Local genealogy hobbyist helps others connect with their past and find ancestors in Norway

By SARAH LIDEEN, Staff Writer, sarah.lideen@ecm-inc.com

Growing up, St. Joseph resident Jean (Wendt) Marthaler had a growing interest in her family history.

During Jean Marthaler’s eighth trip to Norway in 2011, she stopped at a lookout point near the village of Aurland. Behind her lays the fjord Aurlandsfjorden, frequently visited by cruise ships to view the landscapes.

“I was always interested in it as a young girl,” said Marthaler, who is originally from Terrace, Minn.

By the time she got to high school, she was writing her great aunts and uncles asking for more information about their family and where they came from.

Gathering information throughout the 1990s, it wasn’t until the internet became mainstream that she was able to dig a little deeper.

“You work with the knowledge you have and fill in the blanks and move backwards from there,” said Marthaler.

Spending a couple hours or more per day on her hobby, Marthaler focuses mainly on Norwegian genealogy. Although she has discovered her own family tree, she continues to expand learning about her family history and uses her talent to help others connect to their ancestral roots.

“I always like to solve a puzzle, so I help them,” said Marthaler.

In Norway, first names are carried down, making it easier to make connections to relatives, while last names can lead to a specific area that a person originated from, narrowing the search. Marthaler said that it is much easier to find family members that were land owners than those that had just worked on a farm as the records may not always be available.

Using a variety of resources, such as The Norway List, Ancestory.com, and a collection of books called Bygdeboks, Marthaler is able to trace her family tree back to the 1500s.

“You have to know how to use them. You have to be computer savvy,” said Marthaler.

It’s not as easy as searching on the internet. Knowing what exactly you are looking for and having some key information already, such as ancestor name, birth date, birth place, date of death, place of burial and any other known family members names, will aid the search,

According to Marthaler, you can’t believe everything you find on the internet and that multiple connections should be made before deciding that  a person is connected to you.

“The internet is not always accurate, and anyone can start a tree or edit one and it may not be true,” said Marthaler.

It also takes a specific type of personality to be successful in a hobby such as genealogy.

“You have to have persistence and patience. You have to be courteous,” said Marthaler. During the process, connections with strangers are made and being thankful plays a key role in the success of finding what you want.

Marthaler’s passion for the hobby grew as time went on, and in 2004 she took her first trip to Norway.

After a successful trip, the company she traveled through, Brekke Tours & Travel, asked her to help them with research for future tour groups. She has now visited Norway every year since.

During her trip in 2011, she helped members of the tour group meet and connect with people from their ancestral past.

“The main thing is the satisfaction knowing I helped others connect with their past,” said Marthaler.  “It’s a great hobby to have as far as helping people and connecting to people.”

Describing the meetings as emotional when people finally connect with distant family members, she said that those in Norway are just as curious about what happened to those that immigrated years ago as those that are trying to find out who the immigrant left behind.

“It’s very touching to do. A lot of people are interested in their heritage,” said Marthaler.

As president of a Norway genealogical group called Vosselog, Marthaler and her husband, Allen, were invited to attend a reception in October 2011 in Minneapolis where King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway were in attendance.

“It’s a fascinating hobby to have and you get to meet a lot of people,” said Marthaler.

Marthaler is open to helping anyone that is interested in learning about their own family tree, and can be contacted via email at marwendt@charter.net.

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