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Finnish Genealogy: Alternative Genealogical Sources

Leif Mether

It is well-known that Finland has been involved in several wars through the times. Traces of the wars are found in the archival material used by genealogists. The common sources used are the church records. Even in these series of records one can see that a lot of records are missing. The latest losses are from World War II, when church records from Karelia and the eastern parts of Lapland disappeared or were destroyed. Some of the records have recently been found in Russian archives, but the accessibility is usually poor. During earlier wars church records were destroyed in other parts of Finland. Other church records may have been lost in fires. Pastors may have disposed of old books; why keep a book which was not in use any more?

The genealogist should look for alternative records when church records are missing. There are many alternative sources in different archives. Some may, of course, also be missing, but usually one can find a source to use instead of the church records. Church records are in general easy to use, while alternative sources are more complex. An alternative source may also be difficult to find. The archive buildings are filled with records, and the archive catalogs may not be detailed enough to give the genealogist what she or he seeks.

There are some church records from the 1680s, but the great part of the records begin in the 1730s, i.e. after the Great Wrath. The same alternative records can be used in place of non-existent or missing church records. One can go back to about 1540 using the alternative sources, while only some noble families may go further.

Common,alternatives are tax indexes and court records. There are also military records, but they usually do not show family relations.

Finland was a pronounced agrarian society until the second part of the 1800s. People lived on farms and paid taxes in grain or other products. In earlier times they could pay by equipping a man and a horse for the army. Records of farms and their owners, i.e. taxpayers, were kept to keep track of the tax collecting. In old records non-taxpayers were left out.

The name of the farmer was listed, but his wife, children, and employees were only listed as numbers, like livestock. As late as the 1800s all individuals were listed with birth dates and other important information.

The oldest uniform series of tax records are the sheriffs accounts (voudintilit in Finnish; fogderäkenskaper in Swedish). The accounts start about 1540 and end in 1634. They are made up of several different indexes and a lot of receipts for each year. From 1634 the sheriff's accounts are replaced by county accounts. Two important parts of these accounts are the land records and census records (not to be mixed up with census of the United States, which are completely different records).

The oldest census records (henkikirja in Finnish; mantalslängd in Swedish) 1634. At first it was a tax collected for grain ground in the, flour-mills. Later, when people did not.use the flour-mills to avoid tax, it was transformed to a personal tax. From 1652 everyone ages 15 to 63 had to pay tax. In spite.of that, only a part of all the inhabitants are found in the census records. The nobility and their servants, soldiers and sick, people were free from paying taxes. From 1693 all individuals had to be listed in the census even if they did, not. pay, any, tax at all.

But still, a considerable part of the population was left out. The tax had to be paid until 1924. From 1925 to 1989 census records were kept as a part of the population registers, without any tax function.

Land records list tax paid to the Crown. These records start in the mid 1500's. Usually the tax was paid by whoever owned or cultivated the farm. It was important that the tax was paid, regardless who paid them.

Because of that, there may be farmers listed who died several years earlier. If both land records and census records give names o f the farmers, one usually. should trust the census records. Land records were replaced by other records in 1895.

County accounts end in 1809 (when Finland became a part of Russia), but parts of the indexes are found for later years.

Three copies were made, of which one copy can be found in the National Archives in Helsinki, and one copy in one of the provincial archives. Genealogists use the records on microfilm only.

These are only a sampling. There are many tax records which can help genealogists.

A summary called Suomen Asutuksen Yleisluettelo, SAY (General Index of Finnish Settlement) has been compiled from many.tax records. The work was started in the 1920s by the well known Finnish author Jalmari Finne, and was carried out until the 1970s by the National Archives. Unfortunately the project was never finished. About one third of Finland is. ready, covering the southwest parts of Finland and an area in southwest Lapland.

In SAY 20 years, of a farm's history is on one page, with a separate column for each year. Information from different tax records is written using colored ink in a certain order in the columns. If the same information is found for the next year, a marking is made in the.next right column. If the information changes, the new information is written in the right column.Thus it is easy to follow. The information becomes more reliable when many tax sources can be compared to each other.

The use of SAY is easy in comparison to the original records. One can start with SAY and then continue to find more detailed information in the original records if necessary. There are of course many misinterpretations, because SAY is a compilation of several records. A control should always be made, if errors are suspected.

SAY is on microfilm, but unfortunately only in black and white. Usually it is quite obvious to which original tax record some information belongs, because the order is the same for that whole book.

Tax records may not be difficult to use, but one will need a good amount of time with them because indexes are rare. A volume of county accounts may be one or two feet thick, and several microfilm rolls are needed to cover the whole book

Finnish tax records can also be used in North America because the Mormon Family History Library has most of the microfilm rolls. The original records are written using old handwriting styles and are in Swedish to the end of 1800's.

SAY is easier to use because the handwriting style is from the1900's. The text is written in Swedish, and there are many abbreviations to learn.

Published in the The Finnish American Reporter, December 2000.

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