People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Finnish Americans

About the Finnish Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Finnish-American and more.


Where They Came From: After initial emigration waves from Finnish settlements inside Sweden, the vast majority of Finnish immigrants came from overpopulated and economically depressed northwestern Finland.

Why They Left: In the late 19th century, a threefold increase in population and the onset of industrialization forced hundreds of thousands of unskilled, agrarian peasants from the Finnish northwest south in search of work. The resulting economic crisis combined with two political factors-an 1878 decree mandating compulsory military service and a growing threat of Russification-to encourage emigration on a large scale.

Where They Settled: Attracted by the familiar scenery and climate, approximately 60% of Finnish immigrants settled in the upper Midwest and Northeast. Gold fever attracted some to California and Alaska, while the mining and lumber industries led a number to settle in the Northwest as well.

In 1970, Michigan and Minnesota accounted for nearly a third of the total number of first-and second-generation Finnish Americans, with California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington accounting for another third.

Numbers: The major wave of Finnish emigration began in the 1860s and lasted until 1920. It was prompted by the news of the California gold rush and the promises of recruiters from U.S. companies looking for laborers to work in the copper mines and to build the railroads. Prior to 1892, 36,401 emigrants came to the U.S. from Finland. Between 1893 and 1920, over 270,000 Finns emigrated, with a peak of 159,000 arriving between 1900 and 1910. In 1920 a new law was introduced limiting the number of immigrants from Finland to 560 per year. Since then, the number of Finns coming to the U.S. has been minimal. Only 400,000 first- and second-generation Finnish Americans were living in the U.S. according to the 1970 census figures.

Their Story in America: The Finns, having come to America relatively late, had trouble finding jobs in the traditional urban melting pots of the Northeast, so they dispersed, tending to settle in areas which resembled their homeland. There they found unskilled and semiskilled work in the mines, local industries, and fields, but seldom stayed permanently, working instead for the day when they could own their own farms.

The assimilation patterns common to most urban immigrants were greatly altered by the Finns' rural setting, and a combination of discrimination, homesickness, and, occasionally, guilt over having emigrated made many reluctant to learn English or adopt American ways. Generally, the result was a second generation of Finnish Americans who actively rejected the traditional ways of their parents (including the now popular sauna), and a third generation which is among the most Americanized and least identifiable of any major ethnic group.

Famous Finnish Americans: Architect Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen, whose works include the Smithsonian Art Gallery; his son, Eero Saarinen, who designed the CBS Tower in New York City; and engineer Vaino Hoover.

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