[ End of article ]

How Our Ancestors Lived

Pär-Erik Levlin

In genealogical books you will mostly find only short dates about their birth, marriage and death, but not what it means to be farmer in those days. To know that you have to read history and I don't know how easy it may be in U.S.A. to find books about the history of Finland and Sweden. I think you might find the book of the author Wilhelm Moberg "A History of the Swedish People" and I think you all know his novel series about the emigration to U.S.A. "The Emigrants", "Unto a Good Land", "The Settlers" and "Last Letter Home". But the conditions varied from district to district. I will try to describe how they were in Ostrobothnia far back in time.

People settled there very long ago. As early as in the Stone Age hunters wandered along the shore and from the Bronze Age 4000 years ago we have plenty of ancient monuments. Through pollen analysis on samples from our peat-bogs scientists have proved that grain was grown there at the time of the birth of Christ. Cattle breeding is even older, but hunting and fishing were still much more important.

As we in the middle of the sixteenth century through the taxpayers lists, get to know the settlement and also are able to trace some of our ancestors, we see that Ostrobothnia still has a coastal population. The foremost exception is the Kyro area inside Vasa. The villages are small. Most of the farms are spread out with no close neighbor along the shore and some part up along the water courses. In what at present is Nykarleby area, at that time Lepo village, we had 70 farms on a distance of 11 miles on both sides up along Nykarleby river. Others are spread in the coastal villages in Munsala and Socklot. Higher up along the river you have to go to what now is Härmä to find settlers from Kyro area.

On the farms several generations lived together. The taxpayers lists mention only the husband by name. He usually paid personal taxes for 5-10 persons in working age (15-60 years old). As it also were children and old people on the farm this number had to be at least doubled to get the real population number. As they on Levälä paid taxes for 13 persons, there must have been a lot of people on the farm. The areas on each farm which were cultivated with barley or rye were small, only 6-10 acres. As they then normally gave only 3.5 times grain, they had to buy large amounts of bread grain. Besides grain nothing else was grown except turnips, but for them they didn't have to pay tax.

The cultivation of corn was accompanied totally necessarily of cattle breeding, as without the dung from the cattle the fields didn't give any crops. The access of dung was consequently a limiting factor for the agriculture. The live stock consisted foremost of cows and sheep. Goats were not so common in Ostrobothnia. As working- and transport animals they had horses. Number of animals were limited by access of cattle food for the winters. The feeding stuff they got from the meadows, but also from sea- and lakeshores, marshes and wherever they could find something. So they also used leafy branches and straw.

In Lepo village (now Nykarleby) the farms were placed near the river and on the riversides were also the fields. Among the fields and between them and the forest were the meadows. They were also a part of the culture landscape, as they were made through cleaning away the forest and had been kept open with axe and scythe. The meadows were however not completely free from trees. There were birches and alders left with around six yards intervals. They shadowed the ground and kept it wet. They also fertilized it with their leafs. The fields and meadows were fenced off from the forest. In summertime the cattle grazed in the forest and had to be kept out from the meadows. After fields and meadows were harvested cattle were let in.

The cows gave milk only summertime and from the milk butter was made. In the fall they had to slaughter that part of the cattle they could not feed during the winter. In that time the cows were very small. Their weight was only 300-400 pounds and they gave only 300 quarts of milk in a year.

The fishing was still almost as important as farming. Even farms far up from the shore had fishing waters in the sea. Creeks and rivers were rich in fish and salmon fishing was good. We can compare them with the streams in Alaska today. The best fishing time was in the spring as the fish spawn. In the spring tons of herring were caught. It was salted in barrels or dried. As salt was very costly, even a third method for preservation was invented. The herring was put in barrels with only 1/3 of the usual amount of salt. The barrels were closed airtight. The herring turned sour and was preserved as sour herring. Even today it is regarded as a great delicacy in northern Sweden.

The seal catch was the only thing of importance as far as hunting was concerned. In March all the men from the villages, divided in groups of eight to ten, went out on the ice of the Gulf of Bothnia dragging a boat. The boat was covered with the sail and at night used as a camping place and to save them if the ice broke up. From there they made daily hunting tours as they attained ice where it was plenty of seals. Before they had firearms the seal was hunted with harpoon, so the hunter had to come close. The most important part of the seal was the lard, from which they boiled seal oil. It was sold as lamp oil all over Europe, but meat and skins were also used. The hunting tour ended in the beginning of June and usually every hunter had got two to three barrels of oil.

In the forest near the shores in Ostrobothnia there was not much to hunt. Of fur was only squirrel skins "gray skins" exported. The elk was already in the seventeenth century so rare that government limited the hunting.

Not until the seventeenth century the wood products got some greater value for its products. Earlier people could get timber for house building everywhere. But in end of sixteenth century the woods in Europe began to diminish. Sawmills were built in Sweden and Finland but even more important was the producing of tar. The procedure was known from the Middle Age and everywhere tar was produced for private use. Now it was produced for export. The manufacturing gave a lot of employment. Young growing pines had to be barked on a line from ground to five yards up. That was repeated once a year for several years until all bark was gone. Doing so, the pines produced plenty of resin to protect themselves. One year after the last barking the pines were cut and brought to a place with a tarpit where a stack was built. There the pine wood was covered airtight and burned with little air, so the resin was converted into tar. That run out through a pipeline from bottom of the pit. The biggest production of tar in Sweden/Finland occurred in Ostrobothnia.

If we take a look at the farmers year in the seventeenth century, it may have begun after Christmas when one man was sent out in the forest to hunt squirrels with bow and arrow. Two others or a man and a women, went out to bark pines for tar production. Others stayed home producing barrels for keeping salt fish and seal oil. In March all healthy men went out hunting seal and when they went home the first days of June the fishing period began. The work on the fields was left for the women, young boys and old men. The cattle breeding was solely a job for women, as it has been up to our days. In July the harvest of winter food for the cattle began and in that everyone on the farm took part. So also in the harvest of crops in August/September. In the fall was also the treshing work and some fishing. In November a man from the farm in company with other villager went by boat to Stockholm to sell products from their farms. So an other hard working year was gone and it was Christmas.

To complete this short essay we can look at a list what the Ostrobothnian farmers brought to Stockholm in the year 1556 in quantity and value:
Salt herring3070 barrels 24520 mk
Butter87500 pounds 11010 mk
Seal oil73700 pounds 5300 mk
Dry fish46100 pounds 2440 mk
Salt salmon345 bushels 2000 mk
Seal skins2870 pieces 540 mk
Gray skins670 pieces 70 mk
Boats54 pieces 810 mk
Various 300 mk
Together 47000 mk

After duty was paid they had 40000 mk left. But this was not all they produced for sale. Parts of their products was brought to Raumo, Åbo and other cities in Sweden, but how big this part was we don't know. Because their own grain crops, in value estimated to 50000 mk, covered only half of their need of bread grain, they had to buy the other half. They had also to buy large amounts of salt. Then they did not have much left over for the years the crops failed.

Source: Svenska Österbottens Historia. Vasa 1977.

Published by Medlemsblad för Levälä Släktförening. Levälä Sukuseuran Jäsenlehti, March 1989, No. 11 and SFHS Newsletter 1992, Vol. 1, No. 1

© Pär-Erik Levlin

[ Beginning of article ]