The History of Tromsø

Apr, 06, 2020

Early History

It’s believed that the area around Tromsø has been inhabited since the end of the Ice Age. The area around Tromsø became ice-free around 10,500 years ago. The area was first inhabited by the Sami people, and traces of Sami settlement can be found in the fjord areas around the city. At some point, Norwegians also settled in the area. Archaeological excavations have taken place at nearby Tønsvika, and they have turned up artefacts and remains of buildings that are believed to be up to 10,000 years old.

The First Settlements in Tromsø

Sami people in 1894, Tromsø Norway. Samiske folk i Tromsø,… | Flickr
Sami people in Tromsø. 1894 (Source)

During the Middle Ages, both Sami and Norwegian people lived here. Perhaps the earliest resident we know about is Ottar, the Viking traveller we met in Finnsnes (if travelling northbound on Hurtigruten). As mentioned in Finnsnes, Ottar lived somewhere in Troms, and one of the possibilities is near present-day Tromsø. He described himself as living “furthest to the north of all Norwegians” with areas north of this being populated by the Sami. Tromsø’s location correlates with this; Icelandic sources from the 12th century state that the fjord ‘Malangen’ near Tromsø was a border between the Norse and Sami settlements, though there were some living on either side of the border. Both Norse and Sami Iron Age remains have been found on Kvaløya, the neighbouring island to Tromsø.

The name Tromsø is a bit of a mystery; one theory suggests that ‘Troms’ derives from the old name of the island as several islands and rivers have the same name, which may derive from the word ‘straumr’ which means a strong stream. Another theory is that Tromsø was originally called ‘Store Tromsøya’ due to a characteristic mountain known as ‘Tromma’ (the Drum). The mountains name in Sami, Rumbbučohkka, is identical in meaning, and it is said to have been a sacred mountain for the Sami in pre-Christian times. The Sami name for the island is Romsa, which is assumed to be a loan word from Norse. The ‘ø’ at the end is an Old Norse (and present-day Danish) word for ‘island’ (today in Norway we say ‘Øy’ for island).

What the first church in Tromsø may have looked like

The first church was built on Tromsøya island (the island where Tromsø is today) in 1252 and was believed to be commissioned by King Håkon Håkonsson, and the first time Tromsø is mentioned in historical documents is in The Saga of Håkon Håkonsson. It was called “The Church of Saint Mary in Troms near the heathens”, which just rolls of the tongue and refers to the Sami people, who followed their own religion that wasn’t exactly in line with the new Norwegian Catholic religion. At the time, it was the northernmost church in the world. King Håkon also commissioned the building of a turf rampart called Skansen in order to protect the island against attacks from the Karelians (from Karelia, an area between the White Sea and the Gulf of Finland) and Russia. Today no traces of the original church remain (it was a simple wooden building), though it may have been built where the present-day Tromsø Cathedral is. Skansen still exists in the form of a grass mound with a diameter of 50 metres, and it’s visible near the Polar Museum.

Skansen Today (Source)

While Tromsø didn’t develop into a proper town for another 500 years, it did become a settlement and meeting place. Few people did live here, and because of the church, more people from further away travelled to worship at Tromsø. Back then it was compulsory, and if you didn’t show up from church, you’d receive a fine or imprisonment. So, while Tromsø didn’t have a large population, it became a local meeting place for isolated communities in the area.

Tromsø was also an important location for Norway when considering the proximity to Russia. Originally, the border extended towards the Lyngen Alps, and the state of Novgorod in Russia was able to tax the Sami up until this point. Norway was also able to tax the Sami as far east as the Kola Peninsula. So, the Sami people had to pay taxes to both states if they lived in that area. Sometimes even the Swedes and Finns would try to claim tax from the Sami, depending on where they lived! During the next 500 years, Norway’s border with Russia and Norwegian settlement would extend east towards Varanger, near Kirkenes, making Tromsø lose its status as a ‘frontier town’.

Tromsø Begins to Emerge

While Tromsø wasn’t really a town until the 18th century, there is evidence of people living here (besides the first church). Back then, if someone living as far north as Tromsø wanted to trade, they had to travel to Vågan in Lofoten or to Bergen in the south-west. The first trader was mentioned as coming from Tromsø in 1536, when they had travelled south to conduct trade. It’s believed it was the priests of the church that were the ones making the trip to Vågån to trade; it was common back then for the priests to also be merchants. We also know people were living here in the early 17th century, as Tromsø (like many other places in Northern Norway) conducted its own witchcraft trials, and three people were burned at the stake. Then, in the early 18th century, a new church was built to replace the old one.

During the 17th century, Denmark-Norway was solidifying its claim to the northern coast of Scandinavia, and Skansen was reinforced at Tromsø. Then, despite being home to only around 80 people, in 1794 Tromsø was issued a city charter by King Christian VII. This coincided with the abolition of Bergen’s centuries-old monopoly on the trade of cod. Bergen lost its trading privileges in 1789, and the people in Northern Norway were now free to trade with whoever they wanted. Hammerfest and Vardø were the first towns to get city status, but Norway wanted a third city in the North, and a debate had arisen as to where it would be. Candidates were Gibostad near Finnsnes and Gausvik near Harstad, but in the end Tromsø was the city that won.

Tromsø around the year 1806. Source:

The development and growth of Tromsø wasn’t immediate; in 1807 the population was only 100. And that was despite the fact that a new church had been completed in 1803, the present-day Elverhøy Church (it was relocated in 1861) and in 1804 the Diocese of Hålogaland was created and headquartered in Tromsø. The town was met with hard times during the Napoleonic Wars; in 1812 the town was attacked by English forces. In the Battle of Pølsehamna, the small Danish-Norwegian garrison set itself so strongly to counter that the English didn’t dare to enter the city; the day they left, the 2nd of August 1812, is still celebrated as an important anniversary in the Danish Naval Defence.

The new Tromsø church after it was completed in 1803
Elverhøy kirke – Wikipedia
The church was moved in 1864 to become the Elverhøy Church

Eventually, Tromsø began to develop as a large city. This is largely thanks to two things: The Pomor Trade and Arctic Hunting.

The Pomor Trade

During the 19th century, the Pomor Trade with Russia became increasingly popular. Trade with Russia had begun in 1725, while Bergen still had the trading monopoly, and Tromsø (before it got city rights) was the starting point for the trading routes eastwards and became one of the most important Pomor Trade Centres in the north. Pomor Trade continued until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Coming soon: An article focused on the Pomor Trade

Arctic Hunting

Arctic hunting started around 1820 with expeditions to Svalbard, Greenland, and even as far west as Canada. By 1850, Tromsø had developed into a major centre of Arctic hunting, overtaking the former centre Hammerfest. Tromsø had direct trading links with Arkangelsk, Bordeaux, and Central Europe. The trade of Arctic goods, whether it be hides, skins, bones or food, accelerated the development of the town and the entire harbour area on the east-side of the island was developed as a continuous urban area of piers and residential houses with large gardens. Some of these buildings still remain, especially the mansions on Sjøgata and Skippergata.

Tromsø also became an important departure point from which many Arctic expeditions originated. Explorers like Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile and Fritjof Nansen made use of the know-how in Tromsø on the conditions in the Arctic, and often recruited their crews in the city.

Tromsø Grows into a City

Just 10 years after Arctic hunting had started, Tromsø’s population had risen from a little over 100 to 1,200. Land on the island was sold off so the locals could develop country houses and farmsteads; present-day Hope, Nøysomheden, Charlottenlund and Sommerlyst are the names of such old country estates. Sjøgata (Sea Street) was developed as the main street, while Storgata (Big Street) was a back alley with more modern buildings.

The increase in trade with other countries, the influx of foreigners and visiting summer tourists introduced new trends among local people. Furniture from Europe, fashions, entertainment and socialising helped develop the town into a culture hub. Travelling associations brought literature, music, the circus and theatre to the town. Special clubs formed for French, German and Russian language speakers.

A travel guide from 1841 says:

‘No other place in the far north has impressed as us much as Tromsø. The attraction is not its large population but rather to experience its bustling commerce, its lively company, and its rapid rise; to put it another way – the young and invigorating life that is emerging in this booming town.’

Tromsø Square in the 1910s. Source:
Tromsø around the year 1900. Source:

Tromsø quickly developed the nickname ‘The Paris of the North’. How this nickname came to be is uncertain, but it is generally assumed that people in Tromsø appeared to be far more sophisticated than what visitors from the south were expecting. The women were often dressed in the finest clothing, the locals had very good formation and language skills, and there was a strong culture in Tromsø. All of this was thanks to the large amount of money that was coming in from the fish and Arctic trade. Also, the people in Tromsø were trading directly with Europe and not going through a trade house such as the one in Oslo. Several places in Tromsø actually have French names because of these strong trading links.

The commercial and cultural development of Tromsø continued, and in 1838 the postal ship ‘Prinds Gustav’ began sailing to Tromsø during the summer route from Trondheim. In 1848, the teacher training college moved from Trondenes (near Harstad) to Tromsø with part of its mission being to educate Sami scholars – there was a quote ensuring the Sami gained access. The same year, the Tromsø Shipyard was established. In 1847, a local ferry began sailing from Tromsø to the outlying villages. Tromsø Cathedral was built in 1861 and Tromsø Museum opened in 1872; the same year the first railway planning committee met to discuss building a rail network. Tromsø still does not have a rail network. Mack Brewery was founded in 1877.

Tromsø in the 1930s. Source: DigitaltMuseum

By 1890, the population had increased to 6,000. In 1893, the first Hurtigruten ship called at Tromsø. At the start of the 1900s, better quays and breakwaters were built, providing safer facilities for fishing boats and steamships. By this time, almost all of Tromsø island had been cleared for housing or building, so neighbouring municipalities were swallowed up to become Tromsø. Today, Tromsø is one of the largest municipalities in Norway by area.

World War II

When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Tromsø briefly served as the seat of the Norwegian Government while King Haakon VII and the government hide out here. They left Tromsø with the cruiser Devonshire on 7 June 1940 and would not return to Norway after the war.

The Battleship Tirpitz
Tirpitz var en av andre verdenskrigs store drama - Visit Nord-Norge
Tirpitz as it can be seen today

Tromsø was an important base for the Germans throughout the war, and the city escaped the war unscathed. The most dramatic event to happen in Tromsø throughout the war was when the German Battleship Tirpitz was sunk by RAF Avro Lancaster during Operation Catechism off Tromsøya Island on 12 November 1944, killing close to 1,000 German soldiers. The Tirpitz was the largest German battleship ever built, and it still lies off the coast and is visible during low tide.

“South Point”, which was established in 1941 for political prisoners. The first prisoners were male Jews from Tromsø. There were around 120 men in the camp. The second camp was “Krøkebaersletta”, which was a camp for political prisoners who had participated in military resistance. The prisoners here were subject tto terrible treatment. On 20 Ocotber 1943 eight prioners were sentenced to death and executed. The number of prisoners at any one time was around 250, though 2,500 prisoners passed through here on their way to larger camps. The third camp was “Isrenna”, established in 1942 for Russian prisoners of war. After the war, both Krøkebaersletta and Isrenna were used as prison camps for traitors and members of the Gestapo.

During the forced evacuation of Northern Norway, which was being devastated due to the Germans ‘scorched earth’ policy, Tromsø received 7381 evacuees from the area. Additionally, 6000 Germans came to Tromsø after leaving Finland; this brought the total number of German soldiers in Tromsø at the end of the ear to 14,000. At the end of the war, more refugees from Northern Norway went to Tromsø and stayed there; resulting in a huge boom in the population.

Tromsø in the 1950s (Source)

Post-War Growth

Expansion after World War II was rapid. More municipalities merged with Tromsø, tripling the population. Overall, population growth has been strong compared to many places in the north, with the population growing by more than 1,000 every year even today.

The rapid growth led to many areas being overlooked, and Tromsø became a run-down city. Many materials and money were being sent elsewhere in Northern Norway to try and rebuild destroyed towns. This lack in care led to two major fires in Tromsø in 1948 and 1969, so while Tromsø was one of the towns saved from destruction during the war, many of the pre-war buildings were destroyed by fire.

Throughout the 1960s Tromsø got a number of new structures. In 1960, the Tromsdalen bridge was built, connecting the island to the mainland; in 1961, the cable car opened; in 1964 both the Tromsø Airport and famous Arctic Cathedral were completed, and then in 1972 the University of Tromsø was opened. The local teachers college and the museum were incorporated into the University, and the University became the third largest in the country.

In the 1990s, an underwater bridge was built connecting the island to the mainland, and then in 1998 the Norwegian Polar Institute was moved to Tromsø from Oslo.

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Meet the guide!

Hey, I'm Emma! I'm a tour leader in Scandinavia and local guide in Bergen Norway. I've made this blog to provide insightful travel tips and advice when visiting Norway, focusing on history, culture and everyday life. With I Love Bergen, you can make sure you have the best visit possible.

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