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Norwegian-American Surnames {1}
By Marjorie M. Kimmerle (Volume XII: Page 1)

Through the analysis of the language of the immigrant we are beginning today to understand the more subtle problems of American immigration. {2} Language is a highly sensitive instrument recording the mental habits and conflicts of the people who use it. The language of the immigrant reflects his mental struggle as he gives up his old culture and accepts, or adjusts himself to, a new one. Surnames are only a small part of his language, but they are especially significant inasmuch as they belong to individuals and are intimately connected with their daily lives. Surnames are, moreover, the most conservative and enduring element of the native language of the non-English speaking immigrant. Although most of his language must give way to American speech, his surnames retain permanent traces of his alien heritage. To be sure, some foreign names have been so Americanized that their origin is no longer recognizable, but there is still a great residue of surnames that have partially resisted change and still retain the earmarks of the land from which they came. They preserve some of the social history of their native environment. When foreign surnames are exchanged for American surnames or entirely lose their foreign character, the very loss of the alien element points to a parallel loss in the immigrant's native social heritage. Because surnames reflect both the old and the new culture of the immigrant in a very personal way, they serve as an excellent index to the social problems of immigration.

All non-English speaking foreigners have had to change their surnames to meet the linguistic demands of the new country. Either because they do not want to be recognized as foreigners or because they find it convenient, and indeed sometimes necessary, to adjust their names to American habits of speech, they have changed their surnames by transliteration, translation, or shortening, or have arbitrarily chosen an already existing American name that is near in sound to their foreign name. SchnŒdbele, for instance, becomes Snabely by transliteration; Giannopoulos becomes Johnson by translation; Saarikoski becomes Koski by shortening; and Oven becomes Owens, a good American name near in sound to Oven. {3} All non-English speaking foreigners have had to Americanize their names in these ways, but some foreigners, especially the Norwegians who came from the rural sections of Norway during the middle of the nineteenth century, have had an additional problem, that of changing their custom of naming.

The surname in America has always been a family name, a name used by all members of the family and handed down from one generation to another by the male descendants. But the emigrant from rural Norway who came to America during the middle of the nineteenth century did not have a stabilized system of family names. He used the active patronymic (his father's given name with the word son or darter added thereto), combined with the name of the farm on which he lived. But neither the patronymic nor the farm name was a real family name. It is this custom of using active patronymics as well as farm names that has made Norwegian-American names unstable. When we find one Norwegian using the name Johannes Larsen Hollo in 1844, Johannes Larsen Hedemarken in 1849, John Larsen in 1850, and Johannes Johannsson in 1860, we know that for the Norwegian it was not simply a question of Americanizing one surname, but of accepting a new custom and making a choice of one surname from two or more names that he brought with him from Norway.

To study Norwegian-American surnames we must understand the social environment of the immigrant before he left Norway as well as his new social environment in America. This can be done only by studying particular Norwegian-American settlements in which we can determine, at least approximately, the social history of each family and hence of each name. For this purpose the writer has chosen the Koshkonong and Springdale settlements in Dane County, Wisconsin, which were founded during the middle of the nineteenth century, when Norwegian immigration to the United States was in full swing.

Koshkonong, the region around Koshkonong Creek and Lake in south central Wisconsin, is principally in Dane County, but it also includes small portions of Jefferson and Rock counties. It was settled in 1840 by Norwegian immigrants who had come first to other American settlements, but, disappointed in the limited possibilities of the land of their original choice, had set off in search of another location. One group of the Koshkonong settlers was from La Salle County, Illinois, and another from Jefferson Prairie, Wisconsin. These settlers were soon followed by immigrants who went there direct from Norway, and the settlement expanded rapidly. In the early forties the "America fever" was spreading like wildfire in Norway, and there was a rush to America to get good land. The destination of many of the migrants was Wisconsin, particularly Koshkonong, which became one of the most prosperous of the early settlements and a starting place for many of the later migrations westward. One of the first expansions was west to the Blue Mounds region which includes Springdale. {4}

The regions in Norway from which the Koshkonong and Springdale immigrants came were primarily rural. The emigration movement had started in the southwest coastal region near Stavanger and then had spread gradually farther north along the coast to the farming districts of Hardanger, Voss, and Sogn, and finally, by the 1840's, the period of the Koshkonong and Springdale settlements, it had spread inland across the mountains to the more isolated farming regions of Telemark, Valdres, Numedal, Hallingdal, and Hedemark.

The large majority of these immigrants were farmers who came to seek better land. A scarcity of land for a growing population in Norway was forcing the farmers to go elsewhere--to the Norwegian cities or to the spacious farm lands of America. {5} In Norway there were different classes of farmers: the bonder or freeholders; the renters who were, however, virtually freeholders; and the husmenn or cotters who, in return for the use of a small patch of land and a hut, worked a number of days a week for the bonder. It was extremely difficult for the husmenn to win economic independence. Many of the bonder and the renter class were likewise economically restricted. By the law of primogeniture the farm fell to the eldest male heir, and the younger sons, therefore, had to become laborers or obtain land elsewhere. It was particularly the husmenn and the restricted farmer class who longed to come to America, where farm land seemed unlimited and where every man was free. {6} When the "America fever" ran high, even the more prosperous landowners sold their Norwegian farms and emigrated, as did a negligible number of tradesmen from the coastal cities. But the overwhelming majority of the emigrants were the restricted, class-conscious farmers.

The immigrants who came to Koshkonong settled by themselves in little closely knit neighborhoods where there were almost no Yankees. Each dialect group, moreover, the

Vossings, the Telemarkings, and so on, had their own little cluster of farms. In these neighborhoods the Norwegians continued, during the first few decades after their arrival in America, the Norwegian custom of naming: that of giving their new home the name their farm had had in the old country, that of calling themselves by the patronymic combined with the name of the new American farm, and that of naming every field or spring or hill. There was "Borgilda's spring"; and "Butterhill," so called because the cows that grazed there produced twice as much butter as did the other cows of the neighborhood; and "Meinsset," the field bought pΠmeins -- for deviltry. (One farmer knowing that his neighbor intended to buy the field, quickly bought it first just for deviltry.) Such customs show the intimacy of each little neighborhood. Springdale was like Koshkonong in its method of settlement. It too had small closely knit neighborhoods. Sometimes the neighborhoods were given humorous names such as "Jentedal" (the girls' valley), because of the large number of girls in the families that lived there, or "Oledal," because there were many Oles in the neighborhood.

But these neighborhoods were not isolated from one another; they were bound together by a comparatively homogeneous language. Although the dialects differed considerably from one another, there was sufficient similarity in them to bind the immigrants together and to separate them from their English-speaking neighbors. All the dialect groups had, moreover, a common social center in the church, not the usual American type where people of all nationalities meet, but a Norwegian Lutheran church with all the strength and rigidity of the state church in Norway. In religious beliefs, moral standards, and social life, it influenced the Norwegians and bound them firmly together. Because of their language and their strong, unified church, they did not share their social life with the Yankees; they mingled only with their own kind.

Old-country customs and social attitudes were easily transplanted to these intimate and unified Norwegian settlements. Here the class-conscious Norwegian farmer was continually reminded of his life in Norway. But now that he was in a free country, he no longer needed to feel restricted; he could strive for a higher social position. In the little Norwegian neighborhoods, consciousness of social position influenced greatly the Norwegian's choice of a surname. He might be ashamed to use in America the name of a poverty-stricken farm in Norway. On the other hand he might be proud to use the name of a prosperous Norwegian farm and cling to it in his neighborhood where everyone understood its social importance. Or the Norwegian might want to be as much like the Yankee as possible and take a common Yankee name. On the other hand he might scorn the common Yankee name and prefer his more distinctive Norwegian name. All such social attitudes and their effects on Norwegian-American surnames become apparent through a detailed study of the Koshkonong and Springdale names.

The records of the Koshkonong Lutheran Church, which was organized in 1844, provided a workable basis for such a study. {7} They include records of membership, baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death. The first problem was to gather together the names of each family as they occurred in each kind of record. This procedure was an extensive one in itself, because a Norwegian family did not always use the same surname, nor did each member of the family use the same name. Sometimes there were as many as six different surnames in the same family. Because the records were kept by the Norwegian ministers, they told what names the Norwegians used among themselves, but did not necessarily reveal what surnames they used when dealing with their Yankee neighbors. This information was obtained from the population schedules of the United States census for Wisconsin for the years 1850, 1860, and 1870. {8} But often the names in the census had been so Americanized, so changed from the Norwegian, that it was impossible to recognize them as belonging to the same family.

Because of the great bulk of the Koshkonong records, only those from 1844 to 1855 were used. To supplement these, the records of Springdale, a smaller and slightly later settlement, were consulted. {9} Because these records were less voluminous, it was possible to cover the data over a longer period of time, from 1855 to 1900. By using both the Koshkonong and the Springdale records, the writer could watch the continuous process by which Norwegian names became Americanized.

After as much information as possible had been gathered from the records, some of the descendants of the pioneers were interviewed, at least one from each of the main dialect groups. Most of them were the children of the pioneers, but in the Koshkonong settlement some of that generation were already dead and the grandchildren were consulted. In Springdale one of the pioneers was interviewed. Often the informants remembered names that had not been used in any of the records. Sometimes the information from the records was so scant that it was impossible to recognize, without the aid of the informants, that persons with different names were of the same family. Some of the descendants still knew the meanings of a few names, and many, even if they did not know the exact meaning, gave a popular etymology which was often humorous. To many of the Norwegians who came to America in the middle of the nineteenth century, surnames were not mere symbols used to identify a family; they were words descriptive of a place or a person. The informants chuckled when some of the names of the old, poverty-stricken huts were mentioned, the huts they had heard their parents tell of. In fact, such names they had sometimes used as nicknames. Most of the informants were proud that they had risen from poverty to comparative prosperity. But a few hated to be reminded, by means of their old Norwegian names, of the miserable conditions under which their ancestors had lived.

From these delightful interviews and by untangling the confusion of names in the records, there has emerged an interesting story of Norwegian-American surnames. The data gathered for Koshkonong and Springdale give a small cross-sectional view of Norwegian-American surnames, which reflect not only the long and interesting history of Norwegian civilization but also the change from the old civilization to the new.


The Norwegians have always been an agricultural people, and the center of their social life has been the farm, allodial or inherited land belonging to the family and preserved for the family. In prehistoric times the family was a patriarchal one, not the modern family of one or two generations, but a whole community of kinsfolk under the direction of a patriarch whose control, however, was limited by, and subject to, the whole family. Such a patriarchal tribe sometimes consisted of as many as thirty or forty people. Within the family there was no private ownership except of personal objects such as clothes, weapons, and the like. The land and the buildings were the property of the whole tribe, and all its members lived in the same house or the same enclosure and used in common the land around the dwelling place. The head of the family managed this common property according to the deliberations of the rest of the family, and he could not give up the farm without their consent. If the owner wanted to sell, the nearest of kin had the right of pre-emption, and if the land was sold out of the family, the allodial heirs had the right to repurchase it. {10}

Because of the common ownership of land, there was a strong feeling of unity, great respect for the institution of the family, and a close bond between family and farm. But the communal feeling that had been basic to the patriarchal system gradually waned, and the desire of the individual to assert himself grew. The sons and the kinsmen of the original owner of the farm began to demand land of their own. Sometimes the farm was partitioned off, and sometimes new clearings were made beyond the boundaries of the old farm. The farm came to be owned by an individual, and the family became a small one of but one or two generations. The farm then belonged to the individual who was the head of such a family, the oldest male child who inherited the land. But, although the large unit of land belonging to the tribe had been reduced to many small farms for the smaller families of one or two generations, the respect for the family and for the farm as inherited land persisted and the allodial rights were preserved.

Under such a system it was of major importance to mark the family line. {11} But the Norwegian used a means other than the family name. He was living among a small group of people where a more rudimentary custom of naming sufficed. Although the large farms were divided into smaller ones and new farms outside these old areas were developed, there remained throughout the rural sections of Norway little neighborhoods of farms that bore some resemblance to the old, unified, patriarchal family farm. In such a small group of people (from two to twelve families) it was not necessary to identify a person by a family name.

The usual means of identification were: the given or first name; the given name of the father with -son or -datter added thereto; and the name of the farm on which the person lived. The first name or given name was often sufficient identification in itself, for Norwegians had the custom of handing down first names in a certain fixed order. Usually the oldest son of the family was named after the father's father, the oldest daughter after the father's mother, and the next oldest son and daughter after the mother's father and mother, respectively. Subsequent children were named after other relatives in the family. In this way a definite set of names was to be expected in each family. With such regularity in name giving, it was easy enough in a small community to determine from the first name alone to which family a child belonged. It was especially easy to identify and trace the ancestry of the oldest son, because the given name of the oldest son alternated generation after generation. For example, the oldest son of Ole, the son of Halvor, was Halvor, whose oldest son was Ole, and so on.

Combined with the given name each person used a patronymic, the father's given name with -son or -datter added thereto: Ole Halvorson (Ole, the son of Halvor) or Anne Halvorsdatter (Anne, the daughter of HaIvor). This kind of patronymic is found also in English, but in English the patronymic has become a family name. Johnson, for instance, no longer means the son of John; it is simply a family name just as Brown and Smith are family names. But in rural Norway until the latter half of the nineteenth century, patronymics were not petrified family names. One name was not handed down from one generation to another by all the male descendants. The children of the sons of Ole Halvorson, for instance, had as many different patronymics as there were different given names among the sons.

For more distinct identification than that which the given name and the patronymic gave, it was customary for each person to be known by the name of the farm on which he lived. Farms in Norway had had names since prehistoric times. But these were not family names. Because it was customary, however, for the farm to be retained within the family, the farm name was virtually a family name. But it must be remembered that the farm name was permanently attached to the farm, not to the owner of the farm.

Farm names either describe the physical features of the land where the farm is located or tell about human habitation and human labor on it. Those names that describe the locality often give us an interesting description of Norway. Farm names from Sogn, for instance, suggest the physical features of that section, one of the poorest sections in Norway for farming. Sogn is grim and forbidding to the farmer who wants to eke out a living from the soil. The Sognefjord cuts deep into the mountainous land, and there is but little arable land along the shore and in the deep narrow valleys. Some of the farm land lies between high mountain cliffs with steep rugged walls that shut out the sunlight necessary for good crops. {12} It is not surprising, then, to find names like Lillesand (a little sandy place), Skagen (the projecting headland), Menes (a headland that lies in the middle or divides Fjærlandsfjord into two arms), Farnes (a headland near a crossing place over some water), Sogndalsfjæren (Sogndal's beach that is sometimes flooded at high tide), Hæreid (the highest farm on the isthmus), Aase (a mountain ridge), Bjelle (a knob), Eggum (a sharp mountain crest), Bakke (a hill), Berge (a rocky mountain), and Flaam (a small flat piece of land on a mountainside or between two cliffs). {13}

The names that tell about human habitation and human labor show us the development from the farm of the patriarchal family to the farm of individual ownership. They show how new partitions were made, or how new soil was cleared; they show what kinds of buildings or what kinds of fields became the nucleus of the new farm; they tell what kinds of crops were growing on the land when the new farm was made; or they reflect in some other way the life and work on the land. {14}

The name Husebø (a large farmstead where there are many houses belonging to separate holders) points, for instance, to a large undivided patriarchal family farm which had grown by partitioning into a group of farms. {15} The name Hof (a pagan temple) found in the areas of the primary farms of the old patriarchal families points to the time when each family had a public temple, the religious center for the whole tribe. {16} When the members of the family became independent holders and the old farm was partitioned off, the meadowland (vin in Old Norse) was often used as the nucleus of the new farm. {17} The names of such farms are the compounds originally ending in Old Norse -vin names like Reque, Hæve, and Røte. {18} Similar to the -vin compounds are the-sætr (a dwelling place) names. Farms having names compounded with -sætr were not originally real farms including a dwelling house, outhouses, cornfields, meadows, and so on, but only beginnings of farms. The farm Engesætr (a dwelling place in a meadow), for instance, was probably a meadow which some individual took possession of as the beginning of his farm.{19} Compounds with -land (a cultivated field) also show how the new farm was started. {20} Liland, for instance, is the field where flax was grown.

Compounds with Old Norse -stadir (a farm or a place), names like Simon-stad (Sigmund's place), tell us that the old farm had been partitioned off and that there was no longer family, but individual, ownership. {21}

Sometimes the farm was not partitioned off, but new clearings were made. In newly developed areas on the outskirts of the original farm centers, are the -heimr farms. The word heimr means a dwelling and the cultivated fields around it, the pastures, woods, and so on. But, although these were only secondary farms on the outskirts of the original centers, they were important old farms, vast tracts of land in the heart of the richest districts. How important they were socially may be surmised from the fact that the dwellings of the gods were given -heimr names. {22} In the course of time many new clearings (rug) had to be made on the outskirts of the older and better farms, clearings far up toward the hills or at the ends of valleys. Accordingly -rud names often denote the inferiority of the soil: Skrinsrud (a poor, unproductive clearing). Many of them simply denote individual ownership: Svensrud (Sven's clearing). {23}

Some farm names have a higher social rank than others. Just as some of the old patriarchal families were more prominent than others, so the names of their farms became more prominent socially than others. Moreover, the names of the old patriarchal farms tended to have higher social rank than those of the newer farms of individual ownership. Through all stages of the development of Norwegian society such social distinctions were made. That is, some farms were older or more flourishing than others or were owned by individuals who were greater leaders, or who had more ability of one kind or another, so that the names of these farms came to have a higher social rank. The farm names in Norway today reflect some of these social distinctions. But a name that was once important socially may today have lost its dignity, for hard times may have come to a once important farm, and although the name has continued, the rank of that name has been lowered. Each age makes its own social distinctions. But, in general, there have emerged certain types of names, the names that are the oldest names of the patriarchal family farms, that demand more respect and retain more dignity than the newer farm names.

Of the names designating the physical features of the land, the oldest names of highest rank are often the uncompounded names without the definite article -- names like Lie, Lund, and so on. Some of these are in districts which historical and linguistic facts point to as the heart of the very oldest society. {24} But, unless the exact location and history of these names are known, their age is often indeterminable.

Of the names that tell of human habitation and human labor, the oldest names of highest rank are the names previously mentioned, the uncompounded Hof names and the compounds with Old Norse -boer, -vin, -heimr, -sætr, -land, -stadir, and -rud. Chronologically and socially they rank approximately in the order in which they have just been given. The uncompounded Hof and the -vin and -heimr compounds are from prehistoric times; -boer compounds, although of later date, point back to prehistoric times; and -sætr, -land, -stadir, and -rud compounds are very early names in the historic era. These eight groups of farm names rank above all other names of similar designation in number, age, and social rank. But the more recent names are not different from them in kind; they simply show the further development of the farm. There are, for instance, names, like Bøle (a dwelling), which designate in general the farm as a dwelling place; names, like Reitan (an enclosed piece of flat land), which designate a new partition of a larger unit; names, like Braaten (the place where fallen dead leaves and branches have been burned for fertilizer), which show the method used in clearing land for a new farm; names, like Stølen (the milking pen for cows), which show what kinds of buildings formed the nucleus of the home place; and names, like Ekrene (fallow fields), which show what kind of land was in the new farm.

The compound farm names whose individual themes in their present form are still common words in the language tend to be the more recent names and the names of the smaller farms. The formation of such compounds is still extant as is evident from a name like Trommehaugen (the drum hill), so called because the owner of the farm was a drum major. Often the more recent compounds are like humorous nicknames. Gampehaugen, for instance, is the hill of the old dobbin. A similar name is Milevatn. One of the descendants of the owner of this farm asserted that the farmer lived in a small, miserable hut but boasted jokingly that at least he lived by a stream a mile long. Long compounds are also indicative of a small, new farm. Halsteinsgaardbakken, for instance, is probably the name of a small tenant farmer's allotment. {25}

During the nineteenth century at the period of emigration from Norway all farm names were classified in the official land evaluation register of Norway in the following categories: the names of the undivided large family farms (gaard) of the Middle Ages; the names of the sections or divisions of these farms which have become separate holdings (bruk); and the names of the still smaller patches, the tenant farmers' allotments (husmannsplass) on the outskirts of the larger farms. Of these the gaard names are the oldest and the highest in the general social scale. Among these are the names that go back to prehistoric times. The bruk names were next in importance socially; the husmannsplass names, the least important. {26}

Farm names in the rural sections of Norway were on their way toward becoming family names, but until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the conception of the surname as we know it today had not yet been established. The situation in the cities was somewhat different. In the fifteenth century at the time of the Hanseatic League, when the merchant class was rising to as great importance as the farmer, there was an influx into the towns and cities along the coast from the less settled inland districts. With this increase in population, there arose the necessity of having fixed surnames or family names. Moreover, increased communication with foreign lands meant contact with foreign customs, among which was the custom of using a family name. Family names were first used by the aristocracy and the high military officers, and were undoubtedly in imitation of the emblems on the family shields of the nobility in Germany. There were such names as Gyldenløve, Tordenskiold, Knagenhjelm, Werenskiold, Rosencrone, Morgenstierne, von Munthe, and Løvenskiold. Clergymen in early times had been called Herr Peder, Herr Niels, and so on, but by 1700 it was customary for them, too, to take a family name. Many of them took parish or farm names--names such as Nordahl or Leyrdahl. Students at the university adopted a Latin form of their patronymics: Caspari from Kasperson or Nicolai from Nielson. {27}

Because of the large population in the cities, the custom of taking family names became a necessity for the commoner as well as the aristocrat. At first the patronymic was usually adopted, and it then lost its quality of being a patronymic and became a family name. But the stock of such names was limited and often many similar patronymics appeared in the same neighborhood, so that the name was no longer distinctive. Then the Norwegian had to turn to a different surname. Usually he did not choose trade names such as the English Carpenter, Shoemaker, Taylor, Smith, and Miller. Very few trade names were used in Norway because every Norwegian looked upon himself as being principally a farmer. He chose therefore a farm name. He had at hand an enormous supply of such names that had existed for hundreds of years. They had the stability and the dignity that no other surname could give. And when we realize the intimate association the Norwegian had made between the family and the farm, the center of family life, we can understand why he preferred the farm name as his family name. For the large majority of the people in the cities of Norway, it was either the patronymic or the farm name, preferably the latter, that became established as the family name.

But it must be repeated that the Norwegians who immigrated to America during the middle of the nineteenth century were from rural Norway, where they had no such established family names. It is important to note, however, that in America, just as in the cities of Norway, either the patronymic or the farm name came to be the family name, but with far greater and more interesting complications.


The Koshkonong and Springdale names may be considered fairly typical of all Norwegian names that were brought to America during the middle of the nineteenth century by the emigrants from rural Norway. But any generalizations deduced from the study of the Koshkonong and Springdale names must be made with this reservation: that Norwegian names in social environments different from those that existed in Koshkonong and Springdale may have evolved in a considerably different manner. Moreover, immigrants who came later in the nineteenth century, when the concept of the family name had become fairly well established in Norway, brought with them family names that presented comparatively simple speech problems. But the Koshkonong and Springdale settlers, having immigrated earlier, had to change their very custom of naming.

In America the patronymic and the farm name of the immigrant from rural Norway vied with each other to become the family name. Almost all Norwegian-American names today belong to either one of these two types of surnames. The problem of the rural Norwegian immigrant, as has already been indicated, was not simply that of adjusting one name to the speech habits of a new country, but first and foremost that of changing his custom of naming -- to habituate himself to the use either of a farm name or of a patronymic.

The surnames now used by descendants of the Norwegian pioneers did not become established as family names as soon as the immigrant arrived in America. There was a gradual adjustment to American ways. The immigrant does not give up his native customs entirely as soon as he comes to a foreign land; he tries to transfer the customs of the old country to the new. The Norwegian immigrant tried, for instance, to continue the active use of the patronymic: Ole Henriksen's son, Henrik, was Henrik Olsen. And since these immigrants had also brought with them the name of their farm in Norway, they were known for a while in America, at least among their Norwegian neighbors, by both their patronymic and their farm name: Ole Henriksen Fadnes and Henrik Olsen Fadnes. When the Norwegian first arrived in America, he was usually known to the Yankee by his patronymic, seldom by his farm name, because the patronymic was, on the whole, easier for the Yankee to pronounce and often indeed was very similar to already existing Yankee names, such as Anderson and Johnson. The patronymic the Norwegian first used when he dealt with the Yankees, however, was often a temporary one that he adopted for convenience, and is not the one used by his descendants today.

In fact, there was at first a double set of names, one for communication with Norwegians and one for communication with Yankees. The Koshkonong and Springdale records show this clearly. From 1840, with the beginning of the Koshkonong settlement, until about 1870, the census schedules which were recorded by Yankees show a preference for the patronymic. On the other hand, correspondence between Norwegians and the church records that were kept by the Norwegian ministers show a preference for the farm name or a combination of both the patronymic and the farm name. During this period the Norwegian immigrant was fluctuating between the two names. He was adjusting himself to American ways, and no name was yet established as his family name. But by about 1870, though sometimes much later, either the patronymic or a farm name had been determined upon and was then maintained as the family name.

Although the Norwegians of the Koshkonong and Springdale settlements had to accustom themselves to either the patronymic or the farm name as a family name, their problem was still further complicated by the fact that, if they had sons, they had two patronymics in the same family. (The daughters' patronymics were not considered in the establishment of the family name.) Ole Henriksen's son, Henrik, for instance, was Henrik Olsen, so that there were two patronymics, Henriksen and Olsen, in the same family. Although the Norwegian tried to transfer the custom of patronymics, he could not continue it very long in a land where, for instance, Olsen did not mean the son of Ole. The patronymic was bound to lose its meaning and become a family name. The course of all Norwegian patronymics during the period of adjustment follows a general pattern. If an immigrant came to America with a young son, the son was known to Americans by the father's patronymic, but probably to Norwegians by his own. When the son grew up, married, and became the head of a new family, he kept his father's patronymic if his father was then fairly well known in business. If his father was not, the son adopted his own patronymic. If an immigrant came to America with a grown son who was already married, or who married soon after his arrival, the son usually kept his own patronymic, unless his father became much better known in business than he, in which case he sometimes took his father's patronymic. On the other hand, if the father was old and dependent on his son and lived with him, the father sometimes used his son's patronymic, which, in the case of the father, obviously had lost all meaning as a patronymic; it had become a family name.

Just how soon the Norwegian American gave up the active use of the patronymic can be estimated by examining the church records, which give a fairly good indication of what names Norwegian Americans were using among themselves.

By 1870 there are several examples of the loss of active patronymics, both the -son and -datter names, but by 1880 there are almost no examples of their use. There are frequent examples of the active patronymic among settlers of the first generation if they were born between 1850 and 1870; occasional examples if they were born after 1870. In the second generation, however, only a remnant of the patronymic remains, as a middle initial. By the second generation one of the patronymics had become established as the family name, unless the farm name had already been adopted.

The Norwegian's problem of adjusting himself to the American custom of family names was complicated still further by the peculiarities of the farm names. Just as the immigrant had at first adhered to the Norwegian custom of using patronymics, so he transferred to America his custom of giving his farm a name, usually the name of the farm in Norway from which he had come. There was nothing stable, however, about the farm name in America. Although the Norwegian had transferred with some success the custom of naming the farm, he could not transfer to the new property the stability that the ancient farm in Norway with its ancient name had had. Only occasionally did the name of the farm in America stay with the farm; often it was shifted at will.

In his native land, the Norwegian had always been known by the name of the farm on which he lived. If he moved to a new place, he did not keep the name of his first farm but took the name of the new. If a farm had been in the possession of the same family for generations, the farm name was virtually a family name. But when the Norwegian uprooted himself from his ancient farm in Norway to come to a land where it was not customary for farms to have names, he no longer felt that the farm name, even the name of an ancestral farm, was necessarily attached to him. He no longer felt bound to use the name of the farm in Norway from which he had come; he felt free to use as his family name in America any name with which he had had some connection.

Besides the name of the farm in Norway on which the immigrant had been born, he might in America use the name of a new farm he had bought, the name of the farm on which he worked, or the name of his wife's farm, if he lived there after his marriage, or the name of his wife's first husband's farm, if he married a widow and then moved to her farm. Moreover, he might have owned a husmannsplass (a small patch of land) or a bruk (a part of a larger farm), the names of which he might use as a family name. His farm might have two names: an official name not usually used, and a name in common colloquial use. Each family also had two patronymics, as we have already seen. Moreover, since the Norwegian continued in America, for a while at least, the custom of giving his farm a name, he might acquire a whole new set of names, thereby doubling the number of possible names. There were, moreover, occasional exceptions to the two types--the patronymic and the farm name. These exceptions will be included and explained in the following more detailed analysis showing the complicated network of Norwegian-American names in the Koshkonong and Spring-dale settlements during the period of adjustment. In America, the Norwegian, having had no tradition of a family name behind him, felt free to use as a family name any one of these possible names. Probably no family ever had all these possibilities. But many families had at least five names, any one of which might have become the family name.


I. Patronymics

A. The father's patronymic

The descendants of Mikkel Johnsen Baarlog use the father's patronymic, Johnson. {28} The immigrant's early entrance into public affairs as a politician and as a member of the legislature may have influenced him to use the name that was already familiar to his Yankee associates.

B. The sons' patronymic

The descendants of Teller Olsen Hulderøen use the sons' patronymic, Tellefson. Hulderøen (the island where thc troll woman lived) had a homely sound to those of their Norwegian neighbors who believed in trolls. Such a name was not likely to be used in America. When Teller bought the Langemo farm in Wisconsin, he used the name Langemo, but his sons always used their patronymic Tellefson.

II. Farm names

A. The name of the farm in Norway where the immigrant's family originated

The descendants of Sjur Styrksen Reqve use the surname

Reque, the name of the farm in Norway which had belonged to the family for generations. The descendants take great pride in tracing their ancestry and the ownership of the farm. Relatives of theirs still have possession of the farm in Norway. Reque is a -vin compound, one of the oldest and highest classes of names in the social scale.

B. The name of a farm owned in America

The descendants of Paul Tollefsen Milevatn use the surname Lee, the name of the farm bought in Wisconsin. Because Milevatn was the name of a husmannsplass, it was not likely to persist. The Lee farm in America had first belonged to Aslak Lie. He sold it to Tidemand Huset who used the name Lee as his family name until he in turn sold the farm to Paul Tollefsen Milevatn.

C. The name of a farm on which the immigrant worked

The descendants of Halvor Larsen Stahlsbraaten use the surname Kravick, the name of the farm on which Halvor had worked in Norway. Stahlsbraaten was probably not continued because it is long and clumsy, and somewhat difficult for the Yankee to pronounce.

D. The name of the wife's farm

The descendants of Knud Henriksen Fadnes use the surname Brumborg, the name of Knud's wife's farm, where he lived after they were married. Sometimes they called themselves Brinsberg because it "sounded nicer" than Brumborg. Three of Knud's brothers, Henrik, Ole, and John, kept the name Fadnes. But his brother Jakob went by the name Sætre after he married Mikkel Larsen Sætre's widow.

E. The name of the mother's farm

The descendants of Claus Olsen Bergo use the surname Lee, the name of the farm from which Claus's mother came. His father, Ole Larsen Bergo, usually used the name Bergo, but sometimes he used Larsen. Claus took the name Charles Lee after working down South where the name Lee was in favor.

F. The name of the wife's first husband's farm

The descendants of Aslak Osmundsen Næstestue use Corstvedt, the name of Tollef Aslaksen Kostvedt's farm. Aslak married Tollef's widow and then took the name Kostvedt. Aslak's father and his brother Halvor used the name Næstestue and Halvor's descendants still use that name. But his brother Bjørn bought the Stondalen farm in Wisconsin and his descendants now use the name Stondahl. This is a good example of a case in which the families of three brothers are using three different names.

G. The name of the large farm of which the immigrant's farm was a part

The descendants of John Lassesen Djupepodl use the name Eggum. Djupepodl was the name of the small patch of rented land on the farm called Eggum. It is said that the farm Djupepodl (deep pool) was so named because the owner of the place lived on the edge of a very steep, abrupt cliff by a fiord, the depth of which he plumbed from the cliff. In America such a name became a nickname.

H. A shortened or colloquial form of the farm name

Some of the descendants of Ole Larsen Halsteinsberg may use the shortened or colloquial form of the name, which is Bergo. Halsteinsberg was the official form of the name, but Bergo was the name in common use. Ole always used Bergo, but the writer is not sure whether any of his descendants continued to use the name. The descendants of Lasse Sjursen Lillesand use the name Lillesand but they might have used the more colloquial form of the name, Vætlesand, the name in common use in Norway.

III. Exceptional names

A. A nickname

Although the Norwegian uses many nicknames, very rarely do they become established as family names. One immigrant was called Elling Fraction because the forty of land that he bought proved to be only a fraction of a forty. But there is little reason to believe that it was ever more than a nickname. The descendants of Aslak Olsen Gjerrejord use the surname Norman which may be a nickname (the man from the North). It may, on the other hand, be the name of a Yankee for whom he worked in America or whose farm he bought. Aslak, or Vesle (little, younger) Aslak, had had to choose a name to distinguish himself from his brother Stor (big, older) Aslak, who had used their farm name Gjerrejord but had Americanized it to Jargo. Vesle Aslak did not use the surname Olsen because there were already six Olsens in the neighborhood each of whom had a son Ole.

B. The name of the Norwegian district from which the emigrant came

The descendants of Halvor Knudsen Jordet use the name Bang, the name of the district in Valdres, Norway, from which the emigrant came. Usually a group of emigrants from the same district or community in Norway settled together in America. If one emigrant from another district came to live among them, the name of his district superseded the name of his farm in distinguishing him. Sometimes these names were used humorously so that at first they were virtually nicknames. Halvor Knudsen Jordet was called Bangsjordet until Bang finally became the family name.

C. A real Norwegian family name that was not a farm name originally

The descendants of Gunder Tarjesen Lie and the descendants of his brother, Gunder Tarjesen Sunder, use the name Mandt. One brother was Stor Gunder and the other, Vesle Gunder. Stor Gunder is listed in the very earliest church records as Lie, and Vesle Gunder as Sunder. These undoubtedly are the names of the farms on which the two brothers lived in Norway. But Mandt seems to be a family name. In Norway, at the time these brothers emigrated, family names were not common except among city people, army officers, and families of high social rank. The descendants of the Mandts think that one of their ancestors was in the army, possibly as an officer. One of the ancestors is said to have been a goldsmith and to have introduced the art of filigree into Norway from Germany.

D. A given name

The descendants of Clemet Larsen Stahlsbraaten use his first name, Clemet, as the family name. Clemet himself usually used his patronymic Larsen and occasionally his farm name Stahlsbraaten, but his children adopted the name Clemet. Clemet was a brother of Halvor Larsen Stahlsbraaten mentioned above, whose descendants use the surname Kravick. Given names that have become family names in America are usually the more infrequent and therefore the more distinctive Norwegian given names. It is often difficult to determine whether the source of such a name as Clemet was the given name or simply a shortening of the patronymic Clemetsen. Usually the shortened form ended with the s of the -sen suffix--Starks from Styrksen. A questionable case is that of the name Stephens, the surname used by the descendants of Bjørn Olsen Hustvedt who thought his farm name too difficult for the Yankees to pronounce. He did not want to use the patronymic Olson because there were already six Olsons in the neighborhood. When the Yankees heard that Bjørn's grandfather's given name was Steffan, they suggested Stevens as a good American name. They wrote it Stevens until the schoolteacher told the children it was more properly spelled with ph.

E. Trade names

The descendants of Ole Olsen Skomager may use the trade name Skomager, which seems to have been already established as a family name in Norway. It is natural that there should be few such names among the immigrants, inasmuch as most of them did not come from the towns where trade names might be expected, but from the country districts. Even in the cities in Norway today there are few such names. The farm names, well established for many generations, are the customary choice for family names.

What determined the use of one name rather than another is often an elusive question. Sometimes, as we have seen, there was a conscious choice of the family name for specific social reasons, but more often there is no apparent reason for the persistence of a particular name. The history of each family and of its social environment must be known before we can make any specific deductions. But from the examples just given and from other information that the writer has been able to obtain, a few generalizations can be made.

The Norwegian used one farm name rather than another because he felt that socially it ranked higher than the other. Names of the small farms in Norway still had a homely and humorous sound in America, and did not lose the social stigma attached to them. Djupepodl, Huldrøen, Milevatn, and Muggedalen, for instance, are such names and were not likely to survive. If an immigrant succeeded in acquiring a fortune soon after he came to America, he was often ashamed to keep the name of his small, poverty-stricken farm in Norway. But farm names tended to sound more distinctive than patronymics, which, because of their frequency, had come to seem more common and often countrified.

After the Norwegians had been in America for a while, they often regretted that they had tried to become Americans so quickly and had so readily given up their Norwegian names. The immigrants tried to persuade the second generation to take back the old farm names that they themselves had given up. That is why a great many of the more difficult and more foreign-sounding farm names such as Bjaaen or Bystolen became established as family names.

The necessity for more distinct identification was often a determining factor. When the Norwegian immigrant first came to America, he tended, as we have seen, to give as his family name his patronymic, especially if it could be pronounced more easily than his farm name. This was often not at all practicable, for he found himself in a neighborhood where there were already several other families trying to use the same patronymic. He was then forced to turn to his farm name, or some modification of it, or to make an adjustment in some other way in order to have better identification. For instance, in the neighborhood of the six Olson families, which we have already mentioned, three of the heads of these families and one of the sons bore the same given name, Aslak. Two of these were brothers: Stor Aslak and Vesle Aslak. Each of the six Olson families had a son Ole. It was indeed confusing to know which Aslak Olson or which Ole Olson was which. All six families resorted to other, more distinctive names.

What the Norwegian needed was a convenient family name to use among the Yankees. He needed a distinctive name which at the same time could easily be made to conform to the American habits of speech. The name that could most easily meet these needs tended to become the family name. Ole Bjørgufsen Berge, for instance, used the farm name Berge rather than his patronymic with its bj and ø, unfamiliar sounds in America. If neither the patronymic nor the farm name easily conformed to American speech habits, a British-American name was chosen which was near in sound to one of the names: Halvor Asbjørsen Solbjør used the surname Aspenwall. But even if there was no real necessity to change a name to conform to American speech habits, the Norwegian immigrant might choose an American name just to disguise his foreign origin: Anders Anfindsen Præstegaard used the name Prescott.

Whether the Norwegian used a patronymic or a farm name, it was bound to become Americanized. A long cumbersome farm name like Halsteinsgaardbakken was clipped to Bakken; Magnusholmen, to Magnus; Norestrand, to Strand. Patronymics were clipped and modified: Laurentsen became Lawrence; Styrksen became Starks. Occasionally names were translated: Langhoug became Longhill. But most frequently names were transliterated: Hæve became Havey; Eigildsen became Eggleson -- to accord with American spelling patterns.

The process of Americanizing Norwegian names in spelling and pronunciation has been a very gradual one. In fact in many cases this process is still going on. Often in communities in the Koshkonong and Springdale areas in which the population is largely Norwegian-American, there are still Norwegian spellings and pronunciations with only slight modifications; sometimes they exist side by side with American spellings and pronunciations, but, for the most part, Norwegian speech patterns are giving way to the American.

Many Norwegian letters and combinations of letters and the pronunciations they represent are foreign to Americans. They present problems that warrant a detailed study which has yet to be done. The following list of names may suggest some of the preservations and some of the changes in both spelling and pronunciation.


Norwegian-American spellings and pronunciations have been even more unstable than the names themselves. Among 292 records of the name Bjaaen, for instance, between the years 1845 and 1900, there are 34 different spellings: Bjaaen, Bjon, Bjoen, Baaen, Bjaan, Bjoran, Beoen, Beaund, Bejon, Bajon, Bjoin, Bjoon, Bjaen, Bjoan, Bjorn, Bjaone, Bejoin, Bejain, Byoin, Bune, Bjaim, Bjion, Bjaanen, Bjonin, Bjone, Bjeon, Biotin, Biorn, Byorn, Beonne, Bjohn, Byon, Bjorne, Biaan. Even by 1900 there was no consistency in the spellings of the name. Today, however, Bjoin is established.

The spellings on which the American pronunciations are based are themselves often far from being phonetic transcriptions of the Norwegian pronunciations, for the spellings used by the immigrants were not Norwegian but Danish. Danish spellings had been used for a long time in Norway. Danish influence started when Queen Margaret came to the throne in 1390, united the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and placed many Danes as officials in the Norwegian government. Finally at the time of the Reformation in Norway during the sixteenth century, Danish had become established as the literary language and the official written language of church and state. From that time, the Norwegians living in the cities spoke a Dano-Norwegian, a cultivated, bookish language, essentially Danish in form and vocabulary but still Norwegian in intonation and pronunciation, a pronunciation influenced by Danish spellings. In the rural sections, however, this Dano-Norwegian had little effect. For centuries there was little contact between the city and the country. In the farming sections the dialects persisted. Danish words did not replace Norwegian words and the Danish, simplified, grammatical forms did not replace the more complicated, inflectional forms of the dialects. One might expect, then, to find the farm names in these country sections unaffected by Danish. As a matter of fact, most of the dialect pronunciations, used by the people in daily speech, did persist unaffected by Danish, but inasmuch as the farm names were officially registered for the purpose of evaluating the land for taxation, the spellings could not escape Danizing. As a result, there was often a wide difference between spellings and pronunciations. The spellings the immigrants used were still the official Danish spellings; the pronunciations were dialect pronunciations. The great differences between the spellings and pronunciations of the Norwegian names themselves make the problems of American pronunciations doubly complicated. Today the descendants of the immigrants sometimes use the dialect pronunciations and the Danish spellings; more frequently they use an American spelling pronunciation of the Danized name.

Although the lines of demarcation are not entirely defined, at least four generalizations can be made concerning American spellings and pronunciations of the Norwegian names. (1) The original pronunciation and spelling persist with only slight modifications, even though the spelling suggests another American pronunciation. Væthe, in which th was a spelling for the sound t, is now written Vethe and th is still pronounced t. (2) The Norwegian pronunciation persists with only slight modifications, but the spelling is Americanized. Kjærret is now Cherrie. (3) The spelling persists but not the pronunciation. Then there is a spelling pronunciation. Brager was pronounced braka (the a's approximately as the a in English father); today it is still spelled Brager but pronounced like the English word bragger. (4) Both the spelling and the pronunciation have been changed. Gjerde, in which the d was silent and gj was pronounced as English y in yes, is now Jerdee, in which the d is sounded and j is pronounced like the English j in judge.

Now that the process of Americanizing the names and the custom of naming of the emigrants who came from rural Norway during the middle of the nineteenth century is nearly completed, it is interesting to take account of the present status of Norwegian-American names. Although many Americans think of Norwegian-American surnames as being primarily patronymics like Anderson, Halvorson, Johnson, Larson, Olson, and so on, it may' be that farm names are more frequent. In the Koshkonong and Springdale areas approximately seventy-five percent of the families descended from the first settlers use farm names or modifications of them. This estimate may, of course, apply only to these two particular areas. No generalization can be made until other communities under different social environments have been studied. The names on the tombstones in the cemeteries in the Fox River settlement, La Salle County, Illinois, which was started in 1854, and in the Muskego settlement, Waukesha County, Wisconsin, founded in 1859, are, for instance, largely patronymics.

How much effect did Norwegian class-consciousness have on the names in America? Did the Norwegians select names simply on the basis of the convenience of certain names in meeting the linguistic demands of the new country, or did they carry over a principle of selection based on the social importance of certain names in Norway? The information so far at hand points to the working of both these principles. Among the Koshkonong and Springdale names it is interesting to note that, of the oldest classes of farm names that rank highest in the social scale in Norway, three of the four -boer names have been kept in America, eleven of the eighteen -vin names, all of the four -heimr names, ten of the twelve -land names, nine of the fifteen -stadir names, and nine of the eighteen -rud names. On the other hand all the husmanns-plass names and the more recent bruk names have been given up. The length rather than the social rank of these names may be the significant factor. Without further research it is only conjecture to state that these facts have social significance.

The present general survey is merely a beginning. The names in other Norwegian-American communities should be studied. In the Koshkonong and Springdale areas alone there is ample material for further research which might well take the form of more intensive sociological studies of smaller neighborhoods or of dialect groups, studies of spellings and pronunciations with special consideration of the dialect of the Norwegian and the speech of his Yankee neighbor, or studies of individual names with the use of all records available. It is to be hoped that more intensive research will throw more light on the intimate relationship between names and social environment.


<1> This article is based on a doctoral dissertation entitled "Norwegian Surnames of the Koshkonong and Springdale Congregations in Dane County, Wisconsin," written under the direction of Professor Einar Haugen of the department of Scandinavian languages at the University of Wisconsin.

<2> See Einar Haugen, "Language and Immigration," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 10:1-45 (Northfield, 1938).

<3> The examples are taken from H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 474-554 (fourth edition, New York, 19S6).

<4> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 141-145 (Northfield, 1951).

<5> Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 154-176.

<6> Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860, 5-8.

<7> These manuscript records are in the custody of the Reverend Henry Thompson of Utica, Wisconsin. The records from 1844 to 1850 are printed in George T. Flom, History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States, 314-330 (Iowa City, 1909).

<8> These census schedules are in the possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison.

<9> The information for Springdale was obtained from the census schedules for 1850, 1860, and 1870, and from the Springdale church records, which cover the years 1855 to 1900. The church records are in the custody of the Reverend Severin Gunderson of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

<10> Magnus Olsen, Farms and Fanes of Ancient Norway, 30 ff. (Oslo, 1928).
This work was translated from the Norwegian by Th. Gleditseh.

<11> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 48 ff.

<12> Hans Reusch, Norges geografi, 236 ff. (Oslo, 1927).

<13> All etymological interpretations in this article are from Oluf Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, 19 vols. (Oslo, 1897-1956).

<14> So classified in Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 28--33.

<15> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 247 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavae, introduction, p. 47.

<16> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 248 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 55 ff.

<17> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 190 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 85 ff.

<18> Because of the age of these names, the vin ending is no longer apparent. All that usually remains is -w. In Røte the v has been assimilated.

<19> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 158 ff.; Rygh, Norske !gaardnavne, introduction, p. 74. 

<20>Olsen, Farms and Fanes 124 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 63 ff.

<21> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 90 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 71 ff.

<22> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 169 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 53 ff.

<23> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 118 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. l2 ff.

<24> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 242 ff.

<25> Olsen, Farms and Fanes, 242 ff.

<26> Olsen. Farms and Fanes, 8 ff., 48 ff.; Rygh, Norske gaardnavne, introduction, p. 1 ff.

<27> C. D. Smidth, Vore familjenavne, 1 ff., 26 ff., 40 ff., 55 ff. (Oslo, 1910).

<28> The normal Norwegian ending was -sen. But probably by analogy to American names like Anderson, the immigrants soon changed -sen to -son. Why Norwegian Americans today think of -son as the only "correct'" Norwegian ending is puzzling. During the 1830's a language reform was started in Norway advocating a return to the original Old Norse forms, among which was the -son ending of the patronymic. But the reform movement spread so slowly that it could not have affected the immigrants who came to America in the 1840's and 1850's. In Norway today the majority of patronymics still end with the normal -sen.

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