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Emigration from Ostrobothnia

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The first Finns and Swedes came to America in the 1600’s when Finland was still a province of the Swedish Empire. The first Swedish expedition landed at the mouth of the Delaware River in 1638, and in 1640 a few Finns arrived. About 500-600 Finns moved to New Sweden, Delaware’s Swedish colony. Some came from the Finnish forest areas of Sweden and some came from Vasa and Korsholm in Ostrobothnia. In the beginning of the 19th century a few hundred moved to Alaska. There are known instances of emigration from Munsala in the 1840’s and 1850’s, but it’s not known how many emigrated to Alaska nor who jumped ship.

North America suffered a labor shortage in the 1860’s and ‘70’s, and the influx of immigrants helped solved the problem. A continuous stream of emigrants began in 1867, when a factory worker from Vasa left Finland. In the peak year of 1902, 7,310 people were issued a passport by the province of Vasa. From 1870-1930 about 400,000 emigrants left Finland, with 320,000 going to the United States and 80,000 to Canada. About 52% of them came from Vasa province.

Many emigrants returned to Finland. The majority of them went to North America to earn money for a house or farm and then planned to return to Finland. A general estimate is 20-23%. More men returned than women, more wealthy people than poor ones, and more old emigrants than young ones. Most emigrants came from rural areas, with about 6% from cities.

Most of the emigrants were young unmarried men. More than 80% were 16-40 years old. The 16-25 year-olds were the largest group, and about 10% were children under age 16. Many of the older emigrants probably moved to spend their retirement years with their children.

The majority of emigrants from southern Ostrobothnia worked on farms in Finland. Emigration hit crofters, dependent lodgers, cottagers and hired hands who were affected more than landowners. Younger children who did not inherit the farm decided to emigrate. In the early stages the rural population that had suffered economic hardship left, but later on emigration became a mass movement and other people also left to “whittle gold in America.”

Two-thirds of the emigrants had to borrow ticket money from Finland or from someone who had emigrated before them. If they couldn’t scrape up the money, they couldn’t emigrate. Once they had the money, it was necessary to get a passport. They needed a church-issued birth certificate and a certificate of non-objection from the police authority. After 1903 men of conscription age had to submit proof of military service. When they had the required documents they went to the port of departure. Some steamship companies checked the health of the passengers because the United States refused to admit sick immigrants, and the ship companies had to return them to their home country at no charge. Four percent were rejected at point of departure. The most common reasons for rejections were the eye disease trachoma and tuberculosis.

Some of the early immigrants went to Sweden and continued across the ocean from Gothenberg or Trondheim, Norway. In 1874 the Wasa-Nordsjö Steampship, Inc. sailed a few times per summer from Vasa to Hull, England. Then in 1891 the SHO line began regular Hangö-Copenhagen-Hull travel. Rates were cheaper and the trip was faster. The passengers then went by train from Hull, England to Liverpool where they boarded a ship across the Atlantic. Finns usually traveled third class. Conditions aboard ship didn’t always correspond to the descriptions published by the ship companies. In the 1800’s passengers complained about bad food, tight space, filth and the slowness of the ship. The trip to North America usually lasted an average of two weeks.

In North America they landed either in New York or Boston, or in Canada at Halifax, Quebec City or Montreal. Some immigrants stayed in the cities where they landed. For example, those from Närpes and Peräsienäjoki stayed in New York. The immigrants settled where work was available and where they knew where people from their home town already lived. On the east coast they settled mainly in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Many went to the midwestern states of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Others went on to Washington, California, Oregon, Montana and Colorado. Ostrobothnians didn’t settle in the southern states.

In Canada they followed the same pattern as in the United States: close to the border between the two countries and from east to west. The bulk of them settled north of the Great Lakes in Ontario, in mining towns, centers of railroad and logging industry and large cities. Immigrants from Vasa province chose Ontario. Many moved on from Ontario to British Columbia.


Reasons for Emigration

The economic conditions were the main factor in southern Ostrobothnia. The strong growth in the population in the 19th century created economic pressures. The province of Vasa had a surplus population which explains the large emigration. Crop failures and years of famine brought great hardship. The majority of southern Ostrobothnian farmers owned small farms and they had to struggle to make a living. According to inheritance practices, the oldest son got the farm and paid his siblings cash compensation and the other children had to go elsewhere to find work. The children of freeholders were landless so they had to seek a living elsewhere

Tar burning and shipbuilding were profitable industries. In the mid-1850’s the world shifted from wooden ships which relied on tar to steamships made of steel. That created a “tar crisis.” Another reason for emigration was the conscription edicts handed down during the Russian oppression years 1899-1917. Finland was a Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar until 1917. Many men avoided conscription which they considered unlawful by emigrating to North America.

Sometimes marital relations broke down and the man emigrated rather than get a divorce which was frowned upon. The arrival of stepmothers or stepfathers drove children to emigrate. Some young men emigrated to avoid parental responsibilities. And some had a powerful desire for adventure.

Ostrobothnians had a strong sense of belonging and many left together in large groups. In the United States the Homestead Act of 1862 offered free land to immigrants. America needed workers so recruiters went to Finland to entice people to emigrate. Recruiting was prohibited by the United States in the 1880’s but in Canada it continued into the 20th century. The recruitment effort helped spread “America fever.” Also people who emigrated between 1860-90 wrote enticing letters to Finland which were published in newspapers. The news that there was work in America lured many to try their luck in a foreign country.

The majority of men worked in physically demanding jobs, e.g. in mines, construction, lumber camps. Some later bought farms. Women worked mostly in domestic work. The men worked under harder conditions than at home in Finland. But wages were better and workdays were shorter than in Finland, so they managed to endure the harsh conditions. Also the food and clothing were better. The high standard of living and the higher earnings proved that emigration was worthwhile.

The majority of emigrants brought more money to Finland than they took with them. Every third emigrant borrowed his fare from Finland and usually paid it back with interest. At departure, the more wealthy emigrants deposited their money in Finnish banks. Those who planned to return sent their savings from North America to banks in the homeland. Also, more inheritance money came from North America to Finland than the other way around. Finnish inheritances were usually small and immigrants often relinquished their inheritance to relatives who stayed at home.

Many emigrants sent packages home which contained money and goods that were hard to find in Finland. At the peak of “America parcels” in 1946, every third south Ostrobothnian received an American parcel. Returning immigrants had more money than when they left and many bought a house with money earned in North America. During and after World War II the immigrants sent money and parcels to Finland, and some sent money to the province of their birth for rebuilding purposes. It is estimated that before World War I each emigrant sent to Finland annually about the same amount of money as a worker would earn in Finland in a year.


Extracts from Journal of Finnish Studies, “Exploring Ostrobothnia” by Mari Niemi

June Pelo


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