Ole Larson's Folks

Lars Poulsen’s burial record, 1855:


The first word preceeding Lars’ name is “Huusmand” (modern spelling, Husmann). Lars’ family belonged to this class, as did his parents and his wife’s parents. Literally,  the word means “house-man.” It was arguably the poorest class in rural society, poorer in some ways than household servants. There were exceptions  in fishing communities, where a successful fisherman may be relatively well-off despite not owning his house or land.

Here is a definition of “husmann” from http://www.borgos.nndata.no/FARMS.HTM

‘Husmann’ (pl. ‘husmenn’)

The English word for ‘husmann’ is cotter (crofter is also used). Behind this term you will find a very heterogeneous group, with great geographical differences and equal great changes during history. But some conditions seems to have been common for all the ‘husmenn’:
– The farm land they used – ‘husmannsplass’ (cotters holding) – was never registered as separate units.

– Their houses stood on land that belonged to a ‘selveier’ or was leased by a ‘leilending’.
– Their lease contracts (‘husmannsseddel’) were limited in time.

– In most cases a ‘husmann’ was a couple.

In censuses and church registers you may find other words for ‘husmann’:
– A ‘husmann med jord’/’husm. m/j.’ (cotter with farm land) had houses and some land to use.

– A ‘husmann uten jord’/’husm. u/j.’ (cotter without farm land) had houses, but no land to use. However, the couple might own a cow and a few sheep.

– A ‘strandsitter’ (literally: shore dweller) is more or less the same as ‘husmann uten jord’. Both groups had fisheries as their main source of income.

There was a social gap between the ‘husmann’ on side and the ‘selveier’ or ‘leilending’ on the other, but to a lesser degree along the coast than in the inland area. In Northern Norway this gap was almost nonexistent. There the fishery was the dominant economic factor, and a ‘husmann’ could be much better off than the ‘selveier’ on the same farm!

The ‘husmann’ class can be seen as the solution to a difficult problem: A growing population had to make a living in a country where the land resources didn’t expand at the same rate. Many couples could get a farm, but not all. The last group became ‘husmenn’. By and large the ‘husmenn’ had to their disposal the poorest land resources, and they lacked any kind of permanent rights to use them.

During the 1800s the ‘husmann’ group grew in numbers. Their means of living didn’t get any better, most of them experienced harder times. Then came a new possibility – farm land in another country. The emigration to America was heavily recruited from the ‘husmann’ group.

In most descriptions, the class distinction tends to be downplayed, and indeed there were mitigating factors. For example, tradition dictated that the firstborn son of any family inherited all the land and other property of his father. The second or third son (not to mention daughters) got nothing more than a paltry sum of money. In these cases, the other sons might well become husmenn on their ancestral farm. As family members, they might enjoy more status and social privileges than other tenants.  But after a generation or two, the family ties tended to be forgotten, and those unfortunates sank into the poverty and dependence common to others in their class. Although it may not be totally correct linguistically, the more familiar term “peasant” seems quite appropriate in describing this group as a whole.

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