Friday, May 13, 2011

Peterson - Moe . . . What's in a Name?

Did my great-great grandfather, Ole Peterson, ever have the last name Moe and how is "Moe" a Norwegian name anyway? Don't all Norwegian names end with son . . . like Peterson, Olsen, Johnson, etc? Ole Peterson's father was Peter Olsen Moe so why wasn't Ole also named Moe? For the answer to these and other questions, read on.

The naming of individuals and families in Norway prior to the 20th century seems to hearken back to a more primitive time when one was named after their father rather than carrying a common "family" name. In that system, names change every generation. At first, this can be very confusing but in actuality, the Norwegian naming process is fairly straight-forward once you get use to its particular quirky-ness.
Already, long before the 19th Century, people in places like England and Germany were using a very formal naming convention and very similar to what we are accustomed to today. There was a first (or Christian) name, one or more "middle names" and the surname (or family name). How many names you had and how they were used varied by locale. For example, my northern German ancestors typically had four names with the first one often given to more than one sibling. Thus Fredrich David Julius Hermann had at least two other brothers with the first name Fredrich and so he was always known as David (his father was also Fredrich). This was very different from the paternally-centered naming system of Norway. For those doing family research, this naming convention can lead to a lot of confusion and it is compounded by the tendency of names to be "Americanized" . . . either changed, shortened or spelled differently when immigrants arrived in the United States.
What did you say your last name was? If your heritage is Norwegian, the answer might not be what you always thought and may have been decided when your ancestor arrived in the U.S.
First and foremost, the Norwegian system is based on the father's name. In addition, a place may also be added to the name. For rural Norwegians, many of whom where farmers, the farm they lived on would be added to their name. The farm name was a part of their identity but not really their name, at least not in a conventional sense. It was more of an identity of place. So back to Ole Peterson. The name of his father, Peter Olsen Moe can very logically be broken down into its three parts.
  1. Peter (or Peder) was his Christan name and how most people would know him. In Norway, this was the only tangible name he had. The other two, as you will see below, are not really names in the way we think of them, but instead references to other people and places.
  2. Olsen was a variation on his father's name. For a son, "sen" was added to the father's name and for a daughter, "datter" was added. Thus any son of Ole would have the second name as Olesen (American spelling variations might include Oleson, Olsen or Olson) and any daughter would have the second name as Oledatter (also with possible variations). So you can see, brothers and sisters would actually have different second names. Thus Peter's son Ole would be Ole Peterson and Peter's daughter Margaret would be Margaret Peterdatter. In some ways, this second name wasn't really a name at all but a reference as in: "I am Ole, Peter's son" or "I am Ole, the son of Peter."
  3. Moe, the last part of the name, has nothing to do with the family itself but instead refers to the "Mo" or "Moe" farm where the family lived. Some farms were named after the original owners but most were place references. Once again, not really a name but a reference as in: "I am Ole, Peter's son of the Mo farm." Certainly, these references where helpful in determining your identity but not quite the same as a formal last name.
There were large farms in Norway in the 19th Century, most dating back at least 200 years and some as old as 1500 years. A family might live on one of those farms for one generation or many generations, usually as a tenant, renting part of the land and working that portion of the farm. As a common practice, the name of the farm would be added to their name. Others who lived on the same farm would also have the farm name but might not be related, in any way, to their neighbors. It is interesting to note that if a family moved to another farm with a different name, their name would often change accordingly, which makes sense since they were now of a new farm.
The farm names Mo, Moe and Moen are all variations of the same meaning "meadow or flat area." They are related to the word Moar which has the meaning "sand or grass lowland." There were over 300 farms with the name Mo, Moe and Moen in Norway.
So the farm name was more to identify where they lived then an actual formal last name. When Norwegians came to America, they might keep the farm name or they might not and, to complicate matters, the farm name spelling might be changed. Most of the time, the last name of a Norwegian immigrant family became forever fixed based on what was decided when they arrived. Peter Olsen of the Mo farm became Peter Olsen Moe and most of his descendants would forever more be known by this new family name.

Peter Olsen Moe was noted to be born on the "Mo" farm in Mohaugen. His wife Anna Agundatter Lad (or Lahd) was born on the "La" farm in Hafslo. Her father was obviously named Agund. After their marriage they lived at a number of farms before coming to America. They first rented at the Mo farm in MoBakken, then a farm at Hilleskar in Sogndal and finally at the Yngsdalen farm in Hafslo. There is no record of them farming at any "Moe" farms (with an 'e') so that may have been an American addition. It is also unclear why they chose the Mo name since they had left that farm almost 15 years before they came to America. Perhaps they were at a farm called Moe as well but, if so, that information has not been uncovered.

So did Ole Peterson ever go by the name Moe? It is unclear. Family members sometimes refer to him as Ole Peterson Moe (and occasionally as Ole Moe Peterson) but most of the time as just Ole Peterson. If he ever did use Moe, he dropped it from his name prior to the 1870 census. It has been noted that Ole came to America two years before his parents and the rest of the family. He was 20 years old at the time and may have been on his own by then. It might be logical to speculate that he never used Moe in his name because he no longer associated himself with that particular farm name.

To make thinks more confusing, it is unclear if even his father, Peter Olsen Moe, always went by Moe or fully understood its application in America. In the 1870 census and on an 1873 plat map, he is listed as Peter Olsen (P. Oleson on the map) but in the 1880 census he is listed as Peter O. Moe (actually - Moe, O. Peter) and on an 1890 plat map, he is listed as P.O. Moe. Another confusing entry is the 1900 census. At that time, Peter Olsen Moe was living with his married daughter and her family and he is listed as Peter Peterson. Once again, I can only speculate. Perhaps the census recorder knew his daughter as Amelia Peterson instead of Amelia Moe. By that time, totally Americanized, he may have surmised that if her last name was Peterson then logically that would be her father’s last name as well. We will never really know and by 1910 (his last census) he is back to Peter Moe. What is clear, is that in the second half of the 19th Century, there were some named Peterson and some named Moe living in the Town of Blue Mounds and the Village of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. It is also possible that some may have switched back and forth between Peterson and Moe.

Peter Olsen Moe's Census Records - 1870 & 1880
Town of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin
click to enlarge

Peter Olsen Moe's Land Records - 1873 & 1890
Section 1 of the Town of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin
click to enlarge

So who was who? With this family, here is how it breaks down: Peter Olsen Moe had nine children that survived to adulthood. The five boys were Ole, Lars, August, Claus and Peter. They were all named in the traditional fashion with their second name being Peterson (after their father, Peter). Three boys, Lars, Claus and Peter kept the farm name, Moe, as their American last name. Their census records and other data always show the last name as Moe. The other two boys, Ole and August used Peterson as their American last name. August is actually listed as August Moe on his tombstone but August Peterson in two census records and his widowed wife is listed as Peterson in a third. All of the four girls, Margaret, Jane, Mary and Amelia seemed to use Moe as their maiden name (or did they?). One thing is sure, none of the girls went by Peterdatter!

What is interesting is that most of my immediate family talks about Ole Peterson as if he was the founder of the family and all things began with Ole. For the most part, they seem to ignore his Moe parents and siblings. In fact, when I started this family research project, there was very little information on the Moe side. There were some clues such as a mention in Ole's obituary and a gravesite at the cemetery. Later I found them in census records but the information I obtained from other family members was severely lacking in the Moe department.

Over the past few years, I found out a lot about the Moe family and filled-in a good deal of the missing information. There is still more to find, but the picture is now fairly complete. I am guessing that the family disconnect has a lot to do with the difference in the last name. It would seem later generations knew less and less about the family members with that different name. I find the whole thing quite fascinating and hope to eventually find earlier generations of Peter Olsen of the Mo farm. It will be interesting to see how the names changed with each generation.

Additional Reading - the three part saga of the Peterson / Moe families:
Ole Peterson & the Peterson Family - Before there was Peterson there was Moe
Ole Peterson & the Peterson Family - A First Family of Mount Horeb
Ole Peterson & the Peterson Family - Olaus and the Next Generation

Also . . . A Big Peterson Family Reunion

If you are researching your Norwegian ancestry and want to find out more about the farm system, there is a lot of information available on the Internet and a good primer is at the Norwegian Embassy website. So what's in a name . . . turns-out that can be complicated . . . good hunting.


  1. Hello Bruce.
    I am a farmer in Norway. At the Mo farm.
    BIG family!
    I know why they kept the Moe name, because Peter O Moe s mother was a sister of the owner of the farm.
    Cousin Claus,
    (cut the "crap" and you have my e-mail)

  2. Thanks to Claus and others who connected with me after I published this post. I now have a wealth of additional information on the Peterson and Moe families.

  3. Update and Correction:

    I have learned that a family that lived on the Mo farm would use Moe as their third (farm) name. It is still unclear why Peter Olsen Moe kept the Moe name even when renting on other farms but his family (from his mother’s side) did own the Mo farm at one time and so the name may have had more significance to him. For more information, read about the family (click on link above).

  4. My grandfather was John Martin Moe born in Northfield,Minnesota to my great grandparents Ole Peterson Moe&Segrid"Sarah Johnson Do you recognize these names?Am I then distant family of yours?

    1. Dianna,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I have come across your Ole Peterson Moe here and there but he is not the same as my Ole Peterson Moe. Hard to believe there could be two people with such a name but I guess that is the case. Keep in mind that both Ole and Peter were very common names in Norway and there were a few "Moe" farms.

  5. Hi! I'm doing research on my Eidsmoe line. I noticed I had ancestry DNA matches who were Moe. I have photos from the 1980s of our family farm, which my grandma wrote Haaken Eids on the back. Could Eidsmoe be a combination of the Eids and Moe farms?

    1. Heather,

      Thanks for reading - I suppose it is possible that Eidsmoe came from a Moe farm name (the Moe part of Eidsmoe. I believe, however, there is more than one Moe farm (and Moe placename) in Norway and also keep in mind that folks with the name Moe are not necessarily related (even on the same Moe farm). However, I see that Eid is a municipality in Sogn og Fjordane which is the same area as the my ancestors and the Moe farm. The Moe farm is on the north bank of lake Haflso which is about 50 miles south east of Eid. But to make it a bit more confusing, there are a number of other areas in Norway that begin with Eid, Eids and Ede (Eide, Edsvag, Eidsdal, Edsnes, Edsvoll, etc.). There is also Eidfjord and there are a couple of places called Eidsmoen. Your ancestors could be named after Eidsmoen with the “e” getting lost somewhere between Norway and America. It is very common for a Norwegian family to be named after the place they came from, be it a farm name or town name. I wish you the best of luck trying to figure this all out.