By Jennifer Kotila
This year marks 150 years of modern Finnish immigration to America. Although Cokato was not the first place Finns settled, it is the oldest continuous settlement of those of Finnish descent.
Dassel resident Richard Tormanen, with the assistance of members of the Cokato Finnish-American Historical Society (CFAHS), has conducted hours of research to portray the most accurate history of the migration of Finns from Finland to Minnesota and the Cokato area.
He has created a PowerPoint presentation that he shared at the CFAHS’s spring Memorial Day Celebration in May, and will again be shared during FinnFest 2014.
While events have been taking place throughout the summer, the main weekend for FinnFest 2014 is Aug. 7-10, with numerous events taking place.
Copies of Tormanen’s presentation will be available for sale in several formats at FinnFest, and a day-long genealogy symposium will take place Thursday, Aug. 7.
For more information on FinnFest 2014, and a schedule of events, click on the link under Featured Links at www.dasselcokato.com.
Minnesota is the home of the largest percentage of Finnish-related persons in any single state in the US, according to the FinnFest website.
The Twin Cities, together with nearby Wisconsin communities, creates the largest metropolitan population of Finns in the US, with 44,204 out of the 2,968,806 population identifying as having Finnish ancestry.
The descendents of the first immigrants to the Cokato, Kingston, and French Lake areas still make up a large portion of the local population.
The majority of the information in this article is taken from Richard Tormanen’s PowerPoint presentation.
Finnish migration to northern Norway begins in early 1700s
Beginning in 1720, Finnish-speaking people from Northern Finland and the Tornio River valley moved to river basins and fjord-ends in Troms and the western parts of Finnmark along the northern coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle.
An earlier migration of Finnish-speaking people to Varmland, Sweden from Vaso and Savo, Finland had taken place in the 1500s,
A second, larger wave of immigration, motivated by the fishing industry, took place from 1820 to 1890, to the coastal areas of eastern Finnmark and the Kola peninsula of Russia.
The migration of the Finnish people to these areas occurred because the Finnish population was becoming crowded within the confines of its borders, suffering from famine, food shortages, and epidemics.
In the small, rural settlements scattered throughout the northern region of Finland, game and fish were becoming scarce in the fields and streams, and unfavorable climate and soil conditions led to famine and food shortages in the 1860s.
It was also becoming more difficult for Finns to gain title to their holdings, and high taxes made small landowners question their future.
The Laestadian Awakening
At this time, a large number of these Finns had also been touched by the Laestadian Awakening, and fellow countrymen were unsympathetic to the new religious teachings.
Lars Levi Laestadius was a Lutheran pastor who served in northern Sweden from 1825-1861, according to the Laestadian Lutheran Church.
Laestadius was helped into “living faith” in 1844, by a woman named Milla Clementsdotter, a member of a group known as “Readers,” leading to his conversion and filling his sermons with the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the church.
A revival movement began, and soon spread far beyond the borders of Swedish Lapland, according to church history.
Many of the Finns who had migrated north were followers of the Laestadian movement, but the Norwegian government began a campaign to assimilate the migrants around the 1850s. This campaign continued through World War II.
Native Sami were also subject to the Nowegian government’s assimilation campaign.
The Sami are the indigenous people inhabiting far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They live in the Arctic Circle and traditionally live off the land and sea, herding reindeer and fishing.
During assimilation, the Norwegian government banned the Finnish and Sami languages from schools and government offices, and the immigrants were not allowed to purchase land unless they adopted Norwegian surnames.
Eventually, selling land to someone who did not speak Norwegian was prohibited.
Widespread drunkenness, gambling, dancing, and riotous behavior in the fishing towns was worrisome to the followers of Laestadius.
The followers of the Laestadius Awakening had to worship inside their dwellings, as the state religion was the only one allowed in this region.
Coming to America
Because many of the Finns who emigrated to America were followers of the Laestadian Movement, the migration is often called the Laestadian Migration, as well as the modern Finnish migration.
Beginning in the 1860s, Finnish immigrants in the Tromso and Finnmark regions learned of land and jobs available in the Americas.
Through the 1890s, the Finns and Sami from northern Norway emigrated to the Americas, with those from the Kola Peninsula joining them in the 1880s.
There are many reasons the Finns chose Minnesota as the place to settle, including free homestead lands and the need for unskilled labor to build the railroads, clear lumber, and work in the mines.
The similar nature, climate, and landscape to Finland meant the immigrants already had the knowledge needed to clear the land and grow crops in Minnesota.
The first group of Finns left Vadso, Norway in Finnmark in 1864 to begin a three-month journey to America, which included transfers to different sailing vessels in Tromso and Trondheim, Norway and Liverpool, England.
The group consisted of three families and several single men, and the transatlantic voyage took about seven weeks.
Docking in Quebec, Canada, the group boarded a steamer that would take them through the Great Lakes to Chicago, took the train to La Crosse, WI, and then a riverboat to Red Wing.
A severe cholera outbreak led the Finns to move southwest on the Minnesota River to St. Peter.
A second group of Finns also arrived in Red Wing in 1864, after traveling a seven-week voyage across the Atlantic from Hammerfest, Norway to Philadelphia, PA.
This group, consisting of a family and two single men, probably traveled via train to Pittsburgh, then by steamboat down the Ohio River, and up the Mississippi River to Red Wing.
Finns settle near Cokato
Some of the members of the third group of Finns to arrive in Red Wing would eventually make their way to Cokato, arriving in Minnesota in 1864.
This group included Elias Peltopera, and his wife Esaias Kujala, who were both from Kemijarvi, Finland.
The couple stayed in Red Wing and worked cutting cord wood for the river boats. The following year, Elias traveled to Minneapolis and then walked to Cokato with three other men to establish homesteads.
Matti Maatta, from Kuusamo, Finland, another member of the third group, joined the Union Army and deserted. He would later buy a homestead in Cokato Township, using the name Hendrickson.
The first Finnish homesteader in the Cokato area was not a part of this third group; Isaac Hare, Jr. settled in Mooers Prairie Township (now Stockholm Township), about two miles south of Cokato.
Hare made his claim to the settlement in April 1865, but cancelled it in December 1866. His wife subsequently died, and is buried on the homestead.
There were three men who joined Peltopera in his journey to Cokato Mathias (Karjenaho) Abrahamson, Olof Westerberg, and Johan Viinikka.
The four men met in Red Wing, and were more interested in farming than cutting wood, so they went to Minneapolis in the spring of 1865.
Hearing that there was still homesteading land available about 50 miles west of Minneapolis, the men set off on foot June 22, 1865, to stake their claims.
Each man claimed 80 acres of land northwest of Cokato Lake. The following are their stories.
When only 6 years old, Abrahamson was told by his father to leave home in Pulkkila, Finland in 1841, and make his own way in the world.
He traveled to Alatornio, Finland to live as a beggar with his father’s aunt, then walked to Visisaari (now Vadso), Norway when he came of age.
However, Abrahamson was unable to find a job, and one day, walked into Peterson’s Hardware to buy rope to hang himself.
The owner of the hardware store took pity on Abrahamson, offering him a job and a place to live. Abrahamson was a faithful employee for seven years before coming to America seeking free land.
After staking his claim in Cokato, Abrahamson later sold it and went back to Minneapolis to work in the brick yards. However, he returned to Cokato to do custom brick work after he purchased a team of oxen.
Hearing rumors of a gold strike in California, Abrahamson traveled the newly-finished railroad to strike it rich, but was not so lucky. He returned again to Cokato, making his living buying and selling farm sites.
Although a temporary shelter had been built on Abrahamson’s claim, the first cabin was built near a large meadow near the center of Peltopera’s claim.
He was also the first Finn to clear a small plot of land in his homestead, planting potatoes.
He sold his homestead rights in 1870, and moved to Oregon.
Viinikka (Wiinikka)’s story
Viinikka was born in 1806, in Kukkola, Torniojoki, Sweden, and came from Norway to Cokato in 1865.
After claiming his land, he returned to Minneapolis to work through the winter and hold his family over.
The following spring, he returned to build a home, after which his wife and children joined him. His son, Henry, also joined his father and raised a family.
Westerberg was born in 1816 in Torniojoki, Sweden, coming to America in 1865 with his family.
He also went back to Minneapolis the first winter to work, returning to his claim to work the land the following spring.
The second group of Finns in Cokato
In 1866, a second group of Finns arrived in Cokato to stake their claim to homestead land Isak and Eva (Parpa) Barberg and Adam and Anna Ongamo.
The men left to work in Greanleaf in Meeker County for the summer, leaving the two women and a child in the small 12-foot-by-14-foot cabin that was built for shelter.
Upon their return, the men found the two women and the child, along with two additional families, living in the small cabin.
During their time away, the Sepponens and Selvalas had arrived to stake claims; there were 10 people living in the small cabin that had been built.
The Barbergs are the oldest continuous family living in the Cokato area; a descendant, Harvey Barberg is the current president of the CFAHS.
Finnish immigrants continued to come to the Cokato area through the early 1900s.
During the 1870s, Finns who had immigrated to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan throughout the 1850-70s to work in the copper mines found the work too hard, the pay too little, and the working conditions poor.
Hearing of the opportunities and good farmland available near Cokato, a large number of the Finns from Michigan emigrated to Wright and Meeker counties.
Finnish congregations form in the area
The first Finnish church service took place at the Ongamo residence in 1868, with Isak Barberg conducting the first services, reading the sermon and prayer of Laestadius.
The Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Congregation of Cokato was organized in 1872, with Barberg being chosen to conduct all religious functions of the church except marriage ceremonies.
The first Finnish church was built in Cokato Township in 1873.
As the Finnish population grew, other Finnish congregations were also established and churches built in French Lake Township (1885-87) and in Kingston (1896).
Those who are interested in learning more about the early Finnish immigrants and their history can contact the Cokato Museum or the CFAHS at (320) 286-2427.
The museum has access to several family histories and other documents about the local Finnish population.