Plains Folk



Last Saturday I was driving  to Fort Abercrombie with a vanload of students, and I recalled that one of them hailed from the nearby little town of Christine. I asked him if he knew how the town got it name. Here’s the story.


Two stories, actually. And variations of the same. Descendants of pioneer farmers Knute and Kristine Norby, who lived in a dugout at the site, say the town was named for Mrs. Norby. The founders thought about naming it Knute, but Christine was more felicitous.


The predominant opinion, however, is that the town was named for the Swedish operatic soprano, Christina Nillson, although oral traditions along these lines diverge. One says that the famous singer passed through town on the Mailwaukee Railroad, she waved from the train, and so the town was named for her. The problem with this story is that the naming of the Christine post office, in 1884, preceded the railroad by a couple of years.


The more straightforward story is that the town’s founder, John Bisbee, was an admirer of the soprano known as the Swedish nightingale and so named the town after her. This would have appealed to the ethnic sentiments of nearby settlers.


Likewise they would have identified with her remarkable life story. She was the daughter of farmers in Småland, and her family experienced the economic malaise and population pressures that were the drivers of Swedish emigration to North America. Her father, too, was a church choir leader, and Christina was a popular performer as a child, helping out the family fortunes by playing the violin and singing in inns and at fairs.


In about 1857, while singing at the summer fair in Ljungby, Christina was discovered by a patron, a magistrate who offered to pay for her musical training, first in Halmstad and Stockholm, then on to Paris. The young singer had a striking physical presence, accented by her amber hair and asure eyes, and patronage allowed her to develop her musical gifts.


Following her operatic debut as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, Christina Nillson rapidly achieved rampant celebrity. Her appearances in Paris, London, and across Europe were sensational, and American fans, especially Swedish-American fans, clamored for an American tour. Nilsson made a two-year performance tour across America in the early 1870s, after which she went to London to marry a wealthy French financier in Westminster Abbey. Thereafter she mixed freely with European royals and capitalists, while her singing career waxed even more triumphal. Her voice was not powerful, but it was sweetly lyric, captivating.


In 1882-83 Nillson made her third North American performing tour; in the latter year a general store marked the site of Christine, Dakota Territory; and the following year the post office of Christine was established in the store. Thus the correspondence of Nillson’s tour with the surge in Swedish and Scandinavian immigration to the US, and with the founding of Christine, argues for the veracity of the operatic theory of name origin for this little country town.


And here’s the cool part of that. Christina Nillson was the prototype for the character of Christine in the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera. Which led to the creepy 1925 silent film by the same name. Which led to the 1986 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and stardom for Sarah Brightman.


So what does Christine, North Dakota, present population about 150, get from all this? Just the story, and a little afterglow of celebrity.

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