The front of a wooden plaque made in Norway
Photo courtesy of the author, Jared Schmidt.

In 1879, Hans Gunther Magelssen approached a jeweler in Oslo, Norway to have him make a gift for his granddaughter-in-law, Sara Magelssen. Into the backside of a 9.5” diameter wooden plaque the jeweler inset a 5 Øre coin. While beautiful, what sets this object apart is what is inscribed on the back of the plaque around the coin – the Magelssen family genealogy.

In eighteen concentric circles, the family’s history is handwritten in Norwegian, noting births, deaths, and marriages as it traces their journey from Germany to Norway. For Sara and her husband Kristian, their journey, like thousands of other Norwegians in the mid-19th century, brought them to the United States. Their story, including their immigration to Wisconsin in the 1860s, is written on the 12th and 13th lines of the object.

Alice Alderman, a librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society, translated Magelssen’s writing. Kristian was born “27 April 1839, baptized 30 June. Went to America 6 May 1864, came back to Norway 6 July 1868, married 29 October 1868 and went with his wife Sara Magelssen back to America 5 December 1868.” Upon returning to America, Kristian became a pastor in Highland, Minnesota, and their family had 2 sons and 1 daughter.

Back of Norwegian plaque with genealogy of Magelssen family written in concentric circles
Back of plaque with Hans Gunther Magelssen’s handwriting. Photo by Jared L. Schmidt.

This disk and the history of Norwegian immigration to Wisconsin and resettlement within the region illustrate some important features of Wisconsin’s Norwegian community. Norwegian immigrants established communities in Wisconsin’s southeast and south-central regions beginning in the 1830s and 1840s.[1] By 1850, Wisconsin was home to 9,467 Norwegians, and by 1870, as they settled further west, the number reached 59,619 individuals.[2] Approximately 41% of all Norwegian immigrants in the United States were women.[3]

Written by Jared Lee Schmidt, July 2019.



[1] Marcia C. Carmichael, Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011), 87; James P. Leary, “Norwegian Communities,” in Encyclopedia of American Folklife Vol. 3, edited by Simon J. Bronner, (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2006), 892-896; Odd S. Lovoll, introduction to Wisconsin My Home: As told to her Daughter Erna Oleson Xan, 2nd Ed. by Thurine Olseson, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), xii-xiii.

[2] Lovoll. xiii.

[3] Odd S. Lovoll, “Norwegian Immigration and Women,” in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 51.

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