What’s in a Name?

One of my great uncles was named Kermit.

Whenever I mention this fact to people outside the family, they always question me: “Kermit? Really?” Today, people immediately associate the name with Kermit the Frog. But in 1916, well before the Muppets were ever thought of, little Kermit Johnson had a feeling his name would become a problem when he grew up. When my great aunt Anna wrote this to her brother (my grandfather Emil), Kermit would have been about 5 or 6 years old. (Poor little guy – it doesn’t sound like his concerns met with much sympathy from his siblings.)

I think Kermit and Leona were both little dolls, don’t you?

I’ve been enjoying using Ancestry.com to search for information, and I have to say, there is a lot on the site that’s proven extremely helpful. But when you are of Scandinavian origin, you need to be ready for the fact that many of your ancestors are going to have the same last names, even if they weren’t related to each other. This can get extremely confusing and can actually cause serious mistakes in your family tree if you’re not careful.

To understand this you must understand how Scandinavian surnames were created in those days. In Sweden, even up to the time my great grandparents came to this country, a boy’s last name would consist of his fathers first name followed by “son”.

Hence, Peter’s son’s last name would be Peterson. The daughters’ last names would have dötter at the end, hence, Eriksdötter and Magnusdötter, as you see here. Once they came to the US they replaced “dötter” with “son”. The practice of using the father’s first name for a last name also stopped at that time, at least in this country. Can you follow the above chart to see how my grandma Hilma got her last name?

So, in a culture where most last names were passed down, largely unchanged, through the generations, this can get confusing. There’s nothing unusual about Nels Johnson marrying Anna Caroline Johnson, which is in fact what happened with my great grandparents. (Incidentally, Anna’s father, John Larson, is actually not still living. I’ll have to fix that later…)

With Ancestry.com, you are able to view other people’s family trees if they are set as “Public”. If in fact they are related to you, this can be a way of finding out things about your own family. But just because your relatives show up in someone else’s family tree, there is no guarantee that the information is accurate. The owner of this tree found that my great-grandfather Nels Johnson “was married 4 times” and had seven children. In reality he was married twice and had ten children, two of whom died in early childhood, plus he raised a granddaughter. His first wife was not Sigrid, but Britta. Also, the Leona on the list was Leona Anita, not Leona Catherine. She married an Anderson, not a Wemple.

As you may know, both of my great grandfathers on this side of the family were named Nels. There was Nels Nelson and Nels Johnson. This is complicated by the fact that Nels Johnson named one of his sons Nels as well. He was usually known as Nels Ivar, but you can see how this created confusion in the above-referenced family tree. Nels Ivar’s wife Hilda is listed as one of “Nels Senior’s” wives. Due to misspellings on public records or the use of nicknames, my great grandmother Anna was also listed as a separate person named “Annie”.

Here is a nice photo of John Alfred (far right) and his wife Madge, along with his brothers, Emil (far left) and Nels Ivar. In my quest to know more about Madge (born Margaret Judge) I began searching the name. I knew from John Alfred’s WWII draft records that Margaret had a sister named Sadie, as she was mentioned as a near friend/relative. (And yes, WWI veterans had to register for the draft during WWII)

I really didn’t think the last name Judge would be that common (certainly not like Johnson or Nelson), but imagine my surprise when, on a 1900 US census report I found this family, with daughters named both Margaret and Sadie! But these people were in Pennsylvania, and I was pretty sure that “our” Margaret and Sadie were from Michigan. And I didn’t think their mother’s name was Bridget.

So I looked some more, and found them again in the Pennsylvania census for 1910. By the way, if you look carefully you can see they now had a nine year old sister named Florence.

Yay! I found them! One thing I like about Ancestry.com is that if you can’t read the handwriting on these census reports, you can click an icon that will bring up a printed version of the names. But you still have to be wary, because as you can see here, Margaret’s name is spelled “Margarite”. I assume this is because the census takers sometimes guessed on spellings. If their handwriting was too messy, however, the printed version will be incorrect as well.

This is my great aunt Anna, who for the time that I knew her, was married to Ernest Magnusson and lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I only recently learned that she married Uncle Ernest in the late 1950s when she was about 61, and it was a second marriage for both of them. As a side note, her first husband’s name was George Johnson (no relation), so she didn’t have to change her last name when she married him.

But if you didn’t already know all that, (or the fact that Uncle Ernest’s middle initial was “L” and not “W”), you might think they lived in Massachusetts in 1940 and had six kids! Sadly, I never got to meet Aunt Anna in person, but we corresponded frequently when I was a teenager researching Johnson family history. Her letters contained a wealth of information, and I still have them today.

According to the back of the above photo, this is my grandmother Edla with her half brother Harry taking his first steps. Uncle Harry grew up to be an army colonel who even worked for a time at the Pentagon. So naturally I was interested to see what I could find about his military history.

I didn’t understand much of the info in this 1956 record, but I was surprised to see a Harrold Detlie listed right above Uncle Harry. I’m guessing that the “B-S Dak 11 Sep 10” is saying that he was born in South Dakota on Sept. 11, 1910. (Which in fact, he was.) Looks like Harrold was born in South Dakota also. Seriously, how many “Harry” Detlies can there be? From South Dakota no less?

And you don’t even want to know how many Emil Johnsons there were! The names Emil and Julius might not sound common to you, but look at these WWI draft records…

That’s only four pages worth. And none of them is “our” Emil J. Johnson!

I’ll keep you posted.

7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. My goodness, what a project! I knew about the ‘son’ and ‘dotter’ thing from reading Scandinavian detective stories, but all that repetition of names… wow, you have infinite patience. No wonder you didn’t do ‘Inktober’, with all this research whirling around.

    1. That’s funny, I didn’t even know there were Scandinavian detective stories, but then, why wouldn’t there be? I feel like a Scandinavian detective myself with this family history stuff! 😋

  2. That is very interesting and wonderful that you could do this research about your Scandinavian heritage. My parents were Latvian immigrants after WW II and they wanted to keep all Latvian traditions. So when I was born I got a very Latvian first name Rasma then my mother’s second name was as they spell it in Latvian Aleksandra and they added Sandra and finally they came up with another typical Latvian name Zane it is a girl’s name so I wound up being Rasma Sandra Zane and today I use the comibnation RasmaSandra for most of the sites I write on. I figure if I am serious about writing I have to write with one steady name so everyone knows it is me.

    1. Wow! I was wondering how your name worked. I wasn’t sure if Rasma was your first name or if Sandra was. So now I know! I think it’s cool that your parents gave you a traditional Latvian name😀That’s a great legacy. 🥰

  3. jarilissima

    Wow, this is fascinating! And I gotta say, little Kermit and Leona are very well-dressed. They look so cute, like tiny grown-ups 🙂 I hope you find your Emil J. Johnson!

    1. Thanks! It dawned on me later that he’s probably not in that list because he was a volunteer, not a draftee. Almost the entire marching band at his college enlisted in 1917, which is how he became a band corporal. 😊

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