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SWEDISH-FINN SURNAMES IN AMERICA

After arriving in America, many immigrants anglicized their Christian and family names. This was done to adapt the foreign element to the American senses. Thus, the German name Huber became Hoover, the Finnish Seppä, Seppäinen and Seppälä became Smith, etc. Perhaps a majority of the immigrants retained their original names. Finland’s Swedish-Finn immigrants were no exception. Wherever possible they sought to keep their original names, but adjusted them if necessary.

Swedish and English are related languages so there are basic similarities between the name structures of the two languages. Thus, the Swedish-Finn immigrants have been able to retain many original surnames which were not too difficult for Americans to grasp or learn. This includes names such as: Berg, Blomquist, Eklund, Fant, Hellman, Holm, Nordman, Rank, Sand Silversten, Slotte. But in America these names are pronounced in the American way, not the Swedish way, so although the original name was maintained, it underwent a slight change.

So-called pairs of names, i.e., names of the same origin which developed in a slightly different way, were usually Christian names such as: Maria = Mary; Anders = Anders; Johan/Johannes = John. But there are also examples among surnames such as: Johansson = Johnson; Nilsson = Nelson. If a Swedish-Finn had such a name when arriving in America, he usually replaced it with its English equivalent.

One major reason for name changes occurred when the name contained letters or combinations of letters that were unfamiliar to the English language. The Swedish language uses letters which do not exist in the English alphabet: å, ä, ö. These unusual letters had to be replaced. In addition, the letter v in Swedish is used as w in English. Also the Swedish letter combinations bj-, lj-, ij-, stj- and others were avoided. Following are some of the substitutions:

Nygård Nygard
Åback Oback
Åbonde Bonde
Häggblom Haggblom
Hästö Hesto
Östergård Ostergard
Vest West
Björnvik Benvik
Höijer Hoyer
Röj Roy

In some instances, immigrants shortened their original names by cutting off part of them, especially if the name seemed too long or troublesome to use. Such examples are: Grandholm = Holm; Knipström = Strom; Strandholm = Strand; Söderlund = Lund; Vesterback = West.

Some Swedish-Finn names were both too long and too complicated for easy use in American society. So the names were abandoned and replaced by others. Some "rejected" names: Gästgivars; Herjebacka; Hummelgård; Lillsund; Manfolk; Ragvals; Sandnabba; Skommars; Smedjebacka; and Storsjö. Most of these are old, genuine farm names from Ostrobothnia. Some of them went back to the 17th century.

One way of adapting a surname to another language or culture, was to translate or reshape the name. This didn’t occur often among Finland’s Swedes because most of them had no knowledge of the language in their new country. Some reshaped names are:

Buss Bush
Båtman Boatman
Harald Harold
Hellqvist Hill
Kull Colman
Ljungren Youngren
Nyman Newman
Söderlund Sutherland
Wiik Wicks

One feature of many of these names is that the Swedish and English versions look familiar. So it may have been the intention of the immigrants to let the old name survive within the new one, and not to cut the ties with the past.

The most popular of new names are the so-called —son names. Of 324 immigrants from Ostrobothnia who came to America before 1930, not less than 29% had taken a —son name. This type of name has been favored by all Scandinavians, partly because it was common in their home country where they appeared as patronymics in official documents such as church records. This was the rule in rural parishes until the turn of the century, and in some places up to the 1920’s. Names such as Jackson, Jefferson and Johnson already existed in America, so the Scandinavians contributed Carlson, Erickson, Larson, Gustafson and Olson. They were easy to spell and pronounce.

A person who emigrated from a rural parish before 1917 received a certificate with his full name consisting of a Christian name, a patronymic and a "surname". An example would be Johan Eriksson Nygård. In America Eriksson was regarded as a surname. Since a person seldom had two surnames, the immigrant had to choose between the two. If his surname seemed too long or complicated, he took the patronymic, thus many of them have names such as Anderson, Carlson, Johnson, Matson, etc. People who arrived in America after 1920, rarely changed their names to —son names.

Some changed Ostrobothnian names follow:

Abraham Abrahamsson Dunder Abram Abramson
Karl Johan Hansson Storthors Charley Hanson
Isak Jakobsson Orn Isaac Jackson
Oskar Jakobsson Skeppar Oscar Jacobson
Viktor Albert Mattsson Storkung Albert Mattson
Vilhelm Pettersson Storkåll William Peterson
Vilhelm Vilhelmsson Ström William Wilson

Most of the above instances concern the family names of men. But there were immigrant girls who were unmarried and worked in factories, hospitals, etc. They also anglicized their names, such as:

Elsa Vilhelmsdotter Norrgård Elsa Norrgord
Maria Härtull Mary Hertell
Johanna Karlsdotter Bjurbäck Hanna Carlson
Kristina Vilhelmsdotter Kristina Williams

Many stories are told about how the authorities distorted immigrant’s names during the 19th century and how the innocent newcomers dared not protest against it. This did not appear to be the case with Finlands-Swedes. Most immigrants decided for themselves how they wanted to modify their names. Some were proud of their family names in Finland and felt that a change was not necessary. Others anglicized their names with the intention of becoming Americans as soon as possible. And if they had brothers, uncles or other relatives already living in this country, it was natural for them to adopt the same name.

Excerpts from Finnish Americana, by Marianne Blomqvist

June Pelo

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