The Finns in America
This presentation provides information about immigration from Finland to
the United States, and about the activities of Finnish-American immigrants
in the United States from the 17th to the 20th centuries.
Information is contained in a chronology and selected bibliography.
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Finns, as subjects of the Swedish Crown, were included in Sweden's seventeenth
century effort to gain a New World foothold in the Delaware
Valley. It is estimated that about half of the approximately one thousand
colonists in "New Sweden" were either Finns who had first settled in
Värmland, Sweden, or who came directly from Finland. The colonizing
effort was initiated by the Dutch-Swedish New Sweden Company, and led
by the German-born Peter Minuit. The Company Board included a Finnish
admiral, Klaus Fleming.
Two ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fågel Grip, set sail
for the New World in 1637. They arrived in 1638, and the
colonists purchased land from the native Americans to build
Fort Christina, named after the Swedish queen. In 1655 Dutch
colonists took over the small settlement. The year 1664 saw
both the arrival of a final contingent of 140 Finns, and
the change of ownership of the area from the Dutch to the
The memory of the early Finnish settlement lived on in place names near
the Delaware River such as Finland (Marcus Hook), Nya Vasa, Nya Korsholm,
Tornea, Lapland, Finns Point and Mullica. Several authors have suggested
that the log cabin was a Finnish contribution to the New World, and that
John Morton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was a
descendant of the Värmland Finnish Marttinen/Mårtenson family.
The Finnish scholar Pehr (Pietari) Kalm toured North America exploring
areas of what are now the United States and Canada. He was one of the
first Europeans on the continent to visit Niagara Falls. Kalm's findings
were published in the work En resa til Norra America (Journey
to North America) which was subsequently translated into several languages.
The well known Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, Kalm's mentor, named a
plant genus kalmia in honor of his distinguished student.
Possibly the first Finn to have reached Alaska was a carpenter, Aleksanteri
Kuparinen, who accompanied a group of Russian Orthodox monks locating on
Kodiak Island in 1794.
After Finland came under Russian rule in 1809, a number of Finnish sailors
and craftsmen found employment in Alaska, at the other geographic extreme
of the Russian empire from Finland. Of the approximately 500 Europeans living
in Sitka in mid-nineteenth century, the majority were Russians, Finns and
Balts. Many took Aleut wives. A number of Finnish professionals, including
clergymen, academics and prospecting engineers, visited Alaska for periods
of time, while those in more menial occupations lacked the means to return
and remained in Alaska even after it was sold to the United States in 1867.
Two Finns in particular left their mark on the North American continent
as chief managers of the Russian-American Company: Arvid Adolf Etholén
and Johan Hampus Furuhjelm. Etholén first reached Sitka in the service
of the Russian-American Company in 1818, rising to chief manager of the Company
1840-1845. The name Etolin, based on the Russian version of Etholén's
name, "Adolf Karlovich Etolin," can be found in several places on the map
of Alaska. The Etholén collection in the National Museum of Finland
contains a number of remarkable Alaskan ethnographic items.
Johan Hampus Furuhjelm served as Governor of the Russian-American Company
from 1859 to 1864 and retired with the rank of vice admiral. In 1935 the
United States Forest Service named Mount Furuhjelm after him.
Immigration from Finland to the United States started as a trickle consisting
mainly of sailors who saw the opportunity to settle down. Documents show
that sailors William Lundell and Carl Sjödahl left their respective
ships to farm in the United States, Lundell in Massachusetts, and Sjödahl
in Alabama where the latter achieved remarkable prosperity under his new
name, Charles Linn.
Eventually, hundreds of Finnish sailors were on record as having abandoned
their ships tempted by California gold, and life in such big cities as New
York and Boston. Edward Kohn, a sailor from Turku smitten with California
gold fever, was possibly the first in his profession to take the official
route by actually applying for a passport in 1849.
Emigration from Finland to the United States has been documented
through Finnish passport applications and parish records. Small groups
of Finns arrived in Minnesota via Norway in 1864. Around this time
Michigan copper mining companies sent agents to recruit Finns living
in Northern Norway. Their job prospects encouraged others to follow
suit. Carl Sjödahl, the former sailor, led 53 emigrants from
Uusimaa in Southern Finland to Alabama in 1869, and another group
left Vaasa Province in Western Finland in 1871.
In the 1870s, poor farming conditions contributed to substantial emigration
from Western Finland, notably from Tornio River Valley, Kalajoki, and the
areas around Kokkola, Vaasa and Kristiina. In the south, Turku was a gateway
to North America. Newspaper accounts of the United States as the land of
freedom, democracy, and equality further generated interest in emigration.
During the 1860s and 70s Finnish settlers were found in Cokato, New York
Mills, and Duluth, Minnesota, the latter subsequently known as the "Helsinki
of America." Michigan mining communities included Calumet, Hancock, Marquette,
Ishpeming, Negaunee and Ironwood. Farming communities were found in Nisula,
Kyrö, Watton-Covington and Kaleva. Between 1870 and 1920, approximately
340,000 Finns immigrated to the United States.
Transmitting the Finnish cultural heritage to the next generation was considered
a high priority among Finnish-Americans. The first Finnish-American newspaper, Amerikan
Suomalainen Lehti (America's Finnish Newspaper) was published by Antti
Muikku in Hancock, Michigan, 1876, the first of several hundred Finnish-American
papers. Amerikan Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (The American Finnish
Literature Society) was founded in Calumet, Michigan 1878, initially to publish
instructional material for children, as well as religious literature. In
general, Finnish immigrants were distinguished by their high literacy rate.
In the 1880s emigration was common from Finland's coastal areas,
particularly Ostrobothnia, as well as the Åland Islands, while
in the 1890s the idea of emigration also spread to the inland. Remarkably
accurate passenger lists were maintained by the Suomen Höyrylaiva
Osakeyhtiö, a Finnish shipping company which transported Finns
to England where they subsequently transferred to English or American
vessels. In the 1870s and 1880s about 40 percent of all Finnish-Americans
lived in Michigan, primarily working in mining and logging. Minnesota's
Mesabi Iron Range was another area providing substantial employment
for Finnish-Americans. Farming was another significant way in which
the immigrants made a living. Single young women often were employed
Emphasis on Finnish culture and literacy remained strong. It is estimated
that of the Finnish immigrants arriving between 1899 and 1910, 98 percent
were able to read, compared to the average immigrant literacy rate of 76
||The Lutheran Suomi (Finland) Synod was founded in 1890 with strong
ties to the Finnish Lutheran church. Suomi-College was established
in Hancock, Michigan in 1896 as a theological and teacher-training
seminary. The1962 merger of Suomi Synod into the Lutheran Church in
America and the decreasing percentage of Finnish-Americans attending
Suomi-College reflected the inevitable Americanization of Finnish immigrants|
The division between those Finnish-Americans with a more conservative, religious
orientation, and those with a more leftist and labor focus began in the 1890s.
Church life contrasted with labor activities which centered around the various
local meeting places, the "halls." The first and perhaps most noted of these
was Brooklyn's Imatra Hall which catered to the inhabitants of Brooklyn's "Finntown." The
history of the Finnish-American Workers' College illustrates the range of
immigrant loyalties. This institution, which was particularly active prior
to World War I, began as a seminary, but became progressively more labor-oriented
before closing in 1941.
The Finnish National Brotherhood, the Knights of Kaleva, was founded in
1898 to further Finnish culture in the United States.
||Finns were identified for the first time in the 1900 U.S. census,
which counted about 63,000 persons born in Finland. Of these, about
56,000 lived in Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey,
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and California. Almost a third of the
total, approximately 19,000, lived in Michigan. Inspired by the Finnish
national epic, the Kalevala, Kaleva was founded in southern
Michigan in the early 1900s and attracted hundreds of Finnish-American
This decade saw the founding of the Finnish cooperative colony, Redwood Valley, California (1912-1932), and the flowering of the Finnish cooperatives, particularly general stores in the Midwest.
The 1920 Census again showed that Michigan and Minnesota were home to largest
numbers of Finnish-Americans, with about 34 percent of the total United States
population born in Finland evenly divided between each state. Elsewhere,
Finnish-American settlements could be found in Oulu, Wisconsin; Frederick
(Savo), South Dakota; Waukegan and De Kalb, Illinois; and Ashtabula (Iloinen)
Harbor and Cleveland, Ohio. On the East Coast, Massachusetts quarries provided
employment, as did the industry and other businesses of Boston. New York
City was home to Finnish-Americans, particularly Brooklyn's 10,000-strong "Finntown." By
this time thousands of Finns also had settled in California, Washington and
Oregon. A distinct correlation could be found between the areas of emigration
in Finland and of immigration in the United States, as people from certain
Finnish localities preferred to settle in particular areas of the United
The Order of Runeberg was founded in 1920 by Swedish-speaking Finnish-Americans
of whom about 70,000 were estimated to have arrived in the United States
between 1880-1940. Johan Ludvig Runeberg was a well known Swedish-speaking
Finnish poet who, among other things, wrote the lyrics to the Finnish national
The first Finnish-American Congressman, Oscar J. Larson, an attorney from
Minnesota elected as a Republican, served in the Sixty-seventh and Sixty-eighth
Congresses 1921-1925. The year 1921 also saw the founding of a second Finnish-American
cooperative community in McKinnon, Georgia (1921-1966).
The last large wave of Finns immigrating to the U.S. came in 1923, numbering
Finnish-American runner Ville Ritola broke the world record for the 10,000
meter race winning four gold and two silver medals in the Paris Olympics,
1924. He won a gold and a silver medal in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics for
the 10,000 meter and 5,000 meter races, respectively.
Possibly the best-known Finnish-American organization, Suomi-Seura, was
founded in 1927 and proved particularly active in celebrating the 300th anniversary
of the Finnish settlement in Delaware, 1938.
Beginning in the 1920s, Finnish-American accordionist Viola Turpeinen won
acclaim for her performances and recordings. Together with Sylvia Pölsö,
fellow accordionist, the two attractive young women were a popular draw in
the Midwest. Viola Turpeinen's music was recorded for Victor and Columbia
in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s Turpeinen and her musician
husband William Syrjälä recorded for the Standard Phono Company.
In 1958, at the age of 49, Viola Turpeinen died of cancer in Lake Worth,
Florida where she had settled with her husband.
1930s to 1940s
Finnish-Americans provided aid as well as a number of volunteers to Finland
during the Winter War and World War II. The Finnish Relief Fund established
to provide civilian aid was headed by former President Herbert Hoover.
The architects, father and son, Eliel and Eero Saarinen became particularly
well known in the United States during these decades. Eliel Saarinen was
the first director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Eero Saarinen's most notable contribution is the design for the Jefferson
National Expansion Memorial, or "Gateway Arch to the West," in St. Louis, Missouri.
1950s to 1980s
St. Urho's Day, a Finnish-American celebration, began in Minnesota in the
1950s. This tongue-in-cheek event reflects the Finnish-American acculturation
process with a nod to St. Patrick's Day. St. Urho's Day is celebrated March
16, and is now recognized as a Finnish-American event throughout the United
States. Minnesotans Richard L. Mattson and Sulo Havumaki are credited for
initiating this celebration in 1956. The colors worn on St. Urho's Day, royal
purple and nile green, are in memory of the fictitious occasion on which
St. Urho ("St. Brave") supposedly chased away the grasshoppers threatening
Finland's grape harvest.
Lantana, Lake Worth and New Port Richey, Florida acquired popularity as
areas for Finnish settlement.
FinnFest USA, Inc. has been arranging annual FinnFests since 1983 to highlight
Finnish-American culture and heritage. FinnFest '88 at the University of
Delaware, Newark, Delaware had as its theme "350 years of Finns in the United
States" to observe the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Finnish settlers
to the site of present day Wilmington.
To observe the 350th anniversary of the Finnish settlement in Delaware,
a Joint Resolution of the 99th Congress, May 22, 1986 and a Presidential
Proclamation on September 17, 1987 designated 1988 as the "National Year
of Friendship with Finland."
1990 to Present
The groundbreaking for Salolampi Finnish Language Village was held in 1990.
This center for language learning is currently owned by Concordia College.
The 1992 Library of Congress Exhibition, Bearers of the Word: Finnish
Immigrant Literature in America 1876-1992, highlighted the continuation
of the Finnish literary tradition in the U.S.
Finnish American Societies with chapters in various localities include the
Finnish-American Historical Society, International Order of Runeberg, Finnish
American Heritage Society, and Finlandia Foundation which thrived for many
years under the patronage of Dr. Vaino Hoover (Huovinen).
Finnish-Americans count in their number the actresses Christine Lahti and
Jessica Lange, producer Renny Harlin, authors Jean Auel, Anselm Hollo, Stephen
Kuusisto and Tiina Nunnally, who is also known for her fine translations.
Gus Hall is the long-time leader of the U.S. Communist Party. Charles Wuorinen
is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer. Paul Kangas is best known from Nightly
Business Report on TV. Last but not least, Finnish names are often seen in
the National Hockey League.
Barnes, Mary Clark and Lemuel Call Barnes. The New America, a Study in Immigration . New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1913. E-Book
Engelberg, Rafael. Suomi ja Amerikan suomalaiset: keskinäinen yhteys ja sen rakentaminen. Helsinki: Suomi-Seura, r.y., 1944.
Engle, Eloise. The Finns in America. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Lerner Publications Company, 1977.
Hoglund, A. William. "Breaking With Religious Tradition: Finnish Immigrant
Workers and the Church, 1890-1915," For the Common Good: Finnish Immigrants and the Radical Response to Industrial America. Superior, Wisconsin:
Tyomies Society, 1977.
_________. Finnish Immigrants in America 1880-1920. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. The Scandinavian American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Ilmonen, Salomon. Amerikan Ensimäiset Suomalaiset eli Delawaren Siirtokunnan Historia. Hancock, Michigan: Suomalais-luteerilaisen kustannusliikkeen kirjapaino, 1916.
Jalkanen, Ralph J., ed. The Faith of the Finns: Historical Perspectives of the Finnish Lutheran Church in America. East Lansing: Michigan State
University Press, 1972.
_________, ed. The Finns in North America: A Social Symposium. Hancock, Michigan: Michigan State University Press for Suomi College, 1969.
Kalm, Pehr. Travels into North America; containing its natural history, and a circumstantial account of its plantations and agriculture in general,
with the civil, ecclesiastical and commercial state of the country, the
manners of the inhabitants, and several curious and important remarks on
various subjects. Translated by John Reinhold Forster. 2d ed. London:
T. Lowndes, 1772. E-Book
Karni, Michael G., ed. Finnish Diaspora II: United States. Toronto: The Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981.
_________, Olavi Koivukangas and Edward W. Laine, eds. Finns in North America: Proceedings of Finn Forum III. Turku, Finland: Institute
of Migration, 1988.
Kaups, Matti. "A Commentary Concerning the Legend of St. Urho in
Minnesota," Finnish Americana: A Journal of Finnish American History and Culture. Volume 7, 1986, pp. 13-17.
Kero, Reino, Auvo Kostiainen, Arja Pilli, and Keijo Virtanen. Suomen Siirtolaisuuden Historia, Osa I, II, III. Turku: Turun Yliopiston Historian laitos, Julkaisuja, 1986.
Korkiasaari, Jouni. Suomalaiset Maailmalla. Suomen siirtolaisuus ja ulkosuomalaiset entisajasta tähän päivään. Turku: Siirtolaisuusinstituutti,
Leary, James P. "The Legacy of Viola Turpeinen," Finnish Americana: a Journal of Finnish American History and Culture. Volume 8, 1990, pp.
Lehtonen, Jouko, ed. Pantiin Ritolaksi. Helsinki: Weilin & Göös, 1974.
Myhrman, Anders M. Memorabilia, "minnesskrift" of the International Order of Runeberg, 1898-1968. International Order of Runeberg, 1968.
Ross, Carl and Mariane Wargelin Brown, eds. Women Who Dared: The History of Finnish-American Women. St. Paul, Minnesota: Immigration
History Research Center, 1986.
Salolammen Sanomat. 10/98. Minneapolis: Salolampi Foundation, 1998.
Selvala, Robert W., ed. FinnFest USA: The First Decade 1982-1992. Owatonna, Minnesota: Finnfest USA, Inc., 1992.
Solsten, Eric and Sandra Meditz. Finland, A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1990. E-Book
Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
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21, 1788, and the Congress of the United States, from the First through
the One Hundredth Congresses, March 4, 1789, to January 3, 1989,inclusive.
Bicentennial edition. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing
Varjola, Pirjo. The Etholén Collection. The ethnographic Alaskan
collection of Adolf Etholén and his contemporaries in the
National Museum of Finland. Helsinki: National Board of Antiquities,
Virtanen, Keijo, Richard Impola, and Tapio Onnela. Finnish Literature in North America. Turku: Institute of History, Cultural History, University
of Turku, in association with the Finnish North American Literature Society
of Turku, 1994