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The Finns in the Delaware River Valley

John H. Vuorinen

Professor, Columbia University, New York Columbia

In the spring of 1638 a ship from the Swedish Kingdom arrived at the Delaware River. At a natural stone pier, located where Wilmington now stands and still known as "The Rocks", the small band of pioneers disembarked. The first permanent settlement in the Delaware River Valley had thus begun.

The New Sweden colony was established under the Swedish flag, but among its settlers were Finns as well as Swedes, for at that time Finland and Sweden constituted a single political entity, the Swedish Kingdom.

In common with other seventeenth-century colonies, New Sweden resulted from the activities of a trading company. Both money and leadership for the enterprise came from the Finnish part of the Kingdom as well as from Sweden proper. For instance, Admiral Klaus Fleming, a leading member of the Finnish nobility, was in charge of the company for several years. The Finnish contribution to the population of the colony was also important.

While we do not as yet have full information regarding the number of Finns in the Delaware settlement, we do know that they constituted a significant part of the population. In 1654-1655, the population figure, which included Finns already in the colony, and presumably refers to adults only, was about 240. In the next year 92 out of 105 newcomers were listed as Finns. In 1664, 140 Finns were reported to have arrived in Amsterdam, Holland, on their way to the colony. A conservative estimate places the Finns at from one-third to one-half of the pioneers of New Sweden.

New-Sweden was lost to the Dutch in 1654; the Dutch in turn lost it to the English in 1664. The population remained, however, and was probably but little effected by these changes in political allegiance. For a few generations, the settlers in the colony retained their identity - linguistic, religions, cultural - but ultimately they became merged with the broad stream of the American people. Intermixture of Swedes and Finns and the Anglicization of the names and language of both had proceeded apace by the time America became independent. By that time, a few descendants of the Delaware colonists had risen to positions sufficiently conspicuous to bring them into the group of signers of the Declaration of Independence, or to pre-eminence in various ways in local or national affairs. The majority lived the lives of hard-working pioneers, and made their contributions to American institutions and ideals in that anonymous manner which ever characterizes the life of the common man who was then, as he is today, the real foundation of American political and economic accomplishment.

Thus Finns and Americans have a common ground in American history, the importance of which is very great. Three centuries of this kind of common historical heritage have furnished much of the foundation upon which American-Finnish relations have rested in the past. Reinforced by rapidly growing economic and other contacts, this heritage promises to become even more significant in the realization of the plans of today and the objectives of tomorrow.

Published in Finland-United States 1938. Special publication for the advancement of Finnish-American relations. 1938, p. 61-63.

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