Ellis Island Brown – What Ache Is In a Name?

What ache is in a name, what hidden loss, what forgotten history?

In the US, you just never know unless you ask. Sometimes you don’t know even after you ask. The vast majority here came from somewhere else in the generations past, and unless we have the story from our elders we don’t even know where that “elsewhere” is.

During my postdoctoral research fellowship I lost some mail. It was sent to Dr. J.Brown and wound up on another scientist’s desk at the hospital in the Bronx. When I arrived to claim it from him, that J.Brown said he was an “Ellis Island Brown”. I asked him, what, people actually live on Ellis Island? No, he told me, but if they couldn’t pronounce the name, and it started with a “B” you were a Brown. Aha, so unlikely we were related, right?

When I asked my father about our family name, where the Brown’s came from, I was in for a surprise. He told me that during immigration at Ellis Island, the US staff there could not pronounce the family name of his father and sister, Bent and Marie, who were Bronander’s from Denmark. A different time, he told me that as Bronander, his father couldn’t get work at the docks on the ships – due to blatant racism against certain Nordic immigrant groups.

I’m not sure of the spelling of the family name, because I’ve never seen it written anywhere on any of our family things. I wonder how different my introductions, my image, my life would have been as “Yanjifer Bronander”, as he used to say it–instead of Jennifer Brown. What else was left behind? What Gods did they worship? What lives did they live? I’ll never know.

I just love Vivek Shraya’s song and video, “ACHE IN MY NAME” and included it here embeded from vimeo. He points out that some of our names are names of the Gods. Beautiful. And it’s filmed in Elephanta caves in India, a place I love and visited alone, looking for a different kind of heritage of mine.

If you haven’t seen it, have a look and listen to Vivek’s inspirational piece:

ACHE IN MY NAME (short film) from Vivek Shraya on Vimeo.

So who am I related to anyway?

Everyone I guess, if we look back far enough.

Do you have a “name” family story to share? Please leave a comment, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

You may also be interested in:

DEATH AND THE DREAM, short stories from J.J.Brown available at  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/79628 as an ebook edition distributed by Smashwords. The paperback edition is coming soon.

14 responses to “Ellis Island Brown – What Ache Is In a Name?”

  1. A thoughtful post, thank you. Like so many, I have Ellis Island connections, one being Annie Moore, the first to enter through that portal. Far too often we don’t become concerned about our grandparents’ history until too late, but there is a vast storehouse of information to those willing to take the time and put forth the effort to do the research. Aside from Annie, I have family who came to American in the 1600’s and eventually marched across this continent. Backtracking, I discovered them in England, pushing back, in Scotland where they established Clan Muir, then to Ireland, the Iberian Peninsula, Egypt, and the islands east of Greece. Recent genetic research has confirmed much of this written and oral history. With a mind to scientific exploration, I bet you could push beyond Ellis Island and discover things you never would have suspected. Good luck on the adventure.


  2. Jennifer-
    A totally absorbing topic and handling – I have enjoyed my visit here where you have gathered a reality together of consciousnesses in communication about matters of primal signifcance. I love this kind of connection, new to me, new pretty much to the world, our world.
    Thank you for the work you are doing here and elsewhere.


  3. Jennifer, you’ve hit upon yet another of my favorite topics: family trees, family names, genealogy, etc. I’m blessed that both of my grandmothers (one now deceased) are/were amateur genealogists and did extensive research. The result is that I know my family tree going back about 150 years on my mother’s side and about 300 years on my father’s.

    On my mother’s side, I am descended from a Frenchman named Victor Boudinier and his daughter, Victorine Boudinier. I know nothing about her except her name — but ever since childhood, I’ve pictured her as tall, elegant, austere, but with a sparkle of mischief in her eye.

    On my father’s side, the Wegers, I’m descended from Germans who emigrated to England and then, two (or three?) generations later, to America. “Weger” comes from the German “wiegen,” which means “to weigh.” So at one time, the Wegers were probably in charge of weighing things in the market.

    I love names and family history. Stories, stories everywhere! : )


  4. My husband’s family is from Scotland – the Lamont Clan. But after the English Civil War and the clan being nearly wiped out by the Campbells and seeking to protect their identities, the names changed – Lamb being one of those changes.


    • Thank you for sharing this history Shawn. Protecting identity is such an important reason, and while it is sad to lose the heritage I’m sure our relatives were trying to keep us safe.



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