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Finnish Emigration Project at the University of Turku, Finland

Keijo Virtanen

Emigration from Finland to overseas countries - mainly to North America - was a phenomenon which had a strong impact on almost every aspect of life in Finnish society. Between 1860 and 1930 the mother country lost approximately 400000 people, only one fifth of whom later returned permanently. Most emigrants were in their most productive working age, which certainly was a loss for Finland. But on the other hand, the home country was not able to offer a reasonable standard of living for all of its people. We cannot, however, look at the Finnish emigration as a part of the history of Finland alone. The situation was the same in most European countries. The main reason for migration from the many countries of Europe was overpopulation, and population movements in Finland must be seen in this wider perspective.

World migration movements have been generally studied from two broad perspectives either from the viewpoint of the country of origin, or from the viewpoint of the final destination. Since most Finnish immigrants stayed in their new home and never returned to Finland, it is essential to study not simply their origins but also their activities in the new land. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as large numbers of foreigners immigrated to North America, it was assumed that they would soon lose the cultural trappings of their native lands and become fully assimilated into the mainstream of American life. Recently, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have taken a second look at the so called melting pot theory and have discovered that North America after many generations still remains largely separated along ethnic lines. The thrust of recent American studies points to the persistence of ethnicity in American life. The idea of melting pot is now generally questioned as Americans and Canadians continue to identify themselves, their neighborhoods and backgrounds in hyphenated terms. That is why - if ethnicity does indeed persist to this extent - it is important to gather and preserve the source material on the history and development of ethnic groups.

In Finland during the past decades there have been a number of studies published on Finnish overseas emigration by various individuals. The most important work was Anna-Leena Toivonen's doctoral dissertation on the emigration from Southern Ostrobothnia province, which was published in 1963, unfortunately only in Finnish. This same year also marked the beginning of a larger project on Finnish emigration. The father of it was professor Vilho Niitemaa, then the head o£ the Institute o£ General history at the University of Turku. It was clear that the migration from Finland to other countries continued during the 1950s and 1960s even though the destination was not North America any more. As an historical phenomenon, Finnish overseas emigration was seen as a relevant research target as such. But now at the Institute of General History is was suggested that to understand the recent emigration to Sweden, for example, it was very important to find comparative research material from the history of the earlier overseas migrations. This observation, when considered against the limitations of previous studies and the need far more systematic analysis, became the chief argument for a migration studies project.

The plan of the project was first to gather all the relevant research materials in one center for use by scholars and students. The ultimate goal was to write a comprehensive study of the history of Finnish emigration. By 1970 the project was well established. Financing was first on a temporary basis but from 1968 to 1976 the Finnish State Commission for Humanities was the principal source of support for the project. State Commission funds have been supplemented by private grants and grants from other state agencies.

The first large-scale operation to collect material was the program to find letters that were written overseas by Finnish immigrants and sent to Finland. The operation took place in two Finnish provinces in 1964 and 1966. Later the American letter collection has been supplemented by a similar collection from a third province. To date the Institute has about 18000 letters on microfilm.

In 1968, to supplement information in the letters, the Institute sent about 20000 questionnaires to North America to be filled out by Finnish immigrants. Some 3000 completed questionnaires were returned. In 1969 and 1974 the same kinds of questionnaires were prepared and sent in Finland to returned emigrants. About 2000 were completed and returned.

Perhaps the most important work recently at the Institute of General History (since 1975, Institute of History) has been the card indexing of the emigrants who left Finland before World War One. The work was started in 1970 by punching relevant socioeconomic and demographic facts from passport lists and passenger lists of the steamship companies on computer cards. The first phase includes the years 1873, 1882, 1890, 1905 and 1913. To date there is information on 70000 of the 350000 emigrants. The project has collected microfilms of all the relevant passenger lists where Finns can be found (from Finland, Sweden and Norway). Most of the passport lists are located in the provincial archives and in the National Archives in Helsinki; the Institute has got the copies only of the rare ones.

Over the years the Institute of History has continued collecting more data from the Finnish sources. The records of the Finnish parishes are particularly valuable. The membership records include the persons who have left for America, and there is usually also a note of a possible return (the information includes name, age, birth, residence, occupation, baptism, marriage, confirmation, funeral etc.). Compared to most European countries the Finnish church material is very good for the historical analysis of migration. However, it is not usually worth copying because there are about 500 parishes in Finland. The work usually must be done on individuals alone because the information is found along with a massive bulk of other church material. The Institute of History has a collection of church material, which has been born in connection with the individual studies.

In 1970 the emigration project was able to move the emphasis toward collecting material toward the destination points of Finnish emigrants. The Institute started in the US and Canada to gather and microfilm the records of various Finnish organizations and the papers of individuals. There were altogether nine trips in 1970-1976. The main thrust was the filming of the records of Finnish congregations, labor societies and temperance societies. These trips produced more than 300 reels of microfilm and a good deal of original manuscript material plus printed works.

All these efforts in Finland and abroad have created a large research archive on the history of overseas emigration which is connected with the Institute of History at the University of Turku. It is a rich resource basis for the scholarly work done in Finland on the emigration history and is available to non-Finnish scholars also. What kinds of research problems does this material offer for scholars?

Theory building from the migration phenomena is still very modest. That is at least partly due to the fact that there are very few comparative studies on different ethnic groups and nationalities. Source material varies considerably in different countries, is also badly scattered, and has not been put into systematic machine-readable form. And furthermore, many historians are sceptical in building theories or models. At this stage the only possibility for more advanced generalizations is for empirical studies in different countries to try to set the same kinds of questions or problems. This would be the first phase towards theories of migration. There are some theories, of course, but in most cases they do not derive from empirical studies; rather the empirical studies use them as models and test their validity.

In this light Finnish overseas emigration must be seen as a sample of European migration movements. Finland provides a good basis for study because the sources are good and concentrated in a single center. The resource situation still forces the scholars to concentrate on one ethnic group; the comparative aspect of research usually comes only with the help of previous published studies prepared abroad on other national groups.

The Turku project has concentrated on two aspects of Finnish emigration history: 1) migration as a mobility phenomenon, and 2) organizational aspects of Finnish-Americans abroad. The material collected from Finland and abroad enriches possibilities for both kinds of studies.

Migration as a mobility phenomenon is a very complex field of research. American EVERETT S. LEE sees four factors which enter into the decision to migrate: factors associated with the area of origin; factors associated with the area of destination; intervening obstacles; and personal factors.1 This model is very general but is a useful starting point for setting up a mobility study. Many scholars have used parts of Lee's model in their studies but very few have systematically used the whole model in their research design. This is mainly due to the research and source situation.

When one starts to study the background factors of emigration, its strength, socioeconomic structure, and demographic features, the research must be performed on an individual basis (studying one person at a time) and usually on some particular restricted area. The passport lists, membership records of the churches and the passenger lists of the ship companies are the primary sources in building a card index of each emigrant of the area. They all have some limitations but they tend to supplement each ocher. For example, everyone had to have a passport for going abroad. Especially at the early stages of emigration there were, however, a few persons who managed to go without such documents. On the other hand, there were some people who took passports but who did not travel at all. These deviations tend to offset each other. We can also validate passport information with the church books. The local parish minister usually knew when somebody left for America and recorded it. But we cannot always absolutely rely on this corrective. Sometimes it happened that the minister did not record the departure because he thought that the person would be returning to the homeland. A further check can be made with the help of the passenger lists where the town of destination is also mentioned. But the problem is that the passenger lists do not indicate the place of origin of the person in Finland. Therefore it is difficult to clear up all these problems with 100 per cent reliability, and it takes a lot of the scholar's time. This is one reason why the geographically restricted studies are so important. However, these are the necessary steps for comparative studies.

The other group of studies has concentrated on describing the organizational activities of Finnish immigrants abroad. There are studies of Finnish-American labor movement, temperance societies, church groups, their mutual relations, Finnish-American and Finnish-Canadian newspaper activities etc. These studies have so far been descriptive in nature but document Finnish activity especially in American radical movements (socialists, communists and cooperative leagues etc.). In the future emphasis should be placed on social aspects of the Finns abroad such as assimilation, social and geographical mobility.

In addition to collecting material and doing research, the Institute has encouraged and aided students to study overseas. By the end of 1978 the Institute has sent six students or scholars for one academic year to universities in the United States, Canada, Australia and South America. And during the 1970s more than 10 foreign scholars and students have used the research archives of the Institute of History for longer periods than one month. The cooperation with the universities abroad has been and will be very important because migration is such a complex field of research that any conclusive studies will depend on cooperative efforts. The Institute has established its closest contacts with the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Ontario), Australian National University (Canberra) and some universities in Nordic countries.

As the most active collecting phase has been completed by 1977 and as the project appears quite permanently established, one could rightly ask what has been its contribution to migration studies so far. To date (by the end of 1978) the scholars of the Institute have published three doctoral dissertations and four licentiate theses, and the students in the project have finished 30 theses for M. A. degree, each of which usually ranges from 100 to 200 typewritten pages. The project has also produced about 100 articles which have been published either in the publications of the Institute of History or elsewhere. The scholars of the Institute have actively participated in various conferences and seminars in their field, especially in Scandinavia but also in North America.

How about the future? During the coming two or three years, scholars of the Institute will publish at least three doctoral dissertations on Finnish overseas migration. They will also continue to study the special problems of Finnish emigration, many of which will contribute to the ultimate goal, the comprehensive history of Finnish emigration. An undertaking of this scope certainly requires a core group of scholars. The Institute of History has had this goal in mind as it has trained students in various aspects of migration history. The emphasis will continue to be on emigration to the North American countries but Australia, South America, South Africa, and Siberia will also be included.

Keijo Virtanen, Turku

1 Everett S. Lee A Theory of Migration, in: Demography (1966) No. 3, pp. 49-50.

Published in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 27(1979), p. 315-318.

© Keijo Virtanen

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