Currently in Finland, like elsewhere in Europe, we’re hearing much about immigration and how challenging it is for new arrivals to integrate into society. Finns themselves, of course, have a long history of leaving Finland to live elsewhere. Sometimes, as refugees from war or famine, other times to simply try and make a better life for themselves and their families. One popular destination was the United States, so let’s take a quick look at how Finns fared in the New World and how well they settled into life far away from home.
The United States was built by way of cultural diversity, with its citizens coming from all over the world seeking a new start. Finnish immigrants were among the many settlers seeking a fresh beginning, and many Finns made the long journey to the USA throughout the past few centuries. While the majority settled in the Midwest, Finns ended up in all corners of the country. Compared to other nationalities, Finns were a relatively small immigration group. However, the story of Finnish immigration to the United States is an interesting one that goes back hundreds of years and is still reflected in cultures around the country today.
New Sweden was a Swedish colonizing effort that began in 1638 along the Delaware River in the Mid-Atlantic states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Along with other Nordic immigrants, Finns were a healthy percentage of these intrepid settlers. Many of the Finns who helped to populated New Sweden were so-called “Forest Finns,” who were originally from Finland but had settled in Sweden Proper and then moved on to the New World. New Sweden was taken over by the Dutch in 1655, and the Finns were more or less absorbed.
However, the Finns of New Sweden can lay claim to something that even today remains a symbol of the American pioneering spirit: the log cabin. That’s right, the Finns’ know-how in the forestry industry, building techniques, and, according to one C. A. Weslager, their “close attunement” with forests is the reason why log cabins were such a hit back in the day.
In addition to log cabins, New Sweden and its Finnish inhabitants gave the United States John Morton, who was one of the signers of Declaration of Independence. Morton was descended from Martti Marttinen (anglicized to Morton), an immigrant from Rautalampi, Finland.
Finnish immigration slowed down to a trickle for many years after the settlement at New Sweden. The next big wave of Finnish immigrants didn’t arrive until the early 19th century after Finland had crossed hands from Sweden to the Russian Empire. Finns, along with Russian fur traders (and monks), headed to Alaska. Many of them found work throughout the 1840s and 1850s as carpenters, sailors, miners, and craftsmen.
The Midwest is well-known for having the highest concentration of Finns in the United States. During the 1860s through the 1930s, Finns flocked to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, an area known as the Finn Hook. This huge influx is sometimes called the “Great Migration” and is the largest wave of Finnish immigrants in American history.
The majority of Finnish immigrants came from Ostrobothnia, due in part to a major crop failure that occurred in 1867. However, many people from Southern Finland and Lapland also made the long journey across the Atlantic.
In need of workers, Michigan mining companies actively recruited in Norway during the U.S. Civil War. Several Finns were among the recruits. These few Finns began something of an immigration snowball effect by writing letters to their relatives in Finland, describing the good wages and encouraging them to make the move. Aggressive Russification in Finland around the turn of the century was also a major contributor to Finnish immigration.
Finnish culture became a strong presence in the Midwest and elsewhere, with Finns setting up many schools, churches, political organizations, unions, and of course, saunas. Finnish involvement in unions earned them a bad reputation in the eyes of exploitative mining companies, with one company head even contacting the powers-that-be of Ellis Island with the statement “we do not want Finlanders.”
Despite being well-educated and highly literate, Finns faced quite a bit of discrimination. Many often struggled with learning English and were delegated to lower work positions. Their customs and religious beliefs were seen as strange and exotic, and other immigrants considered them to be clannish. The fact that Finns were a relatively “new” group in the U.S. also opened them up for discrimination by employers and other immigration groups who already had a stronger foothold in the country.
Finns faced racial discrimination, with many people using the Finnish language as “proof” that Finns were not European and thus fair game to be subject to unfair treatment. Some argued that Finns were Asian, meaning they should be barred from citizenship under the Asian Exclusion Act of the early 1900s. The word “Finlander” was used as a slur, along with “China Swede” and “roundhead.”
Like many other immigrant groups, Finns preferred to stick together, and many “Finntowns” cropped up around the country. One well-known example is the Finntown in Brooklyn, New York, which was home to roughly 20,000 Finnish immigrants in the 1920s. Located in the Sunset Park area, Brooklyn’s Finntown was a working class neighborhood that had many Finnish-language shops, as well as the oldest nonprofit co-op housing complexes in the United States.
These days, Americans with Finnish ancestry are a small percentage, making up only 0.2% of the United States’ population. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has the greatest concentration of Finnish Americans, at 16%. Most Finnish immigrants eventually assimilated into American culture, but Finnish roots are still evident in various parts of the country, namely the Midwest. Place names, surnames, sauna culture, cuisine, holidays, and even the occasional sound of the Finnish language are modern remnants of the Finnish immigrants’ new home in the United States.
Finns migrated for many reasons and, just like today’s immigrants, they faced many challenges along the way, not least racism, mistrust about their religion and fear that their socialist ways represented a threat to American society. Yet, despite all this, they ended up making a huge contribution to their new country and, it’s clear, that the United States is a better place for it.