Select Peterson Surname Genealogy

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 Denmarrk (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 intially 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. 

  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.

Select Peterson Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Peterson Names

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 Petersons 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).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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