Why all the Finns in the Up?
Skrivet av Matti Kaups   
2005-09-04 01:17

WHY ALL THE FINNS IN THE UP?   ....one man's opinion

The concentration of Finns of the northern periphery of the Middle West has been a source of commentary by pedestrians as well as scholars. "Environmentalist" assertions hold that the Finns actively sought for, located and settled amidst physical-geographical surroundings that either "resembled Finland," "looked like Finland," "were similar to Finland," or "reminded them of Finland." In the Lake Superior area, and more particularly in northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, they supposedly found this "Finland-like" environment. Hence, the fundamental supposition expressed by the "environmentalists"---that the distribution of Finnish immigrants was geographically induced---has through frequent repetition found general acceptance. Indeed, the myth is embodied in the region’s folklore.


Geographism is an explanatory approach to geographical aspects of human populations. It asserts that geographical attraction---provided by the physical-geographical environment in toto or by components thereof---is the causal factor (the independent variable) for determining where people choose to live. If true, geographism proponents would assert that, given freedom and land, the Finn in the United States will select an environment that reminds him of the home of his fathers. Accordingly, Finns selected the Lake Superior area for settlement because it was "home-like". So strong was the geographic hold on Finns that: "Every attempt to get away permanently from the Lake Superior region has failed. Thus is may be stated that, while non-geographic factors have played a part in the settlement of Finns in northeastern Minnesota, they have been only incidental, and the geographic factors have been primary." According to geographer Van Cleef, "the most influential" geographic factors alluring the Finns were: "...the similarity of topography, soil, and climate in Finland and northeastern Minnesota." as well as in the entire Lake Superior region.

 A Helsinki journalist who visited the United States observed that: "In general Finns in America have settled in the northern states, where the environmental conditions have more reminded of homeland than circumstances in other parts of the country." Another writes that,"...the Finns have always sought those regions of the United States which most closely resemble Finland." Thus, there is reason to identify these "resemblances," to establish their existence, and to ascertain and analyze methods by which proponents of geographism have transformed the inert "resemblances" into active causal attractors.

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Some authors declare, without further elaborating, that "climate" attracted Finns to this region. The majority of authors are of the opinion that aspects of winter, variously expressed, as "severe winter," "frost," "winter climate," "snow," "severe temperatures," attracted the Finns, while others, assert that "invigorating summers," and "seasonal changes," were what the Finns sought. Regrettably, geographists do not operationally define--nor do they explain--what constitutes "winter climate" or "severe temperatures." Neither do they provide an explanation as to when and how is "summer" sufficiently "invigorating" and "winter" snowy and severe enough to entice Finns to settle in certain areas.

 A comparative study of climatic conditions of the May-through-September period in Finland and North America reveals that summer climates of Finland have analogues in parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, and Alaska, and that year-round climatic conditions "not unlike those of Finland...can be found in a number of areas in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon..." and not at all in the Lake Superior regions."

Vegetation and hydrology?

References to vegetation and hydrographic features are likewise diverse and vague. "Natural meadows," "deciduous and coniferous trees," "berries," "fir," "peat," "spruce, pine, cherry, and birch woods," and "vegetation," all are said to have attracted the Finns. With regard to surface water features, "lakes" are the most frequently cited element of "attraction." One author suggests that "the inland-sea"--presumably Lake Superior--was important in that it reminded the Finns of Finland! Curiously, geographists offer no explanation as to what it is about lakes that supposedly attracted the Finns. Was it open water, or, was it snow and ice cover that lends a plains-like characteristic to lakes in the Lake Superior area for some four to five months a year? Others assert that "rivers" reminded the Finns of Finland.

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    Thus the composite, hypothetical "Finland-like" environment might be perceived of as a soundless, odorless environment of glaciated terrain; an area with swamps, soil, boulders, and hills; covered with deciduous and coniferous trees, berries and peat; having lakes, drained by rivers; a place with climate, snow, frost, winters, and summer as well. Clearly, the geographical conditions referred to are not confined to areas where the Finnish immigrants settled. Neither Finland nor the Lake Superior region have a monopoly on boulders, swamps, birch trees, conifers, rivers, lakes, and certain types of climate, on their respective continents. Indeed, Finland comprises at least four basic regions: 1) Coastal Finland; 2) Central Lake Region; 3) Eastern and Northern Hill Area, and 4) Lappland Tundra region. Finnish geographer Granö--whose regionalization of Finland appears in the 1925 edition of the Atlas of Finland--recognizes 19 different geographical provinces, comprising 41 districts and 111 geographical tracts, in Finland. Therefore, any oversimplification of Finland’s geography, whether it be expressed simply as "Finland," or as in phrases "reminds of/resembles/is similar to/looks like/Finland," must be rejected. The "Finland-like" environment, which purportedly attracted the Finns, must be regarded as mere conjectural constructs of geographism.

In Baraga County, Finns formed 58.9% and in Ontonagon County 53.6% of the total foreign-born population. Whatever factors had attracted the Finns there (according to geographists, attributes of the physical environment, as "swamps," "northern climate," "hills," "rocky soils," "cold and snowy winters,"), must also have been conducive to the Italians, English, Poles, Swedes, Austrians, French, Germans, Irish, Canadians, and other foreign-born peoples. At any rate they had to cope with the same environment as did the Finns.

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Most of the Finnish emigrants came from the plains of Coastal Finland, especially in southern Ostrobothnia, where extensive areas are void of lakes and of rocky soils, and where ecological problems associated with sporadic summer frosts with harvest seasons that tend to receive excess amounts of rain, with annual spring flooding, and with poor drainage of fields on clay soils, are paramount. Indeed, it is most puzzling as to how familiarity with such ecological concerns-or for that matter with the geographist created "attractors"-explains the fact that by far the majority of the Finns in the Lake Superior region located in towns and were employed in copper and iron mines. It is likewise difficult to conceive how laboring 10 to 12 hours a day six days per week in underground mines (or even in open-pit mines) would "look like" or "remind" anyone of Finland or of any of the geographical regions of Finland!

Thus, there is no evidence to support the implication advanced by geographists that arriving Finns possessed or had at their disposal detailed geographical knowledge about the United States, or, that once in America, they immediately embarked on fact collecting field trips so that they could discover and settle areas that would remind them "of the land of their fathers."  They came to the UP for work! Work in the mines.

Modified from a 1971 article by Matti Kaups, in the Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters.

Senast uppdaterad 2005-09-20 10:52
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