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Migration and relationships over the Gulf of Bothnia


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It is difficult today to imagine how great the impact from Sweden and other countries was on Ostrobothnia in the 1700’s. There were various cultured families located in Ostrobothnia with established roots on the Swedish side. There was manpower which had migrated in the form of foundry personnel, craftsmen, and soldiers. There were ordinary citizens, men and women, who for different reasons headed for the other side of the sea.

They became innovators within the Ostrobothnian culture, which bloomed and flourished.

The kinship ties across the Kvarken straits were stronger than one might think. When you leaf through the church record books in the Ostrobothnian congregations, you constantly run into people who have their origins on the Swedish side. The situation is the same in the congregations of Västerbotten [in Sweden]. A continual migration from Ostrobothnia through the years has mixed up the population groups genealogically.

The Sursill Sisters

The family in Finland with roots in Umeå which has been surrounded by the most myths is the Sursill clan. The earliest ancestor or progenitor was Erik Ångerman Sursill, the farm owner at Teg in Umeå in the beginning of the 16th century. In addition to the statement that he was an “outstanding” farmer he also traded in fish, among others the fermented variety called surströmming. According to the story, he had delivered a consignment of surströmming to Uppsala, but the people in Södermanland didn’t appreciate that type of preserved, soured fish, and accused him of cheating them. It was de facto rotten fish they had received. This apparently gave him the name of Sursill, a nickname he took the sting out of by adopting it as his last name.

His daughter Catherina was the one who turned out to take the initiative for the family developing its widest breeding ground on the Ostrobothnian side. She arrived as the ladybird ? to the powerful steward/bailiff in Pedersöre, Hans Fordell, and got married to the Westzynthius family’s progenitor, Henricus Nicolai, pastor of Pedersöre.

Several siblings and siblings’ daughters followed her; all those who came over to Ostrobothnia created the framework for a long line of famous kin. Among others, at least three of the nation’s presidents had their origin in the family: Mannerheim, Ståhlberg, and Svinhufvud.

Thanks to early genealogical labor, it is one of the best documented families in the world today.

Carta Marina

The connections across the Kvarken straits has at all times had great importance for the contacts between the provinces. When one looks at the Carta Marina Scandinavia, prepared by Olaus Magnus in 1539, it is precisely the activities in the area around Kvarken which is one of the most surprising points. Three sledges with people in them symbolize a lively traffic.

At the same time we learn that the Ostrobothnian coast has a large population. Ostrobothnia was at that time considerably more heavily populated than Västerbotten. An excerpt from Erik of Pommern’s tax records from 1413 covering Korsholm’s district, which also belonged to the Swedish side, shows that there were more farms (chimney stacks) on the Ostrobothnian side than on the Swedish side. A large part of the Swedish side was wilderness and newly cleared areas. It was mostly along the coastline where large communities had grown up.

Support for the traffic across Kvarken as early as 1592

It has awakened a bit of attention that Finnish and Swedish authorities these least years have paid out government support for the ferry traffic across Kvarken. From an historical perspective that’s not news. As early as the 1590’s , the farmers of Holm Island on the Swedish side and Björk Island on the Finnish side requested freedom from taxes because they ”were located next to an important travel route, which signified a burdensome task of transportation across the sea for them.”

It was not just the responsibility for mail, but Sweden’s long term war with Russia which meant they were forced to carry people as well as wares across Kvarken. Björk Island was given that freedom from taxation in 1592 and it was renewed for several periods far into the 17th century.

Seagoing Farmers

Ostrobothnia and Västerbotten for long periods belonged within the same administrative district. Finally in the middle of the 17th century, a common district was created under the same governor in Umeå. That meant naturally close contacts across the sea for governing authorities.

Most of the contacts between the distant regions have for natural reasons been effected with the help of boats. How far back in time is difficult to say; probably the migration of peoples had begun as early as the prehistoric period. It is just after the time of Gustav Vasa, when minutes of the district courts and the household inheritance inventories after death began to be established, that we run into persons who had migrated. Often it is the questions of inheritance which have been the object of legal deliberation.

Fishing, and the business which fishing gave rise to, has tied together the strip of coastline. It has been natural for Ostrobothnian fishermen to come across to the Swedish side with their catch. Just as the Västerbotten fishermen have traveled across to the Ostrobothnian coastal communities to trade for grain with their Baltic herring [strömming].

There is a tale about how “a large party of Westerbotten guys”, farmers from Umeå, popped up in the area of Vasa in the 1660’s in order to trade their herring for grain, to the serious aggravation of the burghers of the city of Vasa. One may believe that it was primarily from inland, where there wasn’t as easy access to fish, that buyers came down toward the coast in order to carry out business.

Laying over the winter

These farmers going to sea were at times so numerous that the authorities were forced to forbid it. It was above all the burghers in the cities who supported the ban, who considered themselves as holding the monopoly on all business in the region. From Västerbotten the traders traveled across to the Ostrobothnian coast and opened “booths” at the trading places there.

Likewise the burghers attempted to curtail another phenomenon which been observed happening among the farming populations clear from the 15th and 16th centuries, namely the so-called “over wintering”. In the fall, a number of the male residents in Ostrobothnia got up and went over to the Swedish side, where they had the benefit of getting certain seasonal jobs, perhaps as threshers at some farm or woodcutters in the forest. When they returned in the spring they brought with them goods which they had obtained as their wages. This business also irritated the burghers in the cities, since their own incomes from business was thereby reduced. A general prohibition was introduced against carrying out such trips without permission.

But the over-wintering workers continued their trips without getting the authorities’ particular approval. In Kyro one person was assessed a fine in 1553 “because he fled to Sweden to over-winter without permission.” And for the same reason three residents of Vasa and one resident of Voitby were punished at the district court in Korsholm the same year.

Similar information about punishments for over-wintering laborers is mentioned from most of the parishes in Ostrobothnia, but despite that it was difficult to stem the phenomenon. Such large numbers of people were smuggled in boats, especially from Monäs in Munsala, over the sea that people in the end began to call that type of travel as travelling with “a Monäs passport”.

These journeys came to a natural end when dividing up the homesteads was permitted after 1684, which meant that more sons and sons-in-law had the possibility of farming their own land in their home territory.

Crossings full of risk

Travelling across the sea carried with it great danger. Boats foundered and human life was lost. The interesting thing about Olaus Magni’s map is the confirmation of the extensive winter traffic over the ice. It was possibly even more risky.

In Övermark, a story is told about how a group of Ostrobothnian members of parliament, who had participated in the national meeting in Gävle in 1792, made their way back on the ice route from Umeå. Parliament member Hans Hansson Mickels from Finby in Närpes was along on that trip.

”When they were a half mile from the Vals Islands they came to a huge open channel, even though they had met farmers just before this, who the day before had driven to Vasa. The members of Parliament had to turn around. But Kvarken was now in full motion, and they couldn’t reach solid ice, before that big piece of ice on which they were floating, and which was perhaps a mile long, struck bottom, whereby it swung around so that the one end was crushed against the solid ice to their good fortune, so that they could hurriedly get over to it, but had to leave their chests, a number of sledges and three horses. Two farmers from Holm Island froze to death and one member of parliament (a farmer) got his feet badly frostbitten. With borrowed money the Ostrobothnian members of Parliament made their way home by the north route.”


It was not only over-wintering people who traveled across to the Swedish side to get jobs. Shipbuilders from Ostrobothnia were also common at the Västerbotten shipyards. The art of building ships was well developed in Ostrobothnia and the shipbuilding crews traveled around, not only in Finland, but signed contracts even with ship owners in Sweden. In Västerbotten they often welcomed shipbuilding crews from Ostrobothnia at the 30 shipbuilding areas along the coast of Västerbotten.

They didn’t return with just wages, but sometimes even prospective wives. In Kronoby the story is told about a crew of shipbuilders with twelve members who in 1782 built ships in Västerbotten. In addition, one hired hand had tagged along with the crew. The same year Lisa Ersdotter from Lövånger gets married to Matts Johansson Kaino from Nedervetil, who was a hired hand in Korsholm. Although it’s not written down in the churchbooks, there are clear reasons to suspect that it was precisely the shipbuilding which brought them together.

Foundry workers and craftsmen

That which perhaps is most characteristic about the contacts across Kvarken is the constant stream of journeymen and craftsmen which was ongoing during the 18th century. A migration occurred from the iron foundries in Sweden; from Olofsfors and Robertsfors ironworks to Kimo ironworks in Oravais, and from Strömbäck’s glassworks outside Umeå to Berga glassworks in Pörtom. These journeymen were not always of Swedish extraction, but often had German or Walloon blood in their veins. They were the innovators, who not only set their mark on the production at the foundry, but contributed a breeze from the outside world to the communities round about. The Ostrobothnian language was mixed with “true” Swedish, German and French, and marriages tied family relationships between the occupational groups as well.

One search through that database for foundry workers which the Association of Blacksmiths’ Families created in Sweden shows that more than 4,000 of the names have at some point been located at foundries in Finland.

The Ostrobothnian villages were also invaded by other career categories from Sweden: village blacksmiths, tailors, saltpeter distillers, and soldiers.

Many Swedish soldiers, in connection with the establishment in 1733 of regular divisions, had been stationed in Ostrobothnia. How many is impossible to establish accurately, but we know that 9 out of 12 soldiers in Korsnäs and 13 of 75 soldiers in Vörå were from Sweden.

Lövånger - Sundom

Many of the soldiers came from Burträsk, Lövånger and Bygdeå in Västerbotten. It is also these parishes which demonstrate numerous interchanges of population with Ostrobothnia including all categories of people. Svante Lundell, the late wholesale trader in Skellefteå, charted as early as the 1940’s the heavy stream of Lövånger residents who moved in the 1700’s to Sundom outside of Vasa.

Thus many Ostrobothnian families can be traced to precisely Lövånger, Burträsk and Bygdeå. As early as the summer of 1947, around a hundred Ostrobothnians participated in a family reunion in Lövånger, whence the watchmaker Nils Wallin had emigrated in 1768 to Övermark. That family has now been researched with its descendents up to today.

Pioneers and refugees

It perhaps can be thought that the stream of migration across Kvarken, with the exception of those over-wintering laborers, mainly went eastward. It’s not that way at all. Equally large migrations have occurred in different directions during different periods.

During the beginning of the 17th century, numbers of slash-and-burn Finns arrived who became pioneers in Västerbotten’s interior. Their origins in Finland are still being discussed, but one theory concludes that they drew away from the eastern regions of Finland in connection with outbreaks of war. Two of the pioneers are Pål Pålsson and Johan Phillip Hilduinen, who came to Agnäs in Bjurholm and Örträsk in Lycksele respectively. Both of these [men] became progenitors of large families on the Swedish side.

The largest migration of people occurred during the Great Unpeace, when the greater part of the Ostrobothnian population fled westward. From the northern parts of Ostrobothnia the flight moved on land around the Gulf of Bothnia, but from the area of Vasa and southwards it most often occurred by boat across the sea.

Church record books and local historic works have various reports about the Finnish refugees, their wretched war experiences and misery. In the Home district’s book for Nordmaling and Bjurholm it tells about how untold numbers fled in secret across Kvarken in flimsy boats.

“Destitute, the shattered families came over here in many cases in order to begin anew in what they hoped was a more peaceful country. Others probably had the hope of some day being able to return in order to rebuild their devastated farm, where perhaps there lay a chest buried in some forested hill, waiting for the homestead’s true owner.”

One estimates that around 8,000 people fled across to Västerbotten after the battle at Storkyro. Nordmaling’s archipelago lay especially conveniently for those fleeing boats. There were also notes of those refugees who received aid from the collections which were made in the churches on the Swedish side.

One of the refugees who came was the Vörå resident Erik Mattsson, who was born in 1701 and was only 18 years old. He married a daughter of the pioneer Finn, Pål Pålsson.

The great migration to sawmills

Likewise during the 19th century, a great stream of migration moved to the Swedish side, although it landed a little farther down along the coast. It was because the sawmill industry in the middle of Norrland had experienced a strong expansion, which had increased the need for manpower. Both men and women from Ostrobothnia headed there and in the beginning of the 1870’s information in newspapers speaks to the rush of people who wanted to get passports from Ostrobothnia in order to travel over there.

The researcher Holger Wester’s work on movements of populations in his paper “Innovations in the movements of populations” shows that 358 people from Petalax alone, which is a relatively small parish, took off for the Sundsvall district in the years 1876-1880. Considerably higher numbers can certainly be shown for the larger parishes.

The numbers are sometimes difficult to pin down, just like those laborers who over-wintered. Many who journeyed over did it illegally and without being recorded in the church books in the sawmill towns, which creates a problem in genealogical research.

Laborers who over-winter at the university

Even today migration between the coasts occurs, even if it’s a long way from being comparable to the rushing stream which existed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Todays’ Ostrobothnians, who study in the winter at Umeå university, can perhaps be compared to the over-wintering laborers of those earlier eras. Likewise a certain amount of commuter traffic of manpower heads to among other places Norrland’s university hospital in Umeå.

On the other hand, the migration stream eastward is limited to one or another returning emigrant family with Ostrobothnian origins.

The grass on the other side will always seem greener.

Tom Juslin

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