Carlson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Carlson Surname Meaning

Karl or Carl is a Scandinavian first name that is derived from the German word karl meaning “man” or “free man.” 

Karl/Carl as a patronymic surname became Karlsson/Carlsson in Sweden, less frequently Karlsen/Carlsen in Denmark and Norway.  Ingvar Carlsson was the Swedish Prime Minister in the 1990’s; while Magnus Carlsen from Norway is the current world chess champion.

Scandinavian surnames were rarely hereditary in the manner of German or British surnames until the 18th century at the earliest.  In fact the use of hereditary surnames that were passed down from father to son only became mandatory in the mid-19th century.  Thus it was that Carl and Helga Erickson came to America in 1861 with their son Swan Carlson.

Carlson Surname Resources on The Internet

Carlson Surname Ancestry

  • from Sweden
  • to America (Minnesota) and Canada

Karlsson is the third most common surname in Sweden.  Swedish immigration to America began in the 1850’s.  Many came from the province of Smaland in southern Sweden where there had been much social distress and poverty at that time.

However, the Karlssons or Carlssons arriving in America invariably had their spelling changed to Carlson.  Thus Emil Karlsson who came through Elis Island in 1922 had his name changed from Karlsson to Carlson at that time. Carlsons today in America number around 60,000.

America.  Swedes like the Carlsons generally made for the American Midwest.  The largest number then and still today are to be found in Minnesota.

Minnesota.   Many came, like Gustaf Carlson in 1858, with little money and no English.

“Gustaf Carlson arrived in Winona county with only a few hundred dollars.  Neither he nor his family could speak a word of English and knew nothing of the customs of the land.  Yet he secured some land, owned a fine farm, and prospered.”  

Carl Carlson made his home in Stockholm township in Wright county in 1867.  He cleared the land for his farm and helped in the building of the Lutheran church.  His son Carl moved to Cokato in 1888 and ran the Western Hotel there for twenty-five years.

Lars Carlson meanwhile came with his family to Hibbing, Minnesota in 1893 in the early days of the mining boom town on the Mesabi iron range. Lois Carlson Willand’s 2007 book The Carlson Family in Hibbing covered his family.

Charles Carlson arrived in the 1890’s and made his home in Minneapolis.  He went to work for a wholesale grocery firm and later started his own neighborhood grocery store.   His son Curt Carlson, born in 1914, started a retail trading stamp business during the Great Depression which, after the War, expanded into one of the largest family-held corporations in America.

Leroy F. Carlson, born in 1892, opened the Main Motors car dealership in Anoka in 1919 and it has remained in family hands ever since.  A descendant Gretchen Carlson was crowned Miss America in 1989 and later became a TV commentator.

Arne Carlson became Governor of Minnesota in 1990.  He had, however, been born to Swedish immigrant parents in New York and had first come to Minnesota as a graduate student in 1957.

Kansas.  Carlsons also made it to Kansas.  Swan Carlson came to farm in Saline county in 1869.  John August Carlson, just a boy at the time, came in the same year.  He worked as a cattle herder and farm hand and then in the packing business in Kansas City.  Eventually, in 1898, he was able to buy farming land in Wyandotte county.

Charles and Anna Carlson arrived in the 1890’s and made their home near Concordia in Cloud county.  Their son Frank Carlson was a farmer who accidentally became a politician.

“Frank Carlson served as Governor of Kansas, Kansas State Representative, US Representative, and US Senator for Kansas. He is the only Kansan to have held all four offices.  His political career spanned forty years, beginning in November 1928 and ending in January 1969.”

California.  John Carlson was early in California, first arriving in San Francisco by sea in the 1840’s and then starting a hotel up the coast in Mendocino county.

Among other Carlsons found West were:

  • Billy Carlson who came to San Francisco from Sweden in 1870.  He can be considered one of the founders of San Diego and served as its mayor during the 1890’s.  However, he was a land speculator of dubious practices and spent time in federal prison.  
  • Eddie Carlson, born in Tacoma, Washington in 1911, who became a civic leader in Seattle and later ran United Airlines.
  • and Paul Carlson, the son of Swedish immigrants Gustav and Ruth Carlson, who was born in Culver City in 1928.  He was a medical missionary in the Congo murdered by rebel insurgents in 1964.  He is commemorated by the Carlson Park in Culver City today.

Canada.  The Canadian West opened up later than the American West so that Carlsons arrived there later.

Nels Carlson came to Manitoba from Sweden in 1888.  After trying different things, he made his home in Whitewater in 1891 and brought his wife and children over from Sweden.  In 1932 Nels and Karna Carlson celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in Whitewater.

Sven and Huloa Carlson came to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1911.  They homesteaded at Spearhill nearby.   Their story was covered in Dianne Olmstead’s 1996 book Journey in the Footsteps of Our Forefathers.

Some arrived from America.  Francis Emil Carlson came from Illinois to Melville, Saskatchewan in 1912; Anton Carlson from South Dakota to Preeceville, Saskatchewan around the year 1920; and Victor Carlson from Minnesota to Vancouver at a slightly later date.

Tucker Carlson’s Family Ancestry

You might think the right-wing TV talk show host Tucker Carlson has, because of his name, Scandinavian origins.  Not a bit of it!  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Carlson Surname Miscellany

Carlsons, Karlssons and Karlsens Today

Numbers (000’s) Carlson Karlsson/Carlsson Karlsen/Carlsen
Denmark    4/7
Norway 24/3
Sweden   189/33
America 60

John Carlson, California Pioneer.  In 1843, at the age of sixteen, John Carlson left his home in Sweden and began his seafaring life.  He based himself in California, first sailing to Rio de Janeiro, then to China, and then to Panama.

In 1852 he departed San Francisco and headed up the coast to Big River in Mendocino county.  He sailed as a seaman with the opportunity of working at the mill, the machinery for which was on board the vessel.  He remained at work there at various employments for a term of six years.

In 1857 he started in the hotel business.  In 1870 his hotel, uninsured, was totally destroyed by fire. Undeterred, he had built a new hotel and soon outgrew his loss.  It was said that he so well-known and liked along the coast, and in fact all over the country, that a stranger would be told to go to his hotel for the best of accommodations.

Swan Carlson in Kansas.  Swan Carlson was only nineteen when he came to America in 1869 with his parents and settled in Kansas.

He soon found work during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad and for nine years was engaged chiefly in railroad labor.  In 1871, after just two years in Kansas, he took up a homestead some two miles north of the present town of Falun in Saline county. That farm was to be his place of residence for the next forty-five years.

Over that time he had acquired all those things which men of ambition most desire.  He had bought land front time to time until he was the owner of more than 2,000 acres, making him one of the largest landowners in Saline county.

However, his death was premature.  On August 7, 1916 he was driving a hay rake when the horse ran away. In falling his skull was fractured and he died. He left behind a wife, five sons and three daughters.

Frank Carlson, Kansas Farmer.  In a 1983 interview, Senator Carlson said that he had never intended to enter politics. But in 1928, while he was busy harvesting wheat at his farm, a group of friends came to his farm and asked permission to file his name as a candidate for the state legislature.

“I told them I didn’t have time to fool with that,” he remembered. “They assured me I wouldn’t have to worry, that I wouldn’t be elected.”

They were wrong.  Between 1928 and 1968, he ran for office thirteen times and was victorious in every election.

After leaving politics, Senator Carlson and his wife Alice went home to the 500-acre family farm near Concordia. For more than a decade after leaving office, he could be seen driving a tractor, plowing a field or baling hay. He died in 1987 at the age of ninety-four.

Curt Carlson and His Trading Stamp Venture.  Curt Carlson was the son of a Swedish immigrant who became a neighborhood grocer in Minneapolis in the early 1900’s.

He was a golf caddy at nine, had his first newspaper route at eleven and quickly added two others. He also operated a newsstand at a busy intersection, worked his way through college driving a soft-drink truck and engaged in a little light loansharking.  He would lend cash-strapped tellers $5 on a Friday and collect $6 on payday the following Monday.

At a time when some local department stores were seeking to assure repeat business by giving customers Security Red trading stamps exchangeable for premiums, Curt Carlson realized that such stamps would be ideal for grocery stores, whose identical products left them little room to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Acting on his vision, Carlson created the Gold Bond Stamp Company in 1938, with a $55 loan and a bit of skulduggery:  He paid a department store secretary $10 for a copy of the Security Red Stamp master contract.  This became his blueprint.

The idea was that a grocer would pay Mr. Carlson $14.50 for stamps that could be exchanged for products that cost $10 wholesale but had a much higher retail value. That made the stamps attractive to the grocer and to the store’s customers, but not at first glance to Carlson, whose $4.50 spread would barely cover costs and overhead.

The magic of the business was that while the grocer would pay for the stamps as they were issued, it might be months before customers accumulated enough stamps to redeem them and some would not be redeemed at all, leaving Mr. Carlson with the float – the use of the money – for other investments.

The trick was to sell the program to enough stores to create a sizable float.  But as a salesman, Curt Carlson – who married his college sweetheart, Arlene Martin about the time he started the business – was shameless. To draw attention to his program he had his wife dress up in an eye-catching drum majorette uniform and march through prospective stores extolling the glories of Gold Bond stamps.

By 1941 he had signed up two hundred accounts.  But shortages created by World War Two made sales incentives superfluous and for a while he had to take a job with his father-in-law’s clothing business.

Carlson was the first entrepreneur to develop a loyalty program for the grocery chain through the issuance of trading stamps.  What began as a simple loyalty program for grocers in the Midwest grew after World War Two into one of the largest service providers of frequent shopper/buyer programs across a variety of retail and hospitality sectors.

Reader Feedback – Carlsons to Canada.  Carl Carlson came from Sweden and settled in Verdun, Quebec with his wife to raise his family.

Norma Poyntz (

Carlson Names

  • Frank Carlson served as Governor and as Senator of Kansas in a political career that lasted from 1928 to 1969. 
  • Chester Carlson was the inventor of the photocopying process which he patented in 1937 and which was later taken up by the Xerox Corporation.   
  • Curt Carlson expanded his retail trading stamp business started in Minneapolis in 1938 into one of the largest family-held corporations in America. 
  • Eddie Carlson was a Seattle business executive who organized the 1962 World’s Fair and later became the CEO of United Airlines.
  • Tucker Carlson is a right wing TV presenter and commentator on Fox News.

Carlson Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in Minnesota)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Carlson and Like Surnames

These were originally Scandinavian patronymic surnames, with conversion usually from the Scandinavian “-sen” and “-sson” to the American “-son” on arrival or soon afterwards.  Here are some of the Scandinavian surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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