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Finns in the United States and Canada

Eugene Van Cleef

(Columbus, U. S. A.)

The first Finnish immigrants to the United States probably came at a very early date, although not in considerable numbers. Claims have been made that Finns were among a group of Swedes who in 1627 sailed up Delaware Bay and established themselves not far from the present site of Philadelphia. The late Consul-General of Finland, Mr Akseli Rauanheimo, was convinced that John Morton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a descendant of a Finnish family in this early colony. There is evidence, according to John Fiske,1 that two ships did arrive in Delaware Bay carrying representatives of the Swedish West India Company, but while some Finns may have been on board there can be no certainty of this.

Reliable data concerning Finnish immigration are not available for the years prior to 1850. Between 1850 and 1860 some 250 Finns migrated from the copper mining districts of Norway and Sweden to Calumet, Michigan, attracted there by newly opened copper mines. These came in response to the inducements of the mining companies and seem to have been the only group of Finns that migrated to the United States as a consequence of encouragement by industrial corporations. All subsequent arrivals in this region apparently left their homes because of enthusiastic letters sent to them by their predecessors.

About 1870 Finns arrived in Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts, some of them gravitating toward the granite quarries of Quincy and Lanesville. They were mostly sailors who had lost interest in further life on the sea and, attracted by the possibility of good wages on the land in work which was somewhat familiar to them, had deserted their ships. In turn, they sent for their relatives, who helped swell the total of Finnish immigrants into New England.

Probably as early as 1870, a number of Finns settled in the lower Great Lakes region, particularly along the south shore of Lake Erie, where they engaged in railroad building and dock work during the summer and hired out as lumberjacks in the woods of north-eastern Ohio during the winter season. Some of these settlers at first practiced an inter-continental migration; that is, after earning enough money during the summer season to enable them to return to Finland, they did so, coming back the following summer to resume their work when navigation on the Great Lakes opened again.

As the settlements in the state of Ohio and north-western Pennsylvania grew in numbers, their composition changed from time to time. New lands and new industries in other parts of the United States were opened up to which some Ohio Finns migrated, some going into the Lake Superior district and others moving shorter distances within Ohio or to Pennsylvania.

The curve of emigration from Finland (Fig. 1) shows considerable fluctuation throughout the years, owing probably to changes in economic conditions, both in Finland and in the United States; when times were depressed in Finland there was generally an increased exodus, as also when times were particularly good in the United States. A decline during the War was natural, and continued for a while after it, until prosperous conditions in the United States made immigration attractive once more. Variations in the curve for Canada correspond with those for the United States, except that the numbers of Finns involved are not so large. During the last few years the curves for both the United States and Canada show a marked decline, owing to drastic immigration restriction laws enacted in both countries.

Fig. 1. Annual immigration of Finns into the U.S.A. and Canada, 1910-1935. ----- U. S. A. .......... Canada.

A map (Fig. 2) showing the distribution of Finns in the United States reveals, with a single exception, their predominance in the northern states and heavy concentration close to the northern boundary line. The exception occurs on the Pacific coast, where California has enticed many Finns. Another striking feature is their location alongside, or in close proximity to, bodies of water. In Canada, settlement is largely in the southern portions of the provinces and scattered from coast to coast. An investigation that I made to determine the reasons for this striking distribution has led me to the conclusion that similarity in landscape and climate to that of the home country is the cause. This opinion is based not only upon statements made by great numbers of Finnish settlers, but also on the fact that a number of efforts to settle lands in the southern part of the United States have proved unsuccessful. Even though it was possible for Finnish farmers to raise two crops a year or, in any case, to grow crops with little effort as compared with the risks and labour in the extreme northern states, they returned to the region of snow, lakes, and glacial boulders.

Fig. 2. Distribution of Finns (native and foreign born) in the U.S.A. in 1930. Each dot represents 1000 Finns. Dots within the circle around New York City refer to the metropolitan area. (Outline map by courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.)

It is not my purpose here to claim that the destinies of Finnish immigrants in the United States have been determined by the environment in which they happened to settle. Neither is it my intention to insist that their place of settlement was forced upon them by the characteristics of certain types of landscapes and climates which they knew so well in Finland. Presumably, they had some choice. However, the evidence is very clear that their choice was conditioned by the fact that there was available to them a set of physical circumstances resembling those of the homeland and in which they could orient themselves without making radical readjustments in their habits and customs, handed down through many generations.

The persistence of the Finns in rural areas and in the northern districts of the United States is shown by the map of distribution for 1930 (Fig. 2). This is consistent, too, with distributional maps for earlier years. However, there has been some movement toward the towns, as is revealed by increased concentration in the vicinity of such great cities as Chicago, New York and Boston. They have also gravitated toward smaller centres, too numerous to list here. This movement has been advanced largely by the second generation. Finns born in the United States quickly adopt American ways and find urban life much more exciting and generally attractive than life on such farms as their parents have chosen. Seemingly the pioneering spirit is not inherited by them. Owing to the wireless, motor-car, good roads, the wide dissemination of the public press and other rapid means of communication, they quickly learn of the glamour of urban activities, and if the parents wish to maintain contact with their children they are soon forced to forsake the farm and accompany them to take up permanent residence in the cities. Nevertheless, even as city folk, the Finns reveal their 'natural' or inherent desire for out-of-door life. Wherever possible, they own a cabin in the woods or a country home and spend as much time as possible in excursions to rural areas. If they can live in the city near to a lake or river, they do so.

One of the largest contributions which the Finns have made to the United States lies in their pioneering efforts. They have brought into cultivation areas of poorly drained soils located in regions of severe continental climatic conditions, where agricultural success was thought by most American farmers impossible. They have rejuvenated farm-lands abandoned by settlers of other ethnic stocks. This is especially true in New England. They have, of course, engaged in many other pursuits, in industry especially. In the commercial world they have illustrated the effectiveness of co-operative methods. They have shown capacity in the professions. The impress in America of the architectural ideas of Saarinen and the music of Sibelius will not readily be erased. But this miscellany of activities has probably been of less importance than the settlement of the poorer lands of the nation, uninviting to the 'native American'.


1 John Fiske, Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, Boston 1899.

Published in Baltic and Scandinavian Countries. Vol. II, 1936, p. 35-37.

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