Finland-Swedish Surnames in America
Skrivet av Marianne Blomqvist   
2005-08-03 11:20

Finland-Swedish Surnames in America

Many immigrants, after arriving in America, have to greater or lesser extent anglicized their names - both Christian and family names. The anglicization has simply meant an adaptation of foreign linguistic elements to the American ear, eye, mouth and pen. Thus the German name Huber has become Hoover, the Norwegian Skau, Scow, the Finnish Seppä, Seppänen, Seppälä, Smith and so on. However, other immigrants, perhaps a majority among them, have retained their original names - for instance Bergman, Haugen, Kolehmainen, Rubinstein.

The Finland-Swedish immigrants are in this respect no exceptions. They have behaved in the same way as other immigrants in their new linguistic environment. Wherever possible they have sought to maintain their original names, but faced with the necessity they have adjusted them.

The following pages will describe why and how the Finland-Swedish immigrants have kept or changed their surnames. The examples are mainly from the three first decades of this century, picked from lists of members of the Finland-Swedish Temperance Society, 1902-1917, and from biographical data on Finland-Swedish immigrants gathered in 1971.

If one looks closer at the reasons why immigrants have anglicized or maintained their family names, one can see that they are either linguistic or social. The linguistic reasons have to do with similarities and differences between the two name systems in contact with regard to spelling, pronunciation, form and type. The social reasons are associated with the attitudes of the persons involved, their estimations and ideas, language knowledge and so on.

Swedish and English are related languages and as a consequence there are basic similarities between the name structures of the two languages. Due to this, Finland-Swedish immigrants have been able to retain a lot of original surnames, names which for Americans have not been too difficult to grasp or learn. This large group includes names like Berg, Bernas, Blomquist, Eklund, Fant, Hellman, Holm, Nordman, Rank, Rodas, Sand, Silversten, Slotte. But in America, of course, these names are pronounced in the American way, not in the Swedish. Thus even this type of name, which has maintained its original orthography, has undergone a slight change.

The kinship between the two languages manifests itself also in the appearance of so-called pairs of names; i.e., names of the same origin which have developed in a slightly different way. Such pairs occur especially among Christian names; for instance, Maria - Mary, Anders - Andrew, Johan, Johannes - John. But examples are also found among surnames, such as Jansson, Johansson - Johnson or Nilsson - Nelson. If a Finland-Swedish immigrant had such a name when arriving in America, he more or less automatically replaced it by its English equivalent. As a name pair I would also include the Finland-Swedish name Smeds and the English Smith, since the former always seems to be substituted by the latter. The name Smeds is primarily a farm name, meaning the smith's farm", but in Ostrobothnia it is also used as a surname by people who trace their origin from such a farm.

A major reason for smaller changes in the names of immigrants occurs, when the name contains letters or letter combinations that are unfamiliar to the English language. The Swedish language uses the letters å, ä, ö which do not exist in the English alphabet. These peculiar letters must somehow be replaced. Otherwise an American cannot write or type the name. Furthermore, the letter v in Swedish is used in the same way as w in English. Also the Swedish letter combinations bj-, lj-, -ij-, stj- and others are in different ways avoided. The following types of substitutions occur:





































In a few cases immigrants have shortened their original surnames by cutting oft one element of them. They seem to have found their names too long and therefore troublesome to use. Such examples are Granholm > Holm, Knipström > Strom, Strandholm > Strand, Söderlund > Lund, Träskvik > Trask and Vesterback > West. This sample shows that either the first or the latter part of the compound name may be excluded. At the same time the spelling has been modified. There is no doubt that in America a name such as Strom must be easier to handle than a Knipström!

Some Finland-Swedish names have obviously been both too long and too complicated to lend themselves to easy use in American society. The name bearers simply abandoned them and replaced them by others. Among the "rejected" Finland-Swedish surnames are Gästgivars, Herjebacka, Hummelgård, Lillandt, Lillsund, Manfolk, Paksal, Ragvals, Sandnabba, Skommars, Smedjebacka, Småfisk and Storsjö. Most of these are old, genuine farm names from Ostrobothnia. Some of them even have traditions which go back to the 17th century. But in a new environment, utility mostly goes before tradition.

A way of adapting one's surname to another language or culture, a practice widely applied in Finland, is to translate or to reshape the name. This practice was used by Finland-Swedish immigrants - but compared to Finland - it happened surprisingly seldom. Maybe such a transformation requires more knowledge of the other language than the immigrants possessed at the time when they chose or had to choose which name they were going to bear in the new country. The following translated or reshaped names appear in the lists:


































A striking feature of many of these names is that the Swedish and English versions look very similar. Knowing Swedish surnames, one can fairly easily trace the original name behind the new one. Hence, it may have been the intention of the immigrants to let the old name "survive" within the new one, and not to cut ties with the past.

The most popular of all new names are the so-called son-names. Thus of 324 interviewed immigrants from Ostrobothinia - who had come to America before 1930 - not less than 95 or 29 % had taken a son-name. How is this to be explained?

First it has to be pointed out that this type of name has been favored not only by the Finland-Swedes but by all Scandinavians: Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and to some extent also Finns. According to professor Einar Haugen, the reason why this type of name has been frequent among Scandinavians is partly due to the fact that it was common in the home country, and partly that it existed in the English nomenclature. Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson and others were current American variants. The Scandinavian contribution included Carlson, Erick(k)son, Larson, Gustafson, Olson. The latter fitted very well into an existing pattern. Further they were easy to spell and pronounce. In short, they were handy.

In Ostrobothnia, however, the son-names have never been common as family names, and yet emigrants from there adopted them in America. Why? I think the explanation is found in the fact that the Swedes and Norwegians have served as examples. They came earlier to the country, they were known as good and honest workers and citizens. The Finland-Swedes, being a very small ethnic group, gladly identified themselves with them. As long as Finland was a part of the Russian Empire, it was even more understandable because before 1917 emigrants from Finland belonged statistically to Eastern European stock.

There is also another explanation to which a former emigrant called my attention. Namely, even if the son-names seldom occurred as family names in Ostrobothnia, they appeared as patronymics (names which indicate whose son one is) in official documents such as church registers. This was the rule in rural parishes until the turn of the last century, and in some places even up to the 1920s.

Consequently, a person who emigrated from a rural parish before the first world war got a certificate with his full name consisting of a Christian name, a patronymic and in addition a surname. An example would be Johan Eriksson Nygård. In America Eriksson was regarded as a surname. Since a person seldom bore two surnames, the immigrant had to choose between the two. If the real surname was long, complicated or funny, the immigrant took the patronymic. And so a lot of older immigrants have the names Anderson, Carlson, Johnson, Mat(t)son and so on. But those who arrived after 1920, or after the second world war, when patronymics had disappeared from Finnish certificates, rarely changed their names to son-names.

The change may be illustrated by the following Ostrobothnian names:

Abraham Abrahamsson Dunder


Abram Abramson

Karl Johan Hansson Storthors


Charley Hanson

Isak Jakobsson Orn


Isaac Jackson

Oskar Jakobsson Skeppar


Oscar Jacobson

Petter Anders Johansson Klavus


Andrew Johnson

Alfred Josef Hendriksson Hermans


Fred Josefson

Viktor Albert Mattsson Storkung


Albert Mattson

Vilhelm Pettersson Storkall


William Peterson

Vilhelm Vilhelmsson Storm


William Wilson

There were both men and women among the immigrants in America. But, of course, it is mostly the family names of the men which we observe since the young women, as a rule, married and gave up their maiden names.

But how was it with the immigrant girls as long as they were unmarried and worked in American families (as the Finland-Swedish girls often did), in factories, laundries or hospitals? Didn't they feel the need of anglicizing their names? Yes, they did. In the list of members of the Temperance Society there are many examples which show that Swedish women from Finland knew and used all the above mentioned patterns for anglicizing. Examples of this practice are:

Elsa Vilhelmsdotter Norrgard


Elsa Norrgord

Maria Härtull


Mary Hertell

Johanna Karlsdotter Bjurbäck


Hanna Carlson

Amanda Johansdotter Anneberg


Manda Berg

Lovisa Martensdotter Barkaris


Lovisa Burk

Kristina Vilhelmsdotter


Kristina Williams

Anna Irene Anders Henriksdotter Grop


Anna I. Henrikson

Many stories are told about how the authorities distorted immigrants' names during the 19th century and how the innocent newcomers could not or dared not protest against it. Such was not the case among Finland-Swedes. At least, I have not come across any examples of it.

Generally one has the impression that the immigrants in most cases were able to decide themselves if and how they wanted to modify their names. A person who was pleased and, perhaps, even proud of his/her surname - and once this name was linguistically acceptable for Americans - probably felt that a change or transformation was not necessary. Others gladly anglicized their names and were in that way able to underline their will and intention to become Americans as soon as possible. And to those whose fathers, brothers or uncles already lived in the country with a new family name, it was natural to adopt the same.

Marianne Blomqvist

Marianne Blomqvist is a member of Forskningscentralen för de inhemska språken, Helsinki University, Helsinki, Finland.

Published in Finnish Americana, 6(1983-84), p. 40-43.

© Marianne Blomqvist

Senast uppdaterad 2005-09-20 10:56
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