It’s a funny thing to me. Nothing is so personal and yet so public at the same time. It’s among my earliest memories of pondering a subject. Where did it come from? How did I get it? Who else has it? This subject has continued to be intriguing to me throughout my life. So this is how my family name evolved.
Back in Norway, or “The Old Country” as my Great grandpa (Christian) would say, the father’s first name became the last name of his children. So my 4 Greats Grandpa Christoffer’s name was added to my 3 Greats Grandpa Harald’s name. So he was known as Harald Christoffersen. Of course the sen meant Harald was Christoffer’s son. Well this naming practice changed in the mid 1800’s. Harald’s children used the last name of Haraldsen. So Harald’s son, Christoffer (named after his grandfather mentioned above) became Christoffer Haraldsen. But his children including Christian were the first generation to continue using the same last name. Similar naming practices were followed in other countries, like Ireland where the Mc in Mcfadden meant the son of Fadden.
So then as a 12 year old boy, Christian immigrated with his widowed mother and surviving sisters to America in 1876 through Ellis Island. While being processed to enter the country, an immigration official “Angloized” the family name into the more English sounding Haroldsen. As I think about it, the one family heirloom my family could bring from the Old Country, their name, was in essence “vandalized” or at least thoughtlessly dinged with the careless mark of that immigration official. But now of course it is carefully protected (with the immigration official’s mark and all) from the miss use from careless spellers, and bad spellers (like me). Yes, I even know of some Haroldsen’s who are offended when they see their name misspelled. Little to they know that technically, they themselves misspell it compared to the original spelling.
Not long after this Norwegian family arrived, Christoffer’s mother married another Scandinavian named Lars Villiamson. Lars hadn’t had a son of his own, and so when he married Christoffer’s mother, he offered to teach him to farm and give him a farm as an inheritance if he would take his name and be known as Christoffer Villiamson. Christoffer agreed to this and learned and earned a farm from his stepfather. But he always regretted forsaking his own father’s name, saying he had sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Nine years later, while applying for a marriage license, the clerk told him that his name hadn’t ever been legally changed from Haroldsen. So at that time he assumed the Haroldsen name once again.
So if naming practices in Norway had changed a generation earlier or later, I would have been a Christoffersen. If Christian hadn’t felt loyalty to his own fathers name, I would have become a Williamson. (yes, Villiamson was also “Americanized”)
If this seems confusing, be thankful you didn’t live in one of these Utah communities back in the late 1800’s. The Scandinavians tended to gather into the same settlements and of course attend the same churches. Counties like Sanpete and Cache County were full of men with the same name. The story goes that in church, the bishop (like a pastor) would call on Brother Jensen to come to the front to give the closing prayer. 50 men would begin to stand. Seeing his mistake, the bishop would clarify, “Would Brother Lars Jensen please come and give the closing prayer.” Then there would still be 10 or 12 men standing looking at each other wondering “which” Lars Jensen. So then the bishop would resort to the less formal nickname and just ask, “Saddlebags” to come pray. Of course there is a story behind every nickname as well. But they really did have to use nicknames just so they knew who they were talking about.
With an understanding of my own last name, I have wondered at many of my other family names. I have tried just as hard to learn about my Tillack family name from Prussia. But to no avail. I know some names evolved from occupations and some from farms or villages of residence. But I haven’t found a good source of information in learning about name origins. I wish there was some expert who has written a book on the subject. But if so, I haven’t found it. As hard as this is to try to sort out now, I pity the poor sole who takes it upon himself in a hundred years from now to sort through all the computer nicknames they find on what will be then “old documents.” If one of my posterity were to find a copy of my space, he/she may spend days trying to discover where “Storyteller” came from. Of course, when I sign up on some other sight and Storyteller is not available, I’ll have to resort to some other nickname or add a lot of numbers to my nickname. Over a lifetime I could well have hundreds of different nicknames I’ve been known by in cyberspace. I’ll try to keep it simple (for posterity sake) and maybe choose something next time that no one else would want. Heck I could make it descriptive to add meaning as well. Something like “Badspeller” is probably available. If not I could just misspell it.