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Finnish immigration to North America

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Title: Finnish immigration to North America  
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Subject: Finns, Finlandia University, Demographics of Prince Edward Island
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Finnish immigration to North America

Finland Finnish American United States

Matt Damon
Total population

700,000 Americans

0.2% of the US population
Regions with significant populations
Upper Peninsula of Michigan · Lake Worth · Minnesota
American English · Finnish
Related ethnic groups
Finnish people · Estonian Americans · Swedish Americans

Finnish Americans are Americans of Finnish descent, who currently number about 700.000.


Some Finns, like the ancestors of John Morton, came to the Swedish colony of New Sweden, that existed in mid-17th century.

Finns first started coming to the United States in large numbers in the late 19th century, and continued until the mid 20th century. However, there were some Finns in the United States beforehand; in particular, they were instrumental in the development of the New Sweden colony on the Delaware River, later absorbed into New Netherland. Many townships were established by Finnish Americans, including Herman, located in Baraga County, Michigan. The town is named for Herman Keranen, of Ylivieska, Finland. A significant number of Finnish immigrants also settled in northern Minnesota, especially in the Arrowhead Region, along with portions of Aitkin, Crow Wing, and Carlton counties, often working in the region's iron mines. A number of the Finns fleeing the Russification efforts also emigrated to many of the mill towns of New England where they became known for their woodworking skills.


The first Finnish immigrants to North America arrived to the New Sweden colony by the River Delaware in 1640. Finland was an integrated part of the Kingdom of Sweden at the time, and a Swedish colony in the New World was bound to include subjects from Finland as well. In two years' time, the number of Finns in the settlement had grown to fifty, and was increasing. New Sweden changed hands to Dutch control in 1655, but many Finns had already entered and the Finnish community, while small, was growing.

Among the Finnish settlers of New Sweden was Martti Marttinen, who came to North America in 1654 and changed his name to Morton. John Morton, the politician who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence on behalf of Pennsylvania in 1776, was his great-grandson.

Migration to North America from Finland continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was very sporadic in nature and only a few individuals and groups dared make the move. This was largely due to the long distance between Europe and America, and the difficulties associated with crossing it. However, as the Industrial Revolution began with the turn of the 19th century, bringing with it such technological innovations as railways and steam ships, these obstacles slowly began to disappear.

While the rest of Europe was industrializing, Finland, by now a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia, was to a great extent excluded from the revolutionary process. The society was largely agrarian, and unemployment was rising, resultant from population growth and the fact that there was now little land left to cultivate in the country. America, on the other hand, possessed abundant natural resources but lacked a work force. The agriculture of Finland during the 1860s seemed doomed to remain laborious, stunted, and forever at the mercy of unpredictable weather. In 1867, a severe crop failure in Finland drove masses of Finns, especially from rural Ostrobothnia, into migrating to Norway, from where they later moved to the United States and Canada.


The Laestadian Finns longed for a rural way of life and religious toleration which they believed they would find in America. So a group of Laestadian preachers and followers immigrated to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan bringing their beloved sermons. In 1873 the Finnish Laestadians started their own congregation at Calumet, Michigan. By 1906 the Laestadian movement in America resulted in 68 churches and a communicant body of over 8,000. Today the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America remains in Calumet, Michigan.

The Great Migration

The years between 1870 and 1930 are sometimes referred as 'the Great Migration' of Finns into North America. In the 1870s, there were only 3,000 migrants from Finland, but this figure was rapidly growing. New migrants often sent letters home, describing their life in the New World, and this encouraged more and more people to leave and try their luck in America. Rumors began of the acres of land that could be cleared into vast productive fields and the opportunity to earn "a barrel of American dollars" in mines, factories, and railroads. There were also professional recruiters, or 'agents', employed by mining and shipping companies, who encouraged Finns to move to the United States. This activity was frowned upon by the authorities of the Grand Duchy, and was mostly done in secret. It was eventually brought to an end in the late 1880s by legislation in the U.S., but the decade still saw a 12-fold increase in the number of Finnish migrants compared to the previous decade, as 36,000 Finns left their home country for North America.

The movement was strengthened even further in 1899, as the Russian government started an aggressive, coordinated campaign for the Russification of Finland. Many Finns chose to escape the repression by migrating into the New World, and, during the 1900s, there were 150,000 new migrants.

Most Finns who left for America came from the impoverished rural regions of Ostrobothnia. Other prominent points of departure were Northern Savonia and the Torne Valley. Many of the emigrants left by ship from the port town of Hanko.

In the years surrounding the turn of the 20th Century, settlement was focused around three specific regions:

  • Several pockets of Finnish settlement appeared in New England. New York City was the prime destination for scores of skilled and general laborers. Cities such as Fitchburg, Massachusetts and Monessen, Pennsylvania attracted thousands of Finns to settle in both urban and rural settings.
  • In the Upper Midwest, a similar pattern rapidly took shape. Due to the region's geographic and climatic features similar to Finland, the heaviest levels of Finnish Settlement were seen in an area known as the Finn Hook, which includes northeastern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Today, the region is known as having the highest population of Americans of Finnish ancestry of any region in the United States; in the northwestern half of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan they make up the plurality of population.
  • In addition, a number of rural and urban locations in the Northwestern United States contained a number of Finnish-settled areas. Cities such as Aberdeen, Washington and Astoria, Oregon were known for being prime destinations for Finnish immigrants.

The immigration of Finns gave birth to a strong Finnish American culture, especially in cities such as Duluth and Detroit, and many villages were named after places in Finland (such as Savo, South Dakota, and Oulu, Wisconsin).

The Finnish exodus took place after most of the available farmland in the U.S. was already taken and Canada's was largely still up for grabs. While many of them did pursue farming, many Finnish immigrants also received employment in mining, construction, and the forest industry, while the women usually worked as maids.

The migration continued well into the 20th century, until the U.S. authorities set up a quota of 529 Finnish immigrants per year in 1929. This reduced the flow somewhat, and as conditions in Finland improved, the flow effectively died down by the mid-20th century.


Most Finnish migrants had planned to stay only a few years in North America, and then to return to their native land once they had become rich. However, only about twenty percent of the migrants returned to Finland. Those who did managed to import new ideas and technologies into Finland and put them into use there.

Approximately ten thousand Finns returned from the New World, not to Finland but to the Soviet Union, in the 1920s and the 1930s to "build socialism" in the Karelian ASSR. This took place mainly for ideological reasons, and was strongly supported by the political elite of the USSR. However as the political climate changed and ethnic republics were seen as a threat to the future of the USSR, many of these immigrants were killed in the so-called Stalin's Purges in 1935-1938.[2]

There is a website of deceased people in the Sadromoh mass gravesite in Karelia, where one can read entries like "Mäki, Valter Valterovits, s.1907, Minnesota, USA; suomalainen; USA:sta 1931; kirvesmies; Uhtua, Kalevalan piiri; ammuttu 15.05.1938." - Mäki, Walter, son of Walter. Born in 1907, Minnesota USA; Finn; immigrated from USA in 1931; lumberjack; resident of Uhtua, Kaleva district; shot May 15, 1938".

Demographic concentrations

Today, the greatest concentration of Finnish Americans is in Michigan Upper Peninsula, where they form 16% of the population, and are the largest ancestral group in the peninsula's western counties.[3] The largest Finnish community in the United States, and the largest outside of Fennoscandia, is in Lake Worth, Florida, south of West Palm Beach, Florida. WLUC-TV in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, broadcasts the country's only Finnish cultural show weekly. The show called “Finland Calling” is hosted by Carl Pellonpaa and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on air in March 2012.[4] Stanton Township, Michigan is the place in the U.S. with the largest proportion of people with Finnish ancestry, at 47%.[5]

Famous Finnish Americans

John Morton

An early Ethnic Finn was John Morton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The original name of the family was Marttinen, of which Morton is an anglicized version. The Marttinen/Morton family came originally from Rautalampi municipality in the region of Northern Savonia, a province of Eastern Finland.

Eero Saarinen

Architect and product designer Eero Saarinen emigrated to United States in 1923 when he was thirteen years of age and grew up in Michigan. His father was architect Eliel Saarinen. He studied architecture at Yale University and graduated in 1934. After touring Europe and Africa for couple of years he returned to the States and became a citizen in 1940. During the Second World War Saarinen worked for Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Saarinen is famous for his furniture and architectural designs. His designs include the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) in St. Louis, Missouri, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and the main terminal of Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C..

Other notable individuals

Notable Americans of some Finnish descent also include several film stars such as actress Anna Easteden, actress Maila Nurmi, actor Matt Damon, actor George Gaynes, and also director David Lynch. Other notable individuals are author Jean M. Auel, historian Max Dimont, politician Emil Hurja, labor activist T-Bone Slim, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, U.S. Communist Party leader Gus Hall (originally Arvo Gustav Halberg), mathematician Lars Ahlfors, musicians Jaco Pastorius, computer scientists Linus Torvalds and Alfred Aho, co-founder of Apple Mike Markkula, astronaut Timothy L. Kopra, officer Larry Thorne, Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus, musician Einar Aaron Swan, ice hockey player Matt Niskanen and serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Porn actress Puma Swede is of Finnish descent although she lived her youth in Sweden.


An annual festival is held to celebrate Finnish heritage and culture in the United States. The festival is called FinnFest USA and is organized by a non-profit organization of the same name. Since 1983, FinnFest USA has been organized in a different location each year, often incorporating the regional cultural elements of the local site into the year's event. To date there have also been three FinnGrandFests, a collaboration between Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians: 2000 (Toronto, Ontario), 2005 (Marquette, Michigan) and 2010 (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) .

Finnish American culture is also celebrated at Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan, formerly Suomi College, which has been the only Finnish American institution of higher learning in the United States since the closing of Work People's College in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941. Finlandia was established by the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and is now affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

See also


Further reading

  • Hoglund, A. William. Finnish Immigrants in America, 1880–1920. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960)
  • Holli, Melvin and A. Kostiainen. Finnish Identity in America (1990, University of Turku)
  • Holmio, Armas K.E. History of the Finns in Michigan (2001)
  • Jalkanen, Ralph. The Faith of the Finns: Historical Perspectives on the Finnish Lutheran Church in America (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1972)
  • Kolehmainen, John I. (1945). "Finnish Overseas Emigration from Arctic Norway and Russia" Agricultural History, 19(4), 230-232.
  • Kivisto, Peter, and Johanna Leinonen. “Representing Race: Ongoing Uncertainties about Finnish American Racial Identity,” Journal of American Ethnic History (Fall 2011), 31#1 pp 11–33.
  • Ross, Carl. The Finn Factor in American Labor, Culture, and Society, 2nd edition. (New York Mills, Minnesota: Parta Printers, 1978)
  • Swedish Colonial Society (1996). Mårten Mårtensson and his Morton Family. Retrieved 6 September 2005.

Immigrant experiences

  • Beck, J. Robert. Well, Here We Are! The Hansons and the Becks. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2005. ISBN 059535725. A history of a Swedish-Finnish immigrant family.
  • Dloniak, Miriam Kaurala, and Diane M. Hohl. Miriam: Daughter of Finnish Immigrants. Denver, Col.: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2009. ISBN 1-4327-2294-8.

In Finnish

  • Heliölä, Mikko and Ruuskanen, Esa (2000). Suuri Amerikan-siirtolaisuus (1870 – 1930). Retrieved 6 September 2005.
  • Kauppi, Jorma J (2001). Suomalaisten siirtolaisuus Pohjois-Amerikkaan. Retrieved 6 September 2005.
  • Siirtolaisuus in the Finnish World Heritage Encyclopedia. Retrieved 6 September 2005.

External links

  • , a documentary film exploring traditional Finnish American culture
  • Finlandia University
  • Finnish American Genealogical Resource
  • Finnish American Virtual Museum
  • FinnFest USA An annual celebration of Finnish America
  • Finnish Americans
  • Finnish immigration to Michigan’s copper district
  • American Memory: | Scandinavian America
  • Site of first Finnish settlement in America
  • Records on approx. 25,000 passengers to USA from Finland between 1834 through 1897
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