Friday, January 14, 2011

Will the Real "Norden" Please Flap Your Sails?

In family history research, it is all too easy to take a wrong turn, as I was recently reminded.

A good part of my research for a recently published family history dealt with the emigrant voyage of my great great grandparents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson, and their two children, Ole and Ellen Julie (Julia). There was no doubt, according to Digitalarkivet (Norwegian census), that the family sailed from Bergen, Norway aboard the bark-rigged ship, Norden, on May 5, 1866. Many of the passengers, including my ancestors, were destined for the midwestern United States via Quebec. It was a common route for America-travelers at that time.

Though my family book has been published, I am a firm believer in always keeping an eye out for new sources and details. So, even though the ink has dried on the page, it does not mean that every last word has been written. While sleuthing around for information concerning a different project, I found an obscure bibliographic reference on the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) website that caught my interest: Tollefson, Arne. "The Voyage of the three-masted vessel, the 'Norden,' in 1866, from Bodoe, Norway, to Quebec." Norden, 23 (Dec. 1931). The article is based on the recounting of voyage events by a surviving Norden passenger.

Wow! What's this? I excitedly tracked down the journal via interlibrary loan. When it arrived, I was a bit disappointed to find it is only two pages long, yet it is quite interesting, nonetheless. I had hoped to find detailed information about the exact voyage my great great grandparents experienced. Instead, I found something quite different--a valuable lesson.

It turns out there was not just one ship named Norden that made a voyage from Norway to Quebec during the spring of 1866, but two! How could that be? Well, I cannot claim to know how the mid-19th-century shipping industry handled vessel identification concerns, but from a 21st-century research perspective, the potential for making an incorrect assumption loomed large.

According to the article, the other Norden was built at Bath, Maine in 1849, and was sold in 1863 to a Bergen shipowner, who renamed it from the original: Zenobia. By 1866, this Norden was described as " ...old and decrepit. The hull was mellow with age. The masts were rotten. It was wide of beam and a slow sailer." "My" Norden was eight years older than that, so what did that make her, I wonder? At least she held together long enough to get my ancestors to dry land in North America.

Another interesting fact is that the Norden on which my ancestors sailed left Bergen on May 5, 1866, and took only 30 days to reach Quebec. The Maine-built Norden left Bodoe, Norway on June 3, 1866, carrying about 700 passengers, and it did not arrive in Quebec until ten weeks later. "...the Norden staggered westward on her unhurried way day after day, and through-out the long nights for weeks and weeks--aye months." The ship's supplies were running out, and the water supply was low, and what there was on hand became foul. At the end of the tenth week, another ship was hailed off the New Foundland coast so that flour and salt pork could be purchased. Ten whole weeks at sea... I can only think the good ship and crew must have fought a head wind the whole way.

Though fairly short, the article relates a compelling story, well told, even though it is not my own ancestors' story, as I had hoped.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that before we can assert something as a fact, we should always seek the "triangle of proof": three sources that indicate roughly the same thing. The instructors in a certificate program in genealogy and family history that I attended always cautioned their neophyte genealogists to seek the triangle of proof as a method of weighing the truth of any fact.

Early on in my research, had I not known from another source that "my" Norden was built in 1841 at Åbo Gamla Skeppsvarv, Finland (thank you, Norway Heritage), or seen the passenger list information, complete with dates, on Digitalarkivet, or known from family members that my Johnson ancestors lived closer to the port of Trondheim than Bodoe, Norway, I might have turned a wistful blind eye to some minor inconsistencies in the article and globbed onto it as one of my prime sources. And, I would have been completely mistaken. Thank goodness I was on the track of the correct Norden from the very beginning, and, thank goodness both "old and decrepit" ships named Norden managed to limp from one side of the Atlantic the other in 1866.


  1. At the time the Norden crossed the Atlantic, old-time navigation methods required their own "triangle of proof," which consisted of latitude from a sextant, precise time from a chronometer, and the use of these two to calculate the longitude. This was the information necessary to determine the ship's location at any point.

  2. My Great Grandfather was on the Bodo Norden ship. I am searching for these two pages now. If anyone knows how to find them let me know. Otherwise I will keep looking.


  3. Hi Matt,

    The article "The Voyage of the Norden, by Arne Tollefson (NORDIC journal, v.23 (December 1931) is referenced on the NAHA website (Norwegian American Historical Association). You can check with your local library about getting a copy of the article via Interlibrary Loan. OR, send your e-mail to me at and I'll see if I still have a paper copy. - Chery