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Finns in America: A Chronology

Finns in America: A Chronology


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 English.

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.

Peter Kalm. Travels into North America. 1770-71. Library of Congress Rare Book & Special Collections.
Peter Kalm. Travels into North America. 1770-71. Library of Congress Rare Book & Special Collections.


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.

Thomas Dowse. A view of Duluth, Minnesota; looking waterward; taken December, 1870. 1870. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.


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 an additional significant way in which the immigrants made a living. Single young women often were employed as domestics.

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 percent.

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. The 1962 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, the town of Kaleva was founded in northern Michigan in the early 1900s and attracted hundreds of Finnish-American residents.


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 States.

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 anthem.

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).

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 in 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.