[ End of article ]

Child Mortality in the Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio Finnish American Immigrant Community

Reino Kero

Relatively little has been written about the role of children in the Finnish American immigrant community. There are certainly numerous memoirs, in which the immigrant writer remembers his or her childhood, but the information in such autobiographies is naturally quite selective. In practical terms, there is hardly any information on Finnish immigrant children that is based on hard data.

The history of the immigrant child is really a way of looking at the earliest phase of family history. This raises the following questions, among others: What was the average number of children in the Finnish immigrant home? How did the child's parents live? How often did the parents move from one locality to another? What kind of upbringing did the parents seek for their children? And, of course, one should also ask: how many of the children reached adulthood?

It is possible to find a substantial amount of statistical information about the lives of Finnish American immigrants from the 1890s onward. In gathering and interpreting the data, several things must be kept in mind. First, of all the Finnish American immigrant community changed in many ways over the decades. It was quite different in 1920 from what it had been in 1890. Secondly, the Finns were dispersed throughout the United States. What was true for Ohio Finns was not necessarily true for Finns in Minnesota. What was true in Minnesota did not necessarily apply to Finns in California.

This study will examine the problems of children born within the Finnish immigrant community that began to form in the 1870s in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. It will especially focus on child mortality.

From the perspective of Finnish immigration, what kind of community was Ashtabula Harbor at the turn of the century? At a time when emigration from Finland was just getting underway, the locality got its first Finnish immigrants in the 1870s. By the beginnings of the 1880s, several Finnish families could already be found. During this period most of the Finns were still adult single men, but by the 1890s families already formed the main structure of the Finnish community.1

Ohio was never the kind of magnet for Finnish immigration as were Minnesota and Michigan. However, several Ohio Finnish communities grew quite large. In the late 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, Ashtabula Harbor had more Finns than any other industrial city in Ohio.2 Most of the city's Finns were employed in the harbor area as dockworkers.3

At the turn of the century, part of the community's Finnish children had been born in the "old country", while the rest were born in the "new country". The number of children born in Finland can be established from official Finnish immigration records and passenger lists.4

Table 1. Children as immigrants from Finland to North America in the years 1882 and 1905.

1882

1905

AGE

NUMBER OF
IMMIGRANTS

% OF ALL

NUMBER OF
IMMIGRANTS

% OF ALL

0-4

66

3.9

821

5.2

5-9

34

2.0

315

2.0

10-14

32

1.9

231

1.5

Thus, 7 to 9 % of the immigrants arriving in North America from Finland were children. Altogether 20,000 to 30,000 Finnish children came to North America up to World War I.5

Some of the children came to America with their parents. Other families migrated in "steps". The father left first. When he had been in the United States for one to two years, he sent tickets to his wife and children. If there were many children, a part of them stayed behind in Finland for several years with grandparents or relatives before joining the family in a America.

Ashtabula Harbor illustrates a community where the older children were largely born in Finland in the late 1800s, but an increasing number of the community's children in the 1900s began to be born in the North America, in this case specifically Ashtabula Harbor. It appears to have been quite common for a turn-of-the-century immigrant family to have had children born in the "old country" as well as the "new".6

How large were Ashtabula Harbor's Finnish families? The following sample has been compiled from Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Bethany congregation's membership registers. From these registers, those families were selected in which at least one child was born in Ashtabula Harbor up to the year 1919.

Table 2. The number of children per Finnish family in Ashtabula, Ohio at the turn of the century.

NUMBER OF CHILDREN

FAMILIES

1

23

2

20

3

7

4

14

5

14

6

7

7

9

8

6

9

2

10

2

11

2

12

1

TOTAL NUMBER OF
FAMILIES

107

AVERAGE NO. OF
CHILDREN PER FAMILY

4.1

We have already noted how the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish American families at the turn of the century included children born both in Finland and the United States. In the sample, just under a third of the families (33) were ones that included both Finnish born and American born children. These families, on the average, were slightly larger than those whose children were all born in the United States. The families in the former group had an average of 4.8 children, while the latter group had an average of 3.7.

Why were there more children in those families where part of the children were already born in Finland? The difference can probably not be explained within the framework of the available data. These sources indicate that there was often a considerable age span between the last child born in Finland and the first one born in the United States, which resulted from the father's arrival in American several years before the rest of the family. The family thus lost several "fertile years" compared to the families where the couple had been wed in the United States. This suggests that the size of the families, comparatively speaking, should be just the opposite of what the data indicates.

We can imagine that marriage age also influenced the matter. Yet, it is a fact that the immigrants, especially the women, married quite young. In view of all these factors, it is reasonable to assume that couples wed in the United States intentionally sought to limit the size of their families more than those couples married in Finland. Apparently, they succeeded.7

For thousands of years high nativity and high child mortality rates have been typical of all societies in which population data has been gathered and probably also of those societies where records have been lost. In the 1800s mortality and nativity began to decrease in several European countries. In Finland at the end of the 1800s the nativity rate was still quite high. Child mortality figures were also relatively high, although the rate had decreased to a point at which the population began to grow rapidly.8 How high was the child mortality rate in Ashtabula Harbor's Finnish immigrant community? The following table, showing mortality by age groups for the period 1892-1919, has been tabulated from data in the Bethany congregation's death register.

Table 3. Ages of the deceased from the Funeral Register of the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Bethany congregation. 

1892-1894 1895-1899 1900-1904 1905-1909 1910-1914 1915-1919
% % % % % %
Under 1 mo 12 12.8 38 19.6 23 12.3 7 4.9 16 14.4 12 11.3
1 mo to under 1 yr 27 8.7 63 32.5 51 26.7 42 29.4 18 16.2 11 10.4
1-5 years 15 16.0 34 17.5 37 19.4 26 18.2 22 19.8 11 10.4
6-10 years 2 2.1 4 2.1 6 3.1 5 3.5 6 5.4 4 3.8
11-15 years 1 1.1 6 3.1 4 2.1 3 2.1 2 1.8 5 4.7
16-20 years 1 1.1 7 3.6 4 2.1 8 5.6 6 5.4 3 2.8
21-25 years 7 7.4 13 6.7 10 5.2 10 7.0 8 7.2 15 14.2
26-30 years 7 7.4 11 5.7 15 7.9 11 7.7 7 6.3 6 5.7
31-35 years 5 5.3 3 1.5 10 5.2 7 4.9 4 3.6 6 5.7
36-40 years 3 3.2 4 2.1 6 3.1 5 3.5 6 5.4 4 3.8
41-45 years 6 6.4 3 1.5 15 7.9 7 4.9 2 1.8 5 4.7
46-50 years - - 3 1.5 2 1.0 3 2.1 6 5.4 5 4.7
Over 50 1 1.1 3 1.5 5 2.6 7 4.9 7 6.3 17 16.0
"child" 3 3.2 1 0.5 - - - - - - - -
"adult" 4 4.3 1 0.5 3 1.6 2 1.4 1 0.9 2 1.9
TOTALS 94 194 191 143 111 106
Under 16 years 60 63.8 146 75.3 121 63.4 83 58.0 64 57.7 43 40.6
16-50 29 30.9 44 22.9 62 32.5 51 35.7 39 35.1 44 41.5
Over 50 1 1.1 3 1.5 5 2.6 7 4.9 7 6.3 17 16.0
'adult' 4 4.3 1 0.5 3 1.6 2 1.4 1 0.9 2 1.9

 

lstar149a.jpg (20986 bytes)
The dead son of Edvi Haavisto, 1918, Clinton, Indiana. (Photo: Institute of Migration, Turku.)

The table clearly shows that there were years when three out of four funerals held in the community were for children. Thus, while it sounds trenchant, it appears that funerals were the one occasion when children were the most evident in the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish community.

Children represented an extremely large percentage of the deaths in the Ashtabula Harbor community at the turn of the century. And of these children, the youngest ones made up such a large percentage of the deaths that in some years the children one year and younger made up more that half the deaths in the entire community. The mortality rate in the "one month to under one year" category was much higher than that for older children.

Typical of many immigrant communities for the same time period, Ashtabula Harbor's Finnish settlement had an asymmetrical age distribution at the turn of the century. A large percentage of its members were in the 20-40 age group, or, in other words, at a point in life when death was least likely. The large percentage of children in the mortality rates stands out so prominently partly because of this unique situation.

We noted earlier that children in the community were most evident at their funerals. How large a percentage of the children born in the Finnish community died before reaching adulthood? An answer can be formulated by comparing the number of baptisms with the number of deaths. Almost all of the baptisms as well as the funerals took place in Ashtabula Harbor itself. Although the Finnish congregation sometimes performed these rites in outlying areas, it appears that for the most part the congregation's baptisms and funerals for this time period reflect services performed in the same geographical area, that is, within the city. The baptism and funerals also included people from those parts of the Finnish community who were not affiliated with the church.

The following listing thus provides a fairly reliable picture of how large a percentage of the community's children passed away without reaching maturity at the turn of the century in Ohio.

lstar149b.jpg (21066 bytes)
The funeral in the early 1900's of a Finnish immigrant. (Photo: Institute of Migration, Turku.)

Table 4. Number of children baptized, buried at the Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio Finnish congregation between the years 1892-1919.

DEATHS
UNDER 1
MONTH
1 YEAR
1 MONTH
TO UNDER
1-5
YEARS
TOTAL
DEATHS
BAPTIZED DEATHS AS
% OF
BAPTIZED
1892-1894 12 27 15 54 284 19.0
1895-1899 38 63 34 135 709 19.0
1900-1904 23 51 37 111 603 18.4
1905-1909 7 42 26 75 559 13.4
1910-1914 16 18 22 56 413 13.6
1915-1919 12 11 11 34 315 10.8
TOTALS 108 212 145 465 2883 16.1

The figures point out that every fifth child in Ashtabula Harbor and vicinity at the turn of the century died before reaching maturity.9 Those who died during their first year in the period 1892-1919 made up 11. 1 % of the number baptized.

The table also shows that the most "dangerous period" for a child was its first 12 months. The listing gives a slightly misleading picture, because the child's second year was still a dangerous time. However, by the time the child had reached its second year, most of the weaker children had already died, so that the chances of survival and reaching adulthood increased noticably.

The table indicates the fact that although child mortality in the 1910s was still high, it was also clearly decreasing. The decline in child mortality resulted from many factors. During this period the housing and living standards levels rose among the Ashtabula Harbor Finns. It is possible that Ashtabula Harbor at this point had developed into a healthier environment than before. In addition, medical advances of the day may also have played their part.

What diseases resulted in the deaths among children? The following listing has been compiled from church registers reflecting funerals arranged by Ashtabula Harbor's Bethany congregation in the period 1898-1909. The records from 1898 onward include a cause of death for the deceased. Adult causes of death have been listed as a point of comparison for the data on children.

Table 5. Causes of death for children (C) and adults (A) for the years 1898-1902 according to the Funeral Register of the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Bethany congregation.

1898 1899 1900 1901 1902 Total
C A C A C A C A C A C A
Cough 5 - - - 4 - - - - - 9 -
Cough and Stomach Disease 5 - - - - - - - - - 1 -
Cough and Stinging Pain - - 1 - - - - - - - 1 -
Cough and Weakness - - 1 - - - - - - - 1 -
Brain Fever 3 - - 1 1 1 3 - 1 - 8 2
Inflammation of the Cerebral Membrane - - - - 1 - - - - - 1 -
Brain Disease - - - - - - - 1 - - 1 -
Fever or Fever Disease 1 1 1 8 - 8 - 2 3 - 5 19
Milk Fever - - - 1 - - - - - - - 1
Blood Poisoning - - - - - 2 - - - 1 - 3
Tuberculosis 1 3 1 3 2 7 - 2 - 1 4 16
Inflammation of the Lung 1 - - 1 - 1 - - 1 - 2 2
Pneumonia - 1 - 1 1 2 3 - - - 4 4
Lung and Liver Disease - - - 1 - - - - - - - 1
Difficulty in Breathing - - 1 - - - - - - - 1 -
Bronchitis - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Measles 1 - 1 - - - 1 - - - 3 -
Scarlet Fever - - - - 1 - - - - - 1 -
Diphtheria - - 3 - 1 - - - - - 4 -
Children's Cholera 13 - 13 - 21 - 1 - - - 48 -
Whooping Cough - - - - 1 - - - - - 1 -
Typhoid Fever - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Hemorrhage at Childbirth - - - - - - - 1 - - - 1
Cold from Childbirth - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Convulsions at Childbirth - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Occupational Accident - 3 - 1 - 1 - - 1 - 1 5
Intoxication Accidents - 1 - 2 - - - 3 - - - 6
Other Accidents - - - 1 1 1 1 2 - - 2 4
Murder or Manslaughter - 1 - - - - - - - - - 1
Alcoholism, Drunkenness, and Long Term Drinking - - - - - 1 - 1 - - - 2
Internal Burning Pain - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Stomach Inflammation - - - - - 2 - - - - - 2
Stomach Fever - - - - - - - - 1 - 1 -
Stomach Disease - - - - - - 1 - 2 - 3 -
Worms and Tuberculosis - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Heart Disease - - - - - 1 - - - - - 1
Consumption - - - - - - - - 1 1 1 1
Liver Disease - - - - - - - 1 - - - 1
Glaucoma - - - - - - - 1 - - - 1
Swamp Eye 1 - 1 - - - - - - - 2 -
Convulsions 2 - 1 - 2 - 4 - 1 - 10 -
Teething Complications 1 - - - 1 - - - - - 2 -
Infirmity 1 - 1 - 1 - - - - - 3 -
Long Term Wasting Disease - - 1 - - - - - - - 1 -
Exogenous Disease 1 - - - - - - - - - 1 -
Misc. Diseases - 1 - - - - - - - - - 1
Children's Disease - - - - - - - - 1 - 1 -
Unknown - - - - - - - - - 1 - 1
Undetermined (Age under 1 month) 8 - 9 - 3 - 4 - - - 24 -
Undetermined (Age at least 1 month) 1 - - 2 5 - 1 4 2 2 9 8
TOTAL 42 11 35 22 46 33 19 18 14 6 155 90

How was the cause of death determined? The pastor in charge, of course, was not required to a give a cause of death. Indicating it in the register probably came about because the clergy were accustomed to it in Finland and congregations belonging to the Suomi Synod sought to copy the ecclesiastical models of the State Church of Finland. Apparently the cause of death given in the register was the one given by the deceased's family or by those who had arranged the funeral. It is clear that medical definitions for the cause of death were not always exact, but it is entirely possible that a local physician determined the disease while the deceased was still alive. Despite its shortcomings, the listing gives a good overview of the causes of child as well as adult mortality.

The categories indicate that epidemics were still a considerable scourge in the immigrant community. The deadliest of these was known as "children's cholera", to which almost a third of the stricken children succumbed. At the turn of the century it appears that this epidemic made its appearance in Ashtabula Harbor every spring and the death register showd deaths resulting from it all the way into the fall of the year.

In addition to "children's cholera", the death registers also note quite a few stomach diseases, which in fact may have been the same ailment as "children's cholera". Examples of these are deaths where the cause is given as "stomach fever" or "stomach disease".

The disease known as "children's cholera" was the scourge of children under two years of age. These, as well as slightly older children, were also afflicted with poxes, whooping cough, diphtheria, and different kinds of fevers. The worst of the fevers was something called "brain fever", probably an inflammation of the cerebral membrane. Older children also succumbed to tuberculosis, which was actually a disease prevalent among young adults.

Only in exceptional cases did the clergy give a cause of death for infants under the age of a month. In most cases these children were either premature or otherwise weak, which is occasionally indicated in the sources.

Many children and several adults died of what the registers list as the "cramps". This vague name probably refers to some type of convulsions. During the time period of this study, the causes of death changed to some extent. The foregoing table for the years 1899-1902 covers a period when children's cholera was yearly problem in the summer. But this disease was already on the decrease and the last instance of death from it was in 1911.10

Child mortality at the turn of the century in Ashtabula Harbor's Finnish immigrant community was quite high, but it appears to have been slightly lower than the corresponding rate in Finland. While the number of deaths under one year of age was 12.3 % of those baptized, according to official population figures in Finland the rate was 13.4 % of those born. In the United States the corresponding figure for the period shows that 13.3 %-16.2 % of the children a year or younger died. It must be emphasized that the Ashtabula Harbor results should only be considered representative.11

Child mortality among those a year and under decreased rapidly in Ashtabula Harbor at the beginning of the 1900s. While the ratio of deceased children to baptized children stood at 12.3 % in 1900-1904, by 1910-1914 it had dropped to 8.2 and by 1915-1919 it was down to 7.3 %. The same trend in the immigrant community was quite similar to the United States in general and the same phenomenon was also true of Finland. In Finland in 1910-1914 the number of deaths among children under one year of age according to official figures was one 11.1 % of those born in the same period, while previously it had stood at 13.4 % in 1900-1904.

As child mortality declined, other changes were also taking place in the immigrant homes. The figures show that the number of children in families established in the 1910s was considerably lower than in the previous period. The phenomenon is even clearer in the 1920s. As the small family became the model of the established immigrant community, at least in the city, it is apparent that the decrease was the result of family planning. Elis Sulkanen, who had been active in the Finnish American labor movement from the 1900s onward, remembers this effort in the following way:

We felt as though we would live endlessly in this youthful period. Family ties seemed frightening and constrictive, although we certainly fell in love and got married. We tried every means imaginable to avoid increases in the size of the family, since the family tied the mother and father to the cradle and increased our responsibilities intolerably. We had no time for these broad family responsibilities. We needed the time for far more important activities - the building of a better world.12

References

1 This is easily inferred from the membership registers of the Ashtabula Harbor Finnish Bethany congregation which was founded in 1890. Information is also available in various census figures, both official and those which have been compiled by the immigrants themselves. It was estimated that there were about 60 Finns in Ashtabula in 1878: 50 men, three wives, and seven young children. By 1884 there were already over 200 Finns. In figures compiled by the immigrants themselves in 1897 there were 222 families, 439 Finnish born men, 325 Finnish born women, 98 Finnish born children and 440 American born children. The number of Finnish and American born Finns totaled 1320. In 1900 the number of Finnish born Finns had risen to nearly 1500. A private census from 1916 indicates that the Ashtabula Harbor community was made up of 1115 adult men, 1063 adult women. There were 1713 children, 881 boys and 832 girls. According to the 1930 census, there were 1333 Finnish born Finns in Ashtabula. For more on the systematic development of Ashtabula Harbor and other Ohio Finnish communities, see John I. Kolehmainen, A History of the Finns in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. New York Mills, Minnesota, 1977, pp. 45-53.

2 Another large community at the turn of the century was situated in Ashtabula Harbor's neighboring city, Fairport Harbor. In the period between the two world wars, there was also a relatively large Finnish community in Cleveland.

3 A large part of the iron ore from the Midwest was shipped by boat to Ashtabula Harbor, where the Finns found employment as dockworkers unloading the ore. A large percentage of Ashtabula Harbor's Finns seem to have come from Isokyrö, Ylistaro, and Kälviä.

4 The 1882 data is based on registers left with officials in Swedish ports, specifically Gothenburg. The 1905 data comes primarily from passengers lists of the Finnish Steamship Company.

5 The figures are based on statistics from Reino Kero's dissertation. Reino Kero, Migration from Finland to North America in the Years between the United States Civil War and the First World War. Vammala 1974, appendices A, B, C, and D.

6 Changes within the children's category become apparent in the membership registers. It is easiest to get a picture of the changes by examining the birth places of Bethany's confirmands, which were carefully noted in the registers from 1898 onward. In 1898 15 children were confirmed, three of whom were in Ashtabula Harbor, while the rested had been born in Finland. In 1905 22 children were confirmed, of whom 15 had been born in Finland. 50 children were confirmed in 1910 and of these 16 had been born in Finland, while 31 were born in the United States. Three birthplaces are not indicated in the confirmation registers. There were 34 confirmands in 1915. Six had been born in Finland and 27 in the United States. The birthplace of one confirmand is not given.

7 Were the immigrants already using methods of contraception which were at least partially effective? This is difficult to determine, since contraception was an extremely sensitive subject in the immigrant community.

8 The following are Finland's nativity and mortality figures for 1830/31, 1860/61, 1890/91, 1920/21. From Eino Jutikkala, Kuolemalla on aina syynsä. Maailman väestöhistorian ääriviivoja. Porvoo 1988, supplemental tables 2 and 3.

1830/31 1860/61 1890/91 1920/21
Nativity 35.9 37.1 33.6 26.6
Mortality 31.6 24.3 20.4 6.0

9 The mortality rates for children five years and older were quite low, as table 3 illustrates, and they were actually in the same category as the adults.

10 Between 1907 to 1911 the records no longer speak of children's cholera, but stomach cholera. The children that died of this were few in number. Up until 1910 a cause of death for children was often given as stomach disease, which may have been an illness similar to cholera. Around 1910 stomach illnesses begin to disappear as causes of mortality.

11 Historical Statistics of the United States. Colonial Times to 1970. Washington D.C. 1975, p. 60.

12 Elis Sulkanen, Amerikan Suomalaisen Työväenliikkeen Historia. Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1951, p. 168.

Published in Turun Historiallinen Arkisto 46(1990), p. 71-84.

© Reino Kero

[ Beginning of article ]