07 May 2020

Swedish-American Surnames

"I'm sorry, I know you're also a Swedish Jones from Jamestown – except we're not related.  Yes, I am related to another family of Joneses in Jamestown, but we're related through our Peterson side of the family, not through the Joneses."

This confusion between surnames and family relationships is not limited to my own last name. In many instances it seems that our surnames are not a particularly useful way of identifying distant Swedish cousins.

Swedish surnames sometimes become troublesome brainteasers that complicate research about our immigrant ancestors. Many were known by several names whose use changed over time. In my own family's case, my great-great grandfather's older brother, Carl Jonsson Klang, became known as Carl Clang, Carl Jonsson, Charlie Johnson and eventually Charles Jones. The use of these names often overlapped and depended on context. Lutherans were often identified by their Swedish names even after decades living in the United States. Methodists were commonly known by their American names.

The various manners in which we acquired our Swedish-American surnames is a reflection of the inconsistent assimilation of our ancestors into their new world.

The Context of Swedish American Surnames

Sweden's patronymic naming pattern predates the concept of Sweden itself.  These names describe a social relationship dominated by male responsibility for family members.  At times the search for a child born outside of marriage leads to a later clarification that denotes x's son or dotter and with that identification the corresponding legal and financial responsibility.  Within an agrarian society with limited mobility there was little need to change from these patronyms.

Inherited surnames became useful in urban settings and the move to cities during the 1800s resulted in an exchange of patronyms for inherited surnames.1 This pattern had begun much earlier in several sectors of Swedish society and a few families in our area were from urban families, i.e., Dr. F. Mauritz Fincke [1854.008] or the Folkerts, both with fixed surnames reaching back into the 1700s in Stockholm. Descendants of immigrants to Sweden, including the Walloons and the Dutch, often distinguished themselves with their surnames, i.e. Isaac K. Been [1844.001]. Swedish surnames that used an accent were often associated with Swedish upper class status, i.e., Isak Kiljian Béen or Per Adolph Gothard Norén known in America as Peter A. Norene [1854.020]. Swedish surnames based on Latin often indicated an affiliation with the Church, University or the State, i.e., Isaac W. Agrelius [1851.103], Gustaf Unonius, or Eric Norelius. It was common for University students to adopt new surnames, i.e., B.G.P. Bergenlund [1853.028] born Bengt Gustaf Persson. Many Swedes adopted a new surname during their apprenticeship, i.e., Samuel Berg [1852.086], Sven Rydberg [1853.002], Samuel Sjöstrand Johnson [1849.026].

Some surnames became inherited from assigned military names that were practical necessities. These surnames appear alone or as a compound surname, i.e. Charles Jones [1852.055] is often listed as Carl Jonsson Klang while his wife is listed as Charlotta Davoust [1854.024], both from military families. There were many early Swedish settlers in our area from military families (see an incomplete list below).  Their use of military surnames in America ranged from precise continuation such as Andrew Pryts [1853.038], to direct translation, like John Lake [1850.041] formerly Jonas Sjö, to adaptation, like John Brant [1851.134] also known as Johan Brandt, or dropped altogether.

The major change in America was the adoption of new invented surnames.  These family names were only recently adopted in Sweden or sometimes added when the family arrived here and they were commonly spelled differently to conform to the limited English alphabet in America.  Our local surnames of this category include Alstrom, Ahlstrom, Berglund, Bergstrom, Bloomquist, Dahlgren, Ecklof, Eckholm, Eckstrom, Ecklund, Fagerstrom, Lindal, Lindberg, Lindquist, Lindstrom, Lund, Lundberg, Lundgren, Lundine, Lundquist, Malmquist, Malmrose, Nordstrom, Sandberg, Sanbury, Sundell, Westerberg, among many others.

Rev. Lawrence Albert Johnston
Only a few families adopted radical new names, i.e. Rev. Julius Lincoln. At least one Swedish-American chose a snooty name, Frederick J. and Charlotte Johnson's son became Rev. Lawrence A. Johnston.

Some names may have been used as disguises in America. There is still no understanding of the origin of William Smith. It is likely that Smith came as a sailor to America. That makes his identification complex to begin with, but even in Lutheran church records he is referred to by his American name with no reference to his original Swedish name. The change to America provided an opportunity to entirely separate your American life from your previous Swedish life.

Some families chose amalgamated names: American-sounding yet with Swedish nuances.  Jones is a good example, Akins is another, and Burch another.  Each of these surnames are identical or similar to Yankee family names already common in our area. Jonasson or Jonsson sounded like Jones, Ek sounded like Akins, and Björke sounded like Burch.

Of course, most families simply modified their patronym to a Yankee form.  Larsson became Lawson in our area, Svensson became Swanson, Bengtsson usually became Benson, Pehrsson sometimes became Parson, and Zachrisson transformed into Sackris.  But most names simply lost one of their double esses.


My own family's immigrant siblings were divided by religion and circumstances, but all these children of Jonas Klang chose to use the surname Jones.  This sort of conformity is not necessarily typical.  The three oldest children of Eva Peterson [1853.007] continued with their partronym and became Petersons while the next three children seem to have adopted a form of their father's patronym (Peter Jonasson) and became Joneses.  The youngest chose Clark, the surname of her foster family.  The unpredictability of surname choice can be a wild card in genealogical research among Swedes in our area.

Most families who emigrated were of one or two generations (nuclear), so the surname normally followed the patronym of the older generation –  but not always.  Anders Peter Johansson became Andrew Peterson [1849.046] and his children retained a version of their patronyms changing Petersson and Petersdotter to Peterson.

Swedish Density - regional variations in names and changes over time

Assimilation was valued by the earliest Swedes to settle in our area.  Given names often morphed to common contemporary names, i.e, Lars sometimes became Delos, Gustaf became August, and Carl became Charles.  But in other regions with higher concentrations of Swedes, Swedish names persisted (i.e, Minnesota). This same phenomenon can be seen in our own area at the end of the century when given names and surnames returned to a much more Swedish form.

Several histories have mistakenly used surnames as a means for identifying Swedes in populations.  The clearest example of this is by Nels Hokanson in 1942 in his book, Swedish Immigrants In Lincoln's Time.  Hokanson tried to identify Swedes who had served during the Civil War by the Swedishness of their names, thereby tallying Augustus Johnson (not Swedish) but missing George Thompson (Swedish), misunderstanding the Swedish military origins of the name Peter Prosit (Swedish) and significantly under-counting the Swedish community's participation in our area.  Swedes in our area adopted many surnames that didn't scream Swede, like Jones, Smith, Miller, Baker, Brown, Delaine, Frank, Hendricks, Jackson, Akins, Leonard, Burch, Lake, Morris, Neil, Odell, Pettis, Sims, Spencer, Wright, et al.

Swedish Women (have to) adapt

Another radical change in surnames was the adoption by Swedish women of the American naming pattern with wives taking on the surname of their husband.  For genealogy it is complicated to identify Mrs. Frank Jones.  On this website I typically include a very formal entry for a wife, i.e., Mrs. Otto (Lisa Lena) Peterson [1848.009] to identify someone known to Swedes as Lisa Lena Andersdotter.

Becoming a Jones - a surname study

Carl Jonsson Klang [1852.055] emigrated from Målilla in 1852 and settled in Jamestown.  The next year his siblings, Frans, Nils and Johanna left home for Amerika.  In 1855 only Carl was included in the New York State Census, listed as Carl Johnson in the household of Orsino E. Jones2 then working as a butcher.  In 1856 Rev. Jonas Swensson listed him as Carl Jönsson Klang.  In the 1860 United States Census the siblings were listed as Charles Jones, Frank Jones and Augustus Jones.  In 1866 their brother Samuel arrived, relinquishing the Johansson he had used in Stockholm and Öland, and thereby becoming Samuel John Otto Jones.

So why did they choose Jones?  No accounting came down in our family – the nearest authority was an explanation given by my great-aunt, a grandchild of Samuel Jones. Her understanding was that Jones was the closest sounding rendition to Jonsson.  These immigrants' patronym was Jonasson (sons of Jonas Klang ), commonly contracted to Jonsson in Målilla.  It also may have been considered that Jones was more like Jonsson because they were the sons of Jonas, not the sons of Johan (and thereby not Johnsons). Nonetheless, the influence of the Yankee name, assimilation, and the reference to Orsine Jones undoubtedly shaped their decision.

The Akins family - a surname study

Jöns Magnus Jonsson [1851.124] and Maria Jonsdotter Åmans [1851.121] emigrated with their five children from their farm at Fågelvik in Hässleby parish, Jönköpings län in 1851.  He used a slightly anglicized version of his name, Jons Magnus Johnson, on the paperwork required for citizenship (1853 intent and 1856 naturalization). In 1856 Rev. Jonas Swensson listed him as Jöns Magn. Jönssson.  In the 1860 United States Census he was enumerated as John Akins and his oldest son in Watertown, Carver County, Minnesota was listed as Jonas P. Acken.

So why did they choose Akins?  This surname was not used by the family in Sweden and there is no precedent based on military name or farm name.  Mary Akins was from the parish of Ökna whose pronunciation is similar to oek-na but it is improbable that Akins was their direct adaptation of this place. Instead, it is likely that Akins was based on the popularity of Ek (oak in Swedish, pronunciation) that is the common root for many of the new Swedish surnames that were adopted by families in the second half of the 1800s. Usually spelled in America with the form Eck (but at times with the more modern form Ek ), it is the basis for surnames like Eckberg, Eckblad, Eckdahl, Eckholm, Ecklof, Ecklund, Eckman, Eckstom, Ekstrand, or Eckwall. Coincidentally, their neighbors back in Sweden (in Fågelvik) adopted the surname Ek later in the 1850s.  Akins sounds like Ek.

Letter from Carl Johan Hjelm to Rev. Jonas Swensson dated
19 January 1858. ELCA Archive, Jonas Swensson Letter Collection.
Photo by John Everett Jones.
But beyond the Swedish sound of the name, there were several Aikens families (various spellings) already living in Chautauqua and Warren counties.  In 1807 Joseph Aikin had been the first settler in the Town of Kiantone in Chautauqua County, New York.3  There was also a local family named Akeley.  Note that the spelling of the new Swedish-American family surname Akins differed from the Yankee surnames and was consistent in its spelling (unlike many of their Yankee compatriots).

The advantage of this new surname was in its practicality.  It made mailing addresses more specific (the Swedish Akins versus the Johnsons), diminishing confusion in letter delivery by Yankee post office workers.  An example of the importance of clear identification and the post office is seen in an 1858 letter signed by Carl Johan Hjelm [1852.099] but with instructions to Rev. Jonas Swensson to please address any response to Charles Neil.


  1. For a discussion of surnames and Swedish genealogy, see Nils William Olsson, "Some Notes on Swedish Names"

    See also Marianne Blomqvist. "Finland-Swedish Surnames in America." Finnish Americana, Vol 6 (1983-84), p. 40-43. Digital version. [www.genealogia.fi/emi/art/article425e.htm accessed 2020.04.19]

    Wikén, Erik (1982) "When Did Swedish Patronymics Become Surnames?," Swedish American Genealogist: Vol. 2 : No. 1 , Article 5. Digital version. digitalcommons.augustana.edu/swensonsag/vol2/iss1/5

  2. Orsino Ellick Jones (1829-1907) later became a prominent real estate developer in Jamestown. His donation of land to the city resulted in the naming of Jamestown's Jones Memorial Park and its second hospital, Jones Memorial.

  3. Downs. History of Chautauqua County, New York, And Its People. Boston: American Historical Society, 1921, p 32.

Partial List of Early Swedish Immigrants from Military Families

American Name
Military Name/Derived Name
Military Parent
John Lake
Johan Månsson Sjö

Mrs. John (Helena) Lake

Magnus Nöjd
Magnus Nöjd

Christina Magnidotter
Nils Fredrik Nihl

Adolph F. Neil
Adolph Fredrik Nilsson Nihl

Mrs. A.F. (Anna K.) Neil

Charles Neil
Carl Johan Nilsson Hjelm
Nils Fredrik Nihl
Mrs. Charles (Louisa) Neil
Sven Lund
Charles Flink
Carl Andersson Flink

Mrs. Charles (Louise) Flink

Andrew Pryts
Anders Bengtsson Pryts

Mrs. Andrew (Martha) Pryts

Elias Sanbury
Elias Samuelsson Sandberg
Samuel Wahl
Mrs. Elias (Charlotte C.) Sanbury
Stina Lotta Berg
Carl Berg
Carl Berg
Carl Berg
Johan Fredrik Berg


Military Parent
Samuel Dahl

Samuel Dahl
Mrs. John P. (Christine C.) Sampson

Johan Månsson Sjö
John M. Lake
Johan Magnus Sjö
Mrs. Allen B. (Helen J.) Dakin

John Brant
Johan Brandt
Peter Brandt
Andrew Brant
Anders Brandt
Anna Maria Pehrsdotter

Peter Järn
Mrs. Abraham (Mary C.) Hokanson

Johan Giberg
Mrs. Andrew (Albertina) Swanson

Magnus Nöjd
Charles Malm

Carl Malm
Charles Sanbury

Carl Sandberg
Nels Anderson

Anders Månsson
Charles Thorr

Carl Tapper
Augustus Neil
August Nihl
Nils Fredrik Nihl
Christina Lovisa Nihl

Sophia Neil

Carl Johan Nilsson Hjelm
Mrs. Samuel (Emma) Arnot

Charles Oscar Neil

John August Neil

Charles Jones
Carl Klang
Jonas Klang
Frank Jones
Frans Klang
Augustus N. Jones
Nils August Jonsson Klang
John P. Crane
Johan Peter Kron
Peter Kron
Mrs. John P. (Annie L.) Peterson
Anna Lisa Kron
Mrs. Charles F. (Johanna C.) Johnson
Johanna Carolina Kron
Sara Christina Kron
Sara Christina Kron
Augustus A. Crane
Gustaf Adolf Kron
Clara Mathilda Kron
Clara Mathilda Kron
Carl Adam Kron
Carl Adam Kron
Catharina Zachrisdotter

Zachris Ryding
Charles Peterson Prosit
Carl Prosit
Peter Prosit
Samuel Berg

Jonas Hus
Rev. C.O. Hultgren

Carl Magnus Hultgren
Mrs. Jonas (Maria) Swensson
Maria Blixt
Johan Blixt
Johanna Swensson Blixt
Johanna Blixt

Charles J. Anderson

Anders Färm

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