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Among the earliest of Finnish immigrants to Western America was one whose name is mentioned only sketchily in the annals of Oregon history. Seaman, prospector, Indian fighter, politician, businessman and diplomat - Gustaf Wilson of Finland was all these. As colorful as any Wild West character, his dignity and fair dealings eamed him a position of respect and honor.
He was born June 2, 1827, in the City of Oulu, Finland, the son of a seaman named Johan Hemmi who had traveled to America in about 1820, serving aboard a U.S. warship. In Oulu, among his friends, the son was known as Kustaa (Gustavus) Hemmilä. In 1842, at age 15, he too shipped out aboard a sailing vessel.
After about two years, young Hemmilä landed in America for the first time. Here he must have reached a decision-making turning point in his life, for he is reported to have deserted his ship and signed on board the American ship Albania. It was while employed thereon that he adopted the sumame WILSON. A companion from Saloinen, Finland - Jaakko Poikajoki - additionally changed his name, to Jacob WILSON. They were to share travels and experiences for the next several years.
In the winter of 1849-1850 their ship sailed via Cape Horn to Califomia, where in San Francisco Harbor the two Wilsons left ship and, following the lead of many others, hurried to the gold fields to try their luck. They searched California's rivers and streams, as well as the mountains of Nevada, sometimes prospecting on their own and at other times hiring out to miners who had previously found success in either placer or hardrock operations. For two years this pair of adventurous Finns prospected for gold, finding very little of the precious metal, but gaining in the perception that gold-mining is tough work, most often for little gain. Finally, "gold fever" lost its allure for the two and they worked their way to a part of the territory now known as Southern Oregon. (This was before statehood in 1859.)
In the summer of 1853 the Wilsons responded to a call for volunteers to quell an Indian rebellion taking place in the region. The two enlisted as privates with a regiment known as the Rogue River Volunteers, in the U.S. Army. This particular campaign was somewhat uneventful in what was to become known as the Rogue River Indian Wars of 1850-1856. The conflict stemmed principally from the outrage of the Klickitat Indians, who had been relocated from their tribal lands north of the Columbia River to the Rogue River area. There was also the opposition of the local natives to the prospectors, who by then were moving into the district from Califomia in search of new gold fields.
After only a month of service, with no serious engagement with the Indians, both Wilsons were discharged from military service. (This is substantiated by pension application papers in the archives of the Oregon Historical Society which detail the dates of Gustaf Wilson's service, and which indicate that he did receive a pension, years later, as compensation for his military service.)
About the time they were separated from the Army, Gustaf Wilson and Jacob Wilson reportedly went their separate ways. Of Jacob Wilson there is not much further to relate because he did not distinguish himself particularly. This may have been because he was known to be fond of liquor, and of gambling, and thus his earnings did not take him very far. He went to Astoria, Oregon, where, with other native Finns, he became a commercial fisherman. Later, he served as a watchman at the Customs House in Astoria.
Gustaf Wilson is said to have served again in the Army during 1855-1856, in a continued series of conflicts with the Indians. In that particular tour of duty he is noted as having conducted himself so admirably that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Following the Indian wars, Wilson was elected Coroner of Josephine County, an important post in an area given heavily to reckless behavior and gun-toting in the gold camps. In 1862 he was elected County Clerk for a four-year term.
Thereafter he moved to Portland, then little more than a rough riverside settlement - but growing rapidly. Recognizing the future potential of this locality, Wilson bought property in the then budding town and formed a business in the printing trade.
In 1870 he withdrew from business activity in Portland and moved to McMinnville, where he managed a flour mill. His investments in Portland real estate, meanwhile, began to prove exceedingly profitable.
On June 18, 1871, he was married in Portland to Mrs. Christine Wedeen, a Swedish immigrant ten years younger than he was. They lived in McMinnville for a time, but he later sold his interest in the flour mill and returned to Portland to manage his holdings there on a permanent basis. The Wilsons, adopted a daughter, Alice (born November 1873 in Oregon), who grew to adulthood and remained with her father for some years after her mother's death in 1881. (Gustaf was listed as a widower in the 1900 U.S. Census, Multnomah County, Portland, Oregon.)
Wilson was appointed Russian Vice-Consul in Oregon in 1883, at the direction of Czar Alexander III, most likely on the basis of his business acumen and experience in politics. Finland was at that time still a grand duchy of Russia, and by whatever means the Czar knew of Wilson, it was seen fit that he be chosen to counsel Finnish immigrants and sailors coming from the northern provinces. In his office as Vice-Consul he was to gain great trust, confidence and esteem for his honesty, treating everyone equally in business, and showing in all his dealings that he was fair and upright. At Wilson's direction, many a new Finnish arrival was put on the path toward homesteading available government lands in Oregon.
Unlike many Finnish immigrarts of the time, Wilson was proud of his Finnish origins. When offered the occasion to speak the Finnish language, he did so enthusiastically, speaking eloquently with sophistication unknown to most of his American-bom acquaintances. It was important to him that he represent Finland in the best light possible, and by virtue of his own character he filled the role of ambassador admirably, relishing any opportunity to impart a favorable impression of his homeland.
Wilson's name is mentioned also in connection with the formation of a national Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he having served as treasurer of the first Finnish American Missionary Society, formed in Astoria, Oregon, in 1888.
He retumed to Finland only once. During the summer of 1890 he made a retum visit to Oulu, the city of his birth, remaining there for several weeks. On the return trip he stopped in Helsinki, where he was met with accolades and a great measure of respect.
During a celebration at an Astoria festival in the summer of 1892, Consul Wilson was the Finnish director. Similarly, he enthusiastically took a leading part in the Finnish Day Exhibition in San Francisco in 1894, continuing a public life that extolled the virtues of Finland.
He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, following an extended illness, on September 21, 1905. He was 78 years of age.
Gustaf Wilson imparted great dignity and honor to being a Finn, entering the realm of history as Oregon's first Finnish consul, albeit under Russian authority.
Amerikan Suomalaisten Historia, by S. Ilmonen. 1919. "Suomalaisia Toimen ja
Pyrkimyksen Miehiä - Konsul Gustaf Wilson". Pages 92, 166.
Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, by Lancaster Pollard. 1946. Pages 129-130.
- September 22, 1905. "Death of Gustaf Wilson: Pioneer Passes Away at the Age of Seventy-Eight Years."
- February 1, 1959, "Oregon's First Famous Finn Becomes Russian Consul for State," by Walter Mattila.
Portrait and Biographical Record of Portland and Vicinity, Oregon. 1903. Pages 303-304.
Suomalaiset Amerikassa, by Akseli Järnefelt. 1899.
Suomi Conference Yearbook. 1994. "The Legendary Johan Wilhelm Eloheimo," by Rudolph Kemppainen. Page 163.
U.S. Federal Census, 1880 and 1900. Multnomah County, Portland, Oregon.
Published by Finnam
Newsletter, October 1999
© Merle A. Reinikka
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