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MyHeritage member Dayne Skolmen, 24, of South Africa, has been working on his family history since he was 14, when a family tree school assignment caught his interest. His ancestors come from Norway, Germany and the Netherlands.

Dayne's ancestor, Kristian Skolmen, working on one of his Norwegian landscape paintings

Dayne lives in Port Elizabeth, and is currently completing his Master of Technology (MTech) in Information Technology Research at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

His grandfather, Thorbjorn Christian Synnestvedt Skolmen, died at 81 when Dayne was only 3.

I was the last grandchild born and the youngest of my generation. Therefore I had the least knowledge about the family and grew up not knowing much of my heritage or surname origins.

At 14, he had to create a family tree for a school assignment. Dayne asked his parents about each of their families.

My father, Edward James Skolmen, knew a few minor details. His mother, Eva Hilda Bauer, was of German descent and his father was of Norwegian descent. My father was also the last born grandchild of his grandfather, Thoralf Skolmen. He was 8 when his grandfather died. He didn’t even know his grandfather’s name. He never got to meet him because Thoralf was in an isolation hospital for tuberculosis patients in Durban, South Africa. Hospitalized for eight years, he died in 1962.

The East London (South Africa) Skolmen family c1959. (From left) Back: David Ernest Skolmen, John Frederick Skolmen, Eva Hilda Bauer, Thorbjorn Christian Synnestvedt Skolmen. Front: Linda Marie Skolmen and Edward James Skolmen

Dayne’s mother, Melita-Anne de Bruyn, was a foster child, her parents were of Dutch descent and died when she was very young.

I have only recently uncovered an estate file containing details about my maternal grandmother, born Wilhelmina Magdalena Snyman in Uitenhage, South Africa. This discovery was very emotional for my mother; she had lived her entire life with only one picture of her mother and very few details. The estate file revealed that my mother was 5 when her mother died at the young age of 37.

Melita-Anne de Bruyn and her mother Wilhelmina Magdalena de Bruyn (born Snyman) c1957 – the only photo my mother has of her mother.

At the end of his school project, Dayne discovered he was only able to go back as far as his grandparents – and he wasn’t even sure if the names on his mother’s side were correct!

All the other kids had many branches and generations in their trees. This project ignited a firestorm of unanswered questions. Where did my surname come from? How did my ancestors end up in Africa? Who were my mother’s parents? I had carried the Skolmen name my whole life without knowing where it came from, what it meant or how it had been passed down to me.

Recently, his cousin Gary Skolmen reignited Dayne’s interest in family history and it has become an addiction!

The path of discovery is truly an endless path indeed! I have discovered many interesting things through SmartMatches on MyHeritage and have managed to reconnect with distant relatives in Sweden, Norway and America.

The SKOLMEN surname is believed to have originated from a farm in Nordre Land, Norway – named for the many skulls found there. Skol is assumed to mean skull, and the term men suggests “many.”

A 17th century ancestor, Torger Skolmen (1755-1822), seems to have taken the name. It has descended to the present day on at least four continents. Though there may be other explanations as to the surname’s origin, Dayne discovered that his great grandfather, Thoralf, emigrated from Norway to South Africa in 1909.

The Skolmen surname is so rare that all the Skolmens currently in South Africa are descendants of Thoralf.

Thoralf was the oldest son of Kristian Skolmen, a well-known teacher, painter and choirmaster.

A sketch done by Kristian Skolmen in 1893 showing the ancestral Skolmen farm

Dayne recently compiled a Youtube video of Kristian’s paintings, illustrating the beauty of the Norwegian landscape. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AF-lRtqz64

In 1888, Kristian married Marie Fritsvold and they moved to Kongsberg where they had six children: Thoralf, Pål, Ingeborg, John, Ragnvald and Marie.

The Norwegian Skolmen Family. (From left) Standing: Pål Brynjulf Skolmen, Ingeborg Skolmen, Kristian Skolmen. Sitting: Thoralf Skolmen, John Fritsvold Skolmen, Ragnvald Skolmen, Marie Skolmen and Marie Fritsvold
Thoralf Skolmen, wife Henninge Bölling Hillestad and son Thorbjorn Christian Synnestvedt Skolmen (Dayne’s grandfather) with some Zulu natives c1913

Thoralf’s younger brother Ragnvald also emigrated to South Africa, but had no children and died in 1965. Paul (Pål) Brynjulf Skolmen, Thoralf’s other brother, emigrated to America around 1910.

Earlier this year I made contact with Robert “Bob” Skolmen (one of Paul Skolmen’s six grandchildren) and we have been corresponding nearly every day. It is almost as if the two brothers (Thoralf and Paul) have been united once again through their descendants.

When I mentioned this interesting thought to Robert, he said “I like to think our conversations are bridging the gap between two distant branches of our amazing family.”

Dayne has also contacted Berit Marie Svenman (87) and her daughter Åse Landelius in Sweden. Berit is the daughter of Ingeborg Skolmen and has been a great help in answering his questions.

This year I used the postal service for the first time in my life when I sent Berit two letters and some small gifts for her birthday.

Even though Dayne’s passion for family history may seem strange to some, at his young age, he has seen the good that it brings in reuniting families and creating a stronger bond among close relatives.

I came across this quote in my online searches “Learning about our ancestors helps us better understand who we are—creating a family bond, linking the present to the past, and building a bridge to the future.” Family history brings great joy to people. Old photographs shed light on forgotten times, the lives of distant ancestors are revealed, and people discover that they have relatives all over the world.

Currently my family tree on MyHeritage has 225 people in it and goes back eight generations. Although this may not seem like a lot, this is extensive for our rare surname.

I began this journey to ensure that my children won’t have the same problem I faced when they need to do a family tree in school or when faced with the question, “Where does your surname come from?”

The assistance of MyHeritage’s family tree platform has been an easy and fun-filled way to document the past and to preserve it for the future.

Dayne shared these tips for those just beginning their family history journey:

  • Trust but verify: Family stories and information from relatives can be informative, but checking old census and immigration records can expose many wrong details and reveal relatives they had not mentioned or did not know about.
  • Be accurate: I often notice errors in other people’s family trees, which makes me constantly aware of the importance of accuracy in my own work.
  • Keep an open mind and never give up: One must never be disappointed by what they don’t find in genealogical records. Even the smallest piece of information can point a researcher in exciting new directions.
  • Take a chance: Don’t be reluctant to contact another user through a SmartMatch on MyHeritage. This often results in a vast amount of rich information, photos or interesting old family stories and can also build wonderful friendships with distant relatives.

Share your comments about Dayne’s story below. Do you have a story to share? Send it to stories@myheritage.com.

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  • Janice

    October 18, 2014

    An inspiring and touching story, Dayne. Learning our family history truly enriches our lives. Wishing you continued success.

  • Cherie Bennett

    October 18, 2014

    This is my name & I am very much wondering if I have any cousins in Mount Gambier here in South Australia as my partner & I know someone who lives there & we have a friend who is waiting also to hear from Ismael. I have done my family tree & please have a look for yourself. Very Kind Regards Cherie Bennett.

  • gary skolmen

    October 29, 2014

    Thank you dayne for all your research and efforts that eventually paid off this is truly inspiring and fascinating for future generations. Although not all members will appreciate the time and effort you spend on all the researching the generations that come will have an fascinating story to tell their children. All the research you gave done is truly amazing as it is fascinating! ! Well done cuz!!

  • Judy Skolmen Bouwer

    October 29, 2014

    Well done Dayne. I have so enjoyed reading all that you have written. Thanks for keeping us all ‘in the loop’.

  • Corrine E. Wick

    November 16, 2014

    As we allow ourselves the luxury of going back in time, we touch the history of our past. I’m fairly new at researching my family history, less than four years, but have loved the journey.
    My ancestry, like your own, touches lands so distant from my own.
    The maternal side reaches back to the Russian Federation, with a widow and small daughter finding a sanctuary in the United States of America. That daughter was raised on the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin on a Native American Indian Reservation. She married a Full-Blooded Chippewa and my Grandfather was one of many children from that union.
    On my paternal side there are still many blanks as his mother was born in 1886, her mother died there in 1889, and she immigrated from Norway in 1892 with her father and several others. One became her step-mother. They also settled in Wisconsin near my Maternal family. My father was born in 1900 there. I have never found his father’s name, his birth certificate, or his mother after 1905. He was raised by her father and his new family…taking their family name. Upon retiring in 1965 that decision caused problems as there was no birth record, fortunately a mid-wife at his birth was still alive and could legally verify same.
    Any suggestions will be appreciated.

  • Crystal Boehm

    November 17, 2014

    Dayne, you have done well. I began researching ten years ago and agree that much of the information available has flaws. I have been reluctant to publish my information without validating everything. It is up to people like you and I and all other researchers to keep the spirit of those who have come and gone alive. There is a reason that we take so much pride in knowing. DISCOVERY has so many exciting rewards and soothes the soul. The more that we learn the more we feel connected. You will find that every time you have the opportunity to engage in conversation with a complete stranger that you will want to know their name and where they are from. You never know if those you are related to have passed you by or if you even had words with them. Your story is appreciated and much enjoyed.

  • dawn mace

    November 17, 2014

    fascinating story, inspiring me to continue with my search for two very elusive family members of my own, james and mary ann finigan.their son edward finigan, was my great grandfather, and after four years thats as far as i ve got

  • Grace Kilkie

    November 17, 2014

    Thank you Dayne you have inspired me to start again I had given up as I came to a full Stop.

    Really enjoyed your story and happy for you.


  • Barbara Hawker

    November 19, 2014

    Fantastic Dayne! I started my tree in 2004 beginning with my Grandma on my fathers side her mother had a French/or Flemish name as did three generations back from her, I Am now stuck-all these women lived in England I have gone back to 1810….I would have loved to have been able to trace someone in France.
    I have travelled widely in France and love the country and never new until I did my Tree. The surname Jacques is the oldest I have found and he had his own business in Staffordshire as a Wheelwright.

  • DorthyDowning

    November 20, 2014

    Dayne I really enjoyed reading about your story and the long journey that you have taken. It makes me want to keep working on my family history. Thank you

  • Dayne Skolmen

    November 24, 2014

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for all the kind words and for taking the time to read my story. I am glad my story could provide some motivation for your own unique genealogy journey.

    I am a member of the South African Genealogy Facebook group, and a few months ago one of the members of the group posted this interesting perspective of discovering ones family history.

    “We Are Chosen

    My feelings are that in each family there seems to be one who is called to find the ancestors. To put flesh to bone and make them live again. To tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know, and approve. To me, doing genealogy, is not a cold gathering of facts, but instead, breathing life into all who have gone before. We are the story tellers of the tribe – all tribes have one. We have been called, as it were, by our genes. Those who have gone on before cry out to us, tell our story! So we do. In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told my ancestors – you have a wonderful family, you would be proud of us. How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt that there was love there for me? I cannot say. It goes beyond documenting facts. It goes to who I am and why I do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery, about to be lost to weeds and indifference, and saying, I can’t let this happen. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses. Their never giving in or giving up. Their resolution to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that they fought to make us a Nation. It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us, that we might be born who we are. That we might remember them. So we do, with love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence. Because we are them and they are us. So, as a scribe called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to the one called in the next generation to answer the call, and to take up their place in the long line of family storytellers. That is why I do genealogy and that is what calls those, young and old, to step up and put flesh to bone. We are chosen!”

    This really spoke to me on so many levels. I have developed such a great passion for family history. My family history adventure has been exciting, with many great discoveries, as well as dead ends. When I compiled my family tree, I knew I had ancestors, but they were fictitious to me. It was only once I got in contact with distant relatives, that their stories started to take shape. My journey to discover my family history has given character and given life to the names that started out as lifeless identities on paper. Through this experience I discovered who I am and all the great people from who I come from.

    So I wish you all the best of luck in your family history endeavors and may each discovery enrich your life and bring you closer to finding yourself at the same time.

    Kind Regards,

  • Barbara Els

    January 2, 2015

    Good Day, I have been trying to do our family tree from my fathers side, but shoo, to find people to give you info, thats another story. my grandfather passed away when my dad was still small, so he never had much info, and my gran would not speak of him, so all i have is their wedding certificate and a portrate of him. Not sure if both his parents came from Ireland or just my graet-grandfather, Here is my grandfather’s names Frederick Johannes Jacobus McKnight, Born 4/2/1888, dont have date of death, his birthplace was Dundee, Natal, South Africa.

  • Norma Gordon

    July 27, 2015

    Hi Dayne, I am so glad that you are doing this there is very little availanle on the Norwegian settlers I have hit a brickwall with my husbands grandfather Emil Martin Rees definitely of Norwegian descent as the first son was baptised Roydan Viking Oliaf Rees each of the other children also have at least one Norwegian Name. Yet I can not find where he came from or what happened to him. He was married to Charlotte Howard but they were divorced

  • L becker

    January 31, 2016

    Dayne are you still doing your family tree? I knew Uncle Tobie
    Regards Lyn

  • Dayne

    March 9, 2016

    Hi Lyn

    I am always doing family history research. I would love to hear your stories about my grandfather. Please contact me on dayne.skolmen@gmail.com