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Cultural Tracks: Finnish Americans in Michigan

Finnish Americans in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Historically, the UP has been and still is the nation’s primary settlement area for Finnish Americans, and they have left their cultural tracks on the region.


Cultural Tracks: Finnish Americans in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula


By Michael M. Loukinen

Professor Sociology

Northern Michigan University


Published in: A Sense of Place, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Essays in Honor of the Career of William Vandament editors: Michael Marsden and Russell Magnaghi,

Copyright Northern Michigan University Press, 1996


Due to its remarkable geographical isolation, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the “UP,” has remained a well-kept secret. Surrounded on three sides by lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, the UP had long remained inaccessible. After 1900, railroads finally forged economic and passenger links through Wisconsin, yet only when the seven-mile long Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957, did a more sustained degree cultural contact occur between UP residents and the rest of the nation. It is a wilderness area still approximately 85 percent forested. People work in mining, forestry, commercial fishing, farming, tourist services, universities, hospitals, and clinics. New growth industries are Indian gambling casinos and prisons.

The UP has always been a tough place to make a stand. It is known for its endless winters with gloomy-gray skies, deep burrowing black flies, mosquitos, ticks, bone-breaking ice under a thin snow powder cover, and white-outs in the passing lanes. Childrens’ boots and mittens are put on and taken off in a cycle of perpetual motion that is rumored to give kindergarten teachers a regionally specific carpal-tunnel syndrome. Wages and population density have something in common: they are low. Some of the counties are so sparsely populated that they come close to Frederick Jackson Turner’s definition of the American Frontier that was supposed to have ended by 1890 (less than two persons per square mile). In virtually all UP counties, deer outnumber people. Nevertheless, those who stay, and many who had to leave to find careers, maintain a profound love for this place.

Strange things happen in the UP that make headlines elsewhere. An Ann Arbor newspaper reported during the week of June 16, 1996 that a tourist had to explain to an Avis clerk in Detroit that he shouldn’t be charged for the damage to his rental car because an eagle dropped an eight pound sucker that whomped his roof, leaving an impressive dent. That same week, a retiree stepped out of his morning shower to find a doe crashing through his picture window. Grabbing a butcher knife, he wrestled the dazed animal through the hallway into the living room where the craziness ended in a pool of blood. This land is different, and its people are different.

A distinctive feature of this region is that one of the smallest of the Euro-American ethnic groups in America is one of the largest ethnic groups in the UP. Americans reporting “Finnish Ancestry” in the 1990 U.S. Census totaled 658,870, about three-tenths of one percent the national population. In the UP, the corresponding figure was 51,214 persons, amounting to 16.3 percent of the UP’s population of 313,915 people. Hence, the UP has more than fifty times the proportion of Finnish Americans as the nation. Finnish Americans in the UP are concentrated primarily in the northern central and northwestern counties, starting from Marquette County westward along the southern shore of Lake Superior. As one moves west, the proportion of Finnish Americans increases such that in Marquette County 22.1 percent are Finnish Americans, in Baraga County it is 34.6 percent, and in Keweenaw county it increases to 49.9 percent.

These 51,214 Finnish Americans in the UP are actually nested in a regional “Sauna Belt” stretching from the north central UP around the western shore of Lake Superior to include another 8,177 Finnish Americans in the five northernmost counties in Wisconsin, and 41,533 in five counties of northwestern Minnesota. Historically, the UP has been and still is the nation’s primary settlement area for Finnish Americans, and they have left their cultural tracks on the region.

The folklorist, Richard Dorson, came to the UP in 1946 to interview ethnic storytellers and noticed the strong cultural presence of the Finns. He wrote in his classic Blood Stoppers and Bear Walkers,

The coming of the Finn has rocked the north woods country. He is today what the red man was two centuries ago, the exotic stranger from another world. In many ways the popular myths surrounding the Indian and the Finn run parallel. Both derive from a shadowy Mongolian stock - ‘just look at their raised cheek-bones and slanting eyes.’ Both possess supernatural stamina, strength, and tenacity. Both drink feverishly and fight barbarously. Both practice shamanistic magic and ritual, drawn from a deep well of folk belief. Both are secretive, clannish, inscrutable, and steadfast in their own peculiar social code. Even the Finnish and Indian epics are supposedly kin, for did not Longfellow model ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ on the form of the Kalevala?


But where the Indians lost, the Finns have won the Peninsula. Streaming into America after the Civil War, Finns today live in every northern state from Massachussets to Oregon, but cluster most thickly in Michigan and Minnesota. Michigan has more Finns than any other state, 63,671 and four-fifths of them live in the Upper Peninsula. (Dorson 1952:122)


Between 1880-1920 in rural Finland, life was difficult for the many landless people. Rapid population growth among the rural poor, technological and crop changes that reduced the need for farm labor, the breakdown of the traditional labor exchange and bartering system, and the periodic threat of starvation left only a few bad choices for them. One could: starve; work long hours for meager benefits in a sharecropping-like arrangement with a rich, often authoritarian farmer; join a movement to overthrow the exploiting system; migrate to a Finnish city where many were unemployed; or emigrate to America (Kolehmainen 1951:3-21). When they emigrated, they were often accused by religious and political authorities of being unpatriotic (Hoglund 1977). Hence, a considerable number of immigrants carried a deep, life-long resentment toward the rich, the church, and the state. Nevertheless, most emigrated with the intention of earning enough money to return to Finland to buy a farm. A farm signified more than a way to make a living but also a strong psychic attachment to landscapes blended with meadows, lakes, rivers, and forests.

The first traces of Finnish immigration to the UP began in 1864 when a copper mining consortium recruited a dozen or more Finns who had been working as miners in northern Norway. Many of these miners had been inspired by the charismatic botanist-ethnographer-preacher, Lars Levi Laestadius, who preached hard core remorse and personal repentance within the congregation and urged separation from the world of alcohol, card play, and fleshly mire. Descendants of this group are found throughout the UP, with their largest congregation being the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church in Hancock, Michigan.

These miners had an unusually high literacy rate, and they wrote numerous letters to friends and relatives in their rural villages in Finland telling of “American Gold” which precipitated a chain migration initially dominated by single males, and later including females and families. By 1880, an estimated 1,500 Finns lived in Keweenaw and Houghton counties, the northwestern most part of the UP. Two decades later this area would become America’s foremost copper mining region (Alanen 1975; Kaups 1975). Erkki Vuorenmaa, who was featured in the film FINNISH AMERICAN LIVES (Loukinen 1984), emigrated from Töyssä in 1910 and joked on his 92nd birthday in Ironwood, Michigan that he had thought that he “could just come here and shake dat money tree, shovel dat money and haul it home in a wheelbarrow.” Edward Loukinen, who left Kittalä in 1903, was so obsessed with the Amerika Fever that villagers had joked that when he emigrated, he had left behind a wake of broken spruce limbs.

Subsequent Finnish immigrants also settled in the copper mining communities, especially in and around the boom town of Calumet in Houghton County. Although originally named “Calumet” after the Native American peace pipe, to the Finnish immigrants the town became known as “pesapäikka” (nesting place). It was a place where they had first planted American roots, where they had felt at home, where they would later return while between jobs. Many Finnish immigrant institutions such as churches, temperance societies, Finnish language newspapers, mutual benefit organizations, athletic teams, and other cultural organizations began in the Calumet area.

Finnish immigrants in Calumet found themselves in a very complex multiethnic environment that included thirty-two different language groups in 1880. According to the United States Census of 1880, in Michigan's Houghton and Keweenaw counties, which circumscribed most of the copper mining activity at the time, 48.9 percent of the population were immigrants, of whom 5.8 percent were Finns. By 1900, in Houghton County, the area of most of the copper mining activity: 42.6 percent of the total population were immigrants, 25.7 percent of whom were Finns (Kaups 1974:58). Hence, in the last two decades of the 19th century, the Finnish immigrant population increased fivefold in these copper mining counties.

Reaction to the growing immigrant population was mixed: mining companies welcomed them as inexpensive workers, while the English-speaking Americanized population were feeling some anxiety. Anti-foreigner sentiments, such as “fearing race suicide,” appeared in the local English language newspapers, especially when immigrant workers joined labor unions and went on strike (Thurner 1984:21; Lankton 1991:212). Consider a comparison with contemporary American society. In 1900, almost half of the population in Michigan’s Copper Country were immigrants. Today, we are currently witnessing a wave of public hostility toward immigrants, and some immigrant bashing legislative initiatives, when U.S. Census estimates suggest that, in 1995, only 8.7 percent of the U.S. population were foreign born, with higher levels in California (25 percent), Florida (15 percent), and New York (16 percent). One can understand the anxiety felt by the Anglicized natives in the UP’s mining communities, and Finnish immigrants felt it. They knew that they were not universally welcomed in their new land.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Finnish immigrant settlement extended to three iron mining ranges in the UP, all within about seventy-five miles of Calumet. This included the Marquette Iron Range towns of Ishpeming, Negaunee, Palmer, Champion, Republic, Humboldt, and the port city of Marquette (north central UP). In the early 1870s, Finns migrated southwest to the Menominee Iron Range towns: Iron River, Crystal Falls, Amasa, Stambaugh, Quinnesec, Norway, and Iron Mountain. By 1885, Finns were moving into the Gogebic Range towns in the western UP along the Wisconsin boundary: Ironwood, Bessemer, and Wakefield.

Between 1864 and 1924, an estimated 350,000 Finns immigrated to America. The 1930 U.S. Census documents the first drop in the number of Finnish immigrants, reflecting the sharp declines in immigration after the 1924 immigration restriction laws were enacted, when Finnish immigration fell to a trickle. This decline is also caused by the increasing mortality rates of the aging immigrant population, the largest portion of whom emigrated as teenagers and young adults during the period 1880-1924.

Other than for the early immigration of a small number of Finnish miners recruited from Norway, mining had been totally unknown to Finnish immigrants. Virtually all historians acknowledge an ethnic hierarchy in the mines between 1870s to the 1950s (Puotinen 1977; Lankton 1991:211). Foremen, security guards, and the higher-paid miners were usually English speaking Americans or Cornishmen. Finns, Croations, Italians, Hungarians, and more recently arrived immigrants were more likely to work as “trammers,” the poorly paid human mules who manually loaded copper and iron ore into steel cars. The work was dangerous, dirty, and incredibly exhausting; and, it was all too frequently interrupted by cave-ins, explosions, and strikes. Violence begot violence; and threats produced counter-threats. Labor law during this period was “the law of the jungle” determined by the security guards’ club or the barrel of the gun. Mainstream labor unions, such as the A.F.of L. ignored miners’ requests for support because they were too busy organizing skilled workers in urban factories; hence the more radical Western Federation of Miners from Montana moved into the vacuum to organize the unskilled immigrant miners (Thurner 1984). As compared to other immigrants, an usually high percentage of Finnish immigrants supported radical leftist organizations.

Between l900 and l920, an extensive back-to-the-land migration occurred from UP mining towns into the cut-over lands of the forested interior. During this period, there also began a migration to copper mining areas of Arizona and Montana. UP Finns moved to major cities in the Midwest, especially Detroit, when in 1905 Henry Ford announced that he would pay workingmen $5 a day. In Detroit, a “Finn Town,” with a rich array of immigrant institutions, eventually developed in the inner city during 1920-1950 (Loukinen 1982).

The Michigan Copper Country in the strike of 1913-1914 fueled the migration to the countryside as thousands of the disenchanted Finnish miners, many of them blacklisted, swarmed into the cut over forest lands with hopes of clearing the enormous White Pine stumps and establishing a farm (Loukinen 1979). Recall that Finns initially emigrated with the idea of earning money to buy a farm. The world somehow seemed right close to the forests; they felt at home near lakes and rivers surrounded by trees. Land fever spread quickly among the miners. Railroad companies that had been given enormous tracts of land to build railroads, and lumber companies who had cut their timber wanted to dump their lands. Much of the topsoil was thin and rocky, yet slick Finnish-speaking real estate agents promoted its agricultural potential to the frustrated Finnish miners. The leading Finnish-American historian, A. William Hoglund, concluded that many of the Finnish immigrants who bought farms in the cut-over regions of the UP on the periphery of the mining towns were essentially deceived by a clever promotional campaign (Hoglund 1978).

Throughout the UP, Finnish immigrants carved farms out of the forests and built rural "language island" communities. They established dairy farms and worked as lumberjacks during the winter months. Some observers in Finland, writing in Finnish language newspapers in America, encouraged this back-to-the-land migration since it offered the only hope of saving the Finnish language and nationality (Kolehmainen and Hill l95l:42). They had recognized that homogeneous Finnish rural communities would serve as bastions of support for immigrant culture, as it had for Norwegian and German farm communities. The Finnish language was spoken regularly in the homes, churches, labor halls, and cooperative stores until the l950s (Loukinen 1980).

Many of these rural hamlets have Finnish names, indicating the preponderance of saunas next to farmhouses: Aura, Nisula, Kiva, Yalmer, Tapiola, Little Finland, Suomi, Toivola, Paavola, Elo, and Askel. Others have mostly Finnish residents but their names give no such clue: Pelkie, Baraga, Klingville, Arnheim, Chassell, Winona, Twin Lakes, Green, Mass City, Ontonogan, Trenary, Eben, Sundell, Rumley, Rock, and Chatham. Lake Linden, Traprock, Ahmeek, Traverse Bay, Mud Lake, Bootjack, Princess Point, Jacobsville, Rabbit Bay, Rudyard, Newberry, Sugar Island, and Neebish Island. These communities served as cultural oases sustaining Finnishness until the second, third, and fourth generation migrations to urban areas gradually diminished the presence of immigrant culture (Loukinen 1992).

By l920, 47 percent of the Finnish immigrants in the U.S. lived in rural communities (defined as those having less than 2,500 people); and, in l940, 61 percent of the Finnish immigrant farmers lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Hoglund l978:4). Finnish settlement in the remote mining regions in the Western Lake Superior Region, and their subsequent migration into adjacent farming communities, made them the “most rural” of all of the Euro-American immigrant groups, with the exception of the Anabaptist Amish and Mennonite ethnoreligious enclaves (Fishman 1966). What were some main sociological characteristics of the Finnish immigrant population in the Western Lake Superior Region? Most of the men went through a similar occupational pattern: (1) Their childhood was spent on an economically impoverished, rural, labor-intensive farm in Finland. (2) Grueling underground copper or iron mining work was their first job in America, for which they were unprepared from previous occupational experience. (3) Accustomed to living in culturally homogeneous rural villages in Finland, in UP mining towns, they found themselves suddenly thrust into an extremely multicultural environment. (4) They participated in a secondary migration to a rural community on the outskirts of a mining town and worked dreadfully long hours clearing fields in cut over forested areas, established small scale dairy farms. Men left home to work as lumberjacks or part-time miners during the winter months. (5) The immigrant community was split into a political-religious schism: Church Finns were pro-company, anti-union, while “Red Finns” were anti-clerical and pro-union. (6) Single and some married women in towns worked as domestic workers for wealthier families; they were slower than the men to learn the English language, and they raised large families. On the farms, women worked in the barns and fields and cared for even larger families. During the winter months, while their husbands were working in lumber camps, they milked and butchered cows, chopped wood, cooked, washed, cleaned, read to their children, and did nearly everything that was to be done on a small dairy farm covered with three feet of snow.

Depending upon the exact time period of measuring immigrants’ literacy, the Finns were the first or second “most literate” of all of the immigrants from Europe, surpassing and sometimes losing by a percentage point to eastern European Jews (Fishman 1966). Literacy (in Finnish) among these immigrants was 96 to 99 percent. One scholar estimates that by 1930, three-hundred fifty different Finnish language newspapers and periodicals were published in America (Hoglund 1979). Aside from this exceptionally high literacy rate, a large Finnish language print industry was due to the tendency for Finns to get into bitter religious and political internecine quarrels. Following a dispute, a faction would leave to start a new group and establish their own newspaper (Ollila 1975). Curiously, these “most literate” Finnish and Jewish immigrants also placed first and second, respectively, in the proportion of their group that supported the American Workers’ Communist Party (Kostianen 1978; Kivisto 1984).

Americanized neighbors thought the Finns were clannish and secretive. They were distinctive with respect to the different immigrant groups in the mining town environments in the UP insofar as they had found it far more difficult and less necessary (since there were so many of them) to learn to speak English. “After having lived in America for ten years, nearly all of the other immigrant miners had learned to speak English, but there were still 25.9 percent of the Finnish miners [in Calumet, MI] who were speaking only their ancestral language” (Loukinen1982:170). This linguistic distance from other European immigrants and assimilated Americans made them socially distant as well. Americanized English speakers disliked their clannishness, and this became a central feature of the stereotype of the Finns, who in turn, referred to all other immigrants with the words “toisenkielliset” (other tongues). Their language served to define themselves as different and separate from others.

This social distance from non-Finnish immigrants and English-speaking American-born persons contributed to the exceptionally high endogamy rate within the Finnish immigrant community. Although their are no studies of intermarriage of Finns in UP mining towns, other studies can inform us. An 1895 count of 176 married Finns in Duluth, Minnesota revealed only 46 (26.1 percent) were married to non-Finns (Kaups 1982:78). A study in New York City in 1921 reported a 92 percent endogamy rate among immigrants. A study in rural Minnesota in 1942 found an 87 percent rate (Nelson 1943). Using a sample of 1980 Census, “single Finnish ancestry” reports of respondents and their year of birth (before 1920) to infer that these persons were likely to have had both parents who were Finnish immigrants, it is estimated that there was an 84 percent immigrant endogamy rate in America (Stoller and Karni 1992). Community studies, combined with estimates based upon census ancestry reports, suggest an extremely high degree of endogamy among Finnish immigrants, higher than that of practically all other European immigrant groups. When a second ancestry was reported, it was usually of another Scandinavian group. Ten percent said they were Swedish and Finnish (Stoller and Karni 1992).

Acknowledgements to: Michael M. Loukinen

For rights and permissions contact: Originally Published in: A Sense of Place, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Essays in Honor of the Career of William Vandament editors: Michael Marsden and Russell Magnaghi, Copyright Northern Michigan University Press, 1996

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