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The Finns in the United States: The Project on Finnish Immigration of the Michigan Historical Collections

Keijo Virtanen

I. The Finns in the United States
II. Selected America Letters
III. Resources on Finnish Immigration at the Michigan Historical Collections

I. The Finns in the United States

Finnish emigration to countries overseas began as a mass movement in the latter part of the 19th century. Compared to similar movements in other Scandinavian countries it was a late phenomenon. By 1930 the flow of emigration had taken approximately 350,000 Finns. After that date overseas emigration was modest. The main part of the Finnish emigration was directed to North America, especially to the United States. Canada became more attractive only in the 1920s when the United Slates adopted a quota system to restrict immigration. Some emigrants also went to Australia, South America, and Africa, but they were few compared with those who caught "America fever".

Finns comprised only a small fraction of the total number of Europeans leaving for America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but in certain areas of the United States Finnish influence was important. For example, according to a recent study made at Northern Michigan University, the language of Finnish-Arnericans has had an effect on the English used in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. From the point-ofview of the motherland, moreover, the departure of the emigrants was of profound significance. Finland's population reached three million only a few years before World War I. Thus the outward flow of one-third million emigrants, most of whom were in their most productive working years, was certainly .mrajor loss for Finland. The home country, however, was simply not able to offer reasonable living conditions for its entire population.

Emigration from Finland was fostered mainly by economic factors. In the latter part of the last century most Finns lived in rural areas where opportunities for improving one's economic condition were very limited. An important reason for this fact was the practice whereby the eldest son usually inherited the farm from his parents, leaving the other children to make their living somewhere else. In the eastern parts of the country, particularly, there was a large landless population. Many of the surplus rural residents moved froth the farms to cities and towns within Finland; others chose to leave for America. That area known as "Emigration Finland" consisted of the coastal areas of western Finland, from northern Satakunta province in the South to the northern ends of the Gulf of Ostrobothnia in the North. In other parts of Finland, emigration abroad was less significant; moving to the Finnish industrial regions was far to more common.

For Finland as a whole, emigration was heaviest during the first decade of the 20th century. The peak year was 1902 when more than 23,000 Finns left the country. There is no doubt that most emigrants planned to come back in a few years after they had improved their economic situation in the new land. Quite typical was the emigrant who told his relatives that he would come back as soon as "the pockets [were] full of money". Of the 350,000 Finns who went to "seek gold" in America, however, only about one-fifth returned permanently to the old country. More than half of those returned emigrants spent less than five years overseas.

Most Finnish immigrants thus stayed the rest of their lives in their new land, even though the original plan was only to make a long working trip. Some had come to America with their families, or other families had followed them a little later. This naturally eased the process of adjustment. With the possibilities for earning a living much better in America than in Finland at the turn of the century, the immigrant began feel that there was no reason to return. He remembered his life in Finland, and that life had been the primary reason for his leaving in the first place. He knew of no change in conditions in Finland that would tempt him to go back.

Like other immigrant groups, the Finns faced problems of to adapting to their new environment. The English language, for example, was unfamiliar to most of them, making communication with other Americans difficult. Finns therefore often settled in close proximity to one another, with some communities so heavily Finnish that it was not necessary to know any English in order to get along. The names of places like Kaleva, Toivola, only Nisula, Elo, Esko, Savo, Pelto, and Finland all speak to the desire of the Finns to get together in the United States.

Life in the Finnish-American communities revolved around a variety of ethnic activities and organizations. It can be said that the Finnish immigrants created a whole new culture which had ingredients both from Finland and from America. The language of this culture was "fingliska", which still is alive. In the larger towns there might be three or four Finnish Lutheran churches at the same time - even in one block. Labor and temperance societies also played an important role in the cultural the life of the Finns, as did dramatic groups, entertainment committees, sewing circles and various societies designed specifically to keep alive the Finnish national heritage. These Finnish organizations numbered in the hundreds, and many of them are still active.

The most important Finnish-populated areas in the United States were in the northern portions of the country. According to the Census of 1930, Michigan had more Finns than any other state (about 74,000 first and second generation). Other important "Finnish" states were Minnesota (60,000), New York (27,000), Massachusetts (26,000), Washington (22,000), California (16,000), Wisconsin (14,000), Ohio (12,000), and Oregon (12,000).

Michigan was and still is the number one state in America for the Finns. Many were drawn there by job opportunities in the Upper Peninsula. The first Finns came to the Copper Country of Michigan in the 1860s, imported by one of the large mining companies operating there. After the first Finns settled they encouraged their friends and relatives to come. Thus the Finn, who had never been a miner, became one in the United States. This was not only the case in Michigan but in other states as well, most notably Minnesota. No other nationality, it has been said, ever dug so much iron from American soil. From the copper mines of Houghton and Keweenaw counties the Finnish population spread to outer parts of the Upper Peninsula like the iron districts in Marquette County and along the Gogebic Range.

Finns tended to follow the same occupations wherever they settled in the northern states. As already noted, most Finnish immigrants came from rural areas in Finland, and not surprisingly in Michigan (and in other states) they often returned to farm life after a couple of years in the mines. When they had earned enough money to buy a small piece of land, in many cases they did so. They had always dreamed of owning a farm some day and if it was possible now, they did not hesitate to invest their money even though the farm land in Upper Michigan was often quite poor. A land agent once said that "the only language the stumps understand in Upper Michigan, is the the Finnish language".

The Finns also worked as lumbermen in Lower and Upper Michigan. Just as was true for the miners, many lumbermen after a couple of years bought a piece of land and started to run farms. The Finns in Michigan followed other occupations as well: in construction, harlbors, factories, fishing, etc., but these were not as important as mining, farming, and lumbering. Of special interest in the study of the Finnish population in Lower Michigan is the automobile industry. The Detroit area still is the most heavily populated Finnish region in tire Lower Peninsula. It has been estimated that there are stow about 30,000 Finns or their descendants in and around Detroit. The Finnish population began to grow during the second decade of the twentieth century, as the automobile industry expanded, and when at the same time there were strikes in the northern Michigan mining towns. Finns moving to Detroit from the northern counties, then, rather than newcomers directly from Finland, comprised the bulk of the city's burgeoning Finnish population. In 1900 there were only 15 Finns living in Detroit; by 1917 there were 3,000 and by 1938, approximately 15,000.

As the natural consequence of the end of mass immigration the number of Finns in the United States has decreased significantly. There were about 60,000 first-generation Finns in the United States in 1960 but in 1970 only about 45,000. The Census of 1970 classified 200,000 persons as Finns. Their states of residence were still about the sarne as some 50 years earlier. The most significant change since World War II has been a stream of Finns moving from the northern parts of the country to Florida. In 1970 there were already more than 6,600 Finns living there, and their number is increasing.

Although many aspects of Finnish life have disappeared or been diluted, second and third generation Finns try to maintain the vitality of their culture. A Marquette, Michigan television station broadcasts a weekly Finnish program on Sunday mornings, and some universities in Canada and the United States offer courses in Finnish. Finns also preserve many of their religious and secular groups even though the language in use in these congregations and societies is English. A good example of the activities of Finnish-Americans is the Finnish Cultural Center in Detroit which was dedicated in September, 1974. The Finnish Center Association drew upon contributions from its 1,400 members to underwrite its $250,000 cost.

Also helpful in maintaining the Finnish-American identity are the newspapers that are published in the United States in Finnish. Over the years the Finns have issued more than 100 newspapers. At the moment there are only five left, one of them devoted primarily to the interests of women. Of the five papers two are published in Wisconsin, one in Minnesota, one in Massachusetts and one in New York. Their total circulation is quite low, only about 17,000 in 1972.

Michigan has the only Finnish institution for higher education, Suomi College in Hancock. Even though many of its students are not Finnish by descent, Suomi can still be identified as a Finnish institution. First, it is located in an area where the Finnish population is heavy. Second, Finnish language and history are still among the subjects studied. And third, the college owns an important collection of materials, manuscript and printed, on Finnish immigration. This collection has been gathered by Dr. Armas K. E. Holmio, the author of Michiganin suomalaisten historia [The History of the Finns in Michigan]. Suomi College was founded in 1896, first as an ordinary school. In 1904 it became a training college for Lutheran clergy. It is now a junior college affiliated with the Lutheran Church in America.

During the last decade scholars have turned increasingly to migration studies. In the destination countries of the immigrants, particularly the United States, various ethnic groups have begun to place more emphasis on their backgrounds. At the same time, historians, sociologists and anthropologists have taken a second look at the so-called melting-pot theory and have discovered that even after many generations, ethnic groups in the United States frequently retain a large measure of their individual identities. Emigration also had very important consequences for the countries of origin, including Finland, as noted earlier. These factors have stimulated scholarship on migration topics both in the mother countries and in the lands of destination.

In Finland a project on Finnish overseas emigration was started in 1963 at the Institute of General History, University of Turku, under the leadership of Professor Vilho Niitemaa. In 1964 and 1966 tire Institute collected letters that had been sent mainly from North America. In 1968, 1969 and 1974 questionnaires were sent to Finnish-Americans and also to returned emigrants. Since 1970 the institute also has collected materials directly from North America. This material is mainly on microfilm and includes the records of Finnish-American parishes, labor groups, temperance and other societies. Scholars from the Institute of General History have studied at universities in the destination countries, thereby developing good contacts with scholars in the United States. Using the collected materials at Turku researchers there have already completed several studies, with more comprehensive works to appear during the next ten years.

During recent years American and Canadian universities have also "found" the Finnish immigrants. They have begun to collect research materials in cooperation with the University of Turku. In the United States two institutions especially should be mentioned: the Bentley Historical Library/Michigan Historical Collections at the University of Michigan and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. These institutions already have assembled important collections of materials on Finnish immigrants (selected materials from the Michigan Historical Collections will be presented in Chapter II). The Bentley Historical Library/Michigan Historical Collections, moreover, has received a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to survey European sources for immigrants from Finland and three other countries: Poland, Ireland and the Netherlands. The Institute at Turku and both American universities have exchanged materials and also students.

A visible result of the cooperation between Finnish and American scholars was the conference "The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives", held in Duluth, Minnesota in 1974. Sixteen scholars from Finland and the United States presented papers which were published in 1975.

For the future, immigration specialists can anticipate increasingly fruitful research efforts growing out of the collecting programs of Finnish and American institutions and the continued cooperation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The important and colorful history of the Finnish immigrants - and of other ethnic groups as well - will thus be preserved and written with the competence it deserves.

Published in Michigan Historical Collections. Bulletin No. 26, June 1976, 25 p.

© Keijo Virtanen

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