Finnish and Sami Settlement in Michigan's Copper Country
By James Kurtti

Researcher James Kurtti reports about Scandinavian settlement in Copper Country, Michigan, where many residents are finding that they have Sami ancestry

During my youth, my late father, Aale Kurtti, intrigued and puzzled me more than once with a statement to which I gave little credence at the time. He would say, "There is no such thing as a real Finn". Both of his parents were born in Finland, spoke nearly only Finnish, lived in a Finnish community and belonged to a Finnish church. If they weren't Finns who was, I thought. Perhaps this was the beginning of my finding the answer.

In my late teens I began a genealogy of my family and little by little I learned why grandma was so dark and why grandpa had been a reindeer herdsman -- sometimes driving the reindeer herds as far away as the White Sea from his home in Kuusamo, (an area near the Russian border and just below the Arctic Circle). I discovered that grandmas's maiden name, Kallunki, was a Sami word referring to a special type of boot made from the forehead skin of the reindeer. I learned that quite a few of my ancestral lines go back to Sami people assimilated into the Finnish culture during the previous centuries.

More recently, initiated through contacts with Arran and a visit from Mel Olsen to the Copper Country area of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, discussions with other Finnish-Americans have revealed that many Copper Country Finns have similar family histories. The following is a brief outline of Finnish migration to the Copper Country and its connection to the cultural history of the Sami People.

The first major Finnish emigration to the United States began in 1864. These early pioneers did not come from Finland proper but were immigrants from Norway. In the northern-most provinces of Norway -- namely Finnmark (Ruija in Finnish) and Tromsø, more than 6,000 Finns had settled, coming mainly from the northern parishes of Oulu Province.

Hard times had sent them searching for livelihoods as farmers, fishermen and miners to the Arctic coast of Norway. In particular, famines in the early 1860s drove many Finns from their home parishes. They soon discovered that northern Norway was no paradise either. Farming the poor, rocky soil, coupled with icy blasts from the sea, proved to be nearly impossible. Fishing the rough and unpredictable seas of the Arctic Ocean wasn't much better. The common saying among the residents was, "Few of the poor fishermen end their days in bed." Of the three choices for survival, though, one could argue that mining was the most dangerous and destructive to both body and spirit.

Along with the Indigenous Sami population, the newly-arrived Finns were treated with all of the typical manifestations of prejudice. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Finns and the Sami, whose ethnic distinctions are sometimes blurred in history, found themselves once more bound in their common, poor human conditions. Not only were these people subjugated by the dominant culture, but they were further linked by their adherence to the teachings of Lars Levi Laestadius, with a religious fervor the Norwegians authorities found incomprehensible and frightening. Where once the down-trodden miners and fishermen were seeking solace behind bottles of intoxicants and other unsavory life-choices, the newly "awakened" were now shunning all manner of unclean living such as the consumption of alcohol and gambling, as well as the trappings of worldliness. Finery and adornment of one's self or home were seen as instruments of the devil. To the early Laestadians even combing one's hair in front of a mirror was considered to be a sinful act of pride.

During these turbulant years, two other significant changes were affecting the residents of north Norway and consequently Finland. On one hand the copper mines of Kaåfjord (Kaavuono) began to decline throwing the miners into joblessness. On the other hand, the recent ending of the American Civil War had started an economic boom in the United States -- complicated by a shortage of able-bodied men due to large losses in battle. The beginnings of European settlement in what would later be caller Copper Country, (Kuparisaari), began after state geologist Douglas Houghton reported significant deposits of Copper throughout the Keweenaw peninsula in 1841. Hancock's first resident, Houghton himself, settled there until 1846. In the late 1850s he moved across the Portage Canal to what would eventually become the village of Houghton. The Calumet area's first resident, a copper prospector, came in 1856. In 1864 a Norwegian, Christian Tafte was commissioned by the Calumet Mining Company to recruit experienced miners from the copper mines of Alten and Roros in northern Norway.

On the 17th of May, 1865, a sailing ship left Trondheim harbor with 30+ Finns and Sami, as well as some Norwegians and Swedes. The ship sailed into Quebec where the bewildered immigrants attempted to purchase tickets to Quincy (mine), a place which could not be located on a map of Michigan. Only after considerable confusion, it was recalled by someone in the group, that the name Hancock, Michigan was somehow involved with their destination. They were transported by ships on the Great Lakes to Hancock. They arrived on Midsummer's Eve in a desolate place, where a scattering of buildings were situated between ravines steeply-sloping from the top of Quincy Hill and mine site to the shore of the Portage Canal. The following day the miners were transported to their new residences in Swedetown, located just outside of Hancock and near the Quincy Mine. They were surprised to learn that Midsummer was not a holiday in the new world and they were sent to work the very first morning.

Two of these early immigrant miners returned to Norway where they gave glowing reports of life in the new land, causing many to follow. Within a few short years "America Fever" had spread as far as the Finnish communities of the Kola Peninsula in Russia, where as many as one in six residents left some communities. The total Finnish population of Norway to emigrate didn't exceed 1,000 persons, but its influence on Finland's migration was profound. As in the Kola Peninsula, news traveled quickly through the northern parishes of Finland, in particular in Oulu province. Within a short period of time these new miners were leaving directly from Finland to America, unlike the first settlers who had been as long as two generations in Norway. By 1873 more than 1,000 Finns and Sami were living in Michigan's Copper Country which the new immigrants were calling "Amerikan Lappi; America's Lapland".

Just as these early pioneers brought with them their language and culture, so too they brought their convictions. In 1876 the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns of the Copper Country formed a united congregation. A small church was built on Quincy Hill which served the multilingual population, followed by a sister congregation in Calumet. The first pastor, a Norwegian, A.F.F.Fredericksen, preached to the Finnish population through an interpreter. After four years, Frederisksen was replaced by H. Roernaes, who was able to speak Norwegian and some Finnish. He quickly became aware of the Laestadian fervor of the Finnish-speaking members and he attempted to subdue their emotional manifestations during his services, as well as their "cottage meetings." By 1871 the Laestadians in the Copper Country requested spiritual leaders of their own persuasion from Europe.

Answering the call were Antti Witikkohuhta (also called Brannarin Antti), of Hammerfest, Norway and Salomon Korteneimi of Alkkula, Sweden. The division between the mainstream Lutherans and the Laestadians increased. Eventually Roernaes refused the sacraments of the church to the Laestadians. The Laestadians sought legal advice. The advice given was for them to simply start their own congregation since they were in America and not under the state church system of Europe. The Laestadians founded the Salomon Korteniemi Lutheran Society and in 1873 built their own church building on Pine street in Calumet. In retaliation, Pastor Roernaes had Salomon Korteniemi, a lay preacher, jailed for marrying a couple without authority. A law suit ensued. Nevertheless, the Laestadians were able to continue as their own congregation, which became known as the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. As the Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish populations grew, each ethnic group formed their respective denominations of mainstream Lutheranism.

Emigration from Finland began in the north and spread south. By the late 1890s throngs of new immigrants arrived in Copper Country and eventually the largest group consisted of people from Vaasa Province, including a significant number of Swedish-speaking Finns. Between 350,000 and 400,000 Finns emigrated to America, with Michigan receiving roughly 20% of them. The Copper Country became the world's largest producer of copper and by 1910 the population of Houghton County swelled to 88,098. The 1990 Federal Census recorded 33,446 residents in Houghton County with Finnish-Americans making up the largest ethnic group. (The same is true for nine of the fifteen counties in the Upper Peninsula).

Growth continued in Copper Country until 1913 when the miners began to unionize and strikes rocked the status quo. Low wages and horrible working conditions caused many to join the ranks of picket lines, including the wives and children of miners. The worker's strife culminated on Christmas Eve, 1913, in Calumet. A benefit Christmas party for the children of striking miners was held in the upstairs auditorium of the Italian Hall. During the program, reportedly a hired strike-breaker, yelled "Fire!" from the bottom of the stairs which led onto the street. Panic ensued and the fear-stricken participants, mainly children and mainly Finnish, rushed the stairs. The doors opened inward and as the crowd continued to press toward the only known exit, those at the bottom of the stairs were crushed and suffocated. Seventy-three people were killed, of which 49 were listed as Finnish; two-thirds were female and 58 were children. Among the Finns were several Sami surnames including Brita Kallunki and her two daughters, Effia and Anna (Kuolajärvi parish, Finland) and Aina Isola and her daughter Tilma (also Kuolajärvi), as well as other northern Finland, perhaps Sami, e.g. Kotajärvi, Vuokkila, Lantto, and Petteri (Kemijärvi) and Rytilahti (Rovaneimi).

This disaster shifted public opinion and not long afterward, the strikers gained many important concessions. However, copper prices dropped and many miners left Copper Country for mines in Minnesota and Montana. Likewise, others gave up mining to settle in farming communities in the Upper Peninsula, Northern Minnesota, the Dakotas, Oregon and Washington.

The early Finns who came from Finnmark and Tromsø were usually listed as Norwegians, while Finns coming from Finland prior to 1917 (when Finland separated from the Russian Empire) were classified as Russians. Likewise the Sami who left Norway, Sweden, and perhaps in particular Finland, were labeled Norwegians, Swedes and Finns respectively. Through genealogical research many Copper Country residents are finding that they are not simply Finnish or simply Swedish. Some have discovered that family discussions alluding to Sami ancestry have more merit than previously thought. Not only can many say that they have Sami bloodlines, but that their family histories have been influenced and nurtured by Sami/Arctic, Scandinavian, world view, and religious expression. Certainly continuing education and research will come to prove even more.

James N. Kurtti is the director of the Finnish-American Heritage Center and the Editor of the Finnish-American Reporter. Long dedicated to genealogical research and ethnic heritage, he has played a significant and tireless role in the rebirth of ethnic energy in Copper Country.

This article was previously published on by Arran, The Sámi Siida of North America.