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Genealogy Corner: The Great Famine of the 1860's in Finland

Pär-Erik Levlin

In the family books one can often see the year 1868 described as a year of death. The elderly among our immigrants have probably heard of this great famine in the 1860's.

What caused this famine? The year 1868 was the result of a series of years when the crops were small. By 1862 it was bad; the summer was unusually cold and frosts came very early in the fall. Those early frosts damaged a great deal of the crops. Years 1863 and 1864 were no better than average, so very few could pay back the loans they had to take out in 1862. 1865 came with a cold summer again. On the night of June 18 there was still frost in the entire northern part of Finland which caused great damage to the potato plants. There were also three "freezy" nights in a row at the end of August, which destroyed the potato plants and caused severe damage to the crop. The next winter there were crowds of beggars to be seen on the roads coming from the northern and middle parts of the country.

The summer of 1866 began well with a beautiful, warm spring, but in July came heavy rains and storms which continued through August almost without a break. The low-lying areas were flooded, and the harvesting was very difficult. The crop was even smaller than usual. The winter of 1867 was snowy and cold and seemed endless. In the surroundings of Vasa, where the sowing normally takes place in the later half of May, one could still ride with a horse and sleigh over the ice from the offshore islands to Vasa on May 24. During the last days of May the snow started melting and the first signs of green showed up. On June 14 the sea was finally cleared. It took until the later half of June before the sowing could be done and the potatoes planted, but many people had no seed and had to wait until the beginning of July before imported seed was distributed. It seemed like everything would go well after all, because in the later part of June the summer came with almost tropical heat. It did not go on for long, though.

July was cold and on the nights of the 21st - 23rd of August freezes came again. The crops almost totally failed. The farmers had managed through the earlier hard times by using all their savings and many had even taken loans. On the coast, where fishing was usually a great help, even this failed. The famine affected the "farmless" worse, who had no resources of their own and could get no work. There was nothing else left for them but to go out on the roads and beg.

To lessen the need, in the summer and fall of 1867 the tradesmen had imported seed and flour from Russia. Because of the earlier bad years there was a shortage of money, so they could not import enough. In the winter crisis help centers were organized in cities and bigger towns, but there was only light flour soup to give to the hungry. The State even organized help-work with small flour rations as salary. The Senate, the government of the country, loaned six million Fmk to buy grain from abroad, but it was soon realized that the grain could not be transported to Finland before the ice melted in the spring of 1868.

In 1868, 137,720 people died in Finland, 7.7% of the population. That was about three times as many as normal. Most died in the early spring, 20,626 people in April and 25,248 in May. Naturally, in some areas more people died than in others, i.e. in Vörå, 1,272 people died, 16% of the population. In the northern and middle parts of the country the famine killed even more people. In the Swedish parts of Österbotten, an average of 6.17% of the population died, slightly less than the average of the entire country. Towns south of Vasa managed better than those north of the city.

The year 1868 was, then, the last hard famine year in Finnish history. The summer of 1868 was normal and gave a good harvest, as far as the farmers had seed to sow. The famine years caused people to rely more on cattle, and they also began to grow feed. Even the draining of fields was improved.

The famine was the event that started the emigration from Österbotten to America. We do know that a few people emigrated immediately after the famine, but in 1872 America was stated as the destination for many people from Österbotten in the passport registry in Vasa. In the beginning of the 1880's came the real surge of emigration.

Translated by Helena & Markus Levlin.

Published by Medlemsblad för Levälä Släktförening. Levälä Sukuseuran Jäsenlehti, February 1985, No. 7, SFHS Newsletter 1993, Vol. 2, No. 1 and Leading Star, May 1997

© Pär-Erik Levlin

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