Olson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Olson Surname Meaning

Olaf has always been a popular Scandinavian name, in part due to the fame of St.Olaf, King of Norway, who brought Christianity to the country in the 11th century. The Norse root of the name is anleifr meaning “ancestor and heir.”

The main resulting surnames have been Olsen in Norway and Denmark and Olsson in Sweden, meaning the son of Olaf or Ole.

Notable Norwegian Olsens have been Fred Olsen, the founder of the Fred Olsen shipping line. and O.T. Olsen, the promoter of the 730 kilometer Nordland railway line running down Norway from Trondheim.  The spelling has tended to become Olson in America.

Olson Surname Resources on The Internet

Olson and Olsen Surname Ancestry

  • from NE Scotland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark
  • to America, Canada and South Africa

The Scandinavian population of Olssons and Olsens in Sweden, Norway and Denmark is approximately 340,000 today. It is estimated that some 23,000 made the journey to America, with the peak years of migration being in the late 1800’s. On arrival most anglicized their name to Olson. Some remained Olsen. The Olson population in America, including Olsen, is close to 90,000 today.

England and Scotland. The Olsen name has been found in England and Scotland, although in small numbers, as a result of the earlier Viking invasions in the 10th and 11th centuries. It has cropped up in NE Scotland, in Caithness and Sutherland, and in NE England, in Northumberland and Durham.

America. Olsons headed in the 19th century to the Midwest, primarily to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.  Some made it west, to Utah and California.  There were also Olsons on the East Coast in Maine.

Midwest. One early arrival was Jonas Olson from Westergötland in Sweden who came to America in 1861, married, and was homesteading in Alfsborg township in Sibley county, Minnesota three years later.  

“They farmed there, planting, cultivating, and harvesting with hand tools, usually homemade. The only fuel available was wood. They raised nine children on the farm. All the nine children were raised as devout Christians and abstained from alcohol.”  

The Olsons farmed there until Jonas’s retirement in 1908 at the age of 77.

Two Olson families from Norway have also had long histories in rural Minnesota:

  • one Olson family settled in Jackson county. Their Olson-Staabakken cabin, the oldest structure in the county, was donated by Emmet Olson in 1927 and is to be found in Ashley Park.
  • while Halvor Olson arrived in Minnesota in 1889 and later homesteaded in rural Madison. He lost his farm during the Great Depression but then managed to buy it back. His descendants celebrated the Halvor and Mary farm centennial in 2003.

Floyd B. Olson was a second generation American who grew up on Minneapolis’s North Side. His immigrant father from Trondheim in Norway had eked out a living there as a railroad checker. But Floyd trained to be a lawyer, became the leader of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, and was the much-loved Governor of the state at the time of the Great Depression.

West. Some like Hans Olson from Norway had been drawn west by gold fever. He arrived in California in 1853 and spent most of his life wandering from one mining camp to another before finally settling in the Los Angeles area of southern California.

A few were Mormons. Jorgen and Kirsten Olsen had heard the word by Mormon preachers in Odense, Denmark in 1865 and departed for Salt Lake, Utah three years later.

“They departed Denmark on the sailing ship Emerald Isle which carried 876 emigrants to New York. Thirty seven deaths occurred on the ocean, their grandson being one of the victims. The ship sank on the way back. Jorgen, Kirsten and their children walked most of the way across the plains, Jorgen being sick with stomach trouble. They arrived in Salt Lake City with only $1.50 to their name.

Another Mormon convert from Denmark was George Olson who made his home with his wife Delilah in Fillmore, Utah. One son Edmond was a noted pioneer and writer in Fillmore. Another son Culbert renounced the Mormon faith and moved to Los Angeles in 1920. He became Governor of California in 1939.  

John and Anna Olson left Sweden in 1888 and headed directly for California. They bought 22 acres of land near Kingsburg in California’s Central Valley and started a legacy in stone fruit farming, Olson Fruit Farms, that has continued until today.

Stuart Olson Farms is a fourth generation family farm located outside Salem, Oregon in the Willamette Valley. Bill Olson, Stuart’s father, began farming with his uncles in the West Salem hills in the 1930’s. Another Olsen family in the Willamette Valley, descended from farmers who had moved west from South Dakota, operate the Olsen Family Vineyards. 

Maine.  John Olson was an early settler in the New Sweden community in Maine, arriving there in 1871. He was a farmer and violin maker whose poem of his voyage from Sweden to America has been preserved.        .  

A better-known John Olson was the sailor from Sweden who landed ashore one cold winter’s day in 1892 and met and married a young woman in Cushing. Their home, Olson House, and family was made famous by the painter Andrew Wyeth.

Canada.  The rural community of Gimli in southern Manitoba was once known as New Iceland as it was home to the largest concentration of people of Icelandic ancestry outside Iceland.

Included in their number had been one family who arrived in 1876 and adopted the family name of Olson. Carl Olson, also Icelandic, had been born in Minnesota and came to Gimli in 1913 as a Lutheran minister. He later moved onto Saskatchewan.  

Africa. Ole Olsen from Stavanger was among those recruited in Norway by Captain Ludvig Larsen to sail on the Agnes in 1872 to Madagascar and set up a trading post there. His family later joined him and they stayed at Tulear until 1882 when they relocated to Durban.

Another Olsen line at Tulear began with John Achille Olsen from Trondheim who had married the daughter of a local chieftain and died there in 1903. His nephew George moved to New Zealand and made a name for himself as a boxer.

Olson Surname Miscellany

Olsons in Scandinavia.  Olsson is the main spelling in Sweden, Olsen in Norway and Denmark.  The following are the approximate numbers there today.

Numbers (000’s) Olson Olsen Olsson
Sweden     5   120
Norway    70     1
Denmark    60     1
Total   135   122

Olsons in America.  The numbers below show the emigrants to America according to shipping records and the rough numbers in America today.

Numbers (000’s) Olson Olsen Olsson
Sweden    4.8    4.4    3.0
Norway    1.8    6.4    0.3
Denmark    0.3    2.1    0.2
Total    6.9   14.9    3.5
In America Today
Total    66    22     1

These numbers suggest a few things.  A greater share of the Norwegians emigrated, followed closely by the Swedes, with the Danes lagging behind.  If all the Olssons became Olsons, either at the arrival at the immigration desk in America or afterwards, then we would estimate that 60% of the Olsens became Olsons and 40% stayed Olsen.

The Olson Who Wandered.  Hans Olson from Kristiansund in Norway came to America around 1850.   He probably first settled with family members in Minnesota, but attracted by the discovery of gold in California, he crossed the plains in a covered wagon in 1853.  Family sources said that Hans was probably prospecting or panning for gold near Gold Beach in Oregon, at the mouth of the Rogue river, for the next few years, at the time of the Rogue Indian war.

The 1860 U.S. census listed a Hans Olson, probably him, living by himself as a farm laborer in Redwood township in Santa Clara, California.  As his grandson Donald has said, Hans could never stay in one place for any length of time.  He traveled the West and the mining camps in Nevada, California and Oregon.   In 1872 he was camped alongside Owens Lake in California when the high magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck the valley.  Hans said that the lake just disappeared into the ground, refilling itself shortly.

Hans married Swiss-born Mary Staheli in 1875.  Although the place of the marriage was not given, Utah was their residence at the time.   Mary had been the daughter of a Mormon family, but Hans did not like the Mormons.  According to Donald, when his wife’s sister sent a Mormon Bible, he threw it into the fire.  On any visits from the Mormon side of the family, he would leave the house.

By the 1880 U.S. census Hans and his family were living in Spring Valley in Nevada, near where there had been a silver mining boom.  The family then traveled by wagon west to Oregon where Hans was either mining or farming, and thence to California.

In the 1900 U.S. census, the family was living in the San Gabriel township in Los Angeles county.   He died there in 1921 at the age of 89.

The Olsons That Stayed Put.  The year was 1888 when the Olson family left Sweden and immigrated to the Central Valley of California.  The family then consisted of grandparents, John and Anna, their two sons and their families.  In 1889 they bought 22 acres of land near Kingsburg and started a legacy in stone fruit farming that has continued for 113 years, into the third century.

Before days of refrigeration and rapid transportation, peaches were cut in halves and dried in the sun for preservation. This task involved the entire family, from children to grandparents, working with the fruit from sun up to sun down during the long hot days of summer.

World War I interrupted the routine farm life as the two oldest grandsons of John and Anna, Carl and Joel, were called to serve our country on the battlefront in France.  This left   the youngest grandson, Paul, and his father to keep the farm going.

Olson Family Farms has endured and experienced many changes through the years in the small rural area of Kingsburg from farming with mules and horses to the advent of the first Fordson tractor in 1917, through the hard years of the depression, to modern times.

Reader Feedback – Anna Olson, from Norway to New York.  I would like some information about my great grandmother.  Her name was Anna M. Olson and she was born in October 1865 in Norway.  She arrived in New York in 1882, married Hugh Wilson in Yonkers, NY in 1990 and died in New York.

Patricia Rita Encabo (encabopatriciarita@hotmail.com)

The Olson House in Maine.  In 1892 an early freeze on the St. George river on the Maine shoreline forced ashore Johan Olauson, a young sailor from Sweden. There he met 34-year-old Katie Hathorn and her recently widowed mother, Tryphene. These women lived at Cushing and were the last surviving members of the Hathorn family.

Johan and Katie soon married and Johan, who assumed the name of John Olson, took over the family farm which had been in the Hathorn family hands since the 1750’s.  In 1929 two of their four children, Christina and Alvaro, inherited the property and lived there throughout their lives.

Ten years later Betsy James, who would later marry the artist Andrew Wyeth, introduced him to the Olsons.  She described the house “looming up like a weathered ship stranded on a hilltop.”  Wyeth documented life on this isolated, saltwater farm in many of his works, most famously in his 1948 painting Christina’s World.  For him, Christina and the Olson House were symbols of New England and Maine.  Olson House is now part of the Farnsworth Art Museum and displays many of Wyeth’s works.

While Wyeth fans flock to the family homestead, many may catch a glimpse of John, Christina’s nephew.  For three seasons of the year, octogenarian John Olson hauls traps and lifts crates full of lobsters weighing well over 100 pounds. He knows his way around the islands and waterways the way most people know the streets of their hometowns. His daughter Virginia depicted his life in her 2008 book John Olson: My Story. 

The Floyd B. Olson House.  The preservation of the Floyd B. Olson House, built in 1924 and located at 1914 West 49th Street in Minneapolis, commemorates the career of one of Minnesota’s most influential political leaders.

Olson was revered in Minnesota as “the crusader for social justice” during the Depression Era. Before his early death in 1936 from stomach cancer at the age of 44, he had served ten years as the Hennepin County attorney and three terms as Governor. His leadership was crucial in the development of the Farmer-Labor party in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Olson was a fierce advocate “for the abolition of private monopolistic privilege and its replacement by a system of public ownership “in order to “increase the total wealth of society and abolish unemployment.”

Frank B. Olson remains one of the single most significant Minnesota leaders for both his local and national public service.  Over 200,000 visitors viewed his body when it lay in state in the State Capitol.

Olson Names

  • Floyd B. Olson was Governor of Minnesota from 1931 to 1936. As leader of the Farmer-Labor Party, he pursued an activist agenda to ease the impact of the Great Depression.
  • Charles Olson was an American poet of the first half of the 20th century, a link between older modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and the Beat generation. 
  • Johnny Olson was a well-known American radio and TV personality from the early 1960’s to the mid-1980’s. 
  • Merlin Olsen was an American NFL football player and commentator.

Olson Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in Durham)
  • 89,000 in America (most numerous in Minnesota)
  • 36,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Olson 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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