Norway Family Chest

Finding my "home" away from home in Norway.

Backroads Trip Leader Spencer Seim in Norway - Photo by Christopher Michael

Photo: Christopher Michel

One of the reasons I joined Backroads as a Trip Leader a decade ago was because it was one of the only active travel companies that had trips in Norway. Another reason was to get away from my home in Seattle for a while and see the world.

Growing up, my father always loved studying our family genealogy and especially our Norwegian roots. He and my mother had visited Norway in search of family roots on their European travels back in the 1970s, when they were first married. So Norway was an obvious choice for a family trip abroad, back in 1998. On that trip we followed the family tree down to the roots but could only find the small valley our family had come from. Nothing much came from the trip other than a deep feeling of connection for myself and a little more context for our family heritage.

The story goes that my ancestral family had moved around Norway several times. For the two years before they immigrated to the United States, they had moved to an area called Seim. Traditionally Norwegians took the name of where they lived as their last name. The reason for leaving was that my great-great-great-grandfather had died "due to the effects of saving a drowning man" (that's what was listed in the regional records) and the family could no longer survive living among the stones and fjords of western Norway.

Backroads Support Van and Trailer in NorwayEighteen years and nine trips to Norway later, I found myself leading Backroads hiking trips in Norway again. The itinerary starts in Voss (you know, where that REALLY expensive bottled water comes from)--coincidentally only 20 minutes from the small valley where my family's Norwegian ancestors came from.

So when I was there last, a taxi driver in Voss said he knew a man with my last name. Maybe we were related? Unconvinced and skeptical, I followed up anyway. It turns out that we were distantly related. This man introduced me to another, older distant relative, Torbjørn.

After ten years of leading trips and countless days sharing my passion for the deep green and cool mist of Norway, I see why I feel such a connection to the place...

The Family Plot in NorwayA few days later, I met Torbjørn at his farm. He welcomed me at the end of the driveway and immediately turned and starting walking down the farm road. He told me about my ancestors, where they met, the places they had lived, and how poor they were. They were "husmann" (think tenant farmers) who had two sheep and grew one ton of potatoes annually, he explained. He stopped and pointed out the plot where my family had lived before they moved to the new world in the 1870s.

The plot was set between a stream and the large cliff where a beautiful waterfall poured down from the heights. An idyllic setting if you have the modern comforts we do today.

Before going back to the house for coffee and waffles with homemade strawberry jam, we stopped at the barn. Torbjørn said he had something to show me. He opened the door and pointed me inside toward the shadowed interior while he stood outside.

Torbjørn and Backroads Trip Leader Spencer Seim, with waffles and homemade strawberry jam

Inside the barn was a tattered, painted wooden chest from 1846 with my great-great-great-grandfather's name inscribed on the front. This was my direct ancestor's marriage chest from six generations prior! It's the kind of thing that would be passed down through generations if the man it belonged to had lived long enough to emigrate with his family.

Spencer Seim's great-great-great grandfather's marriage chestTorbjørn, aged 88 years old and living on this farm by himself, had no use for such a chest. He asked if I would like to have it. That's right, he gave it to me!

After 30 years of searching by my father and my own nine trips to Norway, it was finally a taxi driver on a Backroads trip that got me connected to my family origins. You never know what kind of things will happen on these trips!
It funny to think that I first started working for Backroads to get away from home. And through leading trips for Backroads, it led me to my "home." After ten years of leading trips and countless days sharing my passion for the deep green and cool mist of Norway, I see why I feel such a connection to the place... and it's not just because I'm from Seattle.

26 Responses

  1. Mike Murphy

    Super story! I always knew you were a Viking!! and so interesting about your ancestor “Husmann” with their sheep and potatoes – so Irish of the same period. Enjoy your “passion sharing” with your many Backroads guests!!!!

    • Hi Mike! Thanks for taking a break from Crowley’s and reading my post 😉 Hope you are well friend!

  2. Venche Reiersgård

    Beautiful story. I`m glad you found Your “home” in NOrway 🙂 and got the chest who once did belong to Your great-great-great-grandfather <3 I`ve just met my distant relative from New Zealand 🙂 He came here to find traces of the realtives who left Norway in 1872 for a better future in NZ. He was Lucky and even found the house they once used to live in. He also sayd he found his "home" in Norway 🙂 I`m so happy I got to meet him.

    • Hei Venche, there are so many instances of families in “the new world” that try to find their ‘home’ and I’m happy to hear it worked out for your relative from New Zealand. It truly is something very special 🙂

  3. Linn

    A lovely story. Or as we would say in Norway; koselig!
    I just have to point out that the amount of potatoes must be wrong. I guess it was “1 tønne” potatoes, as this was the way they measured it back then. That means 1 barrel potatoes.

    • Hei Linn, takk for det.
      I thought it was a little confusing that they made that many potatoes on that little amount of land. Wow, they were even more poor than I thought!
      Med vennlig hilsen, Spencer

  4. Janet

    Wow, that gave me goosebumps. Sounds like one in a million but gives me hope amazing things like this can happen. My grandparents came from Norway to NY separately in the very early 1900’s … plan on visiting their homeland in the next few years. Will check out Back Roads.

    • Hi Janet! Whether you come with Backroads or not, I highly encourage you to get off the main tourist tracks when you visit there…so maybe Backroads would be your best bet. Either way, you will have a great time and I encourage you to trace your roots also. It’s a fun way to explore the country, its history and your family’s own. Good luck!

  5. Joan Bjerkebek Sponsler

    Lovely story! I too have been fortunate to visit my family home near Gjorvik. A cousin who lives there has stayed in contact with my aunt and encouraged me to go and visit. During our stay he brought us to the farm and house where my g grandmother was born! Talk about goosebumps! It’s so beautiful there, but no opportunity for the poorer people. I still need to go back to find any ancestors in the Bjerkebek side of my family who came from east of Oslo.

    • Oh Joan, that’s great that you were able to see your ancestors came from too. It truly is a beautiful place! And yes, what a tough place to eek out a living back then! Hope you have a great time during your next visit to Norway.

    • We are searching for the origin of the last name Gavic. We were always told, growing up, that it came from a town in Norway called Gjorvik. But when I search for that, it keeps coming up as Gjovik (with no R). Can you share any information with me about Gjorvik? Yours is the only reference to it I have found on the internet so far. Thanks!

      • Hello again Joan,
        I have never seen the name Gavic here in Norway. It doesn’t look like a Norwegian name, however, that’s doesn’t mean it’s not.
        I didn’t make a reference to Gjorvik in my post so maybe your search results are coming from your original comment. The town that you keep finding in your searches is Gjøvik, located across the lake from Hamar, north of Oslo. The Ø in Norwegian is pronounced in a way that could have been understood as Gjorvik to an english speaker’s ear, or morphed into Gjorvik through the generations in the states.
        I would encourage you to reach out to your relative that lives there and maybe they can assist you with learning more about the town they live near.
        Good luck!

  6. Mona

    Great story, BUT Voss water actually comes from a small area called Iveland in Vatnestrøm county north of Kristiansand.

    • Vatnestrøm sounds like a great place to bottle water. I guess they should make longer bottles to fit that name on them. Drink up!

  7. Bobbie

    Would be awesome to see some of the contents!

    • Well Bobbie, somethings just need to be kept private. Just kidding! After 150+ years of this chest sitting in a barn, there was nothing inside. I’m sure back in the day the contents would include some nicer cloths for church, a Bible, and a flask of home-brew 😉

  8. Nancy Blair

    Hi Spencer, have you ever heard a connection with the names Seim and Seum? This is my grandmothers name.

    • Hi Nancy, I’m not sure if there is a connection there. Or, at least, I haven’t heard of one yet. Have you ever tried any of the genealogy services?

  9. Theresa Seim

    My husband is the Seim but I am the genealogy addict. There are rumours that his relatives are from Norway as well. Happy for your good fortune.

    • Hi Theresa, I’m sure those rumors are true. Seim is not a very common pairing of letters unless you are in western Norway where there are several places with the name. I’m told that it’s an old word that’s a combination of sea (sjø) and home (heim) that created Seim. Hope you find some threads that tie you to Norway. It’s a wonderful country!

  10. Carol Thompson

    Spencer told me this story of his family treasure as we were waiting to go with the ferry to our group’s meeting place. What a thrilling experience for him! The telling of his story was even more dramatic since we were surrounded by Norway’s beauty.

  11. Katie

    Spenc!!! What a fantastic tale! After living in Europe for 6 years, I did end up living in and/or visiting all of the countries that my ancestors originated from (i.e. Germany, Ireland, and what is now Slovakia/Ukraine). However, I was never able to dedicate time to research the specific towns or villages. I may have visited them, and didn’t even know they were my ancestors’ homes. I guess I’ll need to move back to Europe and start the hunt. Thanks for the inspiration! Whenever I see a Backroads van roaming around up here in Alaska, I think of you. Maybe that will be my next career move!

  12. Ron Burreson

    Very interesting and emotional story. Father side Norwegian, I have been to Norway in 1988. I have just done my DNA testing and hope to get the results soon and start another journey to my Homeland.

    • Spencer

      Hi Ron, thanks for reading my story. This past winter I got my parents one of the DNA test. We are waiting for the results now. How did yours turn out? Did you find anything interesting?

  13. Beth Webb

    I absolutely LOVE this story. I have traced my roots to Norway and that’s the entire reason I was searching for a trip to Norway and found Backroads as an option! This post has encouraged me to make this trip happen! Connecting to our roots allows us to grow our branches!

    • Spencer

      Indeed, Beth! If you make it to Norway this summer I can share with you some ways to trace your roots. Happy New Year!

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