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The greatest emigration among Finns has been to America, Australia and Sweden.


Documented Finnish presence starts with the founding of the “New Sweden” colony at the Delaware River in March 1638. Some of the contributions made by the early settlers were burn-beat farming, a new way of building log cabins and the art of living in peace with the Indians. One descendant of the early Finns was John Morton, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

During the Crimean War (1854-56), a number of Finnish ships sought refuge in American ports in 1855. A couple hundred Finns joined the Gold Rush, starting new Finnish settlements on the Pacific coast. In 1790 some Finns settled in Alaska and started working for the Russian government. There have been two men of Finnish origin who were governors of Alaska.

The first settlers to go to Michigan copper mines were Finnish settlers of the Norwegian province of Finnmark. In 1870 ‘American fever’ took hold in southern Ostrobothnia and it became a mass movement until 1902, when more than 23,000 Finns applied for passports. Emigration continued until the first World War. In the 1920s the US government restricted admission of immigrants, so they shifted to Canada and Australia. Between 1864-1914 over 300,000 people from Finland settled in the US and 20,000 settled in Canada.

Most of the emigrants came from western Finland. The main reasons for leaving Finland were economic and social. One of the mainstays of the economy had been tar-distilling. Demand for tar declined when the era of sailing ships ended. Another reason for emigration was the rapid increase in population. Farms were small and households had many children. The majority of emigrants were young, about age 20. Over 60% of them were men, mostly unmarried. They wanted to earn enough money to redeem the family farm or to buy a piece of land and a house. Another reason was to avoid the draft into the Russian army. But the main attraction was the high wages in the US for some occupations; these wages were five times higher than in Finland. Work could be found in mines, lumber camps, factories and railroads. The homes of wealthy Americans offered employment to women, and Finnish servant girls were in demand.

Most Finnish settlements were in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota. The farmers created farming communities in the midwest. In Canada 60% of the Finns lived in Ontario. Finns were a major element in the US Communist Party. The first Finnish newspaper was published in Hancock, Michigan in 1876. At the turn of the century there were more Finnish language newspapers in America than in Finland. By the 1990s, 15,000 Finns had gone to the US and 27,000 to Canada. In North America there were about 45,000 first generation and 180,000 second generation Finns. In later generations there were more than 1 million Finns.


During the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s there were a few hundred Finns, mostly seamen, who settled on the continent. The first Finnish migration took place in 1899-1900, when the Queensland government offered free passages from London. There were about 5,000 Finns in Australia before the Second World War. Because of high unemployment in Finland between 1957-1973 about 20,000 emigrated to Australia. They settled mostly in Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities. In the 1990s there were about 30,000 Australians of Finnish descent.

New Zealand

Since the mid 19th century a couple thousand Finns emigrated to New Zealand. In the 1950s and 60s paper mill workers were the pioneers of the pulp and paper industry. The major settlement of Finns is in Auckland.


The first Finns found their way to European colonies in Africa as early as the 18th century. In the 1860s and 1870s the mining industry caused an economic upheaval in south Africa. In the 1890s emigration to south Africa reached epidemic proportions in Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia. At the turn of the century many Finns participated in the Boer War (1899-1902) on both sides. About 1,500 Finns emigrated to south Africa before the first World War. Finnish missionaries began working in Amboland, presently Namibia, in 1870 and many of them settled there permanently. Since the last century a few hundred Finnish adventurers and seamen served in the French and Spanish Foreign Legions in north Africa. In the 1990s about 2,000 Finns were living in Africa.


In the 14th century some people from present-day Finland went to Sweden in search of a better livelihood. In the 16th century King Charles IX (1550-1611) invited Finns to Sweden. But the main reasons the left were wars with Russia and crop failures and famines in Finland. Some of those ‘forest Finns’ of Sweden continued their journey to the ‘New Sweden’ colony in Delaware, founded in 1638. During the 17th century, Finns of all classes and estates moved to the ‘mother country’. Most of them were laborers, sailors and fishermen. Some Finns became distinguished military men, artists, explorers and scientists.

The flow of emigrants to Sweden did not slow when Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809. In the latter half of the 19th century Finnish laborers were atttracted to the timber industry and saw mills along the Swedish coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. In 1970 41,000 Finns went to Sweden to work. The main reasons for mass emigration were found in Finland. The ‘baby-boomers’ of 1945-49 entered the labor market, a decline in the need for agricultural workers, and a hearty devaluation of the Finnish mark in 1967 boosted Swedish nominal wages. Many Finns went west in search of higher wages.

Altogether 550,000 people from Finland emigrated to Sweden after the Second World War. In the 1980s half of them returned to Finland or moved to another country. In the 1990s there were more than 200,000 first generation Finns living in Sweden and nearly 100,000 second generation. Nearly half of Finns abroad were living in Sweden. They have been acknowledged by the Swedish government as a permanent minority which has lived in Sweden for a long time.


Between the Second World War and mid-1990s about 15,000 Finns had emigrated to Norway. Many continued their journey to America. Since the Second World War thousands of Finns found work in the fishing industry of northern Norway; also in the oil industry. In the 1990s 5,000 Finns were living in Norway, most of them were male workers.


About 13,000 Finns emigrated to Denmark after the Second World War, and a couple hundred went to Iceland. Most of them later returned to Finland. In the 1990s there were only about 2,000 Finns living permanently in Denmark.


Finns began emigrating to Russia in 1617 after the Treaty of Stolbova. They settled mainly around the mouth of the Neva River in the area known as Ingria, where St. Petersburg was founded nearly a century later. In 1917 the number of Ingrians was about 120,000 people.

After Finland was annexed by Russia in 1809, Finns began to emigrate to Russia, especially to St. Petersburg. Finnish settlements were also found in many parts of Russia, including the Far East. In the 19th century 3,000 Finnish criminals were sent to Siberia, but there was also voluntary emigration across the Ural Mountains.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, about 13,000 people of Finnish origin from Russia and Estonia arrived in Finland. In the 1990s about 60,000-70,000 Finns were still living in Russia.

Central Europe

Finns have started to settle in central and western Europe since the 1960s. In the 1990s there were more than 12,000 Finns living in Germany, 80% of them were women, often married to Germans. About 5,000 Finns were living in Great Britain and 4,000 in Switzerland. More than 10,000 Finns were estimated to be living in Spain, many of them are retired people who go to Finland in the summer.

Olavi Koivukangas, Director, Institute of Migration Studies, Åbo.

Extracted from “Finland, a Cultural Encyclopedia”

June Pelo

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