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The Background of Finnish Emigration

Reino Kero

THE MAJORITY OF Finns who emigrated to America in the mid-nineteenth century came from the central Bothnias. A considerable number also emigrated from northern Satakunta, northern Tavastland, the regions of Rauma and Åland. On the other hand, relatively few left the provinces of southem Tavastland, Savo, Uudenmaa, and Karjala. Therefore, any examination of the factors influencing Finnish emigration to America must determine what motivated so many citizens of certain areas to seek a new homeland in America. One such factor was the increase in population. Although the population grew appreciably in the eighteenth century, crop failures and communicable diseases kept it within reasonable limits. In 1800, Finland had a population of about nine hundred thousand; a century later, the figure stood at three million. The country as a experienced a rapid increase in population, but the average growth was far surpassed by that of the newly pioneered areas such as Bothnia and northern Satakunta. In Satakunta, for instance, it is possible to trace the influence of population growth upon emigration: in the late nineteenth century, emigration from the northern part of Satakunta where the popilation had grown rapidly was significantly larger than emigration from central and southem parts of the province where the population growth had been average or minimal. However, the mere increase in population was not the sole factor producing emigration since the Finnish cities and the general economic life of the country offered the excess rural population other ways of earning a living. It is clear that in certain areas, Bothnia for example, migration to America became the fashion whereas the inhabitants of other places such as Savo were more likely to move to the Finnish cities.

It is evident that as the nineteenth century wore on, it became an economic necessity for ever increasing numbers of rural folk to seek a living either in America or in the cities of the homeland. In the beginning of the century, the vast majority of Finns were farmers. Consequently, when the population increased in the nineteenth century, the arable land per capita decreased. Farmlands were divided; a nation in which a small farm economy was already the norm was divided into still smaller working units. The small farms were unable to produce a livelihood for all their inhabitants. Yet the rural population without property or farms inereased. The areas boarding on the towns were dotted with small huts whose inhabitants had no land and no employment, but often did have eight to twelve children to feed. At the same time, significant changes were taking place in agriculture. As hay became the principal crop, a farm economy developed which was based on dairy cattle, but even this was not sufficient. This accelerated growth required more and more employment and greater income. In the forest-covered areas of the country, the solution was relatively simple for the value of timberlands increased appreciably in the nineteenth century. The sale of forests and lumber gave the peasants a sizable income, and the lumbering industry offered them new possiblities for a livelihood.

However, not all of Finland benefited from the forests and lumbering. Many of the best forests, especially in Bothnia, had been spoiled by the practice of tar-burning. The distillation of tar (tervanpoltto) had for several centuries been one of the country's secondary producers of employment for the rural population, and the tar economy had in the best of recent centuries, especially in Bothnia, been a significant competitor with the economy based upon agriculture. As late as the 1860's, tar-burning constituted an important source of livelihood for the residents of Bothnia. However, after the Civil War in the United States, the price of tar dropped drastically, and a major Finnish industry built around the distillation of tar came to an end. As has been pointed out, tar-burning had destroyed the forests to such an extent that the healthy lumbering industry was unable to gain a place in Bothnia. The era based on lumbering brought about an economic crisis in that province. Similar economic crises were set off in northern Satakunta and northern Tavastland when a lack of workable forests put an end to the work of hand-sawing lumber and carting the planks by horse to Pori. Thousands of farmers, small tenant farmers and cottagers thrived on the forest economy during the 1860's, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the whole industry was a thing of the past. Furthermore, the advent of steam-powered ships brought an end to the building of sailing vessels by the close of the nineteenth century. The Gulf of Bothnia had a number of ports where shipbuilding was a key industry, for example at Luvia, Merkarvia, Kokkola, and Pietarsaari. As steamships gradually took the place of sailing vessels, the workers in the shipbuilding industry lost their jobs.

Thus, when the burning of tar, shipbuilding, and the transportation, of lumber each saw its conclusion, Bothnia and its environs were left on the periphery, economically speaking. The heart of the Finnish economy of Finland shifted to the southern coastal cities. The rural population was forced to seek its existence outside the home provinces. The Bothnians were the first to leave their homes; as early as the 1850's, they were seeking employment in the great construction areas of southem Finland. The construction of the Saima Canal, especially, gave employment to many, but a few northern woodsmen went as far as Russia where they were employed in the shipyards at Petrograd and Kronstadt. However, the crop failures of the 1860's also increased the movement to the south. This created a problem for the southerners who during the years of dearth sought ways in which to deal with "those beggars", from Bothnia and Satakunta, "who go from house to house to seek their livelihood". In the next decade, ever-increasing numbers of people left their home provinces. Although railroad building provided employment for many, it could not supply nearly enough jobs to fill the demand. A newspaper account of the construction of the line from Tampere and Pori reported that hundreds of men presented themselves each day at the Kokemäki employment office, in spite of the fact that. comparatively few were successful in obtaining work. Thus, the end of the nineteenth century saw a decided movement into the urban areas. Helsinki, in particular, was inundated by men from the provinces of Uusimaa, Häme, Savo, and Bothnia seeking employment.

It was fairly obvious that the existing urban centers were unable to keep pace with the rapid rise in the ranks of the unemployed. Gradually word about the opportunities in America spread from parish (pitäjä) to parish. Thereafter, the number of emigrants increased each decade. By the close of the nineteenth century, thousands of Finns had left for America; in the early twentieth century the number of emigrants rose to tens of thousands.

The political situation was also a factor in increasing emigration. Under the decree of 1878 regarding compulsory military service, every Finnish male was subject to a three-year term of service with the regular army. The average citizen regarded a three-year term during peace-time as unreasonable. By 1880, the newspapers contained statements that the new conscription law had only served to increase emigration to heretofore unpredictable proportions. Then in the 1890's, when Russia's political machinations threatened Finland's existence, increasing numbers of Finns decided to seek better conditions across the ocean. The new military service law of 1901 was yet another source of discontent; this law stipulated that all Finnish conscripts were, when called upon, to fight anywhere in Russia or possibly outside its borders as the situation at a given time demanded. An attempt was made to discourage the number of emigrants seeking to avoid military service by refusing passports to them, but many still succeeded in leaving the country. It is estimated that from Ostrobothnia alone, thousands managed to leave either without a visa or with a false passport.

The oppressive measures taken by the Russians created a grim atmosphere which heightened the appeal of emigration. Furthermore, the growth of the workers' movement at the turn of the century made emigration acceptable. Leaders of the workers' movement, such as Matti Kurikka, Taavi Tainio, and Oskari Tokoi, had made trips to America and generally affirmed the cause of the emigrants. In Työmies (The Worker), Matti Kurikka presented powerful propaganda favoring emigration. He wrote, for example, "We shall discover the historical salvation of our people through emigration. In Finland the working class may eat only raw herring and drink skimmed milk. Everything is much better in America. It is not worthwhile for the working people to remain in Finland." The workers' newspapers produced an attitude severely critical of the social conditions in Finland. Knowledge of the contrasting socio-economic conditions in America and Finland became one of the primary factors affecting emigration. The Finns did not become really interested in emigration until they learned that America offered better possibilities for economic advancement. In fact, it was only after the comparison with the American situation was firmly established, that they became severely critical of their own social conditions.

Finnish interest in America began to develop in the mid-nineteenth century when the news of the discovery of gold in California trickled to Finland. Finnish seamen began to escape from their ships when they docked in American harbors. In the 1860's emigrant recruiters began to travel in Finland; in the following decade, steamship companies propagandized to stimulate out-migration. For example, in 1874, one steamship company spread literature from Sweden depicting Canada as an earthly paradise. It argued that the world's best potatoes, turnips, and cabbages grew in Canada. During the next decade, Canada sent emigrant agents on recruitment trips to Finland. It is reported from Kiikoinen that an "emigrant-runner" at the turn of the century, probably in 1902, took the region's first emigrant to Canada to work on a railroad. The newspapers of the day contained advertising which depicted Canada as an agricultural nation, where good arable land was offered at a supposedly cheap price. The majority of the Canadian emigrant-runners probably recruited Finns for Canadian farms and its labor force. The U.S. agents sent by the railroad companies were especially active during the 1880's. It was impossible, they said, to convey the beauties of the United States. America contained multitudes of good fields and pastures; there were many silver, gold, and coal mines. Nature was beautiful beyond comparison.

The newspapers warned the people not to believe the promises of the emigrant-runners. For example, one of the leading papers described the activities of the recruiters: "Their promises are pure lies and a fraud. The recruiters are seeking simple-minded folk to fall into their trap. Men of Finland, keep your eyes open." It is impossible to know what the farmers, peasants, and poor cottagers thought about the promises made by the recruiters or how they reacted to the warnings in the newspapers. But America was able to entice over three hundred and eighty thousand Finns, one-third of which later returned to Finland. It is possible that many of the first emigrants left because of the lures of the emigrant-runners.

Once the first Finns reached America, they wrote letters to their friends and relatives in Finland describing the wonders of their new country. These descriptions were trusted even by those who refused to heed the promises of the recruitment people. The letters assured them that no one need fear starting off as an emigrant; if some hesitated because of the difficulties of travel, he need not, for the emigrants were shepherded so carefully from Hanko onward that they could never get lost. When they had crossed the ocean and reached land, interpreters would be there to receive them. Once in America, it was quite simple to find one's way to his destination. Those who came were promised much good fortune. The residents of the Ii-parish in 1866 learned from one such letter that "in America even the grain grows up in a week, that peas there rotted in a pile at the base of trees, and that the supply of red wine flowing from between cracks in the cliffs never became exhausted, not even by drinking it." At Pudasjarvi, it was common knowledge that "in America every common 'Maija' walked the streets in silk, and with a hat on her head to boot." The residents of Puolanka heard that "in America there were vast piles of all good things gathered together: gold, silver, wheat, punch, and whiskey". Visible proof of these wonders was provided by photographs showing ordinary Finnish workers transformed into ladies and gentlemen of wealth. The simple, rural hometowns of the Finns paled in comparison to the stories of America's bounty. No wonder that the recipient of such letters and photographs was prepared to cross the Atlantic on the very next ship.

The Finns found the wages in America practically beyond belief. A good worker there could save three hundred dollars a year - or about fifteen hundred marks according to the rate of exchange prevailing at the turn of the century. In Finland, a good worker could save at the most two to three hundred marks a year. And women were paid a far better wage in America than in the old country. For example, a servant girl in Bothnia at the beginning of the century would earn about one hundred and twenty marks per year in addition to her keep. In America, the going rate was from ten to forty dollars per month, or the equivalent of from six to twenty-five hundred Finn-marks annually.

Yet another enticement was knowledge of the social conditions prevalent in America, which was regarded as the freest country in the world. In 1866, a well-known newspaper man wrote the following about America: "Why does the mention of the name of the U.S. cause our hearts to pound so strongly? Why has the U.S. grown from a miserable land of immigrants to become the number one country in the world? Because in America, the individual may sacrifice himself on the altar of liberty." Letters from the new country spread the news of the ideal conditions in America among the rural population. It was said that the new world was the loving mother of mankind which had given birth to a new concept of freedom. The upper classes hated this freedom, but the people loved it. The United States was, among the nations of the world, a child of good fortune for there it was possible for the people to rule themselves. Quite the reverse was true in Europe and in Finland, where the nobility had made slaves of the people. In America even the poor man was noble. The American was always prepared to help his poor neighbor. In Finland, the people were forbidden to speak their own language by the aristocracy; the schools trod upon the values making for human dignity and brought the citizen to a state of hopelessness. In America, all was different. There a woman received the dignity she deserved. It was rumored that in America even the most corrupt person received a new mind and spirit; as no one inquired into the sins of his past, he was free to seek something higher and better.

These letters extolling the economic, social, political, and spiritual opportunities in America are typified by one written by a Finnish immigrant living in Kaleva, Michigan:

The area is exceedingly fertile. The fruit trees, which are everywhere, are adequate proof of the matter. The branches of the fruit trees again this year bend under the burden of the lush fruit they bear. I have never seen such large apples as I have seen here. They also grow numerous kinds of fruit, which I have never seen in Finland. Of these I recognize only the plum. Grapes grow here wild in the woods. The farms grow corn and potatoes, which have a different taste from those in Finland. The Finns here have begun to take up chicken farming. It is possible to purchase ready-built homes here from the older members of the comunity because when the Finns came and moved in among them, they sold their farms for fear of the Finnish sorcerers. Last year it was possible to buy these farms cheaply, but now when we have asked about the prices, they have risen by about twenty percent. But, in any case, you can still purchase an exceedingly good farm of 80-100 acres for from $2000-3000. Those who have no money buy uncleared land for $6-10 an acre, and do the clearing themselves. The soil is good sandy loam and absolutely free of stones. The area is surrounded by fresh water lakes, rivers, and creeks, and the shores are filled with hundreds of types of deciduous trees. If you intend to come here as a farmer, do it immediately because the prices of land keep rising as more and more immigrants swarm here from Finland. It is not worth your while to stay in Finland. If the gentlemen (herrat) leave something for you, the Russians (ryssät) will come and take it from you slowly but surely. Therefore, with an the persuasion at my command, I would persuade all those who have even only 3000 marks to come here as farmers, for with such a capital one can eat his bread here as though it were nothing but play. The farming region is replete with schools. You know here we govern ourselves. The Finnish language is heard wherever one goes, and all of us have our roots deep in Kaleva. The government, you know, favors Finnish immigration. The climate is favorable. Kaleva needs a lot of active people like yourself.

The reports from America forced the Finns to take a critical look at their own surroundings and awakened secret prospects for a better life. The first emigrants had proved that in America the poor Finnish cottager could prosper and live a life of dignity. America thus became the goal for thousands of Finns.

Published in The Finns in North America. A Social Symposium. Ed. by Ralph J. Jalkanen. Hancock, Michigan 1969, 224 p.

© Reino Kero

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