Friday, 16 February 2018

Our Romani heritage

For as long as I can remember, my mother's family has had a strong oral tradition of being of Romani descent (more specifically, in Norwegian, we were said to be "av taterslekt"). The connection was supposed to go through my maternal grandmother's paternal side. The Romani story fascinated me from a very young age (I remember being interested in it at the age of 12 when I lived in the USA), and indeed it was one of the reasons why I originally became interested in genealogy.

It has been difficult to find evidence to support our oral tradition. This is not really that strange, because the Romani have been persecuted and looked down upon by majority populations for as long as they have been living in Europe, and it is likely that our family would have avoided mentioning their Romani ancestry to outsiders unless they had to. However, through more than ten years of research (and with the help of many good friends and fellow genealogists), I've managed to gather together a number of enlightening facts that, when pieced together, make it clear that our family tradition of Romani heritage is true.

The Romani flag, used by all subgroups. By AdiJapan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Romani people - often called "Gypsies", although this is considered by many Romani to be a racial slur - is an extremely large, widespread and diverse ethnic group (or ethnic category), divided into many subgroups and sub-subgroups. The Romani originated in India, from which they started to emigrate around the year 1000 AD, and they are first recorded in Europe (Greece) in the early 1200s. As time went by, they moved north- and westwards, bringing with them their culture and their Indo-Aryan language. With their dark Asian features, the Romani were seen as strange and foreign - and threatening - by the people they met on their way. The Romani have a long history as outcasts in Europe, and were one of the groups targeted for extinction by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The nomadic lifestyle characteristic of many Romani groups is, at least in part, a result of persecution.

This post will deal specifically with families belonging to the Scandinavian Romani subgroup (often referred to as Tater people or reisende, "travelling people", and also Romanisæl), who descend from the first Romani migration wave into Central and Western Europe in the 1300s and 1400s. Other well-known Romani subgroups who share the same origin are the Sinti and Romanichal.

The first Romanies arrived in Scandinavia in the early 1500s; some were deportees from Britain, while others came from Germany via Denmark. Many Romani families in Sweden and Norway still carry German surnames (such as Rosenberg, a name that is also famously used among the Sinti), and some old families can even be traced back to documented ancestors from France and Germany. There has also been considerable interaction and intermarriage between Norwegian/Swedish Romanies and the Finnish Romani group known as the Kalé. Today, the Scandinavian Romani are highly mixed both in terms of genetics, culture and language, probably one of the most mixed of all the Romani subgroups.

There are several dead ends in our Romani ancestral tree, some of them as late as the mid-1700s. In other words, it's impossible to tell exactly which Romani subgroups and other ethnic groups our family descends from. It might well be a mix of many. What we do know is that the most well-documented of our Romani ancestral lines can be traced back to the late 1600s in Sweden, which means that some of our ancestors might have been among the very earliest Romanies to arrive in Scandinavia.

Doing the genealogical detective work

The story that I heard as a child was that my grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a Romani man. After having done some DNA research, I came to the conclusion that this story must be untrue, and that my grandmother's father could not have been fully Romani. Why? Simply because a rather large number of Norwegian Romanies have taken DNA tests at FTDNA, and if my mother's grandfather was fully Romani, she would have had close genetic cousins among the Romani testers. She doesn't. My mother's Romani DNA matches are distant.

However, the fact that my mother does have distant Romani matches is significant, especially because two of these matches form a more or less exclusive triangulating group together with my mother. The two Romanies share known common ancestors, and this was the first clue to identifying our own Romani ancestors by name. (One of my mother's Romani matches is also an above-threshold match to me, on the same segment, which verifies it as real and not a false positive. For those who might wonder, the segment is not read as South Asian; however, considering the Scandinavian Romanies' long history of mixedness, this does not really mean much one way or the other. Even a Northern European segment might well come from an ancestor who identified culturally as Romani.)

At the same time as I was working on the DNA matches, I found out that my grandmother's father, my great-grandfather Torbjørn (an extremely interesting person about whom I have written a separate blog post), was the grandson of a woman, Mina, who was born in 1865 and spent much of her childhood at a croft called Tatermyr, "Gypsy Swamp" (image here). This place is recognized as a Romani heritage site by at least one Norwegian Romani organization, LOR. Our family did not establish "Gypsy Swamp" - it was already there - but the name would have carried stigma and I find it unlikely that someone would have moved there unless they had some connection with the Romani people.

Mina's parents, Anders Andersson and Anna Johannesdotter, both immigrated from Värmland county in Sweden to Østfold county in Norway in the 1850s. Anna's father, Johannes Nilsson, was born in 1780 but is not listed in the birth records - or any records pre-1800 - in Svanskog parish where he claimed to have been born. In fact, nothing whatsoever is known of his life before 1806. I started suspecting that Johannes might be our link to the Romani people.

Through the kind assistance of a very experienced and knowledgeable Romani genealogist who is also a friend of mine, Kai-Samuel Vigardt, I found out that my mother's Romani matches' common ancestors were a certain Swedish Romani family called Lund. Kai-Samuel told me that in his opinion, based on the known facts (as well as painstaking elimination of various alternatives on both sides), it was very likely that my ancestor Anna descended from this family.

As I have already mentioned, Anna's father was Johannes Nilsson, meaning his father's first name was Nils. In the Lund family, there is only one couple who are the right age to be Johannes' parents and where the husband is named Nils. They lived in Värmland county, just like Johannes, but somewhat further east, in the Karlstad area.

The theory

My theory is that Johannes Nilsson was the son of this couple, the glass salesman Nils Lundgren and Elisabet "Lisa" Lund (born c. 1752). Kai-Samuel agrees with me. Another prominent and very capable Romani genealogist, who doesn't really like to use DNA as evidence, grudgingly agrees that there's really no alternative connection, if Johannes truly is Romani and a descendant of the Lunds.

The first time Johannes shows up in the records is in 1806 when he moves into Sillerud parish. I later found out that there was a major Romani migration into Sillerud in the 1700s, at least according to Swedish Wikipedia. In Sillerud, it is said, they found sanctuary against persecution and harassment. Johannes' move could easily have been part of this migration, even though it happened in the early 1800s.

In other words, all the known facts support the theory that Johannes was Romani and the son of Nils Lundgren and Elisabet Lund. Here is a list of all the facts:
  • Johannes' birth is not registered, which is unusual (and probably means that his parents were passing through as travellers, and/or had a strained relationship with local authorities);
  • Johannes moves to Sillerud in 1806, seemingly out of nowhere;
  • My mother is a triangulated DNA match to two known descendants of Elisabet Lund's brother;
  • The Lund connection is the only one that would connect any of my mother's lines with any of her Romani matches' lines in time and place (in Värmland, Sweden in the 1700s);
  • Johannes Nilsson is the only close-ish brick wall among my mother's Värmland ancestors;
  • There is no other Nils connected to the Lund family who could have been Johannes' father;
  • Johannes' wife Margreta - a non-Romani as far as we know - had an uncle who married a woman of Romani descent (which means that her family was open to intermarriage);
  • Johannes' daughter Anna lived at "Gypsy Swamp" in Norway for several years with her husband and children;
  • Our family tradition says that it was my maternal grandmother's father who had Romani heritage.
All things considered, I believe that my theory is true, and that our family tradition is correct. Our Romani heritage is a bit distant, but it's there.

We might say that my 5th great-grandfather Johannes Nilsson (1780-1852) is our closest "100% Romani" ancestor, since both his parents were part of the Romani culture and community. My 3rd great-grandmother Mina who grew up in "Gypsy Marsh" would then be "only" 1/4 Romani, but may well have self-identified as ethnically/culturally Romani. My great-grandfather Torbjørn would be 1/16 Romani (possibly 1/4 in cultural terms) and my grandmother would be 1/32 (possibly 1/8 in cultural terms). It's difficult to try to quantify "how much" Romani our family is, and the effort inevitably ends up looking a bit comical. The most important thing in my opinion is that the heritage is still remembered in our family, and as such, it is a part of who we are. I believe it should be enough to say "we are part Romani" or "we are of Romani descent".

Just like with my Sámi heritage on my father's side, I find it problematic to say "I am Romani", since I haven't grown up in the community.

Telling the story

The story of our Romani heritage has somehow been passed down all the way from Johannes Nilsson to myself and my cousins; in other words, 200 years of unbroken oral transmission, which is impressive, but not unheard-of. Johannes' granddaughter Mina might have been a key part of the transmission. She was born in 1865, and it's very possible that Mina's great-granddaughter, my grandmother (who was born in 1946), actually met her in person. I do not know when Mina died, but she was alive in 1927. Even if my grandmother didn't hear the stories from Mina herself, she could have heard it from Mina's son, her grandfather Thorleif, who lived from 1899 to 1970, or from her father Torbjørn, who lived from 1923 to 1985.

Note the fact that the generations are quite short (my grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather all had children in their late teens or early 20s), which would make it easier for old stories to get passed down, since people would actually have had the opportunity to talk to their grandparents and great-grandparents directly. My great-great-grandfather Thorleif was 14 years old when his grandmother, Anna, Johannes Nilsson's daughter, died in Oslo in 1913 at the age of 83. Thorleif might well have heard the Romani stories directly from Anna, since he was also living in Oslo at the time.

Further reflections

My great-great-grandfather Thorleif being part Romani (1/8 if we go by the strict definition) actually provides an interesting addition to Norwegian sports history. Thorleif, who went by the nickname Lillebunny ("Little Bunny") because of his small size and great strength, was a professional wrestler who won two Norwegian championships (1925 and 1926) in the bantamweight class. In other words, the Romani people can claim this national wrestling champion as their own, if they want to.

I wonder when the Romani language (which would have been Scandoromani in this case) was forgotten in our family? Who was the last person who could speak it properly, and who was the last person who remembered any Romani words or phrases? Nobody in living memory could speak Romani, as far as my family members know.

Although the language disappeared early on, certain other cultural practices seem to have survived much longer. When my mother was pregnant with me, my father's grandmother died, and my parents were going to the funeral. My grandmother warned my mother not to go, since being at a funeral could harm the baby (me). This superstition is very similar to the belief of Romanian Roma (a Romani subgroup very different from ours, but a Romani subgroup nonetheless), described by Norwegian anthropologist Ada Engebrigtsen:

Pregnant women do generally not attend funerals, as the dead body is surrounded by evil spirits that try to take up a position over it, and these evil spirits may attack the foetus as well. (Engebrigtsen 1997: 92)

In other words, this particular superstition might be something inherited from our Romani ancestors. And if it is so, it means that there might be more Romani-ness in us today than we probably realize!


As a lover of Romani music, I find great joy in the fact that through our Lund ancestors, we are in fact distant relatives of the great and famous singer Elias Akselsen and his equally talented daughter Veronica Akselsen. We are also distantly related to other Romani musicians such as Jim Karlsen and Fredrik Fredriksson.

Our connection is Lena Ulrika Karlsdotter Stålberg (known as "Ulla", 1850-1912), who was the life partner of the famous Norwegian Romani leader Karl Johan Algodt Fredriksen (known as Stor-Johan, "Big Johan", 1851-1946). If my Lund theory is correct, Ulla was the second cousin of Anna Johannesdotter, my 4th great-grandmother. Anna and Ulla lived in the same part of Norway, and must have known about their familial connection.

Stor-Johan's family were, and are, a very large and prominent Romani family in Norway. One of his daughters, Marie Lovinie, went by the nickname Taterdronningen, "the Gypsy Queen". A book has been written about her, and another book has been written about her sister Jenny Emilie ("Tater-Milla"). I've read them both, and they provide insight into the lives and doings of some very fascinating people. The sisters, both born in the late 1800s, were third cousins of my 3rd great-grandmother Mina.

I have great respect for Stor-Johan and his family. I've had the pleasure to meet several of Stor-Johan's descendants, as well as several descendants of his stepson, Karl Johan Fredrik Fredriksen (known as "Little Fredrik" or "Fredrik with the Wooden Hat"), Ulla's firstborn. Being their relative - however distant - is an honour.

One of the forest roads of Eastern Norway, not too far from the Swedish border.
Romani people have travelled these roads for centuries.

My Romani line: An overview

The numbering follows the standard ahnentafel (Sosa-Stradonitz) system. All place-names are in Norway unless otherwise specified.

1. Miriam, born 1990 in Oslo.
3. My mother, born 1965 in Lørenskog, Akershus.
7. Kari Johansen. Born 7 Jul 1946 in Oslo. Died 17 Nov 2003 in Fredrikstad, Østfold.
14. Torbjørn Johansen. Born 23 Sep 1923 in Oslo. Died 23 Dec 1985 in Askim, Østfold.
28. Thorleif Alexander Johansen. Born 22 Jul 1899 in Oslo. Died 9 Jan 1970 in Oslo.
57. Mina Augusta Andersdatter. Born 11 Aug 1865 in Svinndal, Østfold. Died after 1927.
115. Anna Johannesdotter. Born 4 Mar 1830 in Sillerud, Värmland, Sweden. Died 14 Sep 1913 in Oslo, Norway.
230. Johannes Nilsson. Born 11 May 1780 in Svanskog, Värmland, Sweden (?). Died 11 Mar 1852 in Sillerud, Värmland, Sweden.
460. Nils Lundgren, travelling glass salesman.
461. Elisabet "Lisa" Lund. Born 1752 or 1755, probably in Karlstad, Värmland, Sweden. (Ulla was the granddaughter of Elisabet's brother Lars Lund, born 1753.)
922. Lars Andersson Lund; "the boy from Borås". Born 1726. Died 21 May 1758 in Karlstad, Värmland, Sweden.
923. Brita Greta Nilsdotter Skragge. Born 1728.
1846. Nils Danielsson Skragge; burgher in Karlstad. Possibly of non-Romani origin. Born c. 1704. Died 1772.
1847. Elisabet "Lisken" Ludvigsdotter. Born 1690. Died 1753.
3694. Ludvig Nilsson; hook-and-eye-maker, travelling peddler and burgher in Örebro, Sweden. Born 1663. Died 1735. Brother of Gabriel Nilsson, hook-and-eye-maker and travelling peddler in Askersund, Sweden.
3695. Ingeborg Johansdotter. Died 1735.

Ludvig and Ingeborg are my earliest known Romani ancestors, and the ancestors of a large number of modern-day Romani people in Sweden and Norway. Note the fact that Ludvig was a burgher and an established craftsman and trader in the town of Örebro. This was not uncommon for early Romanies in Sweden, and suggests that Romani people may have been more integrated into mainstream Swedish society than many realize, in certain places during certain periods. I wonder what Ludvig and Ingeborg's lives were like. Their situation must have been very complex.

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