Bonde fra Vossevangen by Adolph Tidemand

A University of Sheffield project using 3D virtual world technology and family history to interpret the 19th-century migration journey from Norway to America.

Tell us the story of your ancestors who went west and help create a virtual repository of Norwegian-American immigration.

This is not just Ola's journey, but the journey of thousands...

Access to the virtual world is changing

Due to a technical issue beyond our control, we've had to change the way you connect to Ola's virtual world.

The easiest way to do this is to uninstall Firestorm and then download and install the latest version, following the set-up instructions on our website.

Once that's done, everything is as it used to be. Your username and password remain the same.

Questions or problems? We're here to help.

Looking at Castle Garden, New York from ship in Firestorm Viewer

Sharing Stories

Thanks to the Norwegian American Weekly for the article about our project this week. If you're a subscriber to the print version, you might already have seen it, but here's the online version if you haven't.
Hull Paragon Station in Ola's virtual world.

There's still time... register for our project workshop on Friday 29 November at the University of Sheffield.

Don't miss the opportunity to hear the project team's experiences of combining historical research with virtual world technology.

But it's not just about Ola! There will also be talks about 'Hispanic Liverpool', 'England's Immigrants' and a publisher's perspective on 'Travelling in a Digital World'. The day will be rounded off with a discussion of future directions chaired by the eminent Professor Marilyn Deegan.

Register your place now by emailing

Full programme is available here.

Digital Adventures in the History of Travel and Migration

Regular readers of the blog will know that the Ola Nordmann Goes West project has been running at the University of Sheffield for some time. During that period we have developed a virtual world to depict the journey of a Norwegian peasant (Ola Nordmann) from his home in western Norway in the 1880s, via the English ports of Hull and Liverpool, to his final destination in New York.

The project itself has been a fascinating journey, and it has been a pleasure to work with both specialists in em-/immigration history and the many individuals who have shared their family stories and their experiences with us. The project is not yet over, so please do continue to talk to us and to help us develop the project for the benefit of all of us.

The project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and this funding is due to end soon, so we will be holding a workshop on Friday 29 November, where the project team will share our findings and our experiences and where we will also hear from others working on digital representations of travel and migration. The programme can be found here.

We look forward to welcoming as many people as possible to the workshop, but space is limited. If you would like to attend (no matter what your background or what your particular interest is in the project), please contact us to let us know.

Family history? It's personal!

Virtual horse and avatar in Ola's world
So much has happened in the last year. To see for yourself, sign up here.

It has been almost a year since Ola's virtual world opened. To mark that milestone, we would like to extend a special thanks to a group of people whose work often goes unnoticed.

You are the ones who enjoy spending days digging in archives and hours online checking census records for that little piece of information that will help put together the puzzle that is your family tree. Once a fact has been established, you happily share it with others for whom it might be useful without expecting any reward other than a thank you.

The groups you have on Facebook and other sites exude a real sense of community and are places where no question is considered stupid. The more seasoned members take newcomers under their wings and steer them on the right path, while at the same time encouraging them not to give up by sharing the amazing things you have discovered about your own family.

For the outsider your enthusiasm is admirable. But what you may not realise is that your discoveries are also benefiting work outside of the genealogical community. Consulting general or local history books for information about the time and place in which your descendants grew up have been part of your way of working for years. General societal conditions of a period often help illuminate the actions of individuals and explain why your relatives did what they did.

Genealogy and Local history section in a library
From (CC Licence)
One of the main aims of the Ola Nordmann Goes West project was to highlight the importance of the link between traditional history and family history and, more importantly, that information between the two should flow in both directions. Academic historians should acknowledge the dedication and hard work of family historians, and that the many hours they devote to their "hobby" have made them experts in their field.

Of course, we must be wary of anecdotal evidence masquerading as fact and the usual standards of historical research must be upheld. Yet, there is most definitely scope for the work of family historians to feature as an add-on to, or an enhancement of, more traditional historical accounts. In many instances, family history does find it difficult to lay claim to historical truth, simply because it is impossible to verify its sources. On the other hand, as more and more people are engaging in genealogical research, the same facts are being discovered by different people. Perhaps it would be possible to eventually reach critical mass and a situation where a piece of information goes from being "alleged" to "more than likely".

Our project would not be the same without family histories and we don't regret breaking new ground by mixing traditional history with the personal stories of our contributors. They have put a human face to an event so large and so distant that it is often just reduced to simple hard facts such as around 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to America in the period 1825-1914. We have learned that every single one of those 800,000 was an individual, and without the painstaking work of family and local historians, we would never have known what their dreams and fears were as they embarked upon their epic journey.

We do now and for that...THANK YOU!

Opening today: Hull exhibition in the emigrant waiting room

We've been so inspired by the stories people from Hull and Grimsby have sent us about Scandinavians settling there that we've created a special exhibition for just those stories.

Come inside the waiting room and view the exhibition.

The emigrant waiting room in virtual Hull is already the place to go if you want to read personal stories about the migration journey, but now one corner of the room is devoted to Hull and the nearby region entirely.

Remembering the importance of Hull in the history of 19th-century migration.

We are constantly adding more information to the grand narrative, and the little details these stories reveal are invaluable. Why not visit Ola's world and see for yourself?

The first visitors have arrived.

Interview with BBC Radio Humberside

Andrew Linn from our team had an interesting chat this morning with James Piekos from BBC Radio Humberside. A highly recommended listen if you want to know more about the project and how you can help.

The importance of Hull

We recently launched a fresh appeal for information about the many Scandinavians who passed through Hull on their way to America in the 19th century. Hull saw by far the largest number of migrants on their way to Liverpool, and our virtual Hull is a tribute to that historical event.

Virtual model of Hull Maritime Museum
Dock Offices, now Hull Maritime Museum.

We have recreated some of the landmark buildings connected with the city's history of transmigration, including Harry Lazarus' Hotel in Posterngate. Walk around the Paragon Rail Station which at the time had the longest platform in Europe, exclusively serving transmigrant traffic or take in the impressive sight of the Dock Offices building which today is the Hull Maritime Museum. From the moment you step of the ship from Bergen, blue information boxes and interactive objects provide further historical information.

Virtual model of Hull Paragon Station
Visit the virtual world an read more about the history of Hull Paragon Station.

Before leaving Hull for Liverpool, don't miss the opportunity to follow in the migrants' footsteps by passing through the emigrant waiting room. As a reminder of the fact that the history of migration is made up of thousands, if not millions, of individual stories, we have converted the waiting room into an exhibition of these personal histories.

Click on a picture to read the story.
If you have anything to contribute about the history of transmigration through Hull in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then we would like to hear from you. Nothing is too trivial or insignificant -- history is after all about putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

We want YOUR help...this is your world!

The last few months have been quite busy for the team with various talks around the world, but we want to assure you that Ola's world is still open and that we've recently added some new content.

The complete journey from Norway to New York became available in spring and since then we've been working on adding additional narratives and extra information about places and things along the journey.

We would still like the users to tell us what they would like to see in the virtual world so that it becomes a more accurate reflection of their ancestors' world. It is really simple to do and we love hearing from you.

It's easy to contact us via the red post boxes. You can't miss them, they're everywhere.

If you have a longer family story that you would like us to include it in the Read your stories section, the submission form on our website is also useful. Both options, the post box and the submission form, allow you to upload image and sound files.

We can help piece your story together and don't mind at all if what you send us is merely a collection of facts. We understand that doing history is a process and that sometimes a little help is needed.

There is already lots of inspiration in Ola's world, so sign up and explore for yourself.

Step by step guide to installing the Firestorm Viewer

A viewing client is needed to enter Ola's virtual world. We recommend using the Firestorm Viewer as it is free and regularly updated. The Firestorm website has changed slightly since the short guide on our website was published, though the guide is still fine for those comfortable with installing software. If you require a bit more detail or just want to follow an updated version, this step by step guide is for you.

1. Go to the 'Downloads' section on the Firestorm website.

2. If you have a previous version of Firestorm installed, please uninstall that first (Control Panel > Add/remove programs).

3. Select the tab called 'Firestorm for Opensim' and choose either 'Download for Windows', 'Download for Mac' or 'Download for Linux', depending on your operating system.

4. Start the installation once the download has finished. Select language, accept the licence agreement, select the directory in which to install Firestorm (or click 'Install' if happy with the default directory) and click 'Yes' or 'No' to creating an entry in the Start menu.


5. The installation takes a couple of minutes.

6. Once finished, the installer will ask whether to start Firestorm.

7. If you select 'Yes', the viewer will start loading.

8. Once loaded, a welcome screen appears.

9. Firestorm is capable of connecting people to all kinds of virtual worlds, so the first thing we need to do is to instruct it where to find Ola's virtual world. To do that select 'Viewer' > 'Preferences' in the menu at the top left of the page.

10. Select 'Opensim' from the options on the left.

11. In the 'Add new grid' section, enter the following: and click 'Apply'.
12. If you scroll down a little under 'Manage Grids', you'll see Ola's Virtual World has now been added. Click 'Apply' or 'OK' to exit 'Preferences'.

13. At the 'Log In' at the bottom of the screen, enter the Username and Password we sent you and click 'Login'. You can also tick to 'Remember password' if you wish.

14. It takes less than a minute for the world to load up and you're ready to go.

We're here to help! If you experience any problems during the installation process, please contact us.

Introducing teleportation

We've added a new feature to the virtual world which means that you can jump from place to place using the road signs. Simply click your desired destination and then 'Teleport' when the map appears.

This video shows how it works:

Ola's journey in images

It's now possible to travel in glorious 3D from Voss to Bergen. To celebrate we've put together this little collage of Ola's journey.

Have you signed up yet?

Norwegian-American heritage groups wanted

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Do you belong to a Norwegian-American group or organisation? No matter what size, location or reason for your existence, we would love to hear from you.

We want to find out more that what goes on in Norwegian-American heritage groups and eventually use it in the Ola Nordmann project. So, tell us about your group. What kind of things do you get up to and why? What do you like about being a member of the group? Are you a member of more than one group and why? Do you belong to virtual communities on Facebook, for instance? What is your personal family history?

You can either email, visit us on Facebook or Twitter or use the submission form on the website.

Mange takk!

Gjert Hovland's America letter

The story of Nils Larson Bolstad in the 'Read your stories' on our blog calls for a little background to an early pioneer who became rather well-known back in Norway, Gjert Hovland.

Gjert Gregoriussen Hovland's was an articulate writer whose letters were copied, circulated and, most importantly of all, talked about. His letter to Torjuls Askjeldsen Mæland is the most famous one and paints a picture of America which is almost close to perfect. That Hovland at the time of writing was about to move further west to the Fox River Settlement in Illinois is somewhat ironic considering the fate of many of its settlers, most notably Ole Rynning. Rynning perished at Fox River shortly after completing his celebrated work True Account of America which described conditions in America honestly and without bias. He had been a fellow passenger of Bolstad's during the Atlantic crossing and it's rather sobering to think how, in the space of a few years, Hovland's gushing praise of the Promised Land had contributed to the sad fate of Rynning and most of his Fox River neighbours.

Hovland and his family arrived in America in September 1831. In December of that year he bought 50 acres of land in Rochester, New York, built a house and started farming almost immediately. For the next few years each harvest yielded more than the previous one and as this letter was written in April 1835, Hovland had sold his farm for $500 and was planning on purchasing 160 acres for $200 at Fox River – not a bad profit at all and four times the annual salary of a servant girl at the time.

The excerpts below are from Theodore Blegen's article A Typical "America Letter" in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1922, Vol. 9, No.1, pp.68-74), though several other versions can be found online.

From the beginning of his letter there is no doubt that he has not regretted leaving Norway for one second.
"Nothing has made me more happy and contented than the fact that we left Norway and journeyed to this country. We have gained more since our arrival here than I did during all the time that I lived in Norway, and I have every prospect of earning a livelihood here for myself and my family – even if my family were larger – so long as God gives me good health."
He goes on to describe how well his family are doing and makes several comparisons with Norwegian conditions of which he is very dismissive. Towards the end of his letter he urges everyone to come to America and enjoy the same benefits he has.
"It would heartily please me if I could learn that everyone of you who are in need and have little chance of gaining support for yourselves and your families would make up your mind to leave Norway and to come to America, for, even if many more were to come, there would still be room here for all. For all those who are willing to work there is no lack of employment and business here. It is possible for all to live in comfort and without suffering want. I do not believe that any of those who suffer under the oppression of others and who must rear their children under straightened circumstances could do better than to help the latter to come to America."
Throughout Hovland's letter it is easy to read between the lines that he thinks only those who are willing to work hard should emigrate. He has no time for people 'exploiting' others, and it is obvious that he is trying to persuade oppressed Norwegians to come to America and slog for their own benefit, rather than someone else's.

And people heeded his call. The story of Nils Larson Bolstad is just one of many early trickles which eventually turned into the great emigration stream of the latter 19th century.

A family of story-tellers

Last week Dianne Enger Snell got in touch with us to pay tribute to her late friend, Wanda Benson, who had recently passed away. Wanda's mother was a Norwegian immigrant who married a bachelor farmer and settled on the North Dakota prairie. The tribute ended with a poem by Wanda called 'The Immigrant Mother' - go have a read if you haven't already.

In correspondence with Dianne, it transpired that she herself is an avid genealogist and writes about it on her blog, Genealogy is an Obsession. What really strikes you when reading her blog are the stories and the depth of detail she (and others) have discovered about their family. As she herself writes in the post we've just added to the 'Read your stories' section:
In genealogy of course, it is important to know and to authenticate the names of your ancestors, and the dates of births, marriages and deaths, but in my estimation the exciting part of genealogy is learning about the life stories. These ancestors of mine were much more than names and dates--they were real people. Who were they? What did they do? What were they like? That is the exciting part!
And we couldn't agree more! Dianne has eloquently summed up what the 'Ola Nordmann Goes West' project is all about. It's about stories, your stories. Of course it's not always possible to uncover the whole story and fear not if your story is not epic, we truly appreciate all the contributions we receive and they help shape Ola's virtual world.

Thank you, Dianne, and we look forward to reading more stories about your family.

Billboarding: Adding a touch of reality

In the last few weeks we've been experimenting with a technique called 'billboarding' in the virtual world. This involves adding real photographs alongside the world's 3D graphics. The idea came about because the virtual world has reached a stage in its development where it's almost at full capacity. Adding large buildings such as the Liverpool Custom House is great but does affect the performance of the world.

Virtual representation of Liverpool Custom House
Liverpool Custom House.

That's why we have to strike a balance between creating a virtual environment that's realistic and providing an acceptable user experience. If we simply carried on adding all the structures we would like to, it would be impossible to move around the world without serious lag problems.

Hence why we're now trying out billboarding. It gives us the opportunity to enhance the world without slowing it down.

The first region to get a makeover was Voss Farm where Ola Nordmann starts his journey. Norway has some stunning waterfalls so we decided to add a picture of one from near Gudvangen at the end of Nærøyfjord in Aurland, Sogn og Fjordane.

Waterfall near Gudvangen in Ola's virtual world.

It's not as easy as it looks. Finding a spot where a flat image blends in with a 3D terrain takes ages and getting the edges to line up is even harder.

Waterfall near Gudvangen, Norway.

We've opted to keep the photo's original light though the option of it changing with the world's sun positions is available.

The next billboard is of the road between Voss and Vik. Here it is seen in the distance from Ola's farm.

Looking at the first billboard from Ola's farm.

It's also the first image greeting you as you arrive in Ola's world.

Viewing billboard when entering Ola's world.

As you get closer, the details of the photograph become clearer. The blue box contains more information about the photo.

Virtual representation of road between Voss and Vik.

The next billboard we added can be found on the road between Voss and Bergen and is also the largest one so far. The first glimpse of it is as you leave Voss.

Billboard between Voss and Bergen.

It features a shot of Otternes Bygdetun in Aurland so the geographical location is not quite right but nevertheless, it adds an extra dimension to the world.

Otternes Bygdetun at night.

Again, getting up close is recommended.

Otternes Bygdetun up close.

The final billboard is somewhat different from the ones above. Having come across a photograph from Voss Folkemuseum looking through a window at the original farm buildings, it was worth a shot to see if it would work inside one of the farm houses.

Billboarding on a smaller scale.

And it which one it is in the picture above?

Billboard of view from Voss Folkemuseum.

It actually works best really close up because the landscape outside looks so real.

Billboarding has so far proved useful and we've had some positive responses from users. The next step is Bergen where we're looking at using black and white images as a background. If you have any photographs that you think might be useful, please get in touch.

All original photographs by Jean Marthaler.

Historic buildings in Hull and Liverpool

We've been busy adding new things to the virtual world and you'll recognise some familiar landmarks in Hull and Liverpool. 

The world is simply not capable of mirroring real-life places in minute detail (we don't have the budget that makers of games and other producers of high-quality graphics have, and usability has to take precedence over appearance), so forgive us the artistic licence employed when it comes to the placement of historical buildings and monuments.

Apologies aside, the image below from virtual Hull shows what is today the Maritime Museum, but at Ola's time would have been the headquarters of the Hull Dock Company. In front is the Wilberforce Monument erected in 1834 to commemorate the city's famous son and his contribution to the abolition of slavery. If you ever get to Hull, a visit to Wilberforce House is well worth it.

Virtual representation of the Hull Dock Office and Wilberforce Monument

While researching old pictures of Hull, I came across this painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893) who was born in Leeds and painted many famous city scenes, particularly in the north of England. The atmosphere in the painting called "Prince's Dock Hull" is impossible to replicate in the virtual world. The sky alone requires serious processing power in terms of graphics. On the other hand, there is a similarity when looking at the outline of buildings in the horizon. The Dock Company Headquarters and the Wilberforce Monument are recognisable buildings which identify Hull in an instant, and the same goes in the world. These two buildings are therefore the first you'll see when arriving in Hull even if this is not completely geographically accurate.

Painting called 'Prince's Dock Hull' by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Photograph of Hull Dock Office late 1800s
Picture taken of photograph at the Hull Maritime Museum.

Another example is Liverpool. Unfortunately many of the landmark buildings of the city today didn't exist in the late 19th century so we have decided against including them. Artistic licence only goes so far.

Liverpool Custom House in the virtual world

The most iconic building at the time was the Custom House built in 1839 and demolished in 1948 having been damaged in the Second World War. Again, this is the first building you'll see when arriving in virtual Liverpool; and once more, Atkinson Grimshaw has captured the scene in his painting "Liverpool Custom House and Wapping". 

Painting called 'Liverpool Custom House and Wapping' by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

Ola's world interprets history and cannot be entirely accurate. It is a conjuncted space where the stories of individuals are shared. When constructing this sharing platform, i.e. the world, we sift through the evidence and select the most appropriate bits based on what is most likely to prompt the users' memory - and the inclusion of iconic buildings is part of the selection process.

'Firestorm' replaces 'Phoenix' as our viewing client

When Ola's world launched last year, we decided to use the Phoenix Viewer viewing client to access the virtual world (as described here). Yet, as of the 1 January 2013 The Phoenix Firestorm Project, Inc. decided to discontinue support for the Phoenix Viewer. Their reasons can be found by clicking the links in this post

We have always wanted the virtual world to be easy to use and this means choosing a viewing client which does not require a high level of technical know-how to install and use. It also has to be free for both you and us. Phoenix Viewer has served us well and we could have continued to recommend it as our chosen client. Yet, the fact that support would be discontinued and that 'it would become more and more deprecated over time' built a strong argument against its continued use.

After some testing, we decided to opt for Phoenix Viewer's replacement, Firestorm Viewer as our chosen viewing client. Installation instructions can be found here.

Firestorm viewer logo
Image credit:

Once you've installed Firestorm, we're sure you will agree that this an improvement on Phoenix. Navigation is easier and the menus are less sluggish. The picture also appears clearer and more detailed.

Screenshot of Firestorm welcome screen
Firestorm welcome screen displaying our website is a nice touch.

If you decide to switch to Firestorm, we hope you find it easy to do so. Any problems whatsoever, we're here to help - just drop us a line. A video showing some of the new features and navigation will shortly be available on our Youtube channel.