Strangers in the Land: The Experience of the Immigrant Finns
Center for Immigration Studies and the Immigrant Archives
University of Minnesota

I'm going to America,
Everyone is on his way.
The American shores are sanded
With gold they say.

I'll embark from Hankoniemi
On a small boat and go,
'Cause Finland can't support
The children of her poor.

-Finnish Immigrant Ballad-

Between the years 1864 and 1920 about three hun­dred and fifty thousand children of Finland's poor set out for America. They followed in the footsteps of a few hundred of their countrymen who had come to New Sweden Colony on the Delaware in the 1630s. Unlike the Delaware Finns, who had long since disap­peared into American culture, the new Finnish immigrants did not quickly merge their identities with America. They would eventually accommodate them­selves to the ways of America, but only after a long period of adjustment. Meanwhile they developed their own thriving subculture, which included a communi­cation network designed to keep Finnish-Americans in touch with each other throughout the vast expanses of their new land.

This exhibit illustrates the nature of the Finnish subculture, especially as it was found between 1890 and 1930 in the western Great Lakes region. Repre­sentative publications are shown of some of the ninty­-three newspapers and three hundred and fifty period­icals established in America by the Finns. Books, documents, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials are also displayed, exemplifying Finnish­ American society and culture.

Finnish homestead family, St. Louis County, Minnesota, c. 1910.

"America fever" struck northern Finland in the 1860s when word came back that a group of Finnish miners were prospering in northern Michigan. Soon the exodus was on, in spite of the warnings of Finnish clerics and government officials that America was a sinkhole of vice and depravity which would lead the sons of Finland to moral ruin. By 1920, nearly one hundred fifty thousand Finns lived in the United States, spread mostly through the northern tier of states - especially in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minne­sota - where work was available in mining and lumber­ing, and where land was still inexpensive or available for homesteading.

Detail of typical Finnish log structure

They came to America because they knew from experience that one part of the ballad was true. Finland could not "support the children of her poor." Paradoxically, famines which afflicted the country in the 1860s and 1890s were followed by dramatic increases in the population of rural Finland. Still in its infancy, Finnish industry could not absorb the growing number of displaced young Finns from farming communities. To make matters worse, farming prac­tices changed and logging became more mechanized, leaving thousands of rural Finns without a future.

By 1900 forty-three percent of the rural population consisted of the dispossessed: dayworkers, landless tenants, and hired hands. They had little choice but to emigrate. They were accompanied by many young men eager to escape military service in the Czar's army and by political refugees from the repression attending the disintegration of the Russian Empire.

The children of the poor in America learned that the ballad was false in one respect. The shores were not "sanded with gold." They found instead that the streets of mining towns were covered only with the red dust from copper and iron ore. They also found a social atmosphere which was, at best, indifferent to their plight as unskilled strangers and, at worst, down­ right hostile to their presence. It was a society that soon stereotyped Finns as clannish, aggressive, drunken, and, because of their labor union activities in the mines and camps, as intractable workers.

As Finns developed an aversion to industrial life, they began a mass movement to the countryside to take up farming. In this respect, they were heeding the wisdom of their old proverb: Oma tupa, oma lupa, "When one has his own place, he is his own boss." By 1920 over half of the Finnish population had left the mines and camps to settle in their distinctive and finely-crafted log structures on farms in the Lake Superior cutover region. Minnesota alone had 4,700 Finnish farms, most of them adjacent to the iron ranges of the northeast.

In reaction to their own disappointment in America, the Finns banded together in associations designed both to educate themselves to America's ways and to remake America through collective action into the paradise which they had crossed the ocean to find. These organizations also served to maintain Finnish culture in America, and they gave rise to the publi­cations and artifacts in this exhibit.

Finnish organizations proliferated and flourished: there were church groups, temperance societies, work­ingmen's associations and cooperatives of all kinds (including mortuaries, boarding houses, and threshing cooperatives); gymnastic societies, fraternal orders, glee clubs and mixed choruses; debate societies, drama groups, reading circles and publishing associations. Of course, every group from the local temperance chapter to the local socialist club had women's guilds and youth leagues to serve as auxiliaries to the larger bodies - which in turn belonged to state, regional and national federations. All of the organizations conducted their business in the ubiquitous "Finn halls" which still dot the towns and countyside of all Finnish enclaves in the region. And all groups sponsored publishing networks to hold the groups together on a nationwide basis. In the 1920s, each Finnish household subscribed to an average of three Finnish language publications.

Socialist Opera House, Virginia, Minnesota

The above sketch of Finnish organizational life is misleading to the extent that it suggests an ethnic solidarity, a united group warding off the trauma of life in America, a group self-reliant and smug in its self-contained ethnic world. In fact, the contrary was true. The Finnish immigrant community structured itself roughly into three different factions which were often hostile toward each other: the so-called "Church Finns," those who paid allegiance to the Lutheran Church; the "Temperance" or "Dry Finns," those who actively sought prohibition on a national scale and who vacillated between support of the church and support of socialism; and the "Labor Finns," those who espoused one of several reform and revolutionary philosophies during the first four decades of the twentieth century. But even this breakdown is simplistic. The Church Finns warred constantly among themselves. One group, seeking to transplant and carry on the precepts of the State Church of Finland, formed the Suomi Synod and built Suomi Opisto ja Jumaluus Opillinen Seminaari (Suomi College and Seminary) in Hancock, Michigan. Another group, believing the Suomi Synod to be too authoritarian and episcopalian and wishing to follow a more democratic religious philosophy, eventually allied itself with the Missouri Synod. Still another group, consisting mostly of immigrants from northern Finland, eschewed both these paths as too liberal and too structured. They loosely federated themselves into what are called the Apostolic or Laestadian congregations and movements. The Apostolics are today split into at least four dif­ferent factions.

Finnish athletic club, Virginia, Minnesota, c. 1915

Men's cooperative rooming house (poika talo)

The Temperance Finns formed four different brotherhoods - their ideological conflicts centered mainly on whether the movement should be oriented toward strict church morality or toward secular social action. But despite several "peace con­ferences," they failed to find enough common ground to unite into one grand federation. Perhaps it was the Labor Finns who fought among themselves most bitterly. In twenty short years they managed to build a successful and locally powerful socialist organization and wreck it through ideological fragmentation over the issues of industrial unionism (IWW) and, later, com­munism.

Because of this wide range of beliefs and social philosophies, the Finns represent a true subculture. And like the dozens of other ethnic and racial subcultures which have thrived and continue to thrive in the United States, it slowly allowed itself to be reshaped by conditions in America. The Immigrant Archives of the University of Minnesota Libraries houses col­lections pertaining to twenty-two ethnolinguistic groups which, like the Finns, came to America expecting to find her "shores sanded with gold."

Michael G. Karni
Center for Immigration Studies

An Exhibit
February - April 1974
0. Meredith Wilson Library

Presented in cooperation with
The Minnesota Finnish-American Historical Society
(Twin Cities Area Chapter, and member of the
International Institute of Minnesota)