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Two Family Oral Traditions Pertaining to the 1860s


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by Vincent Erickson

Every family probably has oral traditions relating to its Swedish-speaking ancestors in 19th century Finland. These accounts passed on from generation to generation often appear to modern listeners to be incredible if not of doubtful veracity. Thanks to Pär-Erik Levlin’s interesting article “The Great Famine of the 1860s in Finland” appearing in Vol. 2, No. 1 of the SFHS newsletter, I have additional data to aid in my review of two oral accounts pertaining to my own family.

Paraphrasing Levlin, who writes: “…For the years 1862 to 1866, the best one can say is that two were average and the others were poor with cold summers and early frosts. Few farmers could pay back the loans taken out to cover their losses from 1862. In the winter of 1865-1866, crowds of beggars could be seen on the roads coming from the northern and middle parts of the country”.

Levlin continued, “July 1866 was rainy and harvesting of crops was difficult. The following winter was very cold and long. Snow did not melt in the vicinity of Vasa until the end of May in 1867. Only in the second half of June could potatoes be planted and other crops seeded. Freezing temperatures occurred each night between August 21 and August 23. The fall harvest was almost a total failure”.

“As far as loss of life was concerned, by far the worst year was 1868. In Vörå alone, 1,272 people died, 16% of the total population. The summer of 1868 was normal, and those who had seed or potatoes to plant had a good harvest, but by this time many people had already left, and there were other damages difficult to remedy”.

With Levlin’s article providing background, my two family accounts grow from incredible to likely.

1. The copper candlesticks

The first involves an explanation as to how the Olins from the Gertruds homestead in Soklot/Nykarleby acquired a pair of copper alloy candlesticks. In 1907, they were in the possession of Lovisa Jakobsdotter Gertruds Olin, the younger sister of my great grandmother, and her husband Jakob Mattsson Nyholm. When the Nyholms left Mount Vernon, WA permanently to return to Finland before WWI, they gave their niece who was also their foster daughter (my maternal grandmother), household items which they felt they no longer needed. Among these were the candlesticks. As our family traditions would have it, these were traded by wealthier townspeople in Finland for food during a period of famine. Apparently, people took items of value into the countryside to exchange for whatever food the farmers could spare.

The period in question might well be the 1860s to which Levlin has alluded above. Lovisa was a pre-teen at the time, and her parents may have subsequently added the candlesticks to her “kista” or bridal trousseau, an assortment of household items which as a newlywed, she would use to set-up housekeeping. When the Nyholms in their fifties decided that life in America was not meant for them, they left behind a treasure trove of goods appropriate for couples who married in Finland in the 1870s.

The candleholders themselves are finely tooled, about 19 cm tall and set upon a detachable circular pedestal into which the shaft can be screwed and unscrewed. They need not to have been factory made; but, by the same token, they were not made by a tinsmith either. Dating from post-industrial revolution in Finland, they could have been manufactured in Nykarleby. In 1964, I came across an identical pair for sale at a Nykarleby antique store. The outside circumference of the candle cup is about 9 cm. and is decorated with a row of 18 miniature eight-petaled flowers, each about 4 mm. high and wide which are stamped into the surface. Other raised areas of the shaft and pedestal are decorated either with simple parallel diagonal lines or with contiguous dots. The end result is a simple yet elegant and unobtrusive decoration. A Canadian antique dealer who had no prior experience with Scandinavian antiques once suggested that the pieces could have been a wedding gift, and in style could well represent the very early Art Nouveau movement.

Such candleholders may have represented a style, which was newly introduced into rural Finland in the 1860s and thus highly valued by the country people. Whenever our candleholders come up for redistribution within the family, they are among the first items to be selected by the heirs. This is unfortunate because a candleholder, probably much older, closer to the folk tradition and likely homemade, tends to be overlooked.

2. The long trek

The second oral account, “the long trek” takes into account the tragic consequences of the difficult years preceding 1868.

When my mother and I visited Vörå in 1964 in search of living descendants of my paternal grandparents’ siblings, we were directed to Sanford Slögs of Lotlax. He was the grandson of my grandfather’s sister. He lived across the road from the original Slögs/Nytomt homestead, which then was inhabited by his brother, whom we also visited. In the course of relating episodes pertaining to the lives of his great-grandparents, Sanford told me about the very difficult life our great-grandmother, Maria Beata Johansdoter Slögs Nytomt had led. Although he did not mention the year the story relates to, it must have been the summer of 1867 as my grandfather was said to have been a toddler at the time.

Maria’s husband, Erik Simonsson Jåfs Tuckor moved to the Slögs/Nytomt homestead upon his marriage in 1848. They lived in a small cottage near the larger house, where Maria had grown up. Maria and Erik had four children, the youngest being my grandfather, Simon Erik Erickson, born September 15, 1866. Around the time of my grandfather’s birth, Erik deserted his wife and children and moved to the Åland Islands.

Worse things, however, were to befall Maria. The famine of the 1860s affected severely the Slögs/Nytomt farm. It was anticipated that there would be insufficient food to bring all the component families through the winter of 1867-1868. Whether Maria volunteered to leave with her children or whether she was encouraged to do so, we were not told. Nonetheless, the 42 year old Maria with four children in tow began the long trek north to Sweden, and from the Swedish border south again until she found a household or farm owner sufficiently affluent to take on the responsibility of feeding five additional mouths and providing them shelter in exchange for whatever labor Maria and her oldest child or children might provide. Ten-months old at the end of July 1867, grandfather was in the throes of learning to walk; so it is likely that Maria carried him most of the way to Sweden. They relied upon the generous nature of the people along the way to share whatever they had. In compensation, Maria helped the benefactor by performing day labor. Might they have stopped at the Gertruds/Olin homestead near Nykarleby?

Some time later while in Sweden, Maria heard that conditions were improved in Finland so she began the long journey back home again, retracing the route on which she had come. All five survived the trip. Maria lived her golden years at the Slögs/Nytomt cottage, dying in 1887 at the age of 61. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather set out to seek his fortune in the copper region of northern Minnesota. Not once, however, did he recount his childhood experiences in Finland to his family in America.

A few years before my mother died, I asked her to make an inventory of all the Finland Swedes she knew about living in Skagit County, Washington prior to 1930. I wanted to know where had they come from in Finland, what some of the characteristics of those areas were. When we discussed the Finland Swedes who had come from Oravais and Vörå, her comment was, “These were exceptionally hardy and hard-working people.” Perhaps this showed natural selection in action. The hardy people to whom my mother referred were either survivors of the 1860s or their children.

Whatever else one might say, I suspect that we can all agree that family oral traditions need not be seen as merely attempts to glorify the past. Such traditions, when viewed in the context of relative data that has been independently collected and non-judgmentally presented, can do much to verify subjectively presented and perceived oral material. Data such as Levlin’s may also provide a much-needed basis for explaining why the oral traditions were retained and regarded as important enough to have been shared in the first place. Or, as the case may be, why particular ones were repressed. Record your family’s oral traditions as they may be more important than you realize!

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