Monday, January 14, 2008

With a Name Like "Johnson"

The latest Carnival of Genealogy, hosted by Jasia at Creative Gene calls for stories about living relative connections. All of us know how valuable family networking can be to obtain additional data, stories, and photographs to supplement our research, but also to satisfy our intense curiosity, which we all have or we wouldn't be doing this, now would we?

Most of my discoveries came a few short years ago, when I began to seek out and document the history of my mother's side of the family: the Johnsons. That journey eventually took me to nearly all points of the compass.

With a name like "Johnson" - where does one begin?

I wrote my first letter of inquiry to an older cousin who revealed my great grandfather's Norwegian surname, which was a start. But, in itself, the info did not lead anywhere without also learning to use the Norwegian census, Digitalarkivet, and other genealogical databases, including immigration records.

My mother was raised by her grandparents, and I learned that her grandfather, Ole Martin Johnson (my great grandfather) also had a full sister and eight half-siblings that I hadn't been aware of. The central figure in this family was, of course, the mother of all of them: Thibertine (Bertina) Johnson Winje.

What's In a Name?

The thing to remember about Norwegian ancestors is that a surname can be deceptive. One really needs to get a handle on the location of origin, right down to the farm. Often, this means finding church or immigration records first. If the location of origin is not certain, then research can literally run in circles. Fortunately, early Norwegians also identified themselves by their farm name, which was often tacked on to a patronymic surname. In the case of Ole Johnson's mother, her maiden name was Thibertine Olsdatter Lassemo. "Olsdatter" meant that she was the daughter of a man who also went by the name of Ole, and "Lassemo" referred to the farm in Grong, Nord Trondelag where she lived.

I am thinking of one cousin (who shall remain anonymous) who took his wife on a long awaited vacation to Norway, only to spend a large amount of time walking through cemeteries near the old homelands searching for ancestors by hunting down "Johnson" or "Larson" surnames among the higgledy-piggledy rows of worn tombstones. Ack! If only he had known back then...

Patronymic naming practices make it impossible to go by surname alone, or what you get is a collection of hundreds of unrelated "John's son," or "Lars' son." Fortunately, Cousin stopped his cemetery cavorting after his long-suffering wife threatened divorce and exclaimed, "I won't go back to Norway!" He came away from the trip with his marriage still intact, and an intimate impression of lovely old Norwegian cemeteries, especially, how tiny the plots all seemed...

For more detailed information on navigating the maize of Norwegian surnames, see Norwegian Naming Practices.

The Immediate Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje


Baard Johnson & Thibertine Olsdatter Lassemo
married 1860, Grong Parish, Nord Trondelag, Norway

Two offspring:

Ole Martin Baardsen, born 1860, Grong, Nord Trondelag, Norway
(ten children) [1]

Ellen Julie (Julia) Baardsdatter, born 1862, Grong, Nord Trondelag, Norway
(seven children) [2]


Eric Larsen Winje & Thibertine Olsdatter Johnson
married 1874, Chippewa County, Minnesota, USA

Eight Offspring:

Berthe Regine (Regina) Winje (Strand), born 1873, Chippewa CO, MN
(five surviving children)

Louis Peter Winje, born 1874, Chippewa CO, MN
(no children)

Lena Marie Winje, born 1876, Chippewa CO, MN
(no children)

Emma M. Winje, born 1877, Chippewa CO, MN
(died as an infant: 1877 or 1878)

Emma Thalette Winje, born 1879, Chippewa CO, MN
(no children)

Edward Theodore Winje, born 1881, Chippewa CO, MN
(two children)

Hattie Christine Winje, born 1883, Chippewa CO, MN
(died 1888, in Duluth, MN)

Annie Jorgene Winje, born 1885, Chippewa CO, MN
(died 1888, in Duluth, MN

In the quest for information about my great grandfather's family, I found that his mother, Thibertine Johnson, re-married and bore eight children with her second husband, Eric Winje. Five of the Winje children preceeded their parents in death, and out of eight, only two had children of their own. I knew there had to be Winje descendants out there, "somewhere in Canada." The goal was to find descendants of Edward Theodore Winje, who emigrated to Saskatchewan in the 1890s by way of North Dakota, and descendants of Regina Winje Strand, who were likely still in Minnesota.

Tracking down the Winje branch of the family involved mostly luck. I discovered an online death index for British Columbia, so I started there. Fortunately, the name "Winje" is somewhat unique, and B.C. turned out to be the correct province--what are the odds of that? I located Edward Theodore Winje, who had died in Nelson, B.C., and an Eric Winje (a namesake of Edward's father), who lived nearby in Slocan, according to the telephone directory. I took a chance and wrote a letter, and the hunch turned out to be correct.

After decades of no communication, the Winjes and the Johnsons were reunited. A cousin and I visited the Winjes for the first time in 2004: Karna Franche, Lori Moore, Abbie Winje, and their spouses (see We'll Miss You, Karna, my blog posting for 9/25/07). Without that Winje family connection, I would not have a third of the information I do for the family history book I am about to publish.

I tracked down the Strand branch of the Winje family by pretty much the same method: 1) gather as much information about names, dates, and places from known cousins, 2) check the death indexes and white pages for potential relatives in locations of interest, and 3) narrow down the choices and take a chance and write a letter or call. Doing this put me into contact with a grandson of Regina Winje Strand.

Don't Forget Connections With Old Family Friends

Perhaps my most important connection in regards to gathering historical documents was not made through contacting unknown living relatives, but with the descendants of friends of the Winje ancestors. According to the Winjes in British Columbia, the first family immigrant, Lars Eriksen Winje, came from a village with a similar name in Sor Trondelag, Norway. In Norwegian, the letter "w" is somewhat interchangeable with "v." The Winjes emigrated from Vinjeora, Hemne, Sor Trondelag.

I discovered that someone had put together a website in order to gather genealogical data for the area surrounding Hemne. Miraculously, the website contained an article written about the Winjes' emigration to America from Vinjeora in 1869: EN UTVANDRERFAMILIE FRA VINJEØRA i 1869.

But... it was in Norwegian, and I'd had only one beginning class in the language. What to do?

I e-mailed the webmaster for and asked if he had any information on the author of the article, Markus Wessel. Fortunately, the webmaster was fluent in English and put me in contact with Wessel's daughter, since Wessel himself was no longer living. Astri was kind enough to e-mail and inform me that her family still had some original letters mailed by the Winjes, dating as early as 1869. Oh, my goodness! Primary documents are akin to buried treasure, and I was so excited at this point that I could hardly stand it. The letters came, and afterwards came my quest to get them translated. At this point, I have found assistance in translating not only Markus Wessel's online article about the emigration of the Winje family, but most of the letters.

Through the quest to make connections with living relatives, I have found that most people are excited to help and anxious to relate bits and pieces of information and stories passed down to them. Some of my cousins went all out to make sure that I obtained access to books, albums, and copies of rare photographs and documents. In the past few years, I have met many wonderful people who I am proud to count among my cousins and family friends. Tusen takk to them!

Who's in your family's living treasure chest?

[1] and [2] The patronymic naming practices of early Norway meant that a child's surname reflected who the father was. In the case of Baard Johnson, his children were: Ole Baardsen (Baard's son), and Ellen Julie Baardsdatter (Baard's daughter).


  1. I also have Johnson (Johnsdatter)as a female suname but from Larvik, Norway. She married a
    Hanson, and then a Larson. Talk
    about confusing! WOW! You were lucky to find the letters of your family!

  2. Fascinating post, Chery.
    Welcome to the CoG!

  3. This is my 5th post to the Carnival of Genealogy and I enjoy it immensely. Thanks for your comments!

  4. Chery,

    I enjoyed your article very much. You've done a marvelous job of sorting is all out. I don't have a Johnson surname (so far) in my family tree, but the Smith, Brown, Long lines are enough to drive me crazy.

    Keep writing!