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The Americanization of the Finns

John Wargelin, A.M.,

President of Suomi College and Theological Seminary

Chapter I.  Introduction. Meaning of Americanization Discussed.
Chapter II.  Historical Background of the Finnish Race.
Chapter III.  Causes of Immigration from Finland.
Chapter IV.  Finnish Immigration to America.
Chapter V.  Distribution and Occupations of the Finns.
Chapter VI.  Cultural Life of the Finns. a) School.
Chapter VII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). b) Press.
Chapter VIII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). c) Church.
Chapter IX.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). d) Societies.
Chapter X.  Naturalization and Political Life.

Chapter II.
Historical Background of The Finnish Race.

Finland is situated in Northern Europe, on the shores of the Baltic Sea which embraces the country on the south and west through the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, respectively. Its adjacent countries are Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. Its utmost limits are 59° 48'-70° N., and 19° 2'-320 50' E.

Racial background. The Finns belong to that linguistic if not racial group of languages known as Finno-Ugric, first used by the Finnish ethnologist Mathias A. Castren. The first part of this name is probably the same name Tacitus spoke of under the the name of Fenni and Finnoi of Ptolemy, though it is not absolutely certain that those races were Finns in the modern sense. The native word Suomi, which appears to be derived from suo, a marsh, and maa, land, seems to indicate that Finland means fenland or the land of marshes, and suomalaiset, the people of the marshes.

Finn and Finnish are used not only of the inhabitants of Finland but also, in a wider sense, of similar tribes found in Russia. They may be grouped conveniently under the following peoples. (1) The Finns proper, which is "the most important and civilized division of the group, and which is the subject of our present study, is composed of two principal subdivisions, the Hamalaiset or Tavasts, who occupy the southern and western parts of the Republic of Finland, and the Karjalaiset or Karelians found in the east and north, as far as Lake Onega and towards the White Sea. A third tribe called Kainulaiset was formerly found in Sweden, whence the Swedes call the Finn Qven, but they have been amalgamated with their neighbors. (2) The Karelians are not usually regarded as separate from the Finns, though they are a distinct tribe as much as the Vepsas and Votes. They are found east of Finland in the governments of Archangel and Olonets. It was among them that Elias Lonnrot gathered the epic runes which were published in 1835 under the name of "Kalevala". (3) The Esthonians are the peasantry of the Russian province of Esthonia and the neighboring districts. (4) The name of Livonians is given to the old Finnish-speaking population of west Livland or Livonia and north Kurland, but after the Great War they have been considerably scattered. (5) The Vepsas or Vepses, also called Northern Chudes, are found west of Lake Onega and in the governments of Olonets and Novgorod. This tribe together with the Votes are allied to the Esthonians. They are, however, more numerous than (6) the Votes, who at present occupy only about thirty parishes in north-west Ingria, the district around Petrograd. They are also called Southern Chudes or Vatjalaiset. (7), The Lapps are found in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian Kola Peninsula. (8) The Cheremissians and (9) the Mordvians are together called Volga Finns, because they inhabit the banks of the Volga, the former chiefly in the neighborhood of Kasan, the latter scattered over the provinces near the middle of the Volga, in distinction from the first-named tribes, who are often spoken of as Baltic Finns. (10) Permians and Syrenians, who are found chiefly in the provinces of Perm, Vologda and Archangel, may be said to form one tribe and they together with (11) the Votiaks form the Permian group of tribes. The Ugrian subdivision or group of Finnish tribes, which seems to be in many respects more primitive, consists of three peoples standing on very different levels of civilization, namely, (12) the Ostiaks, (13) the Voguls and (14) the Hungarians. The Voguls live on both sides of the Ural Mountains, while Ostiaks inhabit the government of Tobolsk and the banks of the Obi. The Hungarians are geographically separated from these but their language is more closely akin to that of the Ob-Ugrians, thus pointing to an earlier geographical connection.

The statistics on the Finno-Ugric races are not up to date; we are obliged to rely to a great extent on the statistics gathered through the general Russian census of 1897, and even these are not always accurate. Of the Ostiaks and Voguls we have, however, very reliable statistics from the year 1900, taken by the Finnish scientists A. Kannisto and K. F.

Finno-Ugric Family-tree of Languages.

Finno-Ugric Family-tree of Languages.
(From the "Tietosanakirja", Vol. IX, p. 482.)

Karjalainen. Of the other tribes the statistics are from 1910, except of the Finns proper, of whom we are able to give those of 1917.

Table I.1







Livonians (estimate)




Votes (estimate)


















The grand total of the Finno-Ugric race  


Many of these tribes are nearly extinct or are fast disappearing (Votes, Livonians, Voguls and Ostiaks); others are subject to disappearance because of their small number (Vepsas and Lapps). The greatest increase is found among Mordvians, Syrenians, Finns and Hungarians; . they compose about 86 % of the total number of Finno-Ugric family. The scale of increase is, Mordvians, 113 %; Syrenians, 109.7 %; Finns, 107.5 %; and Hungarians, 80.6 %.

Only the Finns, Hungarians, and Esthonians have become thoroughly civilized; the first. two have their independent political existence at present. The other tribes are partly nomads, living to some extent on reindeer, agriculture, fishing, and hunting; some of them are very skillful in commerce and in trading. All of them have been converted to Christianity, although pagan customs continue among some of the nomads. The first Finns were converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1157, but early adopted the Protestant faith in the Evangelical Lutheran form.

"The name Finno-Ugric is primarily linguistic and must not be pressed as indicating a community of physical features and customs", says Sir Charles Eliot, writing on the Finno-Ugrians in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "But making allowance for the change of language by some tribes, the Finno-Ugrians form, with striking exception of the Hungarians, a moderately homogeneous whole." But now let us raise the interesting question of the relation of the Finno-Ugric group to that of the other large groups of languages. To what larger group is it related?

The writer just quoted affirms that the "FinnoUgric languages are generally considered as a division of the Ural-Altaic group, which consists of four families: Turkish, Mongol, Manchu and Finno-Ugric, including Samoyede unless it is reckoned separately as a fifth." This would place the Finnish race along side of the Mongolians, as has become quite customary for popular historians in America to do. The same writer admits that "on the other hand, the more developed agglutinative languages, such as Finnish, approach the inflected Aryan type, so that the Aryan language may have been developed from an ancestor not unlike the Ural-Altaic group." To this it is only necessary to add that more recent research and study regarding the position of the Finno-Ugric group in relation to the other main linguistic groups, in which field Finnish ethnologists and scientists have done most important work, has thrown the old theory into disrepute. They argue with much plausibility that the original abode of the Finnish race cannot be placed on the northern slopes of the Altai Mountains in Asia, as had formerly been believed, but that they may have lived in Europe even before the migration of the Teutonic hordes took place. V. Tarkiainen concludes that "it appears more certain at this moment that the original home of the Finno-Ugrians must be considered to have been near the middle of Volga."2 This much at least is certain, that the modern Finnish race does not represent any pure racial stock but that there is an infusion of German, Scandinavian, and even Slavic blood in their veins to a considerable degree. But let us next view briefly some of the main points in the history of the Finns.

Historical background. The colonization of Finland may be traced back to the first centuries of our Christian era. By the year 600 they were well settled there. Two separate nationalities have gone to the formation of its people, i. e. the Finns and the Swedes. These nationalities may be said to have merged into one nation in the course of history. Two long bays of the Baltic Sea embrace Finland: the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, and these provided the country with early means of communication with the western world. Thus animated relations, based on commerce and war, have existed from the remote past between the Finns and the peoples of the West dwelling on the coast of the Baltic.

The Finns were converted to Christianity by the Swedes, who made three crusades in the years 1157, 1249, and 1293. As a result of these crusades Finland was united politically with Sweden. But the union with Sweden in no way implied subjugation of an inferior nation, as the Finns at this epoch had attained almost the same degree of culture as the Swedes.

The union between these two countries under the same crown brought both of them considerable advantages. Their internal disputes once settled, it enabled them to unite their strength against Russia who continually threatened them from the east and was ever growing in strength as it grew older. Finland has been the seat of war for centuries and its homes, towns, and the whole country have often been laid bare either by famine or pestilence or war. Through this union, furthermore, Finland was being more strongly drawn into the domain of western civilization and held within it. Its people have taken part in numerous important historical events; but these facts are recorded in history under the history of Sweden, and for this reason we hardly ever read of Finns accomplishing anything. They fought bravely at the side of Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War on the fields of Lutzen and Breitenfeld. They took part in the colonization of Delaware together with the Swedes, and have thus contributed to the building up of our nation. And the part they played in the early history of Philadelphia, for example, was not so very small. While not wishing to detract in any way from the reputation of William Penn, attention must be called to the historical fact that the Swedes and Finns, nearly fifty years before Penn came to America, introduced and practiced the spirit of fairness and conciliation in dealing with the Indians, and it is known that some of the Finns acted as interpreters for William Penn in making his treaties with the Indians. There yet stands today The Old Gloria Dei Church in Philadelphia, built in 1700 by the Swedes and Finns. It is the oldest church in the city.3 An interesting fact still remains to be pointed out in this connection. The Delaware Swedes and Finns have been so thoroughly Americanized that a trace of their racial separateness cannot be found today, and some of the earliest American families, tracing their lineage to colonial times, may have an infusion of Finnish blood in their veins. The Finns have been one of the earliest races to become thoroughly Americanized.

The political and spiritual union of Finland with Sweden lasted nearly six hundred years. But in 1808, during the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, Alexander I of Russia made war against Sweden, and as a result of it Finland was forced to unite with Russia. It did not, however, enter as a conquered province, but, "thanks to the bravery of her people after they had been abandoned by the incompetent Gustavus IV and treacherous generals, and not less to the wisdom and generosity of the emperor Alexander I", it maintained its free constitution and fundamental laws, and became a semi-independent grand-duchy with the emperor as grand-duke. From the time of its union with Russia at the Diet of Borga in 1809 till the events of 1899, when the infamous February Manifesto was declared, Finland was practically a separate state, the emperor of Russia as grand-duke governing by means of a nominated senate and a diet elected on a very narrow franchise, and meeting at distant and irregular intervals.

The rule of the first Russian emperors was on the whole beneficial and prosperous for Finland, and the name of Alexander II has been especially preserved in the grateful memory of his loving subjects. His statue in the great square in front of the Lutheran Catheral of St. Nicholas and the senate house in Helsingfors testifies to the regard in which his memory is cherished by his Finnish subjects. But unfortunately the succeeding rulers fell under the influence of the reactionary party which had begun to assert itself after the assassination of Alexander II. The Slavophil movement, with its motto: "one law, one church, one tongue", gained great influence in official circles, and its aim was, in defiance of the pledges of successive Czars, to subject Finland to Orthodoxy and Autocracy. It is needless to follow this struggle between the Russian bureaucracy and the defenders of the Finnish constitution which attracted wide attention in political and cultural spheres in Europe at the time, and which may be said to have prepared the way for the recognition of Finnish independence by all civilized nations at the time of the Russian revolution in 1917. But it is important for a clear understanding of the immigration problem of the Finns to appreciate the political conditions as forming the background for the large immigration of Finns since 1899 into America.

For the study of the Russo-Finnish conflict we refer the student of history to the writings of Mechelin, Danielson-Kalmari and Hermanson; J. R. Fischer has also discussed the constitutional question fully in his book, entitled "Finland and the Tsars" (2nd edition in 1900). In 1910 Harrison & Sons, London, edited a volume, entitled "The Russo-Finnish Conflict", which presents the Russian side of the case. See also the memoirs of rector Edw. Hjelt, of the University of Helsingfors, entitled "Vaiherikkailta Vuosilta" (in Finnish), and numerous other works.

Concerning later political events in Finland, we quote briefly from "The Republic of Finland", which has been mentioned before. "The work of destruction entered upon by the Russian Government and Duma was at last frustrated by the revolution, which broke out in Russia in the spring of 1917. This revolution, however, at the same time brought to the surface the basest elements of the Russian people. The Russian troops quartered in Finland very soon became saturated with communistic and anarchical doctrines and began to spread the contagion in that country. The Russian troops broke open the prisons and the houses of correction, provided the released criminals and the mob in the streets with rifles and other munitions, and tried in every way, by enkindling the passions of the working classes, to bring about a revolution. In order to encourage further the revolutionary instincts of the people, the Russian sailors raided some of the large country estates, pillaging and murdering. At the same time they prevented the constitutional Government of the country from creating any armed forces for maintenance of order. The union of Finland with Russia lasted until the sixth of December, 1917; then Finland declared itself an independent, sovereign state".

The work of propaganda and anarchistic contagion spread from the enemy and infected some elements of the Finnish people. This culminated in the bloody war, which was fought in the spring of 1918. The result of this cruel war was that the Finnish White army succeeded in routing the Russian troops and the Finnish red-guards and thus saved the liberty of the country. But its result may further be interpreted as being "the staving off of the wave of Bolshevism which aimed at the destruction of Western civilization".

The old constitution was now changed and a republican form of government was adopted on the 17th day of June, 1919. "The parliament is composed of 200 members, elected for a period of three years, by means of general elections, direct voting, and secret ballot; both sexes have the right to vote at the age of 24 years. The President of the Republic is elected for a period of six years. It was decided that the first President should be elected by the Parliament but that all succeeding Presidents should be elected by the general vote".4

Population. It was already pointed out above that the number of inhabitants in Finland in 1917 was 3,346,853. Of these there were 2,961,853 Finnish speaking people, this being about 88.5 % of the total population, and 385,000 Swedish speaking, which is 11.5 % of the total. This division need not be considered as representing two distinct nationalities in Finland. The official publication, referred to above, says on this point that "it must be remembered that the Swedish speaking section of the Finnish people can not be regarded as a different nationality, because there is a considerable number of the originally Swedish speaking people, who now speak exclusively Finnish, and on the other hand many real Finns now speak Swedish. This mutual merging together, a work of centuries, has taken place because the settlements of the Swedish speaking people have not been continuous, but were wedged between purely Finnish districts. In consequence of this the majority has always, in course of time, won over the minority to its own language, and besides intermarriages between the two peoples have been very frequent."

As regards physical structure, the Finns are, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "a strong, hardy race, of low stature, with almost round head, low forehead, flat features, prominent cheek bones, eyes mostly grey and oblique, short and flat nose, protruding mouth, thick lips, neck very full and strong; - complexion also somewhat brown." In this characterization of the Finns it is noticeable that the theory of Mongolinism undoubtedly possesses the mind of the writer, as he concludes that these "characteristics they have in common with the socalled Mongolian race." Prof. R. Tigerstedt, a noted Finnish physiologist, gives the figures regarding the height of different European races.

Table II.5


1.50 metres


1.633 - " -


1.638 - " -


1.642 - " -


1.649 - " -


1.56-1.665 - " -


1.659-1.699 - " -

English and Irish   

1.69 - " -


1.692 - " -


1.695 - " -


1.696-1.698 - " -


1.708 - " -

These figures represent averages as shown by the conscription statistics of the respective countries. According to this study the Finns are not of low stature but belong among the tallest people of Europe. The official publication of Finland proves as much. It states that "the people of Finland are strong and comparatively tall". It further says concerning other physical features that "the majority are fair", and "about 78 % of the people are blue-eyed and about 57 % are light-haired".6 We are inclined, on the basis of our personal knowledge of the matter, to agree with the latter opinion.

The Finns are reputed to be "morally upright, hospitable, faithful, and submissive, with a keen sense of personal freedom and independence, but also somewhat stolid, revengeful, and indolent".7 Their stolidity does not, however, seem to bother them in America, for the Finnish children in general are among the brightest pupils in our public schools; and as to their indolence, it cannot be said to be common with them. The Finns have made an enviable name for themselves in America as hard and competent workers in the mines, on the farms, textile factories, and other lines of occupation which they may have chosen. They possess instead remarkable teachability as is shown by their adeptness in various kinds of labor in which they may have been placed and concerning which they had no previous experience. Prof. L.A. Chase remarks, in his book on "Rural Michigan", that "the Finnish farmer is the most teachable of any national element and his capacity for cooperation is notable".8

Another characteristic quality of the Finnish nature is its obstinacy, which may, again, be interpreted in two ways. It may be due to stupidity and dullness, and then it is a negative quality, but if it indicates perseverance and determination to overcome hardships and difficulties, then it must be reckoned as a positive factor. And modern psychologists are disposed to look upon the will and various functions of the mind as constituting a unity, so that where there is strong will it also indicates strong feeling and a higher degree of intelligence. It is only as if we were looking at the same thing from different angles and aspects. Prof J. Royce says that will implies cognition, and Paulsen, Wundt, and other scientists of the biological school take the same view.

"This Finnish obstinacy", writes Paul Waineman in his admirable description of "A Summer Tour in Finland", "is the outcome of centuries of endurance. Every field of corn has been fought for against odds that would have conquered others. Most races would have fled from this land of morass and forest, wrapped in the silence of eight months of frost, when no living thing is heard, and all is stagnant and lifeless. But the Finns remembered those four months given to them as a recompense for their endurance - those four months of life, when the forests would teem with countless singing birds, when the day would have no night, when sunlight, that miraculous power of sunlight, would make every growing thing wax strong and multiply. They would work sometimes twenty hours out of the twenty-four to conquer that earth and make it yield to them the fruits of harvest."

We have tried in this chapter to introduce the Finn as he is seen in his native setting, and as he comes to the modern time carried by the two streams of social process and historical environment on one hand, and the racial heredity on the other. It will now be our task to follow him as an immigrant to America and try to interpret him as a factor in our Americanization problem.

1 See "Tietosanakirja", Vol. IX, pp. 286-290; Enc. Brit., Vol. X, 888-393; "The Republic of Finland", an Economic and Financial Survey.

2 See "Tietosanakirja", Vol IX, p. 294.

3 See Swedes in America, 1638-1900, vol I, Amandus Johnson, and "Amerikan Ensimmäiset Suomalaiset", S. Ilmonen.

4 The Republic of Finland, p. 7.

5 Physiology, R. Tigerstedt, p. 302.

6 Op. cit., p. 11

7 See Enc. Brit. Vol. X.

8 p. 172.

Publication: John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns. The Finnish Lutheran Book Concern. Hancock, Michigan 1924, 185 pages.

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