Peterson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The Scandinavian names of Petersen and Pedersen, most common today in Denmark and Sweden and also to be found in Holland and Germany, derive from the Peter (or Per) from the Christian Bible. Patronyms were the norm for these countries during the Middle Ages. Thus the son of Per Jonsson under this system in Sweden would be, for example, Johan Petersson.

The practice of adopting surnames spread to Denmark and Norway from Germany in the later Middle Ages, but it was not until 1844 that they became fixed and required. The English and Scottish surnames Paterson and Patterson come from a different first name, Patrick instead of Peter. The Peterson name is only really indigenous in the Shetland isles where the Scandinavian influence has remained strong.

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The Scandinavian influx to America in the 19th century brought with it Scandinavian names like Petersen and Pedersen. These names are most common in Denmark (Pedersen is the fourth most common surname there) but also occur elsewhere in Scandinavia and in Germany and Holland:

  • 280,000 in Denmark (more Pedersen)
  • 40,000 in Norway (more Pedersen)
  • 120,000 in Sweden (more Pettersson and Petersson)
  • 40,000 in Germany (more Petersen)
  • and 5,000 in the Netherlands (more Petersen and Pietersen)

When these names came to America more often than not they became Peterson. Peterson today accounts for 75 percent of these names in the United States. The largest number of these immigrants came from Sweden.

Scotland.  Surnames in the modern sense arrived late in the Shetland isles, as they did in Scandinavia. Thus in a Shetland tale of the 1700’s patronyms were still in place and the lad Robert Nicolson of Fetlar was in fact the son of Nicol Peterson.

The Rev. Peter Peterson was born in the Shetlands in 1790 and his son John Peterson was a merchant in Edinburgh. One of John’s sons, Peter, became an eminent Sanskrit scholar; another, William, was also an academic and was Principal of McGill University in Canada from 1895 to 1919.

The Scottish surname Paterson has sometimes been rendered Peterson.

America. One Peterson line in America can claim a Mayflower descent – via Mary Soule who married John Peterson, an early settler in Duxbury, Massachusetts. His origins are unknown. The 1916 book The Peterson Family of Duxbury by E.B. Browne covered his descendants.

The wave of Scandinavian and Peterson immigration to America began in the 1850’s and continued for the next sixty years. The majority of these immigrants came though receiving points such as New York and Chicago and then moved onto the new farming land that became available in the Midwest, in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Idaho in particular.

They came from northern Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  These were some of the Petersons and their stories:

from Holstein in northern Germany

  • Casper Petersen emigrated to America in 1851, moved to Wisconsin, and later settled in New Holstein, Wisconsin. Some of his descendants moved onto California at the turn of the century.
  • Hans Petersen, a shepherd in Holstein, had arrived with his family in 1865 and later bought land to farm in Pierce county, Nebraska.  They were in the country early enough to see antelope grazing and to  witness many a prairie fire, although the family never suffered any loss through them.
  • J.H.C. Petersen came in 1872, tried to make a living farming in Maysville, Iowa, but then moved to Davenport where he opened up a small store. His sons expanded the business and by the early 1900’s the store was being called “the finest department store west of Chicago.”

from Denmark

  • Peter Petersen came to Nebraska in 1872 with his parents.
    He was for many years postmaster of Donnebrog in Howard county, Nebraska.
  • Hjalmar Petersen came to Askov, Minnesota in the early 1900’s and ran the local newspaper, the Askov American. He joined the Farmer Labor party in his state, rose through its ranks, and was briefly Governor of Minnesota in 1936.
  • William Peterson came to Dewitt, Nebraska, also in the early 1900’s. He failed at farming but succeeded as an inventor.  His vise grip locking pliers proved a hit with farmers and he started a factory to manufacture them in the 1930’s.

from Norway

  • P.F. Peterson came to America in the early 1850’s and initially headed out to California in search of gold. He subsequently moved to Burt county, Nebraska where he was an early settler in Tekamah. His daughter Emma was said to be the first white woman born in that community.
  • Atley Peterson was a Wisconsin pioneer. He had arrived with his parents in 1854, settled in Soldiers Grove, and during his time there served as a state legislator and state railroad commissioner.

from Sweden

  • Peter Waldemar Peterson came to America in 1865 and settled, like many of his compatriots, in Crawford county in Iowa.
  • Another “little Sweden” was Oakland in Nebraska, where Henry and Hermanda Peterson had settled. Their son Val Peterson rose to become Governor of Nebraska in 1947.
  • John Peterson came to Nebraska in 1868 but then moved with his family onto Tarrant county, Texas to farm.
  • Another John Peterson arrived in Holt, Minnesota with his family in 1893. They had come with other Peterson relatives who settled elsewhere in Minnesota and in Canada.

There was a rags-to-riches Peterson story with Peter Peterson, who was born in Nebraska in 1926 and left to make his fortune on Wall Street. But he was, interestingly, born to Greek immigrant parents. His father ran a diner in Kearney, Nebraska after having changed his name from Georgios Petropoulos to George Peterson.

Canada. Heinrich Peterson was a Lutheran minister who moved north from Pennsylvania in the 1820’s to minister to the German settlers in Markham in the Waterloo area of Ontario.

Later Peterson immigrants from Sweden tended to settle further west as Canada began to advertise cheap homesteads in the Prairies. August and Anna Peterson travelled north from Minnesota to take up land in Saskatchewan in 1906. Ed Peterson moved out to Revelstoke in British Columbia in 1911 and then settled in Salmon Arm where his family started an apple orchard business.


Australia.
Danish Petersens are very much associated with the history of Queensland.

Peder Pedersen and his wife Maren had arrived there as assisted
migrants in 1872. They worked as field laborers before striking it lucky with a gold mine at Edmonton near Cairns in the early 1900’s.

“Edmonton of today bears many reminders of the Petersen presence: Petersen Road serves the southern end of the town and runs up to Petersen Park, a street has been named after Maren, and a Humbolt Street after the ship on which they made their journey from Denmark.”

Meanwhile, Bjelke-Petersen is the name of a family in Australia –
stemming from Georg Peter Bjelke-Petersen, a Danish farmer and master-builder (born plain Petersen, he had hyphenated his name some time in the 1860’s). Carl Bjelke-Petersen, a Lutheran minister, had come to Queensland with his family in 1913. His son Johannes (or Joh) Bjelke-Petersen started out in Queensland as a peanut farmer and became a very controversial politician – one who dominated Queensland politics for years, serving as its Premier from 1968 to 1988.

 

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Peterson Miscellany

Petersons, Petersens, and Pedersens.  The following are the approximate number of Petersons, Petersons, and Pedersens in the English-speaking world today. 

Numbers (000’s) Peterson Petersen Pedersen  Total
UK     9     1     10
USA   100   22     8   130
Canada     9      2     5     16
Australia     6      6     2     16
New Zealand     1      1     1      3
Total   125     31    17    173

There is also Pietersen, an Afrikaan name, that was brought to South Africa by the Dutch.

John Peterson and Family in Edinburgh in 1861.  In the 1861 census, the Peterson family were recorded as living at 25 Buccleuth Place, St. Giles Edinburgh. John Peterson had been born in Walls, Shetland and had moved to Edinburgh in 1828 to start a grocer’s shop in Leith.

The family in 1861 was as follows:

  • John Peterson, aged 45 
  • Grace M.A. Peterson, aged 36, his wife 
  • Annie Peterson, aged 15 
  • Peter Peterson, aged 14 
  • Barbara M. Peterson, aged 9 
  • Magnus Peterson, aged 6 
  • William Peterson, aged 4 
  • Alexander A.G. Peterson, aged 3 
  • Franklin S. Peterson, aged one month 
  • Mary Douglas, aged 24, servant.

Peter and William went on to have distinguished academic careers.  William’s son Maurice was a noted British diplomat in the inter-war years.

Atley Peterson in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.  Atley Peterson was often described as the person who did more to promote the early growth and general welfare of the village of Soldiers Grove than any other man.  He had been born in Norway in 1847 and had come with his parents to America as a young boy.

In 1869 he established the village’s first post office.  He owned a store, sawmill, and a lumberyard in the village.  He was also a farmer and he won first prize for the best tobacco grown in Wisconsin in 1907.  And he was co-owner of the electricity plant which enabled Soldiers Grove to be the first village in the Kickapoo Valley to have electric lights.

Peterson built his residence in the village on Pine Street in 1896.  The main floor boasted large elegant rooms and there were rooms for each of the six children on the second floor.  The top floor housed the servants’ quarters.  The house stayed in the Peterson family until 1946.  It has now been transformed it into a bed-and-breakfast that is still redolent of the Victorian era.

A Tragic Accident in Adams County, Nebraska.  James Peterson and his family lived in a farmhouse near Hastings. The November 17, 1909 Hastings Republican told this terrible story.

“The Peterson’s home which lies about 11 miles southwest of Hastings near the county poor farm was the scene of a most horrible accident yesterday.  A shot gun in the hands of a farm hand was accidentally discharged, the entire charge literally blowing the head off the 3-year-old son, Lloyd, who was standing near, scattering the brains and portions of flesh all about on the walls, ceiling and floor.

The facts are as follows: Mr. Peterson had been hunting the day before and had set the gun down in a corner of the kitchen.  The hired man picked the gun up to examine it and in raising the hammer his fingers slipped off and when the hammer dropped the gun was discharged.

All members of the family – father, mother and two other children – were witness of the dreadful tragedy.  The father and mother are almost crazed with grief.  Undertaker Livingston called in the case said that he had never looked upon a more sickening and heart-rending scene.  He said that the walls and ceiling in the room were all spattered with brains and blood.”  Elizabeth Kleier, the closest neighbor, has told of hearing the shot and the anguished mother’s screams.”

William Petersen and His Vise Grip Locking Pliers.  William Petersen came to America from Denmark just after the turn of the century.  He tried his hand at farming, but he was in incurable inventor.  At one time, he even tried to build and sell early motorcars.  Each of those enterprises failed. In the early 1920’s, he arrived in Nebraska and opened a blacksmith shop. 

At some point, he realized his job would be a lot easier if he had a set of pliers that would clamp down and hold the piece of metal he was working on “in a vise-like grip.”  He figured out that a screw mechanism in the handle could adjust the opening of the pliers. Later, he figured out a way for the other handle to lock it in place.  He built several prototypes, first out of cardboard and then wood.  Finally, he hammered one out of metal on his forge.  It worked. 

He got his first patent for a primitive version in 1921.  The patent for the locking lever was issued in 1924. He built an inventory and starting selling the Vise-Grip Pliers out of the trunk of his car to farmers and mechanics in the surrounding towns.  Gradually, he built a business.  In spite of hard times, the tool was popular.  The Petersen Manufacturing Company was formed in 1934.  Yet it wasn’t until 1938 that they opened their first official manufacturing plant in a defunct drug store in Dewitt. That first plant had a staff of 37. 

This plant lasted for seventy years until it was closed in 2008 and production moved to China.  There remains a local historical museum.

Reader Feedback – Norwegian Malom to Peterson? Looking for the family heritage name Peter Malom or Malum? Coming from Norway, Peter Malom wanted his sons to carry on as Peterson.  Dittlof, married to Elma, was Peter Malom’s son who was born here in the United States.

Michelle Peterson (americansong@yahoo.com)

Petersons in Northern Manitoba.  The Peterson family has been a fixture on Reed Lake in northern Manitoba for more than 80 years; and the history of Peterson’s Reed Lake Lodge goes back nearly as far.

Perhaps the most famous and definitely the most colorful member of this family has been Corky Peterson, a second-generation Peterson who was born in a primitive cabin on the north end of Reed Lake.  Now in his mid-70’s, Peterson still spends most of his time at Reed Lake.

 


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  • Val Peterson became Governor of Nebraska in 1947.
  • Oscar Peterson, born in Canada of a Caribbean family,
    was a well-known jazz pianist.
  • Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the controversial Premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1988.
  • Peter Peterson was US Secretary of Commerce under Nixon and an investment banker who co-founded the private equity group Blackstone. He was born in Nebraska of Greek immigrant parents.


Select Peterson Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Yorkshire)
  • 130,000 in America (most numerous
    in Minnesota)
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

 

Select Peterson 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.

AndersonEricksonLarsonOlson
CarlsonHansonNelsonPeterson

 

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