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The Trip

Hans R. Wasastjerna

On foot, or by horse-drawn cart, sometimes by rowboat, perhaps even by train, the young men and women began their long journey. There were no great preparations involved, no crowds of friends to bid them farewell. A few clothes were crammed into a knapsack, some food was wrapped into a package, and that was all, except with the fortunate ones who might have had a small suitcase with them. If the departure was not a secret one, father came out into the yard to shake hands in farewell, with mother sobbing quietly at the threshold and sisters at the gate to wave their kerchiefs. Some turned their footsteps toward the coastline cities of the Gulf of Bothnia, to take ship to Sweden, from there to go to Stockholm and Göteborg to take a bigger ship to England, either Hull or Liverpool, there to board the steamer that was to take them across the Atlantic. Others were already in Norway, or trudged across Lapland to Hammerfest, where they could find work enough to support themselves and in a couple of summers have money enough to support themselves and in a couple of sumers have money enough to buy a steamer ticket for the Atlantic crossing. That is what Johan Piippo did, one the first Finns to arrive in Minnesota, in 1861-62. A few went north, then turned east, reaching the Kuola Peninsula from where they were finally able to start across the ocean. From Haaparanta, on the border between Finland and Sweden, a group of 230 immigrants set forth in June 1873, the first group from Finland whose destination was Minnesota. The group reached Stockholm on June 19, Hull on June 26. They went by train to Liverpool, where they attended services at the Finnish Seamen's Mission on July 1. Two days later they were on board their Atlantic steamer.

For many others Hankoniemi, in southwestern Finland, was the last stopping place on Finnish soil. One traveler who came by this route wrote his impressions of it: "Hundreds of tubs of fresh butter, the export article creating a higher standard of living for the Finns, were carefully packed away in the hold, and the human cargo was crammed, much less carefully, into whatever space was left. The air was so bad it was almost impossible to breathe" Like herrings into a barrel, 264 persons were crowded int the 280-foot long Arcturus in October 1899, and 119 persons into the 1,100 ton Urania. With some sense of responsibility but little show of friendliness, the Hanko steamers carried 1,445 men, women, and children in March 1903. In April the figure rose to 2,381, and so it went on from year to year. Overcrowded conditions like this astonished the English who saw the ships arrive, and the immigrants themselves felt that they had not been treated like human beings.

On board ship an immigrant who knew no language but his own was able to manage somehow, but once on land the difficulties began in earnest. Anything could happen, even if a husband had advised his wife well, and had instructed her to bring all their savings in cash, to be changed into American money in New York. If she had made the acquaintance of a man on shipboard who became very helpful, and then had entrusted him with looking after the financial transaction, man and money in all likelihood were never seen again. Even with a railroad ticket still left in one's purse, it was difficult to make a long journey by train with not a single penny to spend.

Some, of course, had no money to begin with, like two friends of Johan Piippo. Piippo himself had arrived in the United States via New York and had gone north and west and had sailed along the Great Lakes to Upper Michigan, and although he still had 17 pounds English money in his pocket, he stopped in Calumet to work in the copper mines, to earn money enough to buy himself a piece of land. From Calumet he went on to Minnesota, as so many after him were to do. Delighted with what he found in Minnesota, he wrote a letter to Finland describing the new land. The result was that two friends of his, Matt Jacobson and John Matson (Lehto) saved enough money to buy themselves steamship tickets, set forth on their journey, and landed in New York with a slip of paper in their hands - "John Piippo, Moe Township, U.S.A." was written on it - which was all they had to go by. They had no idea of the distance between New York and Minnesota, and since they knew not a word of English, how could anyone have explained it to them? And since they had no money to buy train tickets in any case, they simply started out to hike, in the direction "where Piippo lived," showing their slip of paper many a time on the way. It took them two months to walk to their destination.

Ten years or so later it was much easier for new arrivals. Since the Northern Pacific Railroad was aware how important would be the reports these immigrants sent back home in maintaining a continued influx of population into the area, everything possible was done to give the immigrants a warm reception and to make further travel arrangements for them. Evidence of this appears in the letter George Sheppard wrote Karl Möllersvärd in 1873: after mentioning that he has received notification of the group's departure, he stated his pleasure at their impending arrival, by which time arrangements would be ready for their trip inland to their final destination: the railroad's Quebec representative, Mr. Holloway, had already been assigned to meet the group there and to assist them, while Captain Ward of the Central and Pacific had been instructed to reserve enough space for them on the ship to Duluth, where they were again to be met and their trip expedited. This particular group did run into some difficulty, however: the lake steamer broke down before their departure and caused some delay, and the new escort for the group, a Mr. Swanberg, was furious because it had been overlooked to send along an interpreter for a group in which no one spoke a word of anything but Finnish.

The group did arrive in Duluth, of course, and stayed there overnight, prior to being sent on to jobs on the railroad, where construction work was going on near Fargo, North Dakota. But that stop in Duluth was long enough for the immigrants to hear tales about the dangers of the wild west, and in the morning they refused to continue their trip any farther, especially since they had also learned that the Finns living in Duluth were making out well. Swanberg lost his temper and an uproar ensued, and it was not quieted down until the police interfered. Since everybody in the group had paid for his own trip in advance, and since none of them had made any definite commitments to the railroad, the Finns were free to do what they pleased. Many of them turned back a bit, to Hancock, Michigan, while others stayed in Duluth or headed for the lumber camps of northern Minnesota. However, in spite of such disappointments, the railroads showed a continued eagerness to guide these groups of immigrants, as evidenced by the letter H.B. Brait and H. Dunnel wrote to Henry Willard, President of the Northern Pacific: "Being greatly concerned about how the immigrants in the United States settle down in various parts of the country, we would like to remind you that at the present time your railroad serves as an efficient means of spreading immigrant settlement. With its help the great numbers of immigrants now coming from northern Europe can be steered away from the eastern states, where their presence would cause confusion and strikes, such as have recently occurred with considerable frequency. The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad has realized this, in trying to direct this flood to the northwest, to the areas of the farthest present settlements. These railroads have opened an immigration agency in St. Paul, directed by a Swedish commissioner with a salary of $5000 per year, and assisted by a staff of officials and agents..." (Undated letter, filed April 18, 1882. WPA Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota)

Sources cited by Wasastjerna:
Barberg, Vernon G.: I'll take this land by the lake. MS. Cokato, Minnesota.
Workers Progress Administration (WPA), unpublished study on the Finns in Minnesota. St. Paul.
Reima, Vilho: Amerikan mailta. Helsinki 1907.
Young, Ernest: Finland, the land of a thousand lakes. London 1912.
Amerikan Sanomat, June 18, 1902.

Page 64-67 in: History of the Finns in Minnesota by Hans R. Wasastjerna, translation by Toivo Rosvall. Published by Minnesota Finnish-American Historical Society, New York Mills, Minnesota, 1967.

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