Tourists to the remote towns of the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan may be puzzled by the many Finnish flags adorning local businesses and homes. Evidence of Finnish culture and ancestral pride is ubiquitous in Michigan, which is less surprising when taking into account that Michigan is home to more Finnish Americans than any other state, with the majority of these calling the remote Upper Peninsula home (Loukinen, 1996). In fact, this region has more than fifty times the proportion of Finnish Americans than the rest of the United States (Loukinen, 1996).
The Great Finnish Emigration
Most of these Finnish settlers arrived on American soil during the “Great Finnish Immigration.” Between 1870 and 1929 an estimated 350,000 Finnish immigrants arrived in the United States, many of them settling in an area that would be come to known as the “Sauna Belt,” a region of especially high population density of Finnish Americans encompassing the northern counties of Wisconsin, the northwestern counties of Minnesota, and the central and northern counties of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Loukinen, 1996).
But why did so many Finns choose to settle half a world away? The answer lies in the many economic opportunities available in the “Sauna Belt” that were extremely scarce in Finland, a common dream to earn enough money to buy a farm, a need to escape from Russian oppression, and the Finn's deep cultural connection to the land.
Finding Home Half a World Away
Like Finland, Michigan's many lakes are the modern day remnants of glacial activity from thousands of years ago. In addition, due to Finland and Michigan's similar latitude and climate, these two regions have very similar ecosystems. Both areas are home to seemingly ubiquitous pine-dominated mixed forests, aspens, maples, and picturesque birches.
For those living off the land, both regions are located on beautiful peninsulas with a rich fish stock and woods full of delicious berries. The forests of both Michigan and Finland are home to a plethora of birds, bears, wolves, moose, elk, and reindeer.
Like Finland, Michigan experiences bitterly cold winters and mild summers. As a result of their common high latitude, both experience very long days in the summer and significantly shortened daylight hours in the winter.
It is easy to imagine that many of the Finnish immigrants arriving in Michigan after such a long sea voyage must have felt like they had found a piece of home half a world away.
The primary reason Finnish immigrants chose to immigrate to the US was for the job opportunities available in the mines prevalent in the Great Lakes area. Many of these Finnish immigrants were young, uneducated, unskilled men who had grown up on small rural farms but did not own land themselves (Heikkilä & Uschanov, 2004).
By Finnish rural tradition, the eldest son inherits the family farm. As the family plot of land is generally only large enough to support one family unit; splitting the land among siblings just was not an option. Instead, the oldest son inherited the farm and paid the younger siblings a cash compensation who were then forced to find work elsewhere (Heikkilä & Uschanov, 2004).
The Finnish people have a very deep cultural connection to the land, so many of these younger sons who were unable to inherit land were looking for some way to earn enough money to buy land to operate their own farm.
Now, in this point in history, Finland was experiencing rapid population growth. This rapid population growth was not accompanied by a rapid increase in industrialization, as seen in other European countries during this time, so a widespread job shortage occurred.
At the same time, American employers were actually experiencing a labor shortage. In fact, recruiters were known to come to Finland to encourage frustrated Finns to immigrate to America for work.
After some of the more adventurous Finns took the leap to emigrate and sailed to America, many wrote back home describing all of the opportunities they had found there (Loukinen, 1996). Some of these letters were actually published in local newspapers, encouraging many other Finns to follow them. “Amerika Fever” was spreading like wildfire. For the young, landless sons of Finland, immigration began to seem like the most viable option.
The Finns met these efforts to effectively eradicate their culture and political autonomy with widespread backlash, especially when Russia mandated a conscription law that forcibly drafted Finnish men to serve in the Russian Imperial Army.
Many young Finnish men of conscription age saw serving in the Russian Imperial Army as unjust, unlawful, and immoral, and chose instead to emigrate to America illegally without passports or other travel papers.
Like those who ventured to America seeking work, most if not all of these Finnish draft-dodgers had intentions to eventually return to Finland.
The Finns were wholly unprepared for the work that awaited them in the iron and copper mines. Many had come from rural farming families and were inexperienced laborers.
Some immigrants report being ordered to begin work the same day that they arrived in Michigan from Finland. In the mines, most of the Finns worked as “trammers,” the equivalent of a human pack mule, responsible for filling and operating wagons with the broken ore. Miners were horrendously overworked and were subjected to extremely dangerous working conditions in an era where labor laws either didn't properly exist or were largely unenforced.
In addition to being completely ill-equipped for the manual component of mining work, they were equally unprepared for the transition from the completely culturally homogenous rural Finland to a high stress working environment working side by side with other immigrants from many different cultures speaking many different languages. The Finns responded to the massive influx of other cultures by shrinking back into their own community and interacting with other racial groups with great hesitation.
Finns in the Upper Peninsula Today
With such a high proportion of Finnish Americans in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it is no wonder that even today Finnish culture is so intricately intertwined with the UP.
The word “Yooper” means several things to the people of Michigan. For one, a Yooper is a colloquial name for someone the Upper Peninsula (derived the acronym “UP”). Yooper is also a linguistic dialect found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that is heavily influenced by Finnish due to the masses of Finnish immigrants who settled in Copper Country.
In the UP of Michigan it is also possible to order a “Yooper” from Little Caesar's Pizza, which comes with pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms. Another signature UP dish is the pasty, a meat turnover that kept the miners satisfied through a hard day's work in the mine.
Yet another modern reminder of the UP's Finnish immigrant past lies in Finlandia University, a small private liberal arts college established in 1896 in the thick of Copper Country on the Keweenaw Peninsula of the UP. This University boasts a strong Finnish identity and is the only remaining university established by Finnish immigrants in North America.
Whether it was for economic opportunities, an escape from political oppression, or a strong cultural connection to the land, Finnish immigrants arrived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in droves, with most, if not all, believing that they would soon return to Finland. Generations later many of their descendants remain in this peninsula that looks eerily like their motherland; Finnish culture is still a very strong influence in the UP.