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The First Finnish Pioneers in America

Väinö Voionmaa

Minister of Commerce of Finland

It is 300 years this spring since New Sweden, a colony belonging to the realm of Sweden-Finland, was founded at the mouth of the Delaware River on the east coast of North America. This colony was the first settlement of Finnish emigrants in America.

The people of Finland and Sweden have made preparations for the celebration of this tercentenary. Finland who has gained her political and national independence and has reached a certain level of prosperity, this summer sends a special delegation to the celebrations to be held at the site of the old colony on the banks of the Delaware. We wish in this way to show our veneration for those forefathers of ours who, in spite of the almost insurmountable difficulties and unceasing dangers of those remote shores, by their labor and the sweat of their brow implanted some of the character of the Finnish race in a new country. We desire to express our fellowship with the descendents of Finnish emigrants who now increased a thousand fold maintain the best traditions of our race beyond the seas. Finally we wish to show our recognition of and esteem for that mighty country and its people in the creation of whose liberty and power the Finnish colonists have played their part from the very beginning. The history of this small New Sweden Colony is soon told. Founded in 1638 it came into Dutch hands in 1655 and was joined to the neighboring Dutch colony. In 1664 together with the Dutch colony New Sweden came under the British flag and since that date shared the history of the other British colonies.

The history of New Sweden has long attracted the interest of investigators. In 1759 Israel Acrelius published an extensive history of the Swedish congregations of New Sweden, and in our times Dr. Amandus Johnson has published a valuable work "The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware" (1911), which is the principal source for information on the history of this colony. From a Finnish point of view the narratives and records of the Finnish traveller Per Kalm of his journeys in North America during 1748-49 are particularly important. These records were published some time ago by the Swedish Literary Society.

Less known in the history of New Sweden are the adventures of the Finnish colonists, perhaps for the reason that they have not been investigated separately. It is doubtful whether this omission could be repaired by further investigation.

But in spite of the fact that only a few scattered traces of the history of these old Finnish colonists are to be found in chronicles of the times, we nevertheless feel convinced that these early colonists are 'chips off the same block'. This appears directly or indirectly from many points in the history of New Sweden from which we will take but a few examples.

This colony enjoyed a period of fair progress under Holland. In about 1658 the population was in the region of 600, but it is impossible to ascertain what proportion of this number were Finns. Both Swedes and Finns were successful farmers and many of them attained considerable prosperity. The colony wished for more emigrants, "not Dutchmen but others and especially Swedes and Finns who are good farmers". Writing of the times Johnson says: "The population was now too large for the work of one preacher and besides the language question complicated matters. Many of the Finns could not understand Swedish during the first years and these were without religious instruction. As time went on, however, the Swedish language became dominant, the Finns and Dutch gradually acquiring the same."

Swedish congregational life in the colony on the Delaware River continued for a long time under British domination. In a letter written in 1693 the colonists told of their condition and pleaded for Swedish priests to defend them against wrong teachers and strange creeds, which beset them from all sides. They added: "but Finnish priests we have not, neither do we need them, for every single one of us understands Swedish". During the same year, however, it was suggested to the Estate of the Clergy in the Swedish Diet, that attempts should be made to preserve both languages, Swedish and Finnish, and that priests and a schoolmaster, speaking both languages, should be sent there. Plans were made to send to the colonists 200 Finnish hymn books, 100 catechisms, 20 books of homilies, 10 bibles and 5 copies of church by-laws.

Väinö Aaltonen, the sculptor, at work on the granite memorial which will be raised in Philadelphia to the memory of the first Finnish settler.

It appears therefore, that the Finnish nationality had its own existence for generations in New Sweden. In 1693 a census of the population of New Sweden gives 971 persons, and among the names are several which are obviously of Finnish origin despite their distortion. In this and other documents of New Sweden the following names may be of Finnish derivation: Ekhon (corresponding Finnish name Ekonen); Hallton (Halttunen); Homman (Hommanen, Hommonen); Kåckim (Kokkinen); Collman (Kolehmainen); Kuckow (Kukkonen);Laican (Laukkanen); Leyhon (Leihoinen); Lukonen (Liikanen); Linton (Lintunen); Mink (Minkkinen); Mollica (Mullikka); Parchon (Parkkonen); Repott (Reponen); Rong (Ronkainen); Reese, Rosse (Räisänen); Savoy (Savolainen); Sinnike (Sinikainen?); Taske (Taskinen); Teoy (Toijanen, Toikkanen); Tolsa (Torsa); Veinon (Väänänen). The bracketed names, almost without exception, are those of Finnish colonists of the 16th century. "Finn", the surname of many inhabitants of New Sweden obviously denotes the nationality of the people.

Finally I would mention the story told by the aged Åke Helm (Helminen?) quoted in the records of Per Kahn. In all its simplicity this tale supplies an extremely comprehensive picture of the life of the Finnish settlers on the Delaware.

Old Helm related: "a large number of Finns also come over here to live; they have never had their own priest and have been satisfied with those of the Swedes; they have always spoken Finnish to one another. Most of them have settled in Pennsncek and lived there; right down to recent times there were some of them who spoke Finnish; now they are nearly all dead. and their descendants have become British. Helm was of the opinion that the Finnish hymnbook which I (Per Kalm) received as a present from Zachris Peterson, was not only the oldest of all the Swedish and Finnish books now obtainable in this district, originally brought here by the first Finns, but also the only existing copy of a Finnish book in the colony. Old Helm said that he had often seen this book and had even borrowed it; he had never seen any other books in this language."

Stamp issued in Finland in connection with the Delaware Celebration.

It would be interesting to know more of the work and lives of those Finnish pioneers on the Delaware. It may he that Finnish investigators will still bring to light surprising facts of this colony. But the facts already in our possession convince us that the first Finns in North America came of cultured stock, worthy descendants of their fathers remaining in Finland, and worthy fore fathers of the great American nation.

Published in Finland-United States 1938. Special publication for the advancement of Finnish-American relations. 1938, p. 57-58.

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