The History of Finnish Immigration to North America

With the support from the Finlandia Foundation, IES welcomed Ismo Söderling, former Director of the Institute of Migration in Turku, to give a lecture on the history of Finnish migration to North America. The first wave of Finnish immigration, Söderling surmised, came primarily from Sweden from the late-1500s to the 1800s. These migrants, who worked as farmers, were originally invited by the Kings of Sweden to cultivate land and subsequently became known as “Forest Finns.” The next wave of migrants also originated within Swedish territory. About fifty percent of the Swedish Delaware colony, New Sweden, was made up of Finns, with most of that group,  again considered Forest Finns due to their work as farmers.

The Finnish population had a role in early American history in the person of John Morton, a prominent political figure who signed the Declaration of Independence. In the nineteenth century, American fever finally struck Finland (much later than in other European countries), resulting in nearly ten percent of the Finnish population migrating to the United States. Because Finnish immigrants arrived so much later than those from other countries, work was primarily available in the industries of mining and logging.

Presently, Finns are the largest ethnic group in several counties in Northern Michigan and about 800,000 people in North America identify themselves as having Finnish ancestry. Söderling concluded by expressing an insatiable desire to preserve Finnish culture and history in the United States, especially through the formation of foundations and groups, as well as cultural celebrations such as Michigan’s “FinnFests.”