For the people of Finland, mass emigration to the United States did not begin until very late in the 19th century, and the number of Finnish immigrants does not compare with those of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Emigration had a tremendous effect on the Finnish homeland, however, which in a few decades lost roughly ten percent of its population.
Early Finnish immigration to North America is very difficult to track, as the land that is now independent Finland was claimed by several competing countries over much of its history. Although it seems certain that Finnish explorers and colonists joined the Dutch and Scandinavian expeditions to eastern shores of the New World, they were often classified on ship's rosters as citizens of Sweden or Russia. It is known, however, that Finns were among the first Europeans to settle in Alaska, during the early 19th century, and even served as the territory's governors.
By the middle of the 19th century, Finns had begun arriving in the U.S. in significant numbers, many fleeing the increasingly anti-Finnish policies of the Russian government. Recruiters for U.S. companies and governments traveled to Finland to encourage emigration, as did some of the successful earlier emigrants. As a result of these recruiting efforts, many early Finnish immigrants were guided to very specific locations in the U.S., and small Finnish communities sprang up in locales as far-flung as Calumet, Michigan; Gloucester, Massachusetts; and Montgomery, Alabama.
At the turn of the 20th century, Finnish immigration exploded. The decades of struggle for Finnish independence from Russia were at a boiling point, and Finns fled the instability in their homeland at a breathtaking rate. Between 1890 and 1914, more than 200,000 Finns arrived, two-thirds of total Finnish immigration to that point, and more than 30,000 followed before immigration was curtailed in 1924.
The new Finnish immigrants poured into the farms and lumber mills of the Great Lakes states, the mines of the western mountains, the factories of New York City, and, later, into the auto plants of Detroit. In 1900 the Finnish population of Detroit was 15; in 1938 it was 15,000. Michigan became, and remains, the heart of Finnish America, and is the home of the only Finnish institution of higher education in the U.S., Suomi College in Hancock.
Finns faced greater challenges than many of the Scandinavian immigrants that preceded them. The Finnish language is radically different from all other European languages, and Finnish-speaking immigrants had greater difficulty learning English than those who spoke Swedish or Norwegian. As a result, many Finnish immigrants were relegated to low-paying unskilled jobs that did not require English-language skills, such as factory work and manual labor. At the same time, the decades of high Finnish immigration coincided with a period of increased public hostility towards immigrants, and Finns were often subjected to discrimination in housing and jobs, as well as public insults and physical attacks.
Despite these challenges, the Finnish communities of the U.S. grew and thrived, and continued to do so. In the 2000 census, 623,000 people identified themselves as Finnish Americans.
To hear the Finnish language spoken and sung, search the collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.