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Finnish Genealogy

Leif Mether

Genealogical research in Finland and in North America differs in many ways from each other. Genealogical research in Finland is mainly based on church records, while one in North America is directed to any sources one can find.

A big difference is that Finnish descendants generally research in North American material for the last 100-140 years, while people living in Finland research backwards to the 1700s, sometimes to the 1600s and even to 1500s in sources in their own country. If one succeeds to go to times before 1540 in Finnish genealogy the research is nine times out of 10 based on tales and wishful thinking because written documents are missing.

It is not difficult to do genealogical research in Finland, but in addition to the basic skills of genealogical research and history one needs to have some elementary knowledge of the Swedish language.

This is because nearly all church records and other documents until the second part of the 19th century are written in Swedish. One living in North America may see almost insurmountable obstacles to start genealogical research in Finland, but there are numerous examples showing it is possible. A good dictionary, common sense and patience are needed.

When someone in North America becomes interested in the family he or she usually contacts distant relatives, people having the same surname or other researchers to find more information. Also popular are phone books and similar sources. All the information found is brought together and written down as a family tree.

Relatives and other researchers are of course contacted in Finland too, but the main way to do genealogical research is to contact a parish register office and ask for information, or to read church records on microfilm in archives or libraries. Genealogy is not only names, dates and places - one has to find more information about their ancestors to make it more interesting. Additional information may be found in the church records at the same time when you are looking for the names and the dates.

The most important sources for genealogists in Finland are the church records. The oldest records start in the first half of 1600s, but most of them are based on the church law of 1686. The law states what kind of registers the priest had to keep and what they had to contain. To understand the idea with church records one has to understand the church's position and function in Finland more than 300 years ago. The church had not only to watch the spiritual values in the society, but also to take care of some duties for the crown. One such duty was to keep a population register, needed to collect taxes and recruit soldiers to the army. The population register was also needed for the local administration, which was separated from the church in 1865. Municipalities were founded that year, usually with the same geographical extension as the church parishes. The church continued to take care of the population register until 1999 when state took over. Administration of justice has been a matter for the state as far back as there are written documents, i.e. the beginning of 1500s, along with most other functions in the society.

But in North America, one is free to join or not join a church. The purpose of the church has entirely been to take care of the spiritual life. In Finland everyone had to be a member of the church until 1923. After that time one could make the decision to leave the church and join the civil population register, but still today about 86 percent of the population are members of the church.

From church records one can see if people could read, if they knew the catechism and if they in general behaved in accordance to church laws, as well as when they were baptized or buried. For the genealogist the population register information is the most important part of the church records. One can find out when and where people were born or when or where they died, the names of their parents and children and who they married. One can also see where people lived and who lived at the same place at the same time, when and where people moved, and many other details. Church records were kept in many European countries, even earlier than in Finland, but the communion books almost unique for Finland and Sweden, makes it easy for the researcher to trace people from cradle to grave.

Before I tell about the different types of church records and their content I will give a rough overview where they can be used, and how one can get information from them. The system is different depending on the period of time.

1680s to 1850-1860

All church records for Finland are microfilmed and available on roll film. In Finland everyone can use the film rolls in the National Archives in Helsinki. The seven provincial archives have films from their own region, as do most of the county libraries and many city libraries from the surrounding parishes. Most will arrange interlibrary loans for their customers. Roll films can be bought from the National Archives, which also sends interlibrary loans abroad.

The Mormon Church has a complete set of the Finnish microfilm rolls in their library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The library serves local Family History Centers (FHC) with loans of the films in both the United States and Canada.

The Finnish American Heritage Center at Suomi College in Hancock, Mich. has several thousand rolls of Finnish microfilms, mainly from the northern parts of Finland as part of the genalogy collection set up by College Board Chairman Gloria Jackson. The films can be used in the Heritage Center.

Some of the microfilms are converted into microfiche which can be bought from the Provincial Archives of Mikkeli, Finland. SVAR in Sweden has converted some microfilms from the Åland Islands, Ostrobothnia and Lapland into microfiche. They can be bought direct from SVAR or from the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

1850-1860 to 1900

Some of the church records are on microfiche. They can be used in the National Archives and in the provincial archives, and some libraries have bought some of them for their own region. These microfiche are also sold by the Provincial Archives of Mikkeli.

It will take several years before all the church records for the period are on microfiche.

1900 to Present Time

The information in church records are public, but one must turn to the parish register office to get the information. Parish register offices have to give the information for genealogical purposes according to the law and they charge a fee for their service. Note that it may take months before an answer to your query arrives. Sometimes there may be language difficulties, but usually there is a good service except for the long wait. Do not send money with your query. The parish register office bills you or they ask for money before they mail the answer.

Some of the parish register offices permit researchers to use original records in their office. Usually the researcher can use records from the 1800s from earlier time periods, sometime also newer records.

Always make an appointment in advance if you wish to visit the parish register office to use their records.

If there are no microfiche for the 1850-1860 to 1900 time period one must contact the parish register office in the same manner as for newer records.

Information about Finnish genealogy, including addresses to parish register offices and sales of microfilms and fiche can be found in English at the web site of the Genealogical Society of Finland at http://www.genealogia.fi.

Published in the The Finnish American Reporter, June 2000.

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