Tax rolls from the first half of the 1600s show that the Vesterålen archipelago in northern Norway had a large population of cotters (“husmenn”) at that time, probably also in the preceding century. The cotters were especially numerous in two large fishing villages, Andenes Vær and Langenes Vær, where they, before 1640, constituted a majority of the population.

After 1650, the population in the region decreased, the cotter group more than the farmers and the “værmenn” (the farmers’ counterpart in the largest fishing villages). This coincided with reduced catches in the main fisheries. The cotters as a group fell more in numbers than the farmers and the “værmenn”. On farms in areas farther from the coast, the cotter group was more stable before and during this crisis, but also smaller.

This paper discusses the concepts of “værmann”, “strandsitter” and “husmann”, and takes a closer look at various economic adaptions the Vesterålen cotters, both Norwegian and Sami, undertook. For most of the cotters, the fisheries seem to have been of great importance.

Together with a rise and fall in absolute and relative numbers of cotters coinciding with the harvest at sea, the high proportion of cotters in the fishing villages leads to the conclusion that most of these cotters had fisheries as a main part of their way of life. This is at odds with the prevailing understanding of the cotters way of living. However, this paper covers only a small part of the coast. More research is needed to assess the validity of these conclusions on a broader scale.