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A Rough, Non-Scholarly Remembrance and Commentary on my Swede-Finn Ancestors - by Jim Bailey

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by Jim Bailey
Greenfield, Indiana


Introduction

Sadly, Mom passed away from cancer in January 1992, but I can still hear her words … perhaps not "ringing" in my ears, but at least unforgettably impressed there … "Don’t say Finland! Say Sweden!"

"But, Mom, they came from Finland, not Sweden." Yes, my mother's family were all Swede-Finns, that is, they were descendants of Swedes in Finland (and, I suspect, descendants of some Finns too) who spoke Swedish, and not Finnish, as their language of hearth and home. In my family, I never detected any unseemly bias or prejudice against Finnish-speakers; it was simply that my family spoke Swedish, followed Swedish customs, and was proud of that fact. Grandpa and Grandma Sandstrom were Swedish! … even if they did come from Finland! But, how did this come about?

Well, roughly speaking, the original Finnic peoples inhabited most of what is now northern Russia and much of the interior parts of what is now Finland. As we know, these peoples were of a completely different ethnic background from the Scandinavians (the Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes), and the Finnish language is totally unrelated to Swedish or the other Scandinavian tongues. Some time in the first millennium, the Swedes of Sweden began to cross the Baltic to trade, settle, and farm along the shores of southern and west-central Finland. (In fact, as early as the 8th or 9th centuries, Vikings from Sweden penetrated beyond Finland into the rivers of Russia, took control of large portions of that country, and founded the first royal house of the nation: the House of Rurik which lasted till 1598, shortly after the death of Ivan the Terrible … but that is a different fascinating story.)

From my limited reading, I don't believe there was any brutal conquest, or subjugation, or enslaving of the Finnic peoples, but the Swedes definitely became the governing upper classes, and the Finns somewhat second class. Swedish was the language of government, administration, commerce, higher education, and the ruling classes, and the Finnish language was exiled to the farms and countryside. My ancestors came from Bromarv and Tenala (Finnish: Tenhola) parishes in southern Finland (Grandpa Sandstrom), and from Pedersöre and neighboring parishes in west-central Finland (Grandma Nylund-Sandstrom). As far as I can tell, all of them spoke Swedish, but perhaps a little Finnish too.

Thus, we had the "Swede-Finns" (Finlandsvenskarna) and the "Finn-Finns", although this was never explained to me when I was much younger. After roughly 800 years of Swedish domination and a little over a century of attempted assimilation by the Russian czarist government, the 1918 linguistic situation in Finland found only about ten percent of the population speaking Swedish, while the remaining 80 percent spoke Finnish as their mother tongue. Thus, the formerly dominant Swede-Finns were now a minority in a newly born democracy and, since then, their proportion of speakers has slowly dropped to its present level of about 5.5 percent of the population (2006).

Changing my Mind-Set from Sweden to Finland

Jim's Grandmother Hilda Sofia (Nylund) Sandstrom (1885-1959) (on a U.S. postcard made for sending to family & friends)
In any case, I passed my younger years thinking I was half Swedish; reading histories of Sweden, Charles XII, Gustavus Vasa, and the Swedish victories in the Thirty Years War; and imagining I might hang the Swedish flag outside our lake home. During all of these decades, I had also gathered all sorts of family information and keepsakes, drafted various rather simple charts of family lines, and imagined I was an amateur genealogist with some idea as to our family and its background. Man! Was I ever naïve and uninformed!

The really serious realization that I was a Finlander began when I impulsively purchased Genealogy Online for Dummies (how appropriate the title!) in Appleton, Wisconsin, while visiting my nephew David Bailey and his family at Christmas 2003. In the back of the book was a CD for an older edition of FamilyTreeMaker. I inserted the CD into my computer, and the rest is history. Soon I began to type in data on our family. In rapid succession, I encountered the Family Search database of the Mormon Church, the Swede-Finn Historical Society, the Hiski data base, and all sorts of leads, hints, and friendly assistance in compiling my family tree. Soon after, the Talko data base came online, and even later my partner Everett gave me a full subscription to Ancestry.com. So, we were off to the races!

I soon discovered, however, that my family lines had nothing whatsoever to do with Sweden, at least not for the last five hundred years. Yes, I'm descended from the Swedish fish merchant Erik Sursill and his Swedish wife Dorde Ångerman, but virtually all of my other scores of ancestors have been born in Finland and lived there since Ragvald Koiraniemi my 17th-great-grandfather (born about 1425). As I compiled more information and worked backward in time, it slowly soaked in that we were not "from Sweden" by any stretch of the imagination.

Other past experience also contributed to this change in outlook. In the early 1980s, as part of taking on my "Swedish" identity, I began taking classes in the language here in Indianapolis. My teacher Ulla Thompson was, I believe, from Sundsvall, Sweden, and knew something about the Swedes in Finland; however, no one else in the class had any idea folks might speak Swedish in Finland. I was a rare bird! Some years later, I saw a Swedish flag flying on an Indianapolis porch, so I stopped in, asked about it, and ended up going to meetings of the Swedish-American Society of Indiana. Faster than you can say "lutefisk", however, I discovered I had very little in common with these lovely folks. Their programs offered slide shows and travel reports, but all of the conversation dealt with Sweden, provinces of Sweden, and people in Sweden. There was absolutely nothing related to my rapidly developing sense of "Swede-Finnishness". Admittedly, there was one lady in attendance who was Finnish, but to my disappointment she was Finn-Finn and not Finlandsvenska.

More recently, I was somewhat surprised by the reaction of my nephew Tadd Lyndon Oachs of Siren, Wisconsin, when he requested information on our "Swedish background" for a school project and report. His father Cary Oachs evidently had a definite, documented line of Swedish ancestors, and Tadd was now interested in discovering from what part of Sweden our ancestors had come. I told him we were Swede-Finns as against Swedes from Sweden, and his interest dropped noticeably. "Hey, wait, Tadd! They were Swedes many centuries back, but they'd lived in Finland for centuries and were now Swede-Finns." Still not much interest; his project was about Swedish ancestors! I was somewhat crestfallen but decided to persevere. Using my Family Tree Maker software, I printed out an immense report, The Swede-Finn Ancestors of Tadd Lyndon Oachs, all the way back to Ragvald Koiraniemi in 1450 and sent it to his mother, my niece Michelle Lynn Bailey. Taking on my best lawyerly advocate's manner, I put in a short statement that Finland had been an integral part of the Kingdom of Sweden until 1808, that Swedish was the official language for government and commerce, that Swedes and Finns had been major figures in the history of the entire kingdom, and that the more recent settlement of Delaware was carried out by Swedes and Finns together. I elaborated about our ancestors being bold adventuresome people who had left the relative comforts of Sweden to move into a new land, to carve farms from the wilderness, and to make a new life somewhat like American immigrants on the western prairies. I emphasized this was something of which we should be very proud and that, indeed, these people were originally Swedes but, more than that, pioneers and colonists into a new land and a folk worthy of great admiration. Whether my efforts bore any fruit I do not know.

Getting to the Real People

Three generations

My grandmother, Hilda Sofia Mattsdotter Pettil Nylund [1] was born November 16, 1885 on Pettil farm in the village of Kållby, parish of Pedersöre. Her given Christian names were Hilda and Sofia; the Mattsdotter indicates, of course, daughter of Matt; and Pettil comes from the farm where she was born, it not being the custom in many cases to have a surname in Finland at this time. Evidently, it was about this time that her father Matt did, indeed, adopt Nylund as the family surname.

Pettil is probably one of the homesteads in this map from 1840
Hilda Sofia's mother was Anna Sofia Mattsdotter Granholm. Ann Sofia was born on Gertruds farm in Eugmo village, Larsmo parish (Finnish: Luoto), immediately next to Pedersöre parish. She did not use the Gertruds farm name, as apparently her father had already taken on the surname of Granholm some years previously. The 1892 passport of mother and daughter, which I still have, lists mother and daughter as "Anna Sofia Mattsdotter Pettil and her minor daughter Hilda Sofia". So, Pettil was indeed the family surname by about 1892. In fact, my cousin Mary Kae Sandstrom of Superior, Wisconsin, told me she checked the Ashland, Wisconsin, records and found the family listed as Pettil in their early years in this country. Strangely, my mother had never heard of Pettil and told me rather sharply there were no Pettils in our family! It was Nylund and Granholm! Yeah, Mom, but the passport reads differently. Later in my Swedish classes, Ulla assured me Pettil was indeed a surname in Swedish, so I felt a bit reassured.

Grandma Hilda was only six when she came to this country, but she did pass along some of the memories of her childhood in Finland. First of all, she spoke fondly of driving to Christmas services, passing over the snow in some type of sleigh to arrive at the church. Each sleigh was lighted, probably with some type of enclosed candles, and she remembered the thrill of seeing all of these lighted conveyances coming together in the darkness before dawn. She said they were like sparkling lights all over the white countryside. Additionally, Hilda remembered the family had an old barn which burned down. Evidently, there were a lot of old books which no one could read stored in the barn, and of course they were lost forever. Since no one could read them, we suspect they might have been in Latin, but one will never know.

Hilda's father Matt was, according to family lore, somewhat spoiled as the family "had a little money". After my research, I doubt this, but I did find Matt was the youngest of eight children, born 16 years after Maria the eldest. Quite obviously, the youngest of eight children might be a little spoiled. In any case, Matts was fond of strong drink and was only happy when working around horses and livery stables. He came alone to the United States in 1887 and promptly disappeared for six years … that is, the family in Finland heard nothing more of him. So, in some desperation, they packed up Anna Sofia and her daughter Hilda and sent them off to America in 1892.

A typical immigrant voyage in those days was from Finland or Sweden to Hull, England, by smaller boat, then by train to Liverpool, and then by larger ocean steamer to the New World. So far I have found no record of their journey from Finland to England, but my grandmother had memories of passing by train through an industrialized countryside. The two of them embarked in Liverpool and arrived in New York City aboard the ship Alaska in steerage with one piece of luggage between them. (Incidentally, the ocean voyage must have made a profound impression on my grandmother; until her dying day she was deathly afraid of swimming and water.) Our two travelers are listed as Swedish coming from Sweden, with Minneapolis for a destination. I suppose this again illustrates how, if you spoke Swedish, everyone figured you came from Sweden.

Somehow Anna Sofia and six-year-old Hilda were reunited with Matts, but I never heard any stories of their adventures between Finland and Michigan. Nonetheless, if Anna Sofia represented the tough spirit of these pioneering women, she probably gave Matts a piece of her mind for dropping out of sight for so long. Imagine! ... producing a child in Finland and then disappearing from wife and daughter for six years with no word back! In any case, the family settled in Metropolitan, Michigan, a thriving Upper Peninsula mining town established in 1878, one mile west of present-day Felch and about 20 miles northeast of Iron Mountain.

Looking back from 2011, it is hard to imagine what a tremendously daunting venture this must have been! Neither of the ladies spoke English. They landed as simple farm folk in the swirling metropolis of New York and then had to find transportation out "to the provinces" ... to Michigan of all places, land of forests, bears, and chill! Virtually all of the state population was concentrated in the counties south of Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Flint. There were no paved roads north of Bay City until the 1920s or thirties. The iron ore shipping port of Escanaba had only been founded in 1866, and the projected mining town of Metropolitan in 1878. All of the Upper Peninsula and about two-thirds of the Lower Peninsula were nothing more than endless stretches of woods, swamps, lakes, countless rivers, and Great Lake shores. Even today, driving from Narenta on U.S. 2, just west of Escanaba, to Metropolitan is a lonely and almost eerie ride, passing dead little places called Tesch, Perronville, LaBranche, Faunus, and Hardwood ... miles and miles of swamp, cedars, Jack pines, billions of mosquitoes, and an occasional deer or bear.


In Metropolitan, Matts and Anna Sofia produced four more children, Herman Matthew, Bertha Maria, Andrew William, and Anna Irene. This author doesn't know much about the family's life in Metropolitan except that Matt never signed up in the registration book of the Swedish Lutheran Church there. Evidently, he was not very religious and made no bones about it. I have stopped in at the church several times and, in the 1960s, was able to peruse the original record book, which nowadays is available only in a reproduced form. Nowhere was I able to find any indication of the Matts Nylunds as church-goers! Grandma also related that both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests might be few and far between in such a small and remote place as Metropolitan. When the minister came through, all of the children (including the Catholics) would attend the Lutheran or Baptist services; likewise when the priest was in residence, all the children (including the Protestants) would attend Mass. Hilda Sofia also reminisced about being at her home in Metropolitan and seeing the sun glint off the roof tops of the Calumet Mine, about two miles south of the town. In the late 1960s, a friend and I drove out that way, looking for the mine, but all we found was a large water-filled pond by the side of a lonely dirt road. In all directions one could see nothing but Jack pines ... no houses, no buildings, nothing that would indicate a mine.

In the early 1970s, I again stopped in both Metropolitan and neighboring Felch (just one mile east of Metropolitan on the railroad line) and found a lady who did indeed remember my grandmother. I had made inquiries at several houses in Felch and was directed to this one ... Gustafson? I can't recall. It was the Fourth of July weekend, and her house was full of her children and grandchildren who had come up from Milwaukee. (Virtually every young person abandons these dying towns and heads for the bigger cities to the south.) At first, I asked about Hilda Nylund. No remembrance. Then, I said Hilda Sandstrom, and the old lady's face lit up. Hilda Sandstrom? "Yes, I knew Hilda Sandstrom. She used to come down from Ashland to help out at holidays." Grandma Hilda had been dead for about fifteen years by then, and this encounter was, to say the very least, quite a thrill.

Rather unsurprisingly, Matts' nephew John Victor Jacobsson Sundstrom (1879-1962) also settled in Felch. He would have been my grandma's first cousin, although the Nylunds had already moved to Ashland by the time John settled in Felch in 1903. As mentioned above, Metropolitan was faltering at the turn of the century, but Felch was booming. John ran an auto repair and implement business in Felch, and I remember stopping with my mother and brothers to visit him at his gas station alongside old Michigan Highway 69. We were on our way to the grandparents' in Ashland, and we only stopped for a few minutes; however, I remember the awkward moments as distant cousins tried to make conversation.

Old John died soon after in 1969; however, on my later visits to the area, I would look up his daughter, Ann Sundstrom, my second cousin-once removed. She was a retired school teacher who lived in the family house immediately behind the old service station in Felch. Born in 1912, Ann lived to the ripe old age of 94 and died in January 2007. The last time I saw her, she and a group of retired neighbors were playing cards in the Felch Senior Center, located in the refurbished old school building. The old lady who had recalled my grandmother was dead by then but, by an amazing coincidence, her daughter was there playing cards as well. It was on that occasion I purchased the wonderful century book, Felch Michigan Centennial Book, 1878-1978. It has been of great assistance in my genealogy, helping me to identify scores of Swede-Finn relatives who settled there. The book is also a marvelous source of old photos.

But back to our immigrants ... by about 1900, the Metropolitan Mine was winding down; more and more locals turned to farming and logging; and the business district of the town had dwindled. Matts and Anna Sofia must have seen it coming, as they left Metropolitan about 1898 for the broader opportunities of Ashland, Wisconsin. There, three more youngsters put in an appearance: Selma Johanna, William George, and Arthur Harold. Sadly, Andrew and Selma died young sometime after June 1900, the last United States census in which they appear. Because Hilda Sofia had been born in Finland, prior to the six-year overseas escapades of her father Matts, she was significantly older than her siblings ... in fact, more than seven years senior to the second child Herman, and eighteen years older than the youngest, Arthur Harold. Mom used to say that she grew up simultaneously alongside her two uncles.

In Ashland, grandma worked as a domestic in the homes of more prosperous citizens. Although raised a Lutheran, she always retained favorable memories of the Catholic lady who employed her. That lady treated grandma well and always encouraged her to attend her church on Sunday. On the other hand, grandma also worked for an Episcopalian lady who was far less generous. Often for dinner three potatoes would be cooked and served, one for the lady, one for the husband, and one for grandma. Nonetheless, if the man of the house was hungry, he would take that third potato and grandma would have none, often going to bed hungry because of the stinginess in the household. This lady was also not as encouraging about grandma attending her church services.

Although Hilda Sofia was tolerant in her religious outlook, that was not true of her mother Ann Sofia. At some early time in Ashland, Hilda Sofia apparently dated a young Roman Catholic boy. Great-grandma must have hit the roof. Mom used to tell me about Ann Sofia raving against the "devilish Catholics" (djävlige katoliker), an inheritance perhaps of her strong parochial Lutheran upbringing. This was always somewhat of a family joke because Mom herself married a Catholic ... my dad ... but great-grandma had been long dead by then. Sadly, Great-grandma Anna Sofia died in 1933 of cancer of the brain. I don't believe she smoked at all, but she experienced bad irritations in the throat, to which she referred as he "catarrh". Hilda Sofia took care of her in her final illness and many years later made mention of "many screams of pain". How sad! We can be thankful for the pain killers of the modern world.

Great-grandpa Matts lived on until 1940. He greatly enjoyed hard liquor and was likely an alcoholic. On one occasion, son Herman had invited his new fiancee, Florence Westberg, over to meet the family. There was a certain incentive to impress Florence as the Westbergs owned a bakery, ostensibly one step up on the local social ladder. Somehow, Matts got into his booze and, when Florence appeared, Matts made a deep bow and almost fell on his nose. Outraged, the three sons made a quick search of the house, found the offending liquids, and broke the bottles on the railroad tracks out in back. Matts was also not the most faithful of bathers in his last years. Evidently, he would develop a certain "air", and Grandma Hilda would go over to resolve the problem. She would grab her father by the ear, drag him off to the bath tub, and scrub him thoroughly, with him protesting loudly all the way.

I don't remember my Great-Grandfather Matts Nylund at all. I myself was born in 1939, and evidently my parents took me to Ashland soon after, to show me off to the grandparents and to Great-Grandpa Matts. There was some talk of taking photographs, as this would have included four generations. As so often is the case, the matter was put off. Sadly, Matt died within a few months, and we never had the opportunity to take such a picture. Now that I have been immersed in genealogy for many years, I regret greatly the lack of this photo and, on every occasion possible, remind folks to take as many family pictures as reasonably possible and to inscribe them on the back as to who is pictured. For both the Sandstroms and the Baileys, I have countless old photos with no indication as to who the subjects are; thus, I am frustrated by the lack of family information that can never be passed along to future generations.

At this point, we might discuss Nylund family information that was sensitive or embarrassing at the time but that, today, is somewhat amusing and makes a good story. Someone in our family (not my mother) became pregnant a little too soon. As a result, Grandma Hilda gave them a piece of her mind. Now, Grandma Hilda probably had good reason to be a little sensitive on the issue because the records show she was born ONE DAY after her parents were married in 1885. From what I am told, this was not unusual on the farms of Finland, nor was it particularly embarrssing; however, in the new world of America, where everyone was striving to carve out a respectable place in life, such a fact was probably best left untold. But more than that, Grandma Hilda had her own secret that we only discovered at the August 2007 Sanddstrom family reunion in Ashland, Wisconsin. I have Ed and Hilda's original marriage certificate in Swedish mounted on the wall of my home, and one of my cousins at the reunion asked me whether Grandpa Ed and Grandma Hilda had been married in December 1906 or December 1907.

Far from home, I didn't know for sure but asked why the person was interested. Well, Grandma Hilda had discovered that so-and-so in the family (the questioner's mother) had become pregnant before being married and grandma indicated her great displeasure in no uncertain terms. I said I would check the dates on the certificate when I arrived back home. There, I found that someone had actually ERASED the original date on the certificate and had written in "December 1907". The date is significant if one keeps in mind my own mother was born in May 1908. I won't use the word hypocrisy, but yes, Grandma was indeed a bit too pious.

Picture gallery

Jim Bailey's Photo Album - Ancient Relatives


References

  1. Link to the record in the special display genealogy tree on Talko. Username and password is "guest" and "guest" Note that only a very small part of the submitted genealogies is showed!

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