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Arland O. Fiske: Tracing a family name

Is it possible to trace a family name to a single point of origin?  I’d been curious about the roots of my family name “Fiske,” sometimes spelled “Fisk.”  The name in Norwegian is the infinitive form of the verb meaning “to fish.” In America, the name occurs only once for every 250,000 family names.

I had reason to question the Norwegian background of the name, but wanted to know why it is often English. When browsing through a public library, I found a reference to the genealogy of Symond Fiske published in 1896. It was available from a library in Green Bay, Wis.

Symond Fiske was the Lord of the Manor of Stadhaugh, Suffolk County, northeast of London in East Anglia. The English Fiskes in America suspected a Scandinavian origin for the name, but could never identify it.

In the summer of 1976, while attending a seminar at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, a professor from Norway asked me about my name. I told him it was Norwegian and was from the Trondheim area, but lacked specific information as to the place. To my surprise he said, “I know exactly where it comes from.” This was the beginning of a new adventure for our family.

While visiting Norway in 1977, we were told that every Norwegian Fiske family has its origin in the Mo parish in Surnadal, about 75 miles southwest of Trondheim. While going through the Gaardermoen Airport north of Oslo, the official checking passports said, “Going to the Tronderlag?”  He knew.

The English connection, however, was still a mystery until the genealogy of Symond Fiske came to my attention. I showed it to Dordi Glaerum Skuggevik, a teacher and journalist from Norway, who identified the geographical references in England with places in Surnadal. A study of baptismal records and the wills of more than 50 Fiske families in Suffolk County, England, prove that it was a well established between 1462 and 1635 at Laxfield. “Lax” is the Norwegian name for salmon. The Sur River running through Surnadal is one of the most famous salmon streams in Norway. The Fiske farms are located in an area where many salmon are caught. There are other references that also relate Surnadal to Laxfield.

When did they migrate to England? The earliest record of a Fiske in England goes back to 1208, when King John (of Magna Charta fame) gave land to the men of Laxfield. Among the recipients was a Daniel Fiske. From that time on, the name “John” became a favorite for family use. My journalist friend believes that the immigration took place during the Viking days before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It’s my guess that the Fiske families may have immigrated from Surnadal to England shortly after the Battle of Stickelstad, July 29, 1030. It is known that they fought against King Olaf II on the side of England’s Danish King Knut. Land in England could very well have been their reward.

What about the variation “Fisk.”  The record shows that several branches of the family in England dropped the “e.”  From England, some of them moved to Ireland and many more went to the New England states in America. One of the earliest in America was the Reverend John Fiske who arrived at Cambridge, Mass. in 1637. His son, Moses, was the first of many Fiskes to graduate from Harvard College.

When this story first appeared in the Minot, N.D. Daily News, a copy reached Erwin Fisk of Pasadena, California, editor of the Fisk(e) Family Newsletter. He wrote to me with interest about the Surnadal connection and sent me several copies of their Newsletter. I was interested in discovering that Carlton Fisk, former catcher for the Chicago White Sox baseball team, is a member of the English Fiske family.

It interests me that so many people bearing the name have degrees in theology. They seem to have been Evangelicals, many of them Puritans. The number of degrees in law and medicine or who served in the military is also impressive.

Those of us who bear this name from the 19th century emigration from Norway are not nearly so numerous as those whose families came from England. So if you have the name “Fiske” or”Fisk” in your family tree and are English or Irish, it’s a good bet that the name traces back to that salmon river that flows through Surnadal.

 Next week:   Myron Floren Goes to Norway

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.