Finnish Immigrants

People from Finland first began arriving in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. After the American Civil War migration to the United States increased rapidly. The main reasons for leaving Finland included unemployment and low wages. Another problem was that there was not enough land to divide the farms to the younger members of the family. Others left because they wanted to avoid military service in the Russian Army.

The Finns tended to settle in those parts of America which were geographically most similar to their homeland. This usually meant Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Significant numbers worked in the copper mines at Calumet, Michigan and the granite quarries of Quincy, Massachusetts. Detroit was another popular destination for Finnish people.

Over half of all Finns that arrived in the United States lived in rural areas. It was claimed you could always tell a farm owned by a immigrant from Finland because of its buildings. This included a traditional bathhouse and its distinctively-shaped hay barn.

Most Finnish settlers were Lutherans and tended to hold progressive political views. Finns were active in trade unions and the early socialist movement in the United States.

Emigration reached its peak in 1902 when 23,000 Finns arrived in America. By 1920 there was 273,000 people from Finland in the United States. This meant that this group constituted only about 1.1 per cent of the total foreign-born population in the country. Several talented artists and performers from Finland have moved to the United States since the war including the film directors, Renny Harlin and Aki Kaurismaki and the classical composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.

An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 33,000 people emigrated to the United States from Finland. This amounted to 0.1 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Primary Sources

(1) Carl Wittke, We Who Built America (1939)

The Finn has demonstrated many qualities that make a desirable pioneer. Like his Scandinavian neighbors in the West, he is preserving, tenacious and thrifty. He has come to America to stay and is generally eager to complete the naturalization process as soon as possible. He appreciates public education and, in the Northwest, has been called "the backbone of the night school." Politically, the Finnish-American has been a progressive, and a large percentage of Finnish workers are ardent Laborites and Socialists.

(2) S. P. Orth, Our Foreigners (1921)

It is the consensus of opinion among competent observers that Scandinavians have been the most useful of the recent great additions to the American race. They were particularly fitted by nature for the conquest of the great area which they have brought under subjugation. Above all, the Scandinavian has never looked upon himself as an exile. From the first, he has considered himself an American.