Tracing My Swedish Family Names

What might seem simple—a person’s name—turns out to be full of complexity. When looking into family history I found there is no uniformity in how names are documented, neither in historical sources nor by genealogists. Here I relate what I’ve learned so far about the rendering of my Swedish ancestors’ names (including my great-grandfather, who’s headstone is pictured).

That families trace their lineage along the male line, with an inherited family name, is implicit in the standard system for recording genealogical information (i.e., GEDCOM). There is a built-in bias that assumes the practice of first and middle names being followed by an inherited surname. Yet, naming deviates broadly across cultures: not all my Scandinavian ancestors’ names conform to these assumed rules.

For instance, Swedes traditionally have several first names. Any of these given names might be the name they use in every-day interactions—their “addressed-by” name. Family and friends knew my grandfather Carl Albin Jacobsson as, Albin. (In America he dropped the double “ss”, going by C. Albin Jacobson.) Some individuals were commonly referred to by more than one of their given names: Maria Elizabet, for instance. There is usually no middle name given to individuals in Sweden.

Last Names

Among my Swedish kin, individuals may not have had an inherited surname. Instead, a person’s last name usually was derived from the given name of the individual’s father (a “patronym”) or a farm where they lived, and neither is an inherited surname.

(n.) sur-name – a name added to the end of a person’s first or “given” name.

This custom builds on the ancient practice of an individual having only one name, their given name. Over time, a short description of the person or their occupation or origin was appended to differentiate between people with common names. Think, for example, of John the Baptist or Erik the Red or Lida-Anders (Anders-from-Lida). In many cultures, the father’s name was added to help distinguish individuals with the same given name in a community.

Son & Dotter

Thus, the age-old custom in Sweden, like other Scandinavian countries, was for a child to take their father’s given name and add the suffix –son [son] or –dotter [daughter], depending on whether a male or female. This practice is referred to as the use of primary patronyms. In Swedish, the possessive “s” was usually first appended to the father’s name resulting in the double “ss” of C. Albin Jacobsson, for example.

Changing Last Names

Surnames changed with each generation and male and female siblings of the same generation had different last names due to the patronymic naming custom that differentiated between genders. It was also common for individuals to change their surname, such as when being accepted to a craft guild, joining the military, becoming a member of the clergy, moving to a new farm, or among other actions, being admitted to nobility. Into the 20th century, individuals pretty much used any surname they chose.

Jan/Johan Petter/Peter

Even within the expected patronymic naming pattern tracing a surname along Swedish generations is not straightforward. For instance, I was confused by trying to identify the father of my great-grandfather. I first identified the father as Jan Peter Andersson. Why was his son’s patronymic name recorded as Petersson and not Jansson?

As mentioned earlier, individuals often have several given names and any of them might be the name by which they are addressed. The father’s “name may have been Jan Peter officially, but he might have gone by just Peter or just Jan in everyday life…. It could also be that it was a double name that should have been hyphenated, i.e., Jan-Peter. Very common in Swedish but because of phonetic spelling and such back then, not always written accurately. If that was the case, Anders Johan would have taken Petersson (the ending) to simplify.”1


Confusing the matter more are variant spellings of my ancestors’ names in church and civil records: my great-great-grandfather’s names appear as Jan/Johan Petter/Peter Andersson. Spelling variation was common in everyday life during the past, even in church records about the same person written by a single priest. It was only in the late 1800s that standard spelling rules began to be enforced in Sweden’s schools and institutions.

“Johan” is a common alternate for “Jan” and “Peter” for “Petter.” Are “Jan Peter” and “Johan Petter” referencing the same person? His birth record shows “Johan Peter” and entries for household members recorded with him elsewhere lead me to believe that, yes, my ancestor’s name was simply spelled differently in various records.

Anders Johan Petersson

All the above leads to my conclusion that the patronymic surname for Johan Peter Andersson’s male offspring could logically be Petersson, with one “t.” His son Anders Johan is, in fact, recorded with both variant spellings. His daughter Augusta Otillia Lindquist uses Pe-tt-ersson for him in a 1970 family history. The last name is spelled Pe-t-ersson in his 1919 parish death record.

I record my great-grandfather as Anders Johan Petersson. Ah, but how did his daughter Augusta Otillia acquire the birth surname Lindquist?

Death record for Anders Johan Petersson-Lindquist (Velinga, 1919).

Augusta Otillia Andersdotter??

Anders Johan Petersson took the surname Lindquist during service in the Swedish army, where name changes were common among men with patronymic surnames. This was especially so when military men lived in an official soldier’s residence [soldatboställe], as was Anders’ home, Dälden.

The military “assigned non-patronymic names to the rote (the district area in which a particular soldier served) so that they could differentiate between people. Therefore, a soldier’s name was assigned to a person when he was recruited into his position. . . . When a soldier left the military, he would sometimes keep this name and sometimes not; it usually depended on how long they had served or been known by that name.”2

Military names usually reflected the individual’s role as a soldier or sailor, their physical characteristics, or evoked the place they were located. Others adapted elements of nature such as tree names. After military service a man might use both his military and patronymic surnames.

Hereditary Surnames

Starting in the 1700s and into the mid-1800s middle-class Swedes commonly followed the practice of nobility in creating surnames that were passed along to the next generation. (Though not all siblings necessarily chose to use the new hereditary name.) Lindquist is typical among those “ornamental” hereditary names based on nature. Other common elements were farm names or combinations with -man [man]. The elements of Lindquist are:

  • lind (linde, linden) – linden tree from Old Norse lind
  • kvist (quist, qvist) – twig, branch from Old Norse kvistr.3

With passage of the Names Adoption Act of 1901, many Swedes decided to “freeze” their primary patronyms as surnames. These are the most common kind of surnames in Sweden; they include Jakobsson/Jacobsson. This is also when women began to adopt their husband’s family names.

Augusta Otillia and all of her siblings inherited the surname Lindquist from their father, Anders Johan Petersson–Lindquist. Yes, my great-grandfather Anders Johan is sometimes recorded with a hyphenated last name—more variation! The surname Lindquist is inscribed on his and my great-grandmother’s grave marker, as shown in the photo above.

This work by Bruce E. Jacobson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Header image: “Headstone for Anders Johan Peterson-Lindquist and Anna Charlotta Sundberg (Lindquist) (Veilinga kyrkans kyrkogård, Velinga församling, Tidaholms, Sweden), 2018 by Bruce E. Jacobson

Last Updated on 24 April 2024.

  1. Caroline Guntur to Bruce Jacobson, email, 19 July 2022, “patronymic custom;” privately held by Jacobson Seal Cove, Maine.
  2. Caroline Guntur, “How did my ancestor get a military name?” in enrolled course Searching Sweden Resources Hub, at Courses by Caroline Guntur ( : accessed 2 February 2021).
  3. Judith Pfaff, “Surname Elements,” at Nordic Names ( : accessed 20 January 2019).