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Finnish Emigration to the United States and Canada

Rafael Engelberg*

Like other countries, Finland has had her share in the emigration which has taken place from Europe to overseas countries, and has made her contribution to the population of the United States and Canada. This emigration movement has been due, on the one hand to the attraction exercised by the wealth and potentialities of the new countries-greatly enhanced, as they have been, by report - and on the other hand to the poverty and undeveloped condition of the homeland, and the marked predilection for pioneering life and hunting explorations in the wilds which characterizes the Finns.

Early Finnish population movements were directed to the uninhabited parts of Oulujärvi in the 1550's, to the forest areas of Central Sweden at the end of the 16th century, to Ingria and Tver after the peace of Stolbova in the 17th century, and later on to Ruija (the Finnmark); there was also a continuous movement on a smaller scale to Sweden, e. g. to Stockholm.

A few Finns went to America with emigrating Swedes at the beginning of the 17th century, and with Russians in the 19th century, but they did not come over in larger numbers till nearly 100 years after the great rush of emigrants from Continental Europe, and about 30 years after the emigration from Scandinavia got under way.

Their routes have been partly via Scandinavia, partly via Central Europe, and especially via England.

For us - as for other countries - this emigration has been, and still is, of great national and economic importance.

The Finns first began to contribute to the peopling of the North American Continent together with the Swedes in 1638, when the important colony of New Sweden was founded at the mouth of the Delaware River.

Side by side with Axel Oxenstjerna, the Finnish admiral Klaus Fleming displayed great energy in the work of founding this colony, and its most celebrated governor, Johan Printz, made a point of describing himself as a Finn.

Most of the Finns who emigrated to this colony came from Värmland in Sweden and from certain parts of Finland, principally the neighbourhood of Vaasa (Vasa). Their numbers have been estimated at about 500. In any case they formed more than one half of the colony's population, perhaps three-quarters. They were of course assimilated - even to their names - into the rest of the population, but their importance in American cultural history is illustrated by the fact that it has been estimated that one Yankee out of every 18 is descended from the inhabitants of New Sweden.

The second contribution of the Finns - together with the Russians - was made in connection with the Alaskan undertaking. This was begun by Russia at the end of the 18th century; but it was not till Finland had come under Russia in 1809 that the Finns had an opportunity of taking part in it. Lieutenant - later Admiral - A. A. Etholen, who had qualified at Finland's Naval Academy, served as Captain on the ships of the Russian Fur Company trading with Alaska, and was appointed Governor of that province in 1839. He took up residence there in 1840 bringing with him a Finnish pastor, Uno Cygnaeus, who afterwards became famous as the founder of our elementary school system. The fact of his going there indicates that there must have been Finns in that country already at that time, and subsequently they moved over in greater numbers.

A branch of this company, called the Russo-Finnish Whale Trading Co., was established at Turku (Åbo) in 1849 for the purpose of trading in Alaskan produce, and in the ships of this company - including the "Suomi", the "Turku" the "Sitka", and the "Atka" - more contingents of Finns, especially from the vicinity of Turku, emigrated. Etholen's executive official was a Finn, Lt. T. Bartram. The Captains of the ships were Finns, e. g. Gustaf Nybom and D. A. Grönberg, and the crews were of course mostly Finns too. Later, in 1859, another Finn - Capt. Johan Hampus Furuhjelm - became Governor of Alaska. The Finnish population in this province reached its highest number - about 500 - in the 1860's. The whole enterprise was prosperous, but the Crimean War of 1854-55 had a harmful effect on it, and finally, in 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States. Some of the Finns then returned to their home country, some went to the United States, while others remained in Alaska, mostly becoming assimilated with the rest of the population.

The third period of emigration was during the famous Californian gold rush of 1848-50, when Finnish sailors, especially in San Francisco, were lured by dreams of wealth to desert and become part of the motley crowd of gold-seekers.

Again, during the Crimean War, entire crews of some Finnish ships sailing under the Russian flag had to go ashore in America, either when their ships were sold to prevent their falling into the hands of the French or the English, or when they were captured and sunk in American waters.

Further, during the American Civil War of 1861-65 many Finnish sailors left their ships to join the Northerners - especially their Navy - and remained in that service or settled in the country in some other capacity. - Apart from all this, individual sailors deserted for personal reasons, as happens everywhere. Thus Finnish sailors remained in the West in San Francisco and some other places on the coast; in the South - at least in New Orleans - in the East in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston; and, after the Civil War, on the shores of the Great Lakes, specially in Chicago. Some of them summoned their wives and sweethearts to join them in the new country, others continued to correspond with their friends in their home districts, and some came home on visits from time to time. Thus their contact with the homeland was more constant than in the days of the Delaware and Alaska enterprises, and in this respect they are the direct pioneers of the great emigration of Finns just as they are the originators of many fantastic stories about America.

The principal causes of the most extensive Finnish emigration, which occurred during and immediately after the American Civil War, were: the need for labour in mining copper in Michigan and iron in Minnesota, the demand for timber for these mines and for building purposes, and for labour in loading and unloading the ores at the Great Lakes ports, the great railway expansion from the Central States towards the West, the efforts to attract population by offering land for "homesteads", the goldfields further west, the lumbering in the great forests of the Far West, the fishing, especially in the Columbia River; also, in the Eastern States certain industries and the offer of "homesteads". To all this must be added the building by Canada of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the development of her mining and other industries.

This widespread American demand for labour grew rapidly, though interrupted by periods of depression, and first affected Finnish workers in the mines of Northern Sweden, whence experienced miners were enlisted for the copper workings in Michigan, then those in Finland's farthest North, and soon after those in Ostro-Bothnia.

The demand had made itself felt for some time in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, and via the latter country it now also began to affect the Åland Islands and the West Coast of Finland, especially the provinces of Turku-Pori (Åbo-Björneborg) and Vaasa (Vasa). The result was another period of emigration from these districts, and even from Central and Eastern Finland. This outflow of emigrants was largely conditioned by labour conditions in America, decreasing during periods of depression and increasing in times of prosperity.

Another cause which increased the flow of emigration was the Russification policy started about the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by Russia, which threatened to destroy the basis of our national political life and expressly aimed at drafting our young men into the Russian army.

Previous to the first World War the flow of Finnish emigration was increased by general political and economic conditions. During that war it was at a standstill, and since then the restrictions enforced by the United States and Canada have greatly reduced it.

On the other hand, when the Russian oppression of Finland lessened after the General Strike of 1905, the number of returning emigrants increased. Other notable causes of their return were: the improvement of social and economic conditions owing to the fact that Finland had become independent, the improvement of labour conditions, the stabilising of the floating countryside population by grants of land, and the new independence of the peasants (crofters). These factors, of course, also removed the principal causes of the emigration movement.

The great emigration here described in general terms can be illustrated by statistics. Between 1864 and 1873-the next depression - the number of Finns who went to America and Canada from the mines of Northern Sweden, the farthest North of Finland, and Ostro-Bothnia is estimated at considerably over 10,000. When the next depression came in 1893 the number of Finns in America was estimated at 100.000.

In 1902 the intensified policy of Russification so increased emigration that it reached the high figure of 23,152, while the relaxation of this policy owing to the General Strike in 1905, together with the depression in America in 1908, checked the flow and caused the return of considerable numbers of emigrants.

The oppression was renewed and conditions became bad again before the first World War and this is reflected in another high figure, viz. 20,057 in 1913.

The total number of persons who left Finland during the period 1893-1919 was, according to official statistics, 271,120.

After Finland became independent the number of emigrants to the United States and Canada were as follows:

in 1920 5,577
1921 3,531
1922 5,705
1923 13,801

When the United States began to restrict immigration the flow of Finnish emigrants turned towards Canada in preference to the former country. This was especially the case in 1923. Up till then our statistics had not shown separately the figures for these two countries or indicated the very few persons who had gone to Central and South America. Between 1924 and 1930 the emigrants to America averaged 4,552 a year, and of these

about 408 went to United States
about 4,012 went to Canada
about 82 went to Central and South America.

Then came the complete ban on immigration into the United States, where immigrants are now only admitted if they are relatives of persons already settled there, or on a few other specific grounds. The number of Finnish emigrants therefore declined to 255 a year between 1931 and 1939 (the year of the Russo-Finnish Winter war). Of these 153 went to the United States, 71 to Canada, and 31 to Central and South America.

The total number of Finns who left their homeland for the United States and Canada between 1920 and 1939 was, according to official statistics, 62,779 (a figure which also includes a few persons who went to Central and South America) a number which must be regarded as comparatively large. In addition, smaller numbers went to Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Africa, Russia, Sweden, and some other countries.

It is estimated that 40 p. c. of the total number of Finnish emigrants have returned to Finland. Since Finland became independent, the percentage of returned emigrants has approached 100. If allowance is made for the natural increase of population, it may be assumed that there are at present 450,000 Finns in the United States and 50,000 in Canada, a total of about half a million.

As mentioned above, most of the emigrants came from the province of Vaasa. After that, the provinces of Oulu (Uleåborg) and Turku-Pori (Åbo-Björneborg) contributed the largest contingent of emigrants. Most of them were country-dwellers, and belonged to the poorer classes of the agricultural population, and the majority of them were young men. More detailed information can be obtained from the report of the Government Committee on Emigration of 1918.

From 1874 the emigrants were conveyed to Hull from Vaasa and other Ostro-Bothnian ports, as well as from Turku (Åbo), by the Finnish Vaasa North-Sea Steamship company. In 1883 a special Finnish line, Suomen Höyrylaiva Osakeyhtiö (the Finnish Steamship Company) was started between Finland and England. It has prospered chiefly by the emigrant traffic, taking most of its emigrant passengers on board at Hanko (Hangö). In the early stages of this emigrant traffic, and especially about the turn of the century, when home conditions caused the flow of emigrants to be exceptionally large, it was only to be expected that the passage should have been attended with a certain amount of difficulty and hardship for the passengers, hardships which the Finnish companies endeavoured to overcome, and which they in some measure succeeded in ameliorating.

The value of Finnish emigration from a shipping point of view is seen from the fact that numerous foreign shipping companies have competed for the resultant traffic, especially since 1918. Among these, the most notable is the Swedish-American Line at Gothenburg, which since 1920 has placed its modern vessels at the disposal of the Finnish public through its representative at Helsinki, Oy Victor Ek Ab.

The Finnish pioneers who settled on the Delaware River have left only a name and the knowledge of their important contribution to American history. Some remnants of those who went to Alaska and of the sailor settlers are still to be found among the immigrants of a later generation. Though few in Alaska itself, they are more numerous on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

The main body of Finnish emigrants characteristically answered the call for labour described above; some of them went to Michigan and Minnesota, others to Ohio and Wisconsin. They spread over the Dakotas to the Pacific Coast, and to the Atlantic Seaboard about Massachusetts and Maine; on the Canadian side they were especially to be found on the borders of Michigan and Minnesota, which still remained their centres. The majority of the emigrants did not keep to the mining, lumbering, and transport work with which they started; it was only natural that agriculture should attract them, and soon they were taking some of the most difficult land in the U. S. A. under cultivation. Those who did remain in the above-mentioned trades were not inconsiderable in number, and some of them, especially in more recent times, have started working in factories, chiefly in the Eastern States, while the young women have often entered domestic service in New York, Chicago, and Montreal.

Considering the smallness of our population and the relative poverty of our country, this emigration, especially at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, was naturally regarded with alarm, and gradually came to be felt as a dangerous draining of our resources which, it was thought by many patriots, our people could afford neither from a national nor from an economic point of view.

For this reason it began to be viewed with disfavour, and met with some opposition, which at times acquired considerable strength. On the other hand, humanitarian feelings and considerations of justice demanded that the matter should be regarded with sympathy and an understanding of its underlying causes. The Government took up the attitude that no legislative obstacles should be placed in the way of emigration, but that the home community could accept no responsibility for those who left.

When emigration was at its height - i. e. at the turn of the century - it was not possible, because of the Russian supervision, for the Finnish Government to take up a different attitude, but private enterprise, especially in Church circles, began to consider and try to supply the spiritual needs of the emigrants. Soon after Finland became independent, public opinion was roused to a realistic attitude to the matter and to look upon our fellow-countrymen settled abroad as still coming within the sphere of the national interest, so that every effort should be made to maintain and develop contact with them.

On the other hand, some of the emigrants, especially in the earlier periods, had carried with them disappointing memories and impressions of the homeland, while their idealization of America had given them inflated ideas of that country; all this did not conduce to a positive attitude towards Finland.

It appears, though this cannot be proved, that a certain amount of misleading information about the home country tended to strengthen this critical attitude; yet many of them had also pleasanter memories, while their traditions and general mentality led them to surround themselves with something of the familiar atmosphere and culture, to settle as far as possible under natural conditions resembling those at home, and to continue ways of living and customs similar to those they already knew. In this way a positive national spirit began to emerge and left its impress on their religious, ethical, social, and political endeavours.

It is true that in the early stages of the Socialist movement during the first years of the present century, the international outlook of Socialism tended somewhat to weaken national feeling among more radical-minded Finnish Americans, and this tendency was increased by the wounds left by the civil strife which accompanied our War of Independence. Later on, the Communist propaganda directed from Russia, and the widespread enlistment activities for her ideal society, especially for the Republic of East Carelia, tended to strengthen the unfriendliness of some workers towards the home country. But the Russian attack on Finland in 1939 and the Winter War brought about a reversion of feeling, even among Communists.

The American Finns have at different times, and especially during the Winter War, given great support to the home country, especially in the form of aid to children and the poorer classes, by collecting considerable sums of money, and by other kinds of assistance.

Relations between the Finns overseas and the old country have been considerably affected by the difficulty of understanding and keeping abreast of the changes which have taken place in the lives of the two branches of the Finnish race. In the eyes of those at home, the emigrants were little different from what they were when they went away; and similarly it was not easy for the emigrants to realize that their home country had developed during their absence; sometimes they judged it from the standpoint of their own, often rather remote, primitive districts.

There were, of course, no organized attempts to supply information about each other's conditions-at least in earlier periods. Literature describing the lives of Finns in America developed only slowly, and at its best it was not very important. Lecturers and speakers went fairly frequently from here to America, but they usually confined themselves to religious and educational subjects and thus did not convey much information of topical interest. Lantern slides and films only came to be used later and then not very systematically.

Of course, newspapers have all along reported current events, and their work has often been praiseworthy, but it has been hampered by the weakness and ephemeral character of the correspondents' work; only in recent times have attempts been made to organize a press service dealing with contemporary developments for citizens overseas. The occasional contacts between different spheres of culture on both sides have been somewhat incomplete, and thus not as effective as they might have been. Generally speaking, the presence of a Finnish population on the other side of the Atlantic has not been exploited to the full for the benefit of either side.

It is first and foremost in the religious and educational spheres that the Finns in America have developed an ordered manner of living which has been their strength as a special, respected part of the great American people, while worthily representing the home country and causing its name to be regarded with esteem among the numerous competing nations.

They have everywhere their own churches, cultural organizations, national Sunday Schools and Summer Schools, a college chiefly for the training of the clergy, their own newspapers and literature, as well as humanitarian and economic institutions, such as welfare and co-operative societies.

Their cultural life in all its forms reflects very much that of the home country and is in its way an "export" which is much valued. These activities have not been assisted or directed officially from Finland, because of the general attitude to emigration mentioned above; but Church circles have greatly fostered and supported them, among other things by sending out at different times more than 70 clergymen of the Church of Finland.

There is, however, no doubt that the homeland itself would have benefited from a more extensive support, especially in the sphere of culture, where the intellectual life of the Finns in America has already provided a demand for our literature and a sphere of action for our artists.

Some of our literature found its way to America, especially through the agency of the "Kansanvalistusseura" (National Educational Society) and the "Raittiuden Ystävät" (Friends of Temperance), as early as the end of last century, and according to our publishers the export of literature was valued at:

about 400,000 marks during the first decade of this century
about 1,040,000 marks during the second decade of this century
about 4,800,000 marks during the third decade of this century.

In the 1930's the figures were at first 580,000 marks annually, but they then fell considerably, at times even to zero, because of economic depression and other unfavourable conditions.

Since 1900, and especially since 1918, about 50 artists - chiefly singers and other musicians - have performed among the Finns in America, many of them several times. Concerts have also recently been given by two large male choirs: the "Ylioppilaskunnan laulajat" (the Helsinki University Male Chorus) and the "Finlandia Male Chorus". These visits have had a stimulating effect on the intellectual life of our compatriots and have often resulted in a considerable financial profit to the individual artists.

It has not been generally realized that the Finnish population in America might be an appreciable factor in our export trade, and capable of even further exploitation. Yet it must not be forgotten that for some of the exports listed in our statistics, e. g. building-stone, cheese, Baltic herring, separators, and hard rye bread, the Finns in America have been the chief customers, and the market for these and other Finnish products might no doubt be greatly increased by the activities of Finnish-American business men and especially the co-operative movement.

Another way in which information and impressions have been exchanged, especially with America and Canada, and which has been very profitable for Finland, has been the visits paid to the home country by individuals and by conducted parties. Individuals have of course visited their friends and relations at home all the time. The first conducted tour was arranged already during the Russian rule in the summer of 1912, but both these activities have increased very much since 1920 because of Finland's position as an independent State. They have added considerably to the country's tourist traffic, and in the summer there have sometimes been more than ten such tours, while in the winter there have been one or two. The total number of Finns visiting the home country may be estimated at from 1500 to 2500 annually. When spending the whole summer here they have usually travelled about a good deal, and in this way they have played a considerable part in establishing new and maintaining old contacts. The actual money thus spent by them, which has been estimated at a maximum sum of 25,000,000 marks in one year, has also been of importance to Finnish economy.

These excursionists have regularly been given elaborate and friendly receptions, a fact which shows that the attitude of the home country to emigration has become more favourable.

The 40 p. c. who came back to remain at home, as it was once hoped all the emigrants would do, have been likened by Akseli Järnefelt-Rauanheimo, who did so much to help the emigrants, to bees who leave the hive to gather honey and return with their store. Though some of them may have failed completely in their endeavours overseas, yet they have always brought back some "honey" - experience as well as money - thus to some extent compensating for the loss sustained by the home country through emigration. In general it may be said that these emigrants have not received special attention or material assistance, though in our work for citizens overseas we have tried to treat them with sympathy.

On the whole, our emigration has here been considered from the aspect of its practical advantages for the home country, but this in itself is not sufficient when estimating it as a historical phenomenon; indeed public opinion has veered from the negative to the positive because the positive sides only appeared later.

In the early stages of emigration, and when it unexpectedly increased very much, the various moral drawbacks were especially noticed, as was also the loss of population and labour, a serious matter for a small country; further, all this was reflected in the neglected farms, the poverty of the families left behind, and the consequent increase in Poor Law expenditure. But then came improvement in the shape of remittances from America, which meant better conditions for the relatives and the farms as well as increased deposits in the savings banks.

In course of time the causes of emigration were better understood, and even the loss of population now appeared to be only relative, for marriages increased there and also the number of children. Moreover, the loss of labour did not affect our economic life as greatly as had been feared, for the modernization and mechanization of agriculture had lessened the demand for workers, and without emigration there might even have been unemployment.

Mention has already been made of the value of Finnish emigration from a shipping point of view. It has been estimated that the "Suomen Höyrylaiva Osakeyhtiö" (the Finnish Steamship Company) has conveyed about 450,000 emigrants to England or back, corresponding to a money value of 600 or 700 million marks, while those travelling via Sweden or Germany have also left some of the money they spent on the journey in the home country.

The remittances to their families by our countrymen overseas referred to above, have amounted in the maximum years to over 200 million marks, and total altogether about 6 milliard (American: 6 billion) marks; whether these amounts are regarded as interest on or amortization of the capital represented by the emigrants, they have certainly considerably compensated for their loss, and formed part of the national income.

During the Winter War of 1939-40 the material voluntary assistance received from Finnish Americans both in money and goods was enormous.

When normal conditions are restored it may be expected that the various advantages we derive from our emigrants, and their practical importance for Finland, will make themselves felt once more.

It may be thought that as emigration has been such an important question for us, as for so many other countries, it ought to have received attention, both official and private, as early as possible, so that we might have derived practical benefit from it. Yet obviously this could not be done either under the Russian oppression, when our emigration rose to its height, or during the first World War. Only since 1918 has it been possible for us to devote ourselves to this question.

Two State committees have been appointed and a number of practical measures taken, but there has been no specific emigration legislation, partly because other laws filled the need, and partly because emigration was already a fact. Voluntary action in this matter gradually developed, however, and was finally crystallized in the "Suomi Seura" (Finnish Overseas Society).

The Finns in the United States and Canada are few in proportion to the total population of their adopted countries, but on the whole their history may be said to do them credit; and though it is becoming part of that of the new homelands, Finland continues to watch its making with interest, feeling to some extent that it is something of her own.

*President of the Finnish Overseas Society (Suomi Seura), Helsinki.

Published in Le Nord. International Review of the Northern Countries, Vol. V, 1942, p. 22-34.

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