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The Story of the Finns in America

Lauri L. Hannula

Read at the Annual Meeting of the Fitchburg Historical Society, May 18, 1959

The story of Finns in America goes back to the beginning of America, and the story of Americans is the story of immigrants and descendants of immigrants of various races. It is interesting to note how often this fact is forgotten. This mighty nation as it is today, is a creation of nearly all races of the world. Some arrived earlier than others, all have had their share in building America's present greatness and all have their hopes for her continued glorious future. This does not matter whether they landed in Jamestown, Plymouth or Ellis Island, all have given their best to America.

Long before the Mayflower immigrants landed in Plymouth, Spanish explorers had landed on the North American continent. French fishermen had discovered the Grand Banks. Florida had been settled and the coast of Canada.

Early in the 1600 news about America, the New World, with its unlimited opportunities had reached the northern countries, Sweden, and Finland, and the spirit of adventure was running high.

The Dutch interested King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden to organize a Sweden Company, to establish a Swedish colony in America. The City of Viipuri, then the second largest City in Finland was one of influential participant of the company. Its leaders urged men of every rank to join in establishing the Swedish colony. Finland at time was a part of Sweden.

In the spring of 1638, the first group of Finnish and Swedish colonists set sail in two ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, under the direction of Peter Minuit of Holland. He guided the two Swedish ships up the Delaware where the Dutch had tried to establish a settlement earlier, and had been wiped out by the Indians. The ships landed on the point where the City of Wilmington is now located. From the Indians they purchased the land on the west side of the river as far as its tributary, Schuykill. There New Sweden was founded. Because the colony of New Sweden retained that name for only 18 years many students of American history are but is slightly familiar with the Finnish and Swedish settlements which grew up in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The first settlement was called Fort Christina, in honor of the Swedish Queen.

From 1638 until 1655 the land along both shores of the Delaware was the colony's territory, and a succession of ships brought additional settlers. Sailing records of the first 12 ships to arrive are said to point to the fact that more Finns than Swedes came to the colony of New Sweden. Many new settlements developed. One was on the present site of Philadelphia, another at the present Chester, Pa. called Upland and Finland.

The colonial village of Finland, a few miles south of Chester, Pa. is known as Marcus Hook today. The Finns built the Fort of New Korsholm, named after a small town in southwestern Finland. Also built the Fort of New Waasa - named after Vaasa in Finland. Both locations are in present day Philadelphia. In 1638 a small group of settlers crossed to the east bank of the Delaware and established farms in what is now New Jersey on an area which is known today as Finns Point. They also settled the towns known today as Swedesboro and Mullica Hill.

For many years the Finns on the New Jersey side made the trip to Fort Christina to attend church. Finally the east shore settlers set up their own churches, first at Raccoon Creek, Swedesboro and then one at present Churchtown. With the passage of time, both churches became Episcopal parishes. St. George's Parish retains the name which it had when the first Finns and Swedes built a log church about 24 feet square on the site. Its present church was selected by the New Sweden Tercentenary Commission of New Jersey as the Appropriate site for the dedication of a memorial plaque on June 30, 1938 commemorating the pioneer settlement of this section of which the largest was that of Finn Point. The inscription reads: as

Near here 300 years ago and later lived the first colony of settlers of Finnish blood upon this continent. To their memory and to the love of freedom and justice that they handed down to their descendants this tablet is erected.

At Crozier Park in Chester, Pa. stands a beautiful monument presented in 1938 by the government of Finland to the United States. It is the work of Vaino Aaltonen, noted Finnish sculptor. It is inscribed in Finnish and English. Part of the English version reads:

"Near this spot stood a settlement named Finland so called by the first Finnish settlers on this continent in remembrance of their homeland."

This memorial erected in 1938 by the Finnish nation and the Finns in America in commemoration of the Finnish pioneers of the first permanent settlement in the Delaware River Valley in 1638.

Of the 12 separate expeditions sent to the colony between 1638 and 1656, the records do not always separate the Finnish settlers from the Swedish. The last expedition, which arrived on the Delaware in March 1656, numbered 105 persons. Of these 92 were listed as Finns. A conservative estimate places the Finns at from one-third to one-half of the pioneers of the Delaware River Valley.

New Sweden was conquered by the Dutch in 1655, and again in 1664 by the British forces, who took the territory from the Dutch.

The colonization of the Delaware Valley by the Finns went on under the Dutch and English rule. It was from these people William Penn bought the land on which he built Philadelphia. They became a sturdy element in the Pennsylvania colony.

During the Dutch rule more than 300 Finns arrived in the colony. From then on to the last half of the nineteenth century, there seems to have been a black-out of Finnish Immigration to America. Perhaps the greatest influx of Finns to America occurred in the 1860's and the four decades following.

Perhaps the most famous descendant of those early Delaware colonists was John Morton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Another is John Hanson. John Hanson, as President of the United States under the "articles of Confederation" presided over Congress when Washington was called to receive thangs, given for Washington's victory at Yorktown over the British. Washington was the first President under the new Constitution.

The Finns introduced the building of log cabins to America. They had built them for centuries in their homeland across the sea. As the Delaware Valley population pushed westward across the Apalachians, they brought with them the convenient method of felling trees and building cabins of logs. South of Philadelphia, and across the river in the State of New Jersey stands what may be the oldest log cabin in the United States, built by a Finnish Pioneer.


The first Finns arrived in Fitchburg about 1880, although it has been stated that in 1888, a Finnish employee of the Putnam Machine shop was approached by a fellow worker who asked the Finnish man if he would look at some letters and papers left by his folks in a metal box. When the letters and papers were examined it developed that this man's father had come from Kuusamo, Finland. The father, mother and son had arrived in Fitchburg in the 1840s. The father had worked on the railroad construction. When the father and mother died, the son was still young and he was taken into an American family who brought him up.

In the early years the Finns lodged at a boarding house located on River street. When the Finns arrived at the railroad station the hack drivers would take them to this boarding house, as to their home. Living quarters weren't too large, a kitchen and three rooms. At one time 31 persons were housed there.

In 1887 the Finnish population was 70, mostly from Toholampi, Finland. In 1888 the population showed quite an increase when 40 Finns arrived in one group. The first night they had to be lodged in the Town lock-up, in the basement of the City Hall.

The Finns who came here were mostly young, between 20-25 years old, of poor parents. They had in almost every instance borrowed the passage money from friends and relatives, either here or in Finland. This passage money they would pay back a little at a time from their meager earnings. Most of them had had very little schooling, but they all knew how to read and write. The men worked in the textile mills, factories and the quarry. The women worked in the textile mills and as domestics.

Most of the Finns came from the Province of Vaasa, southern part of northern Finland.

The first Finns came by sail boat. Later by steam passenger ships, in the steerage section by cattle boat and freighters. Trips were long and tedious, taking 2 or 3 months.

The dates of greatest immigration to this city were from 1890 to 1910.

The purpose of the first settlers was to better their conditions. Most of those who settled in this city did so because they had friends or relatives here, and due to the fact that transportation costs were very much less to this city, than if they had gone to the western states where there were a great number of Finns. In later years many of the Finns left Finland to escape military service in the Russian Army.

As more Finns arrived it became apparent that they had to have more group activities. Two social groups were organized, the Temperance society and the Saima society, a labor group. In 1886 the group started discussing the necessity of religious services. The first congregation was organized in 1893, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Society of Fitchburg. Traveling preachers would stop here to conduct services. The first Sunday school was held in 1887 with one youngster.

In 1898 church organization and the two social groups voted to buy a lot of land on Mechanic street on which to build a church. They paid $541.80 for the land. Then the groups got busy collecting small donations from the Finns in the city, $1 per month - pay was $1 a day.

On November 12, 1900 the church was dedicated to serve the Finns of the city for religious services and social activities. The Temperance and Labor group had quarters in the present vestry of the church. Here they maintained a lending library, which was already started in 1889 with 120 books. The library was a busy place.

They advanced the spirit of temperance in thought and deed. They also had their bands, orchestras, dramatic clubs and mixed choral groups, as well as their teams of gymnasts. The whole family participated. The result of this work is that the Finns were better prepared to take part in the activities of community life. Due to the growth of all three organizations, the Saima society built their own building on Leighton street. Later the Temperance group built a large building on Grove street.

In 1888 Finns took part in a week long carnival, held at the City Hall. A male chorus sang. There were 5 men in the chorus led by Mr. M. Koivu. They were well received by the audience. A tug of war was also on the program. Teams representing factories were entered. Heywood chair shop entered a team of Finns. They won the championship.

All the achievements that have effected the community have been accomplished by the church and social groups. These groups tried to educate the Finns - to teach them to strive for higher ideals. A lot of good has resulted from them which in turn have had its effect on this community.

The Finns as group took part in the 150th anniversary of Fitchburg. One Finnish group won 2nd prize for having the best organized marching group in the parade. I do not know of any event they have refused to participate in, as a group.

These groups also held classes where English was taught to the adults. Naturalization classes were also conducted, to help them to become citizens. This was before the City started the adult educational glasses or night schools.

The Finns are a home-loving race. Members of families work together to own their own homes. The first Finnish owned home was built in 1881, owned by Michael Michaelson, on Mechanic Street. In 1893 there were 3 homes owned by Finns. In 1904, according to an article written by the late John G. Faxon in the Boston Herald, the Finns owned 200 houses, averaging $3500 to each house and land, taking the big blocks and little cottages as they come. The accomplishment in family well being has been the result of close co-operation between members of families - sons and daughters have worked and sacrificed with fathers and mothers to better their living conditions.

Our folks have always kept in close contact with their folks and relatives in Finland, not only through visits to Finland, but by sending money to them at regular intervals. Many a home in Finland has been kept together by a son or daughter here in America sending home money.

The first Finnish business man was Alex Rosnell, a former sea captain. In 1881 he had a small paper pulp mill on River street, on the Nashua river. Later he moved to New Hampshire. Sometime later his mill was destroyed by a bursting dam.

The first grocery store was opened by a Peter Laamanen, in 1888. More business ventures were started by these early pioneers. They wanted to be free from the uncertainties of factory life, had times and unemployment.

According to Mr. Faxon, in 1904 there were two newspapers, five markets, groceries and meat combined, three men's clothing and shoe stores and two steambaths, a contractor and builder. At first, they aimed primarily to serve only their fellow countrymen, but later, as they became more proficient, they broadened their services to people of all races.

As the population increased the group activities also grew. The labor group began organizing Co-operatives:

Co-operative boarding house
Co-operative grocery store
Co-operative creamery
Workers Credit Union
United Co-operative Farmers

The early years of these cooperative undertakings were very uncertain, but the pioneers in this group stuck to it and put in a lot of hard work, so that today these cooperatives do many million dollars in business a year and are still growing.

These consumer, financial and producer cooperatives have been of great benefit to the farmers and residents of area.

by John G. Faxon - Dec. 1904

The presence in this city and its immediate vicinity of the largest colony of Finnish people in this State if not in New England, presents an exceedingly interesting study. The census of these people shows there are no less than 3000 here. They have come within the last 15 years, and lately the annual addition has been considerable.

This is especially traceable to the donation-alization of Finland by Russia, which has led them to seek new homes. The selection of this city and section by them has been due to the information regarding it that has been sent home by the pioneers of their race, who settles here.

As with every people, there are a few black sheep among them. Not very long ago there was quite a contingent of "bad men" among the Finns, but these have become less numerous because their country men would not tolerate them, and now the fingers of one hand would be sufficient to count the few who get their names on the police records.

The Finns in the city have about 150 votes and are mostly Republican. They have $75,000 in the savings banks, have two churches, two newspapers, one drug store, five groceries and meat combined, three men's clothing and shoe stores, have 200 houses with titles in their names, averaging $3500 to each house and land, taking the big blocks and little cottages as they come, have two public path houses, which are much in demand, though not publicly patronized.

The Finns love to be independent. That is why so many set up their own business or moved to the farms, to be free from the uncertainties of factory life, bad times and unemployment. Being a thrifty people they saved their money and invested in business venture or in real estate.

"It is the character of this investment that is attracting attention hereabouts, and the development of their plans offer a partial solution of the problem of what will become of New England agriculture and farming. The principle investment of these people has been in farming properties, and not less than 125 farms have been bought in this section within a few years, and they are being worked well. These farms were not wholly of the so-called "abandoned" type, but they have been mostly small properties that were producing little, were run down and needed hard work to bring them back to profitable condition.

These new residents have for the most part come from the northern part of Finland where, the chief occupation is farming, where the summer is short and where they have been brought up to hard work under disadvantage to secure crops.

It is no inconsiderable thing that 125 farms within a radius of 15 miles of this city have been taken by the Finnish people. They have usually waited until they have saved $1000 in cash, individually or by families, and have been able to buy their places, reserving a small amount for equipment.

But for the most part they have made the land pay for the equipment as fast as they needed it. From a profitless condition to one of value they have brought them in a very short time by dint of hard work.

Children of these Pioneers

Finnish parents have always regarded schooling as something they wanted their children to have. In the early days very few parents were able to send their children to High School due to finances.

Fathers and mothers have both worked hard for many years to accumulate enough money to send a son or daughter to High School and then to college.

We, whose fathers and mothers had come from another land, have lived in two worlds the old and the new. In our childhood we often knew the bitterness of ridicule that ate into our hearts as we tried to reconcile these worlds, one with the other. Sometimes the taunt came from the world at home, when we tried to talk, dress, act, and believe as did those OTHERS, "those Toiskieliset" (of another tongue) in what seemed a wonderful, correct, infinitely desirable world. More often the jeers came from those, as we fumbled over a familiar word, or, in an unguarded moment, spoke of some cherished custom of our own. The taunt that hurt the most came when we were taught in school that the Finns were of the Mongolian origin. We could not understand or believe it because our parents did not look like the Finn pictured in our school books.

It is no wonder that many of our children did not want to speak Finnish or be known as Finns. Some of them, I am sorry to say, were even ashamed of their own parents.

For years Finns wanted to do something about this unscientific statement concerning our origin. They talked about it but didn't get much beyond that, as they felt that time would erase that statement from our school books. It is only within the last six years that something has been done. A National Finnish organization started working on it. Wrote to the President. Answer from Library of Congress. Research of many years by S. C. Olin.

One outstanding practice traceable to our people is it belief in the cure-all qualities of the steam bath. This is evidenced by his regular weekly and oftener visits to the "sauna" as the steambath is called. This sauna habit was brought over from Finland and that is one habit that most of our people will not change for the modern bath tub. Today is a fixed institution in Fitchburg to which all classes and racial groups go each week. In this city we have five large public baths, also quite a few smaller private ones. Almost every Finn farmer has a "sauna" - in fact that is practically the first building erected on a farm.

The Finns are such a democratic group that they have not developed any outstanding leaders. Of course there have always been men and women in their group to whom many go for advice and guidance in many of their perplexing problems, but these men and women have not assumed that they are leaders. All Finns can read and write and think for themselves. They do not like to be dictated to.

Our people here in Fitchburg have not produced any outstanding influence on art, music or literature, but a large number of our people are cooperating with others of various groups.

Finland as a nation has produced a number of well known composers - the best known is the late Jean Sibelius. His great tone poem "Finlandia" has often been played in Fitchburg by individuals and bands.

The attention of the literary world has been attracted by what is perhaps the most notable and far reaching work of Finnish literature - the "Kalevala". This masterpiece was the result of Elian Lenroot's years of untiring effort in collecting and compiling thousands of Finnish ballads and converting them into an Epic which is the very foundation of the Finnish National Spirit. It first appeared in 1835 and contains nearly 80,000 lines of exquisite word pictures possessing originality, color and quality ranking with the finest works as of the world's most illustrious writers.

It was "Kalevala", with it's colorful lines and unrhymed meter, that imspired Longfellow to write his beautiful "Song of Hiawatha".

Today Finns are located in almost every state of the Union. Since 1910, Finns have made great strides. They can be found in all professions and trades, busineses and manufacturing.

We are of the opinion that the Finnish American societies and lodges in this country can accomplish the corrections of unscienfic statements concerning their racial origin in school textbooks by making the necessary representations to state shcool superintendents and state school boards of education.

Roy P. Basler, Chief General Reference and Bibliography Division Library of Congress.

Typed October 1959 from original on file in Fitchburg Historical Society loaned through courtesy of Miss Garfield.

Original in the archives of Fitchburg Historical Society.

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