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From Soldier of Fortune to Newspaperman: The Story of Alexander Leinonen

Reino Kero

Translated by Timo Riippa

When Antti J. Muikku, Matts Fred and Alexander Leinonen founded the first Finnish-American newspapers at the end of the 1870's, there were 3,000 to 4,000 Finns at most in the United States. The majority lived in Michigan and Minnesota, but small Finnish communities existed elsewhere, as in Oregon and California. The founding of a newspaper for such a small and scattered immigrant community was, at best, economically daring. In addition, it must be noted that although Finnish immigrants were literate, only a small percentage were accustomed to reading newspapers. Finnish immigrants in America were economically better off than Finns who had remained in Finland, but when the United States experienced economic difficulties in the mid 1870's, part of the immigrant population found itself living from "hand to mouth" and moving from place to place. It is no wonder, then, that Antti J. Muikku's Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti (Finnish-American Journal) and Matts Fred's Swen Tuuwa, which later became the Sankarin Maine (The Hero's Fame), all succumbed to financial difficulties. It is especially surprising that the new Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti started by Alexander Leinonen in 1879 was able to overcome initial difficulties and survive into the 1880's when the arrival of thousands of Finns strengthened the economic base of Finnish-American newspapers. The fact that the paper overcame its initial problems was undoubtedly due largely to Alexander Leinonen himself. When he became a newspaper man, Leinonen had already lived in the United States for ten years. He was well acquainted with his new homeland. During these ten years, he had already gained some experience in journalism as a result of newspaper articles he had written since 1871 for the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia (Oulu Weekly News) and later for Keski-Suomi (Central Finland), which appeared in Jyväskylä.

What was the nature of Leinonen's experience in America before he became a newspaperman? At the beginning of the 1890's Leinonen wrote his memoirs. As a result, perhaps more is known of his life in the 1870's than that of any other Finnish-American from the same period.1

Leinonen arrived in America in the summer of 1869 when he was about twenty-three years old.2 The reasons for his becoming an immigrant are not known. Apparently he had carefully planned the trip and intended to stay in America for a long while, since he brought along his library, which he was forced to leave in Cokato, Minnesota during the early phases of his life here. Leinonen already knew of the Finnish settlement in Cokato when he left Finland, destined for Minnesota, where he supported himself by working at first on the railroad between St. Paul and Duluth. The following summer was spent by working at odd jobs in Duluth. In the fall of 1869, he came to Cokato, where he spent part of the winter. After leaving Cokato, Leinonen again worked on the railroad between Duluth and St. Paul.

In 1870, Leinonen (who had Americanized his name to Alec Smith) "saw how quickly the 'golden age' changed even in America. When street work ended and the hard winter closed the sawmills, as well as many other jobs, thousands of men walked about unemployed". Leinonen moved to St. Paul and tried to support himself with a fish market, but he came to realize that "a man unable to speak the language can't even be a fish dealer in this country". Thus, he decided to enroll "at the Swedish Saint Angers College in Carver in order to learn English". Leinonen probably enrolled at the Swedish school since he no doubt had learned at least a little Swedish in Finland. His Swedish speaking ability had probably developed in America as a result of spending his first years as an immigrant among the Swedes.

His studies at the Swedish college were shortlived. He said that: When an immigrant to America has seen a bit of this country's conditions and has even learned a little of its language, but hasn't seen anything yet of the fortune that so many have come here to seek, then he gets into a bad whirl. Instead of putting his earned salary and gained experience to responsible, permanent use, this recent immigrant falls under the sway of an aimless, adventuring spirit which no longer drives him to seek his fortune, but just sheer adventure... Just at the same time [spring 1872] that birds usually fly from the south to the north, it came into my mind to start out in the opposite direction - to the south - since I too was a migratory bird, except that unlike those which flew on wings, I didn't have a destination.

From Minnesota Leinonen made his way first to Iowa, then to Kansas and finally to Missouri, where he spent an entire year. He made his living primarily by doing railroad work. During these years of roving, Leinonen was a seasoned and tough wanderer. Upon leaving Dade County, Missouri, he travelled by foot first to Fort Scott. From there he went to Kansas City and then to Sedalia, Missouri, a trip of over 300 miles. In the spring of 1872 Leinonen moved from Missouri to Texas, which at a time was a "golden land for railroad workers". The wanderer enjoyed some of his best days: "I wore new clothes, had money in my pockets, food in my knapsack, a foot-long 'navy' Colt at my belt and as we sang, we rode railroad cars to an unknown fate in vast, famous Texas."

When Leinonen didn't find his fortune in Texas, he decided to continue his travels to Lousiana. But there he met with misfortune. He came down with malaria and was immobilized for weeks and seriously ill for months.

When the worst phases of the disease had passed, Leinonen returned to Texas. At this time Leinonen said he "was nothing but a skeleton and suffered from such severe internal pain that I thought it would kill me on the spot". In Boston, the small county seat of Bowie county, he neverthless had a stroke of luck:

On the third day after arriving in town a Negro came to me and said he would take me to 'Uncle John's' house, where he was a servant, since the hotel owner could no longer keep a penniless sick man. He then practically carried me to the upstairs of the house. After arriving there, I couldn't figure out for many days what the cause was of the generosity that was shown to me. Uncle John was the town's postmaster, the justice of the peace, and a businessman to boot. He was already seventy years of age .... originally from the backhills of Tennessee and a devout Methodist.

Uncle John soon lost his job as justice of the peace, after which Leinonen served as Sheriff Johnson's secretary, first in Boston and later in Texarkana. But it was so hard to make a living that "body and soul just barely stayed together". Then he got lucky again. Leinonen got a job as a cartographer with the real estate firm of a man named James Hosack. He acknowledged that by now "I had already pretty well gone through a hard school, which was good because the desire for adventure had disappeared from me forever".

After straightening out his financial matters, Leinonen spent his spare time with his hobbies. He again began to correspond for the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia and got a chance to read American literature. From Jefferson, Hosack's business venture moved to Dallas in the summer of 1875. Leinonen also moved to Dallas. The work was familiar:

Drawing maps was my primary job and during those five years that I lived in Dallas, there was scarcely a county of northern Texas that I didn't draw ... and even though I say this myself, Alec Smith (as I was called then) was pretty widely known for his drawings of northern Texas.

For some reason he stopped writing for the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia during the summer of 1876. A possible reason is that the editor of Keski-Suomi, H. F. Helminen, who took part in the 1876 Philadelphia World Fair, acquired Leinonen's address from somewhere, and asked him to become a correspondent for his newspaper:

I didn't need to be asked twice, for I was an avid writer, in whom the dream of one day becoming a newspaper editor had long kindled. The Keski-Suomi began receiving my articles from America, such as they were, and I don't think I'm bragging if I say that - I was about the first Finnish-American who can boast of being a correspondent for Finnish newspapers.

Soon after this, Leinonen got the chance to take out his "writing mania" in Finnish-American newspapers. Antti J. Muikku's Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti was also at Leinonen's disposal and he wrote for it while it existed. In Dallas he was also able to devote himself even more than before to his favorite hobby, reading. The numerous articles that appeared in Keski-Suomi quite likely came into being as a result of his reading pursuits.

From the time he arrived as an immigrant, Leinonen lived apart from his countrymen. In Minnesota he lived among the Swedes and during his adventures in the South he usually lived among native-born Americans. And yet he still retained his ties to the Finns. At least he diligently wrote letters that appeared in newspapers. In addition, he apparently had a few Finnish-American friends with whom he corresponded. When Leinonen arrived in Michigan in the summer of 1879 and undertook the editorship of the new Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti, the change for him was considerable. He now lived in the midst of the largest Finnish-American community in the United States and from the beginning he became keenly involved in its endeavors and its conflicts, of which the religious ones especially were often bitter. Leinonen now felt himself to be one of the leaders and advocates of the immigrant group. In this capacity his former good ties with his home country became strained and finally broke entirely.

Leinonen probably corresponded with his friends and relatives in Finland from the time he arrived in the United States as an immigrant. From the year 1871 onward, he was a correspondent for the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia and used the pseudonym "-der -nen" . The subject of the first article he sent to the newspaper was gold mining in the Rocky Mountains.3 The article appeared during the time that Leinonen studied at the Swedish College. Once he got started, he contributed to the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia until 1876, when his job as a correspondent for this newspaper ended with a poem written in honor of the United States centennial celebration.4

As has already been mentioned, the editor of the Keski-Suomi, H. F. Helminen, asked Leinonen in 1879 to become a contributor to his newspaper and Leinonen gladly accepted the task. From this time onward, the pseudonym "-der -nen" no longer appears in the Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, but in the Keski-Suomi it appears quite frequently until 1879.

What did Leinonen write about? It appears that he was capable of writing about almost anything. But he was particularly interested in the social and political conditions in America and his own ideas about these conditions were quite sympathetic to the United States. Thus, in 1871 he praised the country in a letter to his homeland in the following manner:

In the United States even the most corrupt person can get a new mind and a new heart to strive after the good. In this land no one will inquire about his past errors and no degrading law will obstruct his way [to reform].5

According to Leinonen, the education system was better organized in the United States than anywhere else. It reflected the equality which was characteristic of the entire society:

By God's providence, humanity found a new home for itself in North America; here it can undertake those institutions, which were found to be better than the old ones, but which blindness, superstition and tyranny wouldn't allow in the old world. Here behind the Atlantic ocean, several million downtrodden have found room to enjoy the fruits of what has been sown in Europe for thousands of years. Here freedom and equality are spreading across the land.6

Just as eloquently, Leinonen pictured the conditions in the United States at the end of the 1870's, when he acknowledged among other things that:

In political matters everyman's vote in the United States is equal, from which it follows that class restrictions aren't found here. A lawful means can be found for the elimination of anything evil, if the will of the majority requires it?7

To Leinonen, European society was the exact opposite of the American. He especially hated the Finnish clergy and the State Church. According to him, the clergy fattened itself "by flesh-pots". The Finnish school system was "a bad whipping-school". Civil servants he regarded as "pseudo-aristocrats", on whose account the common folk had to play the "part of a plow horse". On the other hand, Leinonen did not encourage Finns to become immigrants. In fact, he was of the opinion in 1874 in a letter from Texas that "emigration here should be prevented by all means".8

Altogether about twenty-five of Leinonen's articles to Finland were published. Part of these articles were rather extensive and, for their kind, of quite high quality. An example is the extensive description of Finnish immigration in America published in an 1876 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia. This series of articles can be considered the first semi-scholarly look at Finnish-American immigrants. It can safely be said of Leinonen that he was not just one of the first Finnish correspondents in America. He was quite simply the first one, a man who fulfilled the tasks of a correspondent much better than many of those who came after him.

Leinonen's job as a correspondent ended in a bitter quarrel. In August of 1879 a newspaper named Kaiku (Echo) in Oulu wrote an article in a "patriotic spirit" and deplored the fact that so many Finns were again leaving for America. The Kaiku nevertheless comforted its readers with the thought that "hunger always brings the pigs home".9 When Leinonen got hold of the Kaiku article, he apparently became extremely upset and vented his anger in the recently re-established Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti. Among other things, he said:

Sometime back a certain paper published in Oulu printed an article which first sorrowfully reported that large groups of people from northern regions have left for America. Then it mentioned with almost scornful glee that since bad times currently prevail in America 'the frost will drive these pigs home ...' Several years ago these degrading comparisons of our homeland's poor people to 'pigs' were considered commonplace ... but today we live in a time when we don't need to silently take these kinds of insults .... Presumably our home-land's newspapers again wanted to show their profuse patriotism in this strange manner ....

Newspapers which publish these kinds of statements about their countrymen thereby reveal their belief in the totally old-fashioned idea that, like a vegetable, a person must spend his entire life in the spot where he was born and grew up .... As long as the law and public opinion in Finland oppresses and despises all those who can't accept the teachings of the State Church, it's no wonder if oppressed fugitives move to America to enjoy full religious freedom. As long as work and food are lacking from thousands in Finland, it isn't strange if they would rather seek them in other lands than to die of starvation at home .... As long as a landless man in Finland can only rent the most useless piece of the country's wastelands at a high price and only for a certain length of time, no one should consider it odd if the landless want to come to America where they can own some of the most productive land to be found in the world .... As long as Finland follows the kind of political astuteness which dictates that the more the nation loads taxes and all kinds of burdens onto the shoulders of the common people, the better it supposedly will be able to keep up with the richer nations to the south, then officials shouldn't be astonished if those under the greatest oppression finally grow impatient with their lives and venture out to seek a new home even in strange parts of the world ....

The 'politics' of the newspapers in our homeland is simply senseless in that even in this modern age they still try to hide the brighter side of American life from their readers .... The language question isn't the only big problem in our homeland and the newspapers would do well if they wasted less ink discussing it and if, instead, they truthfully exposed the arrogance of the officials and the clergy. The destitute feel their poverty even if they live in their own 'beloved' homeland and it's useless to advise the hungry to just sit in place ....10

Leinonen thus threw down the gauntlet and received a quick response. The Uusi Suometar especially disapproved of his article and published an extensive reply headlined, An American Attack on Finland". The tone of this article was much more pointed than the one in the Kaiku,over which Leinonen had originally become upset. This article seems to have also eventually found its way into Leinonen's hands and must have added to the bitterness he felt toward his homeland. The Uusi Suometar wrote:

Our small country needs the efforts of all its children in order to stand on its own feet and to strive forward along with other nations. Didn't our forefathers get along in this country? The person who leaves 'to seek his for-tune' or higher wages even when there is work and food and a future in his own country for those who want to work, a person like that in our opinion doesn't deserve to be called a worthy citizen.11

Even Leinonen's "own" newspaper, the Keski-Suomi, took a blow at the correspondent when it wrote: At a time when efforts have begun to elevate Finland to a nation, it is inappropriate to lure our people to the other side of the Atlantic, when no kind of oppression exists in our land to force people out and when, to begin with, our population is so small.12

Leinonen now replied with an especially lengthy article in which he bitterly criticized the Finnish clergy, Finnish officials, Finnish newspapers and the possibilities for a livelihood in a poor nation. He compared everything to America and concluded by saying:

And we supposedly are destroyers of our nationality because we currently are earning our livings in America since we didn't find any such opportunities at home. This is Keski-Suomi's unforgivable insult against Finnish-Americans and against the Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti ... Those several thousand [Finns] who presently live in America ... represent a tiny part of a small but noble nationality in such a way that they needn't feel ashamed in front of strangers or even in the eyes of our own countrymen who live at home.13

The Keski-Suomi didn't leave the matter at that, but ended its part in the argument by taking an even stricter position:

Since the Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti seems to be interested in knowing the actual reasons which have caused Finns to move to America from Finland, then we'll list them here and now. They are: a reckless life in the homeland, debts, crimes and a desire for adventure. This is a fact, Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti, if we really state the truth without 'polishing' it.14

Alexander Leinonen had received his judgment and the discussion over the causes for immigration ended for now. Leinonen's participation as a correspondent for Finnish newspapers also ended. The pseudonym "-der -nen" no longer appears either in the Oulu or the Jyväskylä papers. Leinonen now devoted all of his energies to the editing of his own newspaper, the Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti. And he succeeded. His newspaper was undisputedly the leading Finnish-American journal during the 1880's. Although Leinonen was not the first founder of a Finnish-American newspaper, his activities were nevertheless so remarkable that, along with Antti Muikku, he can truly be called a father of Finnish-American journalism.

Footnotes

1 Leinonen's memoirs were published in the Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti between April 21, 1893 and February 2, 1894.

2 F. Tolonen, Muutamia Historiatietoja Amerikan Suomalaisista Sanomalehdistä. Amerikan Suometar 1899-1919 (A Few Historical Facts About Finnish-American Newspapers. Amerikan Suometar 1899-1919) (Hancock, Michigan, 1919 ), p. 83. Leinonen was born in Paltamo in 1846.

3 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, May 13, 1871.

4 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, July 15, 1876.

5 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, June 3, 1871.

6 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, August 24, 1872.

7 Keski-Suomi, July 31, 1878.

8 Oulun Wiikko Sanomia, January 9, 1875.

9 Kaiku, August 16, 1879.

10 Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti, September 26, 1879.

11 Uusi Suometar, October 29, 1879.

12 Keski-Suomi, October 25, 1879.

13 Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti, November 11, 1879.

14 Keski-Suomi, December 31, 1879.

Published in Finnish Americana 1(1978), p. 41-50.

© Reino Kero

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