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

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.

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

For all of the North Star Reports, see http://NorthStarReports.org See also, http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:


The North Star Reports will share essays from our student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Student interns have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.

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

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports. The NSR is co-sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open-access policy. K-12 teachers, please contact the chief editor if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu


Filed under History, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Professor Liang's Classes, Tayler Boelk

26 responses to “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

  1. Katy Goerke

    I love your story! With a last name like Goerke I am familiar with the search for meaning in a last name (Goerke though sounding German, doesn’t actually mean anything in that language, digression). Unlike my father making bizarre requests round the Festival of Nations tables, your great grandmother and you have done a remarkable job at digging into family history with a sensible a scholarly approach.

  2. Steffanie Osborne

    That’s a very interesting history. A lot of names were changed when immigrants moved to America to sound more American, but it’s very interesting that it was changed just because Johnson was so common.

  3. Benjamin Carlson

    I have always been fascinated by names and how they change over the years. I would like to do a study on what factors brought on the changing of names through the immigration process and to see if that still happens today. Does anyone know of a good place to start such a research project?

    • Tayler Boelk

      I have found the Duluth Public Library to be a great resource in any kind of research. The main branch in downtown Duluth has the “North Shore Room” which is filled with genealogy information from the Duluth and Minnesota area. It is interesting, actually, that the belief that Ellis Island was changing immigrants names has been proven to be false in many cases. In my family, we had already been in the United States for 40 years before the name had changed for all of Andrea’s children and it was the children themselves that changed it.

  4. Hannah Johnson

    I think this article does a great job of showing how much you can learn by an everyday thing you never think of. It brings up excellent points and makes you think of what any name really means and the history and stories behind them.

  5. Emily Schiro

    That is amazing that you were able to find so much about your family. It’s crazy how people get last names that may be different from another generation of a family. I know that my family last name was changed only about 2 generations ago. This has inspired me more to look closely at my family history.

  6. Bao Vang

    It had never cross my mind that our last name could have a deeper meaning to it. I have never thought about where the origin of my last name came from and how my ancestors got the name. Now, I am curious to find out! Furthermore, I really admire your story because it brings so much more meaning to your last name and how unique it is!

  7. Becca

    This is very interesting! I love trying to find out about my family, but unfortunately my great grandma doesn’t like to talk about it much. I know that when my great grandfather’s family changed their last name coming over from Europe (I want to say Sweden, but I’m not 100% sure). I think it’s interesting that so many people changed their names immigrating. It makes me think about how many friends and family were potentially unable to track them down after they immigrated and wonder what my very extended family back in Europe is doing.

  8. Hannah Kunde

    I thought this was a very interesting article in how it dives into the depths of who a person is and where they come from by looking at their name. This article shows that there’s more to a name than people give credit for from our average day to day basis. Coming from a family that has changed its name when coming to the United States, its interesting to see all the different parts of what is in a name and what it means.

  9. Donovan Chock

    I enjoy having peers with genuine interest in their heritage. I think my perspective of last names developed slightly different than yours though. My fathers side of the family is mainly Hawaiian, and then English and Chinese. My mothers side of the family is German and Danish. My fathers last name is Chock which is an English last name. My mothers maiden name is Hoffman which is German. Now imagine what an English and a German person look like; John Smith and David Hasselhoff. 😉 I look nothing like either. So growing up, I have learned to identify myself with all of those rather than the one where my last name comes from. You could say I’m mutt/American.

  10. Camila Garcia

    Its very interesting how you could dig in the history of your family name. Is amazing how our ancestors migrate from different places and how they influence our lives in the present. Is also interesting how our names are acquired from nearby elements in daily lives like lakes.

  11. Josie Thao

    I completely understand the name change! I think of names a social contract. Every time I state my name, I have a need to indicate the Hmong or Americanized spelling because there is a huge difference. And recently, I found a version of my last name in a history embedded in Taiwan and I intend to look more into. Thanks for sharing a piece of your family history!

  12. David Miller

    I love this whole price of work because my family has also done research into our heritage. An interesting thing about my mother maiden name of Holick is not really her families last name. After research we couldn’t find the original family name, and no one in my family has any idea why. That was my first thought when i read this article and i really connected with this piece of work.

  13. Karn Pederstuen

    This was a great article about the history of a family name. I was really impressed by the amount of research and detail you were able to find about your family. This article makes me want to find out more about my family history!

  14. I remember enjoying this story from last spring’s World History II course. I’m glad this article is here to remind me of it.

    Immigrants being renamed by the government seems to be quite common at this time. I’ve heard many similar examples occurring at Ellis Island. I wonder how names alter in today’s society. Are we more organized that this does not occur? Do some immigrants adopt “Americanized names” because of outside pressures? I’m led to believe name alteration has not completely disappeared.

  15. Austin Kindt

    Thanks for sharing your families history with us! As Karn Pederstuen said I would love to dig deeper into my families history. My last name is German but I was adopted and know very little about my biological families immigration to the USA and ethnicity.

  16. The story that you shared is really unique, and cool that the town would have been named something different if you would have kept your original last name. I have a street in Wisconsin that my grandmother lives on, and my father grew up on. It is named after my last name, and it makes me want to find the story behind what it means. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Samantha Roettger

    It’s very interesting to see how names change over time. I have been longing to look into my ancestry as you have done but have not found the time to do so. It’s amazing how a single name can tell a huge story.

  18. Carley Henning

    A lot of time and digging up must have went into this process. I personally enjoyed this story about your family history and maybe would like to do my own investigation of my last name origin as well some day!

  19. Tommy Traaholt

    I find it very interesting that you have found so much information about your family, and i really love reading articles about old family members. I myself would really like to look into my heritage, because i think it would be stunning to see where my family has come from.

  20. Interesting family history. It is cool that you are able to find all this history and have it in your records. I wish I knew what my family history was in as much depth as you do. How much digging did you have to do to find all of this?

    • Tayler Boelk

      My Great Grandmother spent several years contacting distant relatives and finding all of this information. I am lucky to have it all in one place (a huge chest filled with binders and photo albums!) so it is easier to find what I am looking for.

  21. Jonathan Winter

    I found this very interesting and actually used it in my world history family presentation, I thought you touched on good topics and it weirdly related to me a lot. so thank you for being relatable to me so I could use this in my presentation

  22. Carley Nadeau

    Thank you for sharing so much about your family history! I find it so interesting that you were able to find out about so much of your family’s history, especially in print. Most of my information I’ve had to look up online or people have told me orally. I have researched extensively my family heritage but I have never found everything quite extraordinary as a town with my family’s surname. That is something quite amazing and you should be proud of that.

  23. Audrey Tusken

    Dear Taylor, it is amazing that your family has been able to trace its origins all the way back to Norway – especially since they migrated so long ago. I believe both my mother’s and father’s families came to the United States in the early 20th century – so quite a bit later than yours. My last name, “Tusken,” is also German and the spelling was changed from “Teska” when they came through Ellis Island. I am sure there are millions of stories throughout the United States like yours, and I believe that that diversity is one of our nation’s greatest strengths.

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