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Finnish Immigrants in the United States

Reino Kero

Finnish emigration to the United States really began in the mid-nineteenth century when the California gold discoveries influenced many Finnish sailors to seek their fortune in the Californian gold country. The American continent indeed had received its first Finnish settlers already in 1638. when Sweden attempted to establish a colony on the east coast of the United States. This, however, remained as quite a modest attempt. Virtually no Finns arrived in America during the next 200 years.

The great Finnish overseas emigration began with the California gold discoveries. It did not end until 1930, when the receiving countries closed their doors nearly completely to immigrants. Emigration was wave-like: peaks, troughs, new peaks and troughs, whose tempo was defined by the economic conditions on the other side of the Atlantic. When America experienced an economic boom, there were many employment opportunities available for immigrants. Great masses of people rolled then to America from Finland as well as from other European countries. Then when the economic conditions declined, emigrating did not seem attractive. Return from America to the "old country" was perhaps greater than the emigrating group. The peak of Finnish emigration was attained in 1902, when over 23000 Finns left to seek their fortune in North America.

How many immigrants did the United States then recive from Finland? By 1930, about 350000 Finns emigrated to overseas countries. Of these, perhaps over 300000 settled in the United States. The rest went mainly to Canada. South America, Australia and New Zealand only received a scattered few. Of what type were the Finnish emigrants? Over 90 % were from rural areas. Men made up 60 % of the emigrants, most of whom were at the peak of their work years. There were more single, than married emigrants. During the beginning stages of emigration, quite a few whole families departed, but as the emigration phenomena aged, settlement in the countries on the otherside of the Atlantic became mainly an activity of young, single people searching for employment. The majority of those departing were without means: The emigrants' greatest possessions taken with them consisted of a pair of hands and a strong belief in the future. Why were the Finns interested in America at the end of the nineteenth century? Was the reason the poor possibility of making a living in the homeland or was it the Russian compulsory military service, which the Finns did not like?

Near inexhaustable natural resources made the United States in the nineteenth century a country where economic growth was quicker than in Europe. The rapid economic growth created a great demand for labour, and the occasional labour shortage raised the American wage level noticeably higher than the European wage level. Accordingly the Finnish farm labourer awaited receiving five times better wages in America than Finland.

The Finnish emigrants were "pushed" from their homeland by poor wages and occasional unemployment, and correspondingly, they were "pulled" to America by the high wages and the occasional labour shortage there. These were followed-up by many other factors. One factor may have been the air of crisis created by the Russification activities in Finland. In contrast, America was thought of as the true "country of freedom". Some still departed, however, only for adventure, and perhaps some did not really even know why emigrating seemed necessary.

The majority of Finnish emigrants came from a relatively small area in western Finland known as Ostrobothnia. The concentration of emigration particularly in Ostrobothnia may have been caused partly by the region's slow economic development, and perhaps also because of the fact that already very early emigrating to America from there had become a custom. At the same time, inhabitants of eastern and southern Finland were interested in the cities of the homeland and St. Petersburg, whose effects were felt particularly in eastern Finland.

If Finnish immigrants are compared, for example to Germans, it may be stated that the majority of Finns arrived in America much later than the Germans. By the time that large numbers of Finnish immigrants began to be seen on Ellis Island, the availability of good agricultural land had ended in America. Accordingly Finnish immigrants came to seek for work mainly in the mine, forest, factory and construction industries of the United States and settled in those states where there was work for Finns experienced only in farm and forest work. Overwhelmingly important then were Michigan and Minnesota, where there large mines and in whose bush camps a Finn was always certain to obtain work. Minnesota and Michigan, however, were not the only ones. Along the Canadian border, from Maine on the Atlantic coast to Washington and California on the Pacific coast, a zone was born of Finnish bases.

The majority of Finnish immigrants were rural in origin and did not really get along in industrial occupations. The dream of many a Finnish immigrant was their own farm. When good land was not available anymore, farms had to be cleared from areas, which were not cultivateable by American standards. For this reason, the typical Finnish-American farm was small and gave its toiler a scanty livelihood.

Mainly due to language difficulties immigrants formed their own organizations. The Finns did likewise. As with the others, the Finns had their own church congregations. The oldest congregations were formed already in the eighteen-sixties and eighteen-seventies. The temperance movement began to gain a foothold among the Finns during the eighteen-eighties, and right up to the first world war, it was an important organization to the Finnish immigrants. From 1905, on, the labour movement began to attain a position as the strongest organization.

Left-wing parties have been very small in the United States. The result of this was that the small Finnish immigrant group was able to attain quite a significant position in American left-wing parties. Accordingly for quite a long time Finns formed the largest nationality group in the Socialist Party of the United States, and when the communist movement was formed at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties, at one occasion, about half of its membership consisted of Finnish immigrants. What then caused the bloom of left-wing radicalism among the Finns? The roots were in Finland as well as in the United States. The significance of the socialist leaders, who fled the oppressive activities of the Russians, may have been quite great. The new Finnish-American labour movement received competent leaders as if by order. Also, the fact that a fair number of Finnish immigrants arriving in America were cottagers who had already, to some extent, become involved with the labour movement in Finland, laid foundation for the Finnish-American labour movement. Perhaps most important, however, was the fact that the Finns as "new" immigrants already quite early were discriminated against and became labelled at their places of work in America. Since the Finnish level of education was quite high compared to that of other "new" immigrants, they had the advantage of reacting more powerfully than the other "new" immigrant groups, whose ability to organize was hampered by the lack of the ability to read and write. In this way, the Finns became for a time the largest radical immigrant group in America.

The Finnish language differs greatly from the English language. This may be why the Finns were slower to assimilate than other West European immigrants. Time, however, has now performed its task.. Only remnant amounts remain of the Finnish immigrants who have come to America. The majority of these spend their retirement in a few localities in Florida. There are no temperance societies, and the labour movement activity has already consisted for some time now only of keeping alive the long time Finnish published labour movement newspapers. Many of the Finnish congregations are still operating, but Finnish language services are becoming a rarity. The once vital Finnish press is only a shadow of its former self. The speaking of the Finnish language is heard less and less frequently.

Probably the remaining immigrants regard with bitterness the slow disappearance of their own national culture and how only a few Finnish place-names, surnames and the sauna, which the Finnish immi grants brought with them, remain to tell of the Finnish heritage. Although little remains behind, there may be no reason for too much pessimism. The United States could not be made German, Swedish or Finnish, but each immigrant group has still participated in forming the American culture which is not really the sum of all immigrant cultures brought to America, but it has grown into one from the basis laid by tens of immigrant groups.

Deutsche Zusammenfassung

Finnische Einwanderer in den Vereinigten Staaten

Um die Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts setzte die große Auswanderungswelle aus Europa nach den Vereinigten Staaten ein. Sie hat auch so manchen finnischen Seemann bewogen, dort Gold und Glück zu suchen. Sie dürften nicht die ersten Finnen auf dem neuen Kontinent gewesen sein. Als Schweden 1638 ähnlich wie andere europäische Mächte eine Kolonie an der Ostküste gründete, mögen unter diesen Kolonisatoren auch einige Finnen gewesen sein, aber näheres darüber wissen wir nicht.

Die finnische Auswanderung nach Amerika von 1850 bis 1930 vollzog sich in Wellen, die im wesentlichen durch die Wirtschaftslage in den Vereinigten Staaten bestimmt war. Trat dort eine größere Flaute ein, dann konnte die Zahl der enttäuschten Rückwanderer sogar größer sein als die Zahl der auswandernden Glückssucher. Ihren Höhepunkt erreichte die finnische Auswanderung allerdings aus einem anderen Grunde. Finnland gehörte bis zum 1. Weltkrieg zum russischen Reiche. Als die Zaren dem Lande im Widerspruch zu früheren Verträgen das russische Rekrutierungssystem aufzwingen wollten, verließen rund 23000 junge Finnen ihre Heimat.

Alles in allem sind bis 1930, als die Einwanderung nach den USA durch Kontingentierung gedrosselt wurde, rund 350000 finnische Staatsburger ausgewandert, davon 300000 nach den USA. Was waren das fur Leute, abgesehen von den erwähnten Wehrpflichtsverweigerern? Zu über 90 % waren es mittellose Landarbeiter, die sich nach einem Eigenbesitz sehnten. Diese Männer, - Frauen wanderten verhältnismäßig wenige aus, - stammten meist aus dem mittleren and nördlichen Finnland. In den südlichen Landesteilen mit ihrer vielfach schwedischen Küstenbevölkerung konnten Seefahrt and eine Reihe gröfierer Ortschaften die Mehrzahl der Arbeitslosen aufnehmen.

Die meisten finnischen Einwanderer kamen verhältnismäßig spät nach Amerika, als die besten Ländereien im mittleren Westen schon vergeben waren. Deshalb gingen viele von ihnen in die Industrie oder auch in die Waldwirtschaft, die zwar keine so gunstige Aufstiegsmöglichkeiten bot, dafür aber den meisten von der Heimat her vertraut war.

Wie andere Volksgruppen gründeten auch die Finnen ihre eigenen Kirchgemeinden sowie Vereine zur gegenseitigen Unterstützung. Politisch fühlten sie sich vielfach zu den Linksparteien hingezogen. Um 1920 bestand die an sich nicht sehr bedeutende kommunistische Partei in den Staaten fast zur Hälfte aus Finnen.

Wie kam das?

Politisch Links-Stehende waren zur Zarenzeit in Finnland am stärksten den Verfolgungen durch die russischen Behörden ausgesetzt. Aber auch in den USA waren sie nicht besonders willkommen. Andererseits standen die Finnen bildungsmäßig auf einem höheren Niveau als viele andere Einwanderer, die häufig nicht einmal lesen and schreiben konnten. So gewannen sie zwar einen gewissen Einfluß in lokalen Organisationen, blieben aber Outsider.

Ein weiterer Grund fur die Isolierung der finnischen Einwanderer lag in ihrer Sprache. Sie hatten es schwerer als Deutsche and Skandinavier, sich anzugleichen. Deshalb konnten sich z. B. in Florida lange Zeit einige in finnisch gedruckte Arbeiterzeitungen halten. Heute durften finnische Periodica nicht mehr vorhanden sein.

1930 erreichte die finnische Auswanderung nach USA mit der Festlegung bestimmter Quoten für die einzelnen nationalen Gruppen praktisch ihr Ende. Von einigen Namen abgesehen ist es eigentlich nur noch die Sauna, die an die finnischen Einwanderer erinnert. Es kommt aber weniger darauf an, nationale Besonderheiten in den USA zu erhalten, als vielmehr darauf, daß jede Nation etwas zur Formung.der immer noch in der Entwicklung begriffenen amerikanischen Kultur beiträgt. Und das haben auch die Finnen getan.

Published in Mare Balticum. Die Ostsee - Brücke der Völker. Sonderausgabe anläßlich des 200jährigen Bestehens der vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, 1976, p. 27-29.

© Reino Kero

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