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Book Review: Who Came Back from America?

Reino Kero

Keijo Virtanen, Settlement or Return. Finnish Emigrants (1860-1930) in the International Overseas Return Migration Movement, Studia Historica 10, Helsinki 1979, 275 pp.

In Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and Finland, study of the history of emigration has been very intense during the late 1960s and the 1970s. For example, in Sweden about ten and in Finland three Ph.D. theses have been written on this field of history. In addition, hundreds of other studies and investigations touching on emigration have been carried out in Scandinavia.

Emigration from Scandinavia in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was directed primarily to North America. Over two million emigrants left the area. Most of them went with the intention of spending only a short time in America, but the majority of these visitors stayed and became de facto permanent emigrants. This newest doctoral thesis on Scandinavian emigrant history, by Keijo Virtanen of Turku, centres on the minority who decided to return and particularly on those who returned to Finland. For comparison, he has used studies made on the number of emigrants from other European countries who returned to their native lands.

In the United States of America at the beginning of this century, immigrants were divided into 'old immigrants', who came from Great Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, and 'new immigrants', from southern and eastern Europe. The Finns were included in the latter. The justification for this division has recently been questioned, although it is certainly clear that, for example, there were many significant differences between Greek ands Swedish immigrants as well as many similarities. The study of return migration suggests that the inclusion of the Finns among the 'new' immigrants has been made on rather weak grounds. One of the main characteristics used in defining a 'new' immigrant has been that he was regarded as a 'bird of passage', whose return to Europe was very likely. Among Finnish immigrants, return to their country of origin was, however, on a level with that among 'old' immigrants. According to Virtanen, every fifth Finnish immigrant, for a total of 75,000 returned permanently, more or less the same proportion as that of Swedish and Danish immigrants' return.

Approximately 90 per cent of the Finnish emigrants came from the countryside. Among those who did so, the rate of return was clearly higher than among those who left the cities. According to Virtanen, only 5-10 per cent of the latter returned.

There are clear regional differences in the number of Finnish emigrants who returned. Of those returning, over half chose to return to their former districts in the county of Vaasa. The areas with the proportionately highest number of return emigrants were southern Ostrobothnia and northern Satakunta. The northern and eastern parts of Finland and Åland were areas in which the number of those who returned was very small compared with the number who left.

If we look at the characteristics of the return emigrants, and their occupations, we find that those from the wealthier levels of society returned more often than those from the poorer levels. This means that among those who returned, there were relatively more farmers and crofters than farm labourers and servant girls. Economic failure in America was not such a catastrophe for a farmer as for a poor farm labourer with no property of his own. Those farmers who failed to prosper in America usually returned to Finland to farm their own property. On the other hand, economic success in America meant that a farmer now had the means with which to make investments in his farm. A farm labourer who failed to succeed in America, however, did not usually have the money even for his return voyage. Anyway, there was hardly anything in Finland for a labourer to return to.

Over half of those who emigrated from Finland were under 25 years old. The age distribution of those who returned differs markedly from that of those who left. In general, it may be said that the older an emigrant was when he left, the more likely he was to return. The only exception were those over 50, who very rarely returned. The high percentage of return among the 30-50 year olds could accounted for in part by the difficulties in adjustment experienced by the older age-groups, and in part, perhaps, by the fact that the social class and occupation composition of the older age-groups was different from that of the younger. In general, however, Finnish immigrants were still at their best working age when they returned.

If men and women are compared, it can be seen that it was in general far commoner for men than for women to return. This is partly because working conditions for women made adjustment easier than did working conditions for men. This phenomenon may also be caused partly by the fact that proportion of the women arriving in America were helped in their adjustment by heir husbands who had come to America years earlier and no longer had any desire to return. Conversely, those men leaving Finland who were already married when they left returned more often than unmarried male emigrants.

These findings are from an area of emigration history on wich in Finland, for example, limited research has already been done. The earlier studies have not, however, investigated such things as how the distance between the country of origin and the host country, or the economic life in the migrant's new country, have affected the frequency of return. In his study, Virtanen has compared return migration in different parts of the world. The study shows that a return from Australia, South Africa or South America was much more common than from North America. The distance between the host country and the country of origin does not, as has sometimes been assumed, seem to have mean that the greater the distance of migration, the less likely would be a return to the country of origin.

When comparing different regions of North America, the author of the study has found that, in particular, a return from the eastern United States was more common than from the western part of the country. This is, at least in part, because the eastern United States was very often the area in which an immigrant spent his first years in the New World. It was during this period that an immigrant had to decide whether he would return to Finland or remain permanently in his new country. If he chose to remain, it might happen that after a few years in America he would move to the Midwest, or even to the far west. This was the case in Oregon, for example, where a large part of the Finns living there had already become accustomed to the New World and given up all thought of returning to Finland long before their arrival in that western state. Furthermore, possibilities for becoming a farmer were much better in the Midwest than they were in the east. Acquiring a farm in the United States then tied an immigrant to the New World in the same way that those who owned a farm in Finland had been drawn to return. The eagerness of a Finnish immigrant to begin farming explains in part why far fewer Finns returned to their home country than other 'new' immigrants, most of whom became city dwellers.

Whether or not an immigrant stayed or returned was not decided by his economic success or failure. There were both successful and unsuccessful immigrants among those who returned, as there were among those who stayed. Those who returned usually made their decision fairly soon, within one to five years after their departure as emigrants. The decision to return was perhaps most often made because of homesickness, or the fulfillment of an immigrant's goals; and very often illness or injury was a decisive factor.

At the end of his thesis, Virtanen examines the readjustment of returned emigrants and the problems they encountered in their old homes. Data collected on those who returned permanently indicate that problems subsequent to return were not in general very great. The rather large number of those who returned temporarily (that is, who emigrated twice or even three times) may be an indication that someone who had lived in an industrialised America found that it was not all that easy to readjust to life in the Finnish countryside.

The influence of the returning migrants on their native areas was perhaps felt most on the economic plane. Particularly in the areas of high emigration, the capital brought in by those returning after a successful trip to America had a marked impact. To some extent, returning emigrants may also have had an impact on Finnish political development: quite a number of the leaders of the labour movement in Finland had spent a few years in the United States and been influenced by the socialist movement and the anarchic syndicalist trade union movement of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).

Return migration is an important aspect of emigrant history. In many countries, studies in this area are difficult because of the lack of proper data on which to base statistics. In Finland also official statistics on returning emigrants are very inadequate. Finnish investigators nonetheless have access to a body of data from which a very exact picture of the numbers and composition of the return migrants can be reconstructed. Virtanen is to be commended for the good use he has made of the source material in selecting a suitable statistical basis for his study. His knowledge of the other background material is also excellent. The only significant addition to the source material could, in my opinion, have been more interviews with returning migrants; he has been content with only a few. It must be at once affirmed that he has used the results of a large number of written questionnaires.

Virtanen's thesis is based primarily on statistics, some of them official, some gathered by others, and some by himself. As far as can be seen, the gathering and interpreting of statistics has been done impeccably. I would, however, estimate the number of return migrants as having been slightly smaller. Virtanen has started from the assumption that the number of those who left Finland to live overseas was about 380,000. If this number is correct, then the number of departures would be about 400,000, since some of the emigrants left Finland two or three times. According to the passenger lists at present available, however, the number of departures is not quite that high but about 380,000. The actual number of emigrants would thus be about 350,000. If the percentage of those who returned permanently is about 20, then the number of return migrants is 70,000, not 75,000 as calculated in the thesis.

In my opinion, Virtanen's thesis is an excellent, carefully crafted piece of work. It touches an important aspect of emigration, certain features of which have been hardly studied at all, while others have previously been the subject of only minor investigations. Its findings are not surprising, but they will undoubtedly be of interest to other students of the subject, even those outside Scandinavia. It is to be counted among the best studies of return migration.

Published in The Scandinavian Economic History Review, 1981, p. 248-251.

© Reino Kero

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