monona, Richland Center and Madison.
The researchers’ assignment was to track and chart the descendants of every signer of the Norwegian constitution, which on Saturday is 200 years old, the second-oldest “living” constitution in the world. The United States is governed under the oldest.
Now, as Norway continues a celebration of the document’s signing at Eidsvoll and as 10,000-plus celebrants are expected at the annual immigrant-inspired Constitution Day gatherings in Stoughton and Westby, those genealogists’ efforts have spread way beyond that country to every corner of the world.
Especially to Wisconsin, the research shows in the data on the “Eidsvollsmenn Descendants,” a project of the National Archives of Norway and the Genealogy Society of Norway.
Of the 63,000 people in the database as of the beginning of May, 4,138 are registered as living in the United States “at one point in their lives,” according to researcher Chris Nyborg, a historian who works with the project (eidsvollsmenn.no). Wisconsin figures in 227 of those names, but that number will only go up, said Mette Gunnari, a project director.
“First we worked, all as volunteers, for about two years,” she said of the tracking effort. One year ago, the 45,000-name database went public, and the “search for the living” began in earnest, with the public invited to add to the database.
Gunnari said there are about 63,000 names on a list that grows every day.
“Of the 112 Eidsvollsmen, they represented farmers, the military, priests and merchants,” she said. In a country where the oldest son inherited the family farm, it was not unusual that in the economic hard times of the mid-1800s, great waves of Norwegian immigrants began arriving in the United States.
‘A founding father too’
Among those were the ancestors of Wendy Sorenson of Madison, Michael Bovre of Middleton and Sigurd Midelfort of Monona.
Sorenson’s ancestor, Peder Hjermand, was a farmer in Laerdal when he was elected to the group that would assemble in Eidsvoll to write a constitution.
“He would be my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather,” said Sorenson, a Westby native who grew up in La Crosse and participated in Westby’s Syttende Mai celebrations. (“Syttende Mai” means the 17th of May.) She knows Hjermand’s son was among the earliest immigrants to the United States, in 1851, first to Dane County and then to Vernon County. The extended family has been having reunions since the early 1900s, she said.
“I think over the last few generations, my family focused on more recent generations and didn’t even realize what (an) Eidsvollman was,” Sorenson said.
Sorenson has visited Norway three times, and was curious about her family connection. She ran in last month’s Boston Marathon, and while in a city that is a cradle of American history, “I was thinking about our founding fathers,” she said. “It gave me more appreciation for my Eidsvollsman relation; he was a founding father, too.”
Bovre is a longtime genealogist and researcher, active in Dane County history circles for decades, and also is on the governing board of the 2,000-member Norwegian American Genealogical Center located in Madison. It was not until 1986 that he realized his ancestor, a “musketeer” and later a farmer, from the Sogndal area, Niels Johannesen Loftesnaes, was a constitution signer. His two sons and a daughter immigrated to Dane County. (Sogndal is only a few miles from Sorenson’s descendant’s home in Laerdal.)
Bovre’s extended Norwegian family is connected via numerous settlements in Wisconsin, beginning with Whitewater, where wagon and furniture factories employed many Norwegian immigrants who made their first wages before looking for farmland.
In 1986, Bovre traveled to Sogndal with “one piece of paper” on which was printed the name of his grandmother’s mother. The Sogn area — northeast of Bergen, famously part of the Sognefjord — was home for many immigrants to the Midwest. Bovre discovered a local historian had done research on his family already, and the constitution connection was discovered.
Bovre on Saturday is in Eidsvoll, leading a group of about 50 American descendants of constitution signers, and their spouses, to Norway’s biggest celebration of all. Bovre has spent more than 20 years gathering information on American descendants of signers. He has 528 names and has located descendants of 85 of the 112 signers. There are 31 signers represented in Wisconsin and 14 in Dane County, he said.
Bovre set up a nonprofit, Eidsvollsmen Council Of North America, and with two other experts is compiling a book on the American descendants.
A voice for tolerance
Midelfort, a retired accountant, has always been aware of his family’s Norwegian background. He knows that Hans Christian Ulrik Midelfart, a priest from Trondheim (and one of 14 priests at the assembly), not only was a signer, but a unique voice for tolerance at the deliberations that created the document.
Article 2 of the Norwegian constitution denied Jews (and Jesuits and monastic orders) the right to “enter the realm.” A member of the constitution committee, Midelfart was one of only three of the 112 men who spoke — and contemporary accounts say he spoke eloquently about such “un-Christian” acts of “intolerance” — in the committee and assembly against the ban of Jews from Norway.
He failed to sway the majority. The ban was not rescinded until 1851. Monks were allowed in 1897 and Jesuits were not welcomed to Norway until 1956.
The ancestors of Sigurd Midelfort (the “a” became an “o” in the family’s Wisconsin branch in the 1900s) were physicians, the first of which — with the same name as the signer — came to the Chippewa Valley in the early 1890s to work for a couple of years with another Norwegian physician, Iver Juel. He returned a few years later to stay and established a respected practice and clinic. Sigurd’s father, Fredrik, set up as a psychiatrist in La Crosse. Norwegian was spoken at home, and the family got to know another Norwegian medical family in La Crosse, the Gundersons.
While working as an accountant, mostly aiding nonprofits in the Madison area, Sigurd Midelfort “got more and more interested in Norwegian things.”
“I began to take the language more seriously, and since we have a number of relatives in Norway, I visit them,” he said. A cellist and Peace Corps veteran, he also made connections about the constitution via Peggy Hager, a UW-Madison lecturer in the Department of Scandinavian Studies.
Hager, who gave a series of well-attended public lectures locally this year about the Norwegian constitution, said numerous factors played roles in the fairly large American contingent among signer descendants.
“There was the (right to farm ownership in Norway), and many sons just had to leave,” she said. Religious freedom also beckoned in the New Land, as Norway’s constitution stipulated that children had to be raised under the Lutheran state religion.
The work started by genealogists in 2010 leading up to May 17, 2014, has drawn increased interest by seventh- and eighth-generation descendants. The research center in Madison reported research visits increased by in the past year by about 50 percent.
And the estimated 10,000 people who gather in Stoughton for this weekend are sure to notice the construction downtown of a 15,000-square-foot Norwegian Heritage Center, set to open Jan. 1.
Gunnari, the director of the descendant project in Norway, said the public response “has been quite touching, actually. We have made people get to know each other as relatives, and we’ve shown that all of the (Eidsvollsmen) were interesting in their own way.”
Not everyone puts out the bunting and raises the Norwegian flag about their family tree, though dancing in the streets of Stoughton occurs at least once a year. A legendary Scandinavian trait, in Norway called “janteloven,” frowns on boasting of any sort.
Bovre, who has collected sources and contacted constitution signer descendants for more than 20 years, said that “95 percent of the people I contact have no idea they are descendants.” Typically, in a family, one or two members want to know more: “You’re either interested in history, or you are not.”