The Story of Emigration
by Judith Maxwell

For most of us whose parents, grandparents, or great grandparents immigrated to this country from Finland, we find that they arrived here in the early years of the 20th century. Although Finns began emigrating to the future US in 1638 and continue to do so to this day, Finnish Emigration Institute data show that the peak years of emigration to North America werethe late 1890’s until about 1915. (It went to near zero during the First World War.) The greatest numbers, based on passport records, were 23,152 emigrants in 1902 and 20,057 in 1913, with almost as many every year betweenthose two dates.

Official records show 271,120, mostly men (60%), left to cross the Atlantic from 1893-1919. This does not include the many who left unofficially without passports by jumping ship in American harbors or by slipping over the borders into Norway and Sweden. If the Emigration Institute has no record of your relative’s departure, maybe it’s because he left one of these ways!

Why did so many people choose to leave Finland in this period of about two decades? Of course, each one left for his or her own reasons, but for the most part the answer to the question lies not in Finland itself, but in St. Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire, and in the tsar who lived there, Nicholas II (reigned 1895-1917).

When Finland became part of the Russian Empire in April 1808 under Tsar Alexander I, it was granted an unusual number of rights. Alexander summoned the Finnish parliament to Porvoo and guaranteed the continuance of all Finnish institutions. Finland was to have its own flag, army, navy, customs, postal service, and railway system. Finns had their own Senate and parliament, local governments, budget, debt, law courts, schools, and universities. The Russian tsar was their Grand Duke rather than their emperor. In return for these rights, they made him a yearly payment of 250,000 marks.

The reasons Alexander granted the Finns so much was perhaps that he wanted to end the battle over Finland as soon as possible because the war with Sweden over it was very unpopular at home among the Russians; he had other wars to worry about - not the least was with Napoleon; and he may have wanted to make staying with Russia instead of Sweden as attractive as possible to the Finns.

Finland retained these rights, with some ups and downs, throughout the rest of the 19th century until Nicholas II assumed the throne in Jan. 1895. As a person, he was said to be modest, a good family man, and, at times, charming, but as a tsar he was weak, vacillating, stubborn, incompetent, apolitical and isolated at a time of turmoil when political skills were of utmost importance.

The years 1895-1914 under Nicholas were a period of a Russification policy against the Finns that threatened to destroy their national political life. The years 1904-12 particularly were years of upheaval, strikes and riots in all of Russia - all leading to the downfall of the monarchy. In all the corners of the empire such as Finland, there was enough turmoil and uncertainty about the future to cause people to leave for safer shores.

Even before Nicholas, in the last half of the 19th century the sense of nationalism sweeping across all Europe put Russian and Finnish goals on a collision course. Nationalism in Russia led to people’s believing their customs and ways were so good that they ought to impose them on non-Russian and non-Orthodox peoples within or on their borders to ‘Russify’ them.

Nationalism among the Finns, on the other hand, led them to want more independence. For example, they disliked having Russian officers in their militias and when the Russian language was imposed upon them as the official language in 1900, they deeply resented the use of Russian in their schools and administrations. (This sense of nationalism also grew among both the Swedish and Finnish Finns in Finland in these years and increased tension between them.)

In Feb. 1899 Nicholas issued a manifesto that allowed him to enact laws enforceable in Finland and to supervise all laws made in Finland if they affected Russia - which most laws did. A new oath of allegiance to Russia and the tsar was given to the Finns to take. A delegation of Finns sent to St. Petersburg to present a petition of protest to the tsar was not received at court.

The Military Service Law of 1901, aimed at drafting young Finnish men, declared that Finnish conscripts could be sent to fight anywhere in Russia or on its borders as needed. The Russians demanded that Finnish military recruits serve in Russian regiments and that their own army be disbanded.

They extended the years of military service from three to 18. In 1902 when called to the draft, many young Finnish men simply emigrated - this led to the peak emigration year indicated above. They flocked to seek pass ports to leave the country. To keep them from leaving, local county and town authorities often declined to give them passports because they had recruitment quotas to fill, but the men left anyway - often with no or false passports or under assumed names. If in researching your ancestors you find your grandfather had one name in Finland and another one here or different from his brother’s, that may be why.

In 1904 the rights of Finland were formally restored and the Finnish parliament was called to meet again on the basis of universal suffrage and proportional representation. This sudden turnabout came because the tsar was occupied with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which he lost, and the Revolution of 1905 at home, which he put down. Many Finnish emigrants returned home with this turn of events.

The respite was soon shattered. Twice in 1907 and again in 1909 and 1911 Russia threatened war on Finland. Russian soldiers stationed in Finland were supplied with ammunition and horses in preparation. In 1908 Finland again became the object of repression and Russification. In 1910 the Bill on Finland was introduced. It put all Finnish affairs under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry and the Duma. This bad state of affairs continued and economic and political conditions worsened up to the time of World War I. There was also great political dissension and turmoil in Finland itself. Daily life was full of fear, suspicion, and insecurity. Such conditions caused many people to emigrate. In 1914 another secret Great Russification program was revealed, which estranged even more Finns from Russia. The war years brought unemployment and hunger to Finland.

When the tsarist regime collapsed, Finnish autonomy rights were once again restored by the Russians (March, 1917), but this time the Finns wanted a great deal more. In 1918, in a war against her own and Russian Bolsheviks, Finland fought herself into independence from Russia under General Mannerheim.

While the above-described political, economic, and military events of those two decades were pushing Finns out of Finland by the thousands, there were things pulling them to the Americas, first toward the US, later to Canada, too, and in smaller numbers to South America. Previously the greatest number of emigrants had gone to Sweden and other countries around the Baltic. With all this uncertainty and repression as well as poverty and undeveloped conditions at home, young Finns began hearing about great wealth and opportunity in North America - some of it exaggerated in letters from Finns already in the United States and from paid migration recruiters. Reading in workers’ newspapers that working conditions in America were better than at home turned the tide; previously, many assumed conditions for workers were the same everywhere. The emigrants- most of them young, male, and rural - went where the jobs were. Also significant was that Finnish shipping lines about this time had been formed or expanded to be able to move them quickly to North America.

Most Finnish immigrants to the U.S. at first became laborers in mines and industries, but then the strong desire to own their own land - the dream of every European peasant - took many of them out of the mines and factories to farm their own land.

Most of the women who emigrated in those years became domestic workers in America, where they could earn 20 times as much as a maid back home. Finnish and Scandinavian women were greatly valued by their wealthy American employers for being honest, clean, and hard working.

©2004 Judith Maxwell/Finger Lakes Finns
newsletter May 2004


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