The censuses are lists of all inhabitants in Norway at a certain point in time. They provide information such as who was living at a given farm at that point, their position within the family, their age, profession, and marital status.
There are two types of censuses: The nominative census, which provides such detailed information, and the numeric census, which only indicates the number of inhabitants sorted by district, age, profession, etc.
Besides Parish Registers, censuses constitute the most important genealogical source. Since family members are listed together, along with their age and sometimes place of birth, locating the right family often means a major step forward in the genealogical search. Many of the censuses contain information on the living conditions of the listed individuals, as well. The censuses also constitute important source data for researchers in many other fields.
Before the public censuses: 1663-1701
The Censuses of Males of 1663-66 and 1701
The census of males of 1663-66 counts among the world's oldest, and came about on the initiative of Titus Bülche, the Royal Commissary of Churches in Norway. The census of males consists of a collection of counts of male inhabitants performed by parsons and bailiffs. Initially, only men above 12 years of age were included, while the lists from 1666 also encompass those younger than 12 years old. Even though this was a census of males – a tally of male inhabitants – some women were included, as well. These were women running farms on their own. People in towns were not included in the tallies.
The census of males represents a rich source. We find the names of farms and the land rent paid, the names and ages of tenant farmers, their sons, their servants and cotters. While these lists may contain several errors, the information can be verified by comparing the data between the various tallies. Based on the census of males of 1663-1666, it has been calculated that approximately 450,000 people lived in Norway in 1665.
The 1701 census of males was performed by ministers, town bailiffs and magistrates, but only one list exists for each district. Counting the women was not deemed necessary this time either. Nor were boys less than one year old included. This census of males contains the same information as the previous tally. Absent sons are also listed. The records of the 1701 census of males have been lost for large parts of the country, particularly in the areas south of Dovrefjell.
The first public censuses: 1769-1801
The first public census was held on August 15 of 1769.
The First Census – Without Names
In the 1700s, the authorities started considering a country’s population an important resource, and the first public census was held on August 15 of 1769. The census is numeric, with the number of men and women divided into various year groups. The population was also divided into nine occupational groups. Clear instructions on how to complete the forms were not provided, so this census is not fully reliable.
The Genealogists’ Crown Jewel: The 1801 Census
The 1801 census has rightfully gained its reputation as solid and reliable. It was carried out on Sunday, February 1, 1801, and is based on complete lists of individuals. The Table Office, i.e. the department of statistics of the Exchequer in Copenhagen, prepared the census and processed its results. In the rural districts, the census was carried out by the parsons with the assistance of precentors and school teachers. In the towns, the efforts were supervised by the Town Administration and carried out by the Subdivision Heads of each conscription district. The town lists are arranged by building numbers.
The census contains the names of farms (in rural areas), the full names of inhabitants, the familial ties between household members, their age, marital status, and occupation. For married and previously married people, it was recorded how many times they had been married or widowed. The age listed was the age on next birthday, but it must be assumed that the indicated age may be inaccurate. The names of smallholdings are typically not included. People were registered in the regions where they belonged. Those who were absent, e.g. sailors, should hence be listed in their hometowns.
The Numeric censuses of 1815-1855
The Census of 1801 initiated a series of censuses held every decade.
The censuses of 1815, 1825, 1835, 1845, and 1855 were numeric, and so did not request any information on individuals. Nevertheless, the census material in the archives left by Ministers and Town Administrations kept in the National Archives contains several lists of names. Folk og Fant by Anna Tranberg (The Norwegian institute of Local history, 1986) contains an overview of the census lists that included names of individuals.
The census lists indicate the numbers of households and divide the population into age categories and professional groups. The census also collected information on animal husbandry and seeding for the very first time in 1835. This combination was continued through the census of 1900.
The Nominative censuses of 1865-1920
The 1865 Census introduced the self-count system. In the towns, owners of buildings were requested to personally complete the census forms, which where then collected by the Subdivision Heads of each conscription district. In addition to the number of households, the census of December 31, 1865, also provides information on each individual, such as name, family position, gender, marital status, occupation, any handicaps and ethnicity; the latter in aims of obtaining information on Samis and people of Finnish stock.
Two new issues were brought up, namely place of birth and religious affiliation. The information on place of birth increases one’s chances of being able to trace lineage back in time. Another important factor is that the names of smallholdings were also included this time.
The 1865 census contains main lists and specialized lists. The specialized lists constitute the actual census lists with information on individuals. The main lists provide a total overview over population count and the number of residential buildings and households on each property. The smallholdings are listed under the main farms.
The 1875 census was designed to allow for the inclusion of both people native to the country and other residents. This called for the inclusion of a new item, i.e. nationality. Sailors on Norwegian ships abroad were counted, as well as all crew members on ships in Norwegian ports. For the very first time, people were asked their year of birth, rather than their age. The other items remained as before. The census was carried out on December 31, 1875.
The 1891 Census was held on January 1. The parish was now replaced by the municipality as counting district in rural areas. In other aspects, the procedures and system remained the same as for previous censuses. New items were the familial ties between spouses, and the Samis and inhabitants of Finnish stocks were also asked what language they used. In the towns, respondents had to indicate the number of rooms per residential building.
Rather than building lists, there were forms for each individual. All of this resulted in a very comprehensive census. The information on animal husbandry and seeding was listed on separate forms, which were lost in a fire in 1939.
The 1900 census reintroduced the building lists. The reason being that Statistics Norway had by then started using punched cards that could be sorted and counted by electric machines. The personal data collected were the same as in 1891, with the exception that the question on familial ties between spouses had been eliminated. The information on residential conditions was more detailed than before. This census requested agricultural information as well, but these data were also lost in the 1939 fire.