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Norwegian Genealogy

Land Ownership and Use in Historic Telemark

Contributed by Neil Hofland and translated by Oddvar Natvik


Norway was unique among European nations because it did not have its own noble class.  The Danish and Swedish royal families viewed Norway as a primitive backwater, so receiving a land grant in Norway was no great honor. Even when land was granted it was usually administered by a Norwegian farm manager (leilending).  Absent 'lords and ladies,' the social structure in Norway placed those who owned land at the top of the social ladder.

A selveier (denoted by an 'S' on the census) was a person who owned the farm land he or she was using and had a registered deed. A selveier could be a man or a woman, married or single.  In early times, the land of Norway was owned by the church, the crown, or other landowners. By 1660, a fifth of the land in southern Norway was owned by a selveier.

A Leilending (leil, or L on the census) was a special class of tenant farmer couples.  Although they didn't own the land, the rights of a married couple to the land were registered legally and were usually valid for a lifetime and often included a right of inheritance.  The lease contract was called a bygselbrev, hence the term bygselmann. The biggest threat to this arrangement was the death of one of the couple. Since the contract required that a couple manage the farm, quick remarriages were common. From the perspective of social class, a selveier and a leilending were considered social equals.

The husmann or cotter (sometimes crofter) was a tenant farmer. A husmann's farm land was never legally registered as a separate unit. The agreement could be with either a selveier or leilending. These legal contracts were limited in time and  the tenants were usually a couple. A husmann med jord (husm. M/j) had a house and a small parcel of land for personal use. A husmann uten jord (husm. U/j) had a house but no land to farm, although the couple might own a cow or sheep. A strandsitter, or shore dweller, was more or less the same as husmann uten jord. The emigration to America was heavily recruited from the husmann group.

"Practically speaking, however, it was virtually impossible socially for a husmand to rise above his station, and it was only the exceptional individual who was able to achieve independence economically." Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, p. 11.

Odelsrett was the term for the right to inherit the farm. The oldest son, the "odelsgutt" inherited the farm. An oldest son could leave, then return and take the farm from his younger sibling. The younger sons did not inherit the farm so they sought an "odelsjente", the oldest daughter in the family without a son. If they could not find an odelsjente to marry, they had few options but to become a husmann. Husmann were generally poor but some were quite wealthy because they had a trade off the farm.

The term "husmannplass" was actually derived from real estate property taxes when the farms were "skyldsatt" i.e., assessed for tax purposes. A husmann, who was just a tenant,  did not pay any real estate property taxes. Taxes were often set in terms of products produced on the farm. In the mountain areas, this was usually butter. In some cases it was grain, calfskins, goatskins, or fish. The wealth of one gård (farm) versus another was more accurately measured by taxes paid than by acres owned.

A convenient point at which to examine the rural population groupings is the year 1845. The total population was then 1,328,471. There were 77,780 independent land holders, most of them presumably family heads. These freeholders made up the bonde element --- perhaps the most powerful and influential element in the population of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Norway. The designation of peasants as applied to this class is misleading. Norway never had a feudal system, and the bønder had behind them ancient traditions not only of independence but also of vigorous self-assertion. These freeholders in fact constituted a rural aristocracy, which through centuries had been the very heart of the national culture. They were proud of their traditions, but their position carried with it no necessary implication of wealth. In truth, the economic position of the bønder has been difficult. Many, pressed to the wall by adverse conditions, have sold their ancient farms and emigrated to America. And in many other cases younger sons, barred by the practical workings of the odel system of land tenure from having a share in the ancestral estates, have sought their fortunes in the West. One result of the odel system has been the holding of estates through many generations by one line in direct descent. It is not uncommon in the Norwegian valleys to find farms that have remained in the possession of one family, handed down from father to son, generation after generation, since the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Some understanding of the feeling about land ownership bred by such traditions may be had by noting the view of a Norwegian immigrant who explains that all the sons in his father's family, though only a few of them became farmers, insisted upon owning farm lands in America, "largely for reasons of sentiment, in harmony with the old conception of land ownership." The essence of this conception was that "land possessed a certain dignity and worth, aside from its purely commercial value. It was the pride of the old chieftains; it insured economic well-being and personal independence; it gave stability and permanence to the family in whose possession it remained from century to century." It is not to be wondered at that the bondestand made itself a power in the affairs of modern Norway. After the establishment of constitutional government in that country in 1814, the bønder, becoming increasingly class-conscious, entered upon a protracted but successful contest with the privileged official class and the clergy for leadership in the state. The "rural population," as Hardy says, "survived centuries of foreign domination, until in the nineteenth century it came once more into its own as the heart and kernel of Norwegian democracy." ...From the bondestand have come a large number of the political leaders, writers, poets, musicians, and professional men of modern Norway; and that the same class has contributed liberally, in various fields, to leadership among the Norwegians transplanted to America. The rural population of Norway in 1845 included, in addition to the bønder, 58,049 husmænd, 25,047 renters, 47,000 laborers, and 146,000 servants. The husmænd and laborers, mainly family heads, have been estimated to represent elements of respectively 300,000 and 230,000 people. 

Most interesting of these classes from the point of view of emigration were the husmænd, or cotters. These people, most of whom were to be found in the eastern parts of Norway, ordinarily leased small pieces of land to work for themselves, and were required, usually under written contracts, to give a specified amount of service to their landlords, the bønder. Small lots of land, with cottages and other buildings, usually some distance behind the central buildings of the gaard, were reserved for the use of husmænd. It is clear that heavy demands were made upon the cotters. In 1850 they were asking that their required services be restricted to five days a week and the working day to eleven hours. One writer states that practically the only free time the husmænd had for work on their own plots of ground was on Sundays. The value of services beyond the stipulated arrangements might be placed as high as twelve pennies a day in summer, less than half that in winter. Professor Koht writes that the husmænd were personally free --- that is, they were not bound to the soil --- but that in effect they were economic serfs. "It was only on rare occasions," he continues, "that any of them were able to win their way out of poverty."  Hardy characterizes the husmand historically as the liberated thrall.  Both politically and socially the class was on a lower plane than that of the bonde. It lacked the suffrage, since its members could not meet the property qualification. The husmænd were on the increase in the period when the emigration movement was rising, an increase that went from 48,571 in 1825 to 65,060 in 1855, the latter being the highest point in the history of the class.

Poverty coupled with stern demands upon the time and service of the cotters tended in many cases to embitter their attitude toward the bønder, whose relationship to the lesser class had had a patriarchal flavor in an earlier day. A considerable number of pensioners, who had surrendered their property to their heirs upon condition of receiving annual allowances and living quarters, are represented in the population of 1845 --- 46,512 of them. {15} The dower house, it may be added, is a familiar feature in the usual cluster of buildings at the center of a Norwegian gaard. Samuel Laing in his journal from the thirties prints a translation of an advertisement in a Christiania newspaper offering a Norwegian gaard for sale at a price of four thousand dollars. This presents some interesting concrete detail concerning buildings, equipment, and other aspects of a typical gaard:

A two-story dwelling-house, with seven apartments, of which two are painted. A large kitchen, hall and room for hanging clothes, and two cellars. There is a side building of one story, containing servants' room, brewing kitchen, calender room, chaise-house, and wood-house. A two-story house on pillars with a pantry, and a store-room. The farm buildings consist of a threshing barn, and barns for hay, straw, and chaff; a stable for five horses; a cattle house for eight cows, with divisions for calves and sheep. There is a good kitchen garden, and a good fishery; and also a considerable wood, supplying timber for house-building, for fences, and for fuel, besides the right of cutting wood in the common forest. The scater (sæter) or hill pasture is only half a mile (that is, three and a half English miles) from the farm. The arable land extends to the sowing of eight barrels of grain and twenty-five or thirty of potatoes (the barrel is half a quarter), besides the land for hay; and the farm can keep within itself, summer and winter, two horses, eight cows, and forty sheep and goats. There is also a houseman's farm and houses. It keeps two cows, six sheep, and has arable land to the sowing of one and a half barrels of grain and six barrels of potatoes. The property adjoins a good high road, is within four miles (eight and twenty English miles) of Christiania.

Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, p.5.


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