What’s in a name? – Identity and Story Telling Through Names – — The North Star Reports – by Tayler Boelk. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
Names are a way of communicating. They indicate to whom we are speaking, alert us when someone wants our attention, and let us know how much trouble we are in (when mom pulls out the middle name, it’s a lot!) Last names, however, are a slightly different. These names indicate cultural information, such as heritage. For example, by hearing my last name, a number of inferences can be made. “Boelk” is a German-sounding name. From this, people can assume I have German heritage, that I am white, probably blonde, and that I drink a lot of beer. For three out of four of these, they’d be correct. Now, take the last name “Lopez”. Does the same mental image appear? Probably not.
In addition to heritage, names have the potential to tell stories. I’m sure everyone can think of a relative or friend who was named after a grandparent or celebrity. But what about last names? Is there a story behind a German sounding “Voelk” changed to an English sounding “Boelk?” How about my mother’s side of the family being named “Johnson” in Norway and suddenly switching to “Lillo” after immigration? I think so.
My great grandmother, on my mother’s side, did extensive amounts of research on family heritage and genealogy. It is for this reason that I am sharing the story of the Johnson/Lillo’s rather than the “Voelk’s” (investigation pending.) This name change is an important part of my family history and tells the story of my family’s immigration to the United States.
[The Lille O farm’s main building, which was over 200 years old.]
There were several small islands in the river that ran along the “Lille O” farm in Christiana, Norway. The name Lilloe means “Little Island” in Norwegian. The first “Lillo” to own the Lille O farm purchased it at auction on April 17th, 1792. Andreas Johnson inherited the farm from his father on December 29th, 1842. Though it is now a public park in present day Oslo, this farm remained in the Lillo family for 109 years.
[This goblet that was owned by Christian Ancher, the original owner of the Lille O Farm, can be found in the Oslo Museum of applied art. It is dated 1764.]
According to the world history encyclopedia, about 10.2 million people immigrated to the U.S. during 1820-1880, this included an entire 1/3 of Norway’s population. Andreas Johnson and his family immigrated to the U.S. in two groups. The first group was two of the eldest children, including Johann Johnson, who left Christiana, Norway on March 27th, 1854. They lived in Wisconsin until the second group of Andreas, his wife, and the rest of the children arrived about three years later. They then moved to Minnesota where there is record of an Andreas Jensen buying land in 1857, in Salem Township. This was before Minnesota had become a state.
[Photograph of a cartoon my great grandmother kept pinned with her immigration research. I found cartoons frequently as I went through her work.]
Johann Johnson, Andreas’ eldest son, was the first in the family to officially change his last name to Lillo. This was documented in the 1870 census and was entered as “Lelo” by the census taker. Taking the name of a family farm was a common, and legal, practice in Norway. Magnus, Andreas’ youngest son, did not begin using the name Lillo until he applied for a post office in Minnesota. He was told there were too many Johnson’s and changed the last name to Lillo some time in 1898 keeping Johnson as a middle name. The town of Lillo remained on Minnesota maps until the 1930’s and Lillo has forever replaced Johnson as my family’s surname.
[Information recorded by my Great Grandmother during her research]
[Photograph of Minnesota Map still depicting the town of Lillo]
[Photocopy of a postcard sent from the town of Lillo]
Magnus was my great, great, great grandfather and as a result of him applying for a post office, I am a Lillo. Had the family name remained “Johnson”, there would never have been the town of Lillo and the story of the Lille O Farm may have been lost over the years. This is my favorite example of how a name, or the changing of a name, tells a story.
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Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA
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