Whatís in a Name?  

By Jean Cammon Findlay, as part of The Knutsen Archives

Christian or Christopher? Chris or Christ? Kammen or Cammen or Cammon orÖKnutsen? Speculation or fact?

It is a fact that the man we know as Chris J. Knutsen was born June 24, 1862, in Norway, and was christened Johan Christian Kammen. He was the third child, second son, of Ole Ferdinand Kammen and his wife, Birgette Skancke.

It is easy to see where his given names, Johan and Christian, came from. Johan was after his maternal grandfather, Johan Christopher Skancke because, according to Norwegian naming custom, the second son was usually named after the motherís father. Though Chrisí grandfatherís middle name was Christopher, Chrisí middle name of Christian was probably in honor of his fatherís next oldest brother who was Christian. Chris was called Chris or Christ (pronounced with a short i) because it was the habit in his immediate family, when there were two given names, to use the middle one. For instance, Chrisí sister, Antone Elisabet, was called Lizzie, his brother Markus Benjamin was Ben, and his youngest brother Helmar Edvart was Eddie. Of course, the names got Americanized, too. By the time Eddie was confirmed in 1895, he was Edward Helmer Cammon, and when he married in 1903, his signature was Edward E. (for Elmer) Cammon.

It is also a fact that Chris changed his name from Johan Christian Cammon to Chris J. Knutsen in 1888. The last time he used Cammon was when his first marriage, to Ida Yahr, was recorded at Milnor Lutheran Church (Milnor, Dakota Territory), in November 1887. The first inkling we have that Chris Cammon became Chris Knutsen was when, six months later, in May 1888, Anna Cammen, his second wife, bought property in Port Townsend, WA, and signed her name Anna Knutson [sic]. Chris and Anna Knutsen both signed the document selling that property a year later in August 1889.

Customarily, Norwegians in the Old Country had two last names. The first was a patronymic. In the case of Chrisí great-grandfather, he was Knut Olsen, that is, Knut, son of Ole. The farm he owned in south central Norway was called Kamben or Kammen, variants of the same root "kam," which means "ridge or crest," an apt designation since the farm was located on a steep mountainside below the ridge. People were identified by the farm where they lived, so Chrisí great-grandfather was Knut Olsen Kammen. This farm surname was not permanentóif one moved, the surname changed to the name of the new farm. However, Knutís son (Chrisí paternal grandfather), Ole Knutsen Kammen, left the family farm and went into trade, first as an innkeeper and later as the owner of a mill that dyed fabric. Not being attached to any farm, he kept Kammen as a permanent surname that his sons then brought to America when they immigrated.

Though Chris dropped Cammon as his surname, his choice of Knutsen, his paternal grandfatherís patronymic, was still a family name. Identifying the source of Chrisí surname is easy. Trying to decide why he changed his name from Cammon, after using it for 26 years, is much more difficult.

Perhaps my personal experience with my maiden name offers insight. Cammon is a name that often gets misspelled and mispronounced as Cannon, Cameron, or Camersen, just to name the most obvious errors. Though the name was originally Kammen, not a single nineteenth century civil servant could be convinced of using anything but a capital C. Chrisí uncle Anton most often spelled his name Cammen, and his father Ole Ferdinand used Cammon. Only my great-grandfather, Hans Olsen Kammen, another of Chrisí uncles, retained the original spelling, possibly because he was locked into that signature by his Civil War pension records. Eventually, all the second generation in America spelled it Cammon.

At the time Chris chose to change his name, he was now newly married to his cousin, Anna Cammen, his uncle Antonís daughter. For the next twelve years they lived either with or in close proximity to her parents. Maybe it was just too complicated to explain that he was a nephew as well as a son-in-law, and simpler to take a new last name to avoid questions about how everyone could be called Cammen and not be incestuous.

There is at least one other possibility that might be contemplated because so far there is no paper trail for the demise of either Chrisí or Annaís first marriages or their subsequent marriage to each other. Was it easier to just walk away and take a new identity? Possibly, but the fact that Chris and Anna remained close to their families, suffered no ostracism, and even lived for a time in the vicinity of their first marriages would argue against this option.

But what to make of the odd circumstance of Chris spelling his name NUTSEN, which he did on a label he used from 1901-1904 while living in Tacoma? And not just in one, but in at least five instruments so far?

Perhaps he was attempting to pronounce Knutsen with a silent K. But if one drops the K, by phonetic rules Nutsen would be pronounced with a short u as in walnut or peanut. A small committee of my Older Scandinavian Family Members agrees that, first, Knutsen is pronounced with the K articulated, and second, the Nutsen spelling was perhaps a mistake. In this scenario, the printer, for whatever reason, left off the K and printed a batch of labels. If Chris proofread and didnít catch the error, it would have been his responsibility to pay for the labels whether they were correct or not. The Older Scandinavian Family Members agree that people in the Cammon family would be too frugal to just discard the labels, even if they were a misprint. In a pinch, Chris might have decided to use some of them.

Also, at the beginning of the twentieth century, spelling was not yet a finite art. Witness these first name variants in city directories from 1890-1930: Christian Knutsen (1890, 1897); Cres Knutsen, (1904-1906); Christ J. Knutsen (1909, 1914, 1917); and Christopher J. Knutsen (1910). One dazzling error is in the 1920 census where the enumerator simply wrote Chrisí name as John Christian (one knew it was Chris because his wife was Anna, two of his daughters, Bertha and Myrtle, were living there, and the address, known from other sources as well, was 1642 Temple in Los Angeles).

Note, too, in most of these examples, that the last name is always Knutsen. Of the approximately 200 instruments inventoried elsewhere at this website, there are only two other labels that vary from the Knutsen spellingóa harp mandolin (ca. 1910) with the label "C. Knutson" and a teardrop-shaped hollow neck Hawaiian guitar from the Los Angeles era with the label "C. Knudsen." Other printer errors? Or carelessness on Chrisí part? Whatever the answer, the preponderance of evidence in the paper trail from 1888-1930 suggests that Chrisí name of choice was Chris J. Knutsen when he had editorial control over the usage.

We will probably never know for sure why Chris changed his name from Cammon to Knutsen. Many immigrants changed their names in the nineteenth century, some more than once, and there was no legal procedure necessary. One day you could be Cammon, the next you could be Knutsen. It was not until 1906 that a federal statute set up a legal process for surname change. It would have been handy if Chris had left a written explanation for his reason, but as far as we know he didnít, so we are left to merely speculate.


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