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A New Wilderness: The Arrival of Finnish Immigrants in the New World A New Wilderness: The Arrival of Finnish Immigrants in the New World

“They came with eager eyes and

backs and hands to work the land

and down the trees, never forgetting

the placid wood and clearings of Finland

where many surely left their hearts” (Lamppa).

In the late 19th and early 20th century the Finnish people were experiencing many difficulties in their native land. The promise of a better life in a new world prompted a huge exodus to America and Canada. There, the immigrants found freedom and prosperity, but not without a fair share of heartache and hard work. It is never easy to leave behind loved ones, to learn a new language, learn a new culture—but these immigrants were known for their stubbornness and, despite the difficulties, they create a new Finland for themselves, in the New World.

In the late 19th century Finland was controlled by Russia. Under Alexander III the Russians had occupied Finland and began to forcibly enlist the Finnish men into the Russian army to “…fight against the Muslims in the south or the Japanese in the east” (Doan 17). Rather than fight for the hated Russians, the Finns began to flee their country for other lands such as America and Canada. Also a factor was religion. The Orthodox Russians did not care for the Finns Lutheran religion and thought less of the Fins because of it. When the Fins began to hear of the iron discovered in America and the need for men to work the mines, they began to think of a better way of life—one without Russian soldiers and backbreaking days farming the land with little yield.

The Finns encountered an entirely ‘new world’ upon coming to America and Canada. Many settled in Minnesota, where the climate was at least similar to the one in which they had left behind in Finland. In the New World, the Finns found freedom from their Russian persecutors and the poverty of farming. But they also found a slavery of another kind. Most of those who arrived in Minnesota, for example, went to work in the mines. “The Finns had a reputation in the mines for hard work, putting in long hours and facing difficult and dangerous situations. Sometimes this worked against them” (Doan 27). While the men were able to make good money and send some home to Finland, they faced death on a daily basis. “The superintendents often got the Finnish miners to build the walls (of the mine) because of the skill with wood they had gained in the old country” (Doan 27). The reality of the immigrant’s situation was that they felt they were still better off in the New World.

Another hurdle for the immigrants to overcome was the language. In Saint Croix Avenue, one of the characters departing Finland for America hears spoken English for the first time, “It sounded awful,” he thinks (Lemberg 57). Some of the Finns knew a little English but most had to learn this new, harsh sounding language. Poet Nancy Mattson captures the experience of learning a new language and a new culture in the poem Kanadalainen, which means Canadian.

To have left behind the language,

That flowed like spring water

The easy seepage of fresh words every hour

To have come to a land

Of thorough drought

With a dry tongue

To have believed the words

Would ever flow together

Into sentences (stanzas 1-2, 6)

In addition to overcoming language barriers the Finns must learn to fit themselves into an alien society. Some Finns overcame the negative aspects of the immigration and acculturation experience by integrating themselves into their new society. But the majority chose to remove themselves to self-made societies of all Finnish immigrants. “The Finns formed their own little world, a kind of society within a society” (Lemberg 61). One example of this is Sointula. Made up entirely of Finnish immigrants, Sointula was an experimental commune where everyone was treated equally. The experiment floundered and even failed at one point, but today it is a thriving community of Finns and other’s seeking to remove themselves from the main society.

The descendants of the immigrants find themselves, for the most part, feeling displaced. They have been forced to forgo learning the Finnish language in favor of the English language. Thus they cannot even learn the stories of their parent’s culture in the native tongue. They cannot speak to their relatives, those who refused to learn English or those who came later and have not yet learned English. “But there would be tears/running down her cheeks,/for I knew no more of her language that that./She knew no more of mine (Gerberick 77).

Despite the lack of knowledge in the Finnish language, the descendants of the immigrants still hold onto their ancestors’ culture—they have learned the traditions of the old world from their parents and grandparents through day to day living. The traditions of the Old World continue throughout the generations through stories, food, and, of course, the sauna—that traditional ritual of bathing that every Finn values.

Works Cited

Doan, James. “Crossing the Finnish Line.” 2002. Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. – Finnish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Gerberick, Marlene Ekola. “On Language and Grandma Ekola.” Sampo: The Magic Mill. Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. – Finnish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Lamppa, William. “Finns of the North Country.” Sampo: The Magic Mill. Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. – Finnish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Mattson, Nancy. “Kanadalainen.” Sampo: The Magic Mill. Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. – Finnish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003. 105.

Karvonen, Albert. “The People of Sointula.” Karvonen Films. 2001



K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006

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