Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Overall, the Great Plains served as home for small numbers of Finns in the United States, although their communities played a relatively greater role in Canada's total Finnish settlement picture. About 300,000 Finns immigrated to the United States between 1864 and 1914, with massive emigration beginning in the 1890s. The Finnish population of the American Great Plains peaked at some 3,000 individuals in 1910, or only slightly more than 2 percent of the nation's total population of 130,000 foreign-born Finns. A small trickle of Finns began to make their way to Canada during the nineteenth century, but the majority of these 118,000 émigrés arrived between 1900 and 1930 and during the 1950s. In 1921 over 16 percent (2,100 individuals) of Canada's total foreign-born population of 12,155 Finns resided in the Great Plains; by 1931 the number of Plains Finns had grown slightly to 2,400, but this figure represented only 8 percent of Canada's foreign-born Finnish population of 30,355 people.

The first Great Plains Finnish settlement emerged in 1878 at Poinsett (now Lake Norden) in Hamlin County, South Dakota; most of Poinsett's early Finnish population arrived from the copper-mining towns of northern Michigan. Four years later a Finnish land agent who worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad recruited a number of Finns to Frederick in Brown County, South Dakota. Soon thereafter, Finnish settlements also appeared in western South Dakota: at Lead and nearby mining towns in Lawrence County; at Snoma and Newell in Butte County; and at Buffalo and Cave Hills in Hardin County. By the mid-1880s Finns were also moving to Dickey County, North Dakota, located just north of Frederick, South Dakota. Other Finns subsequently settled in the North Dakota counties of Logan, Emmons, Towner, Rolette, Burleigh, and Mountrail. The Rolla-Rock Lake community in Rolette and Towner Counties, initially settled in 1896, soon evolved into North Dakota's largest Finnish colony. Other Finns moved to Montana's Cascade and Fergus Counties, while a small number settled in scattered areas of Wyoming and Colorado.

Canadian Finns established their initial Great Plains enclave in 1887 at New Finland (Uusi Suomi), located along the Qu'Appelle River in southeastern Saskatchewan. After 1889 New Finland's population expanded when agents of the Canadian Pacific Railway who wished to attract Finns from Minnesota and the Dakotas selected it as a colonization site. Western Saskatchewan began to be homesteaded in 1905 by Finns who settled in and around the communities of Elbow, Rock Point, and Outlook on the Coteau. Additional Finnish settlements established at Dunblane and Dinsmore after 1909 included several Finns who had been politically radicalized by their experiences on Minnesota's Mesabi Range. A much smaller concentration of Saskatchewan Finns was also found in Turtle Lake just northwest of North Battleford. In Alberta a group of visiting delegates from Finland chose the Red Deer district in 1899 as a potential Finnish settlement node; three years later the first immigrants began to move to the Sylvan Lake– Eckville area located just west of Red Deer. Immigrants also moved to other scattered places in Alberta, including Radway, Stettler, Foremost, and the Three Hills–Trochu area. For many years Winnipeg was the only large Great Plains city with a noticeable Finnish population.

Virtually all Finnish Great Plains communities included one or more immigrant churches, the vast majority Apostolic Lutheran, Suomi Synod Lutheran, or National Lutheran congregations. Finnish temperance and socialist halls served as gathering places for social and political events, provided libraries for avid readers, and accommodated discussion and drama groups, bands, and athletic and gymnastic teams. Cooperative retail stores and grain elevators provided immigrants with a modicum of economic security. One institution, the Knights of Kaleva, which eventually spread to Finnish communities throughout North America, was organized in the Western Great Plains town of Belt, Montana, in 1898. A sister society, the Ladies of Kaleva, was also formed in Belt six years later. Intended to improve the image of Finns in America, the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva employed rituals derived from the Kalevala, the national folk epic of Finland.

The majority of Finnish settlers who immigrated to the American Great Plains arrived before they had exposure to the radical movements that dominated Finland and the Great Lakes region during the early twentieth century. In Canada, however, most Great Plains communities were settled by immigrants who arrived from Finland after 1900; several of these enclaves–especially those on the Coteau– were much more likely to include institutions that expressed the views of a radicalized population. Overall, it is obvious that despite their relatively small numbers, the Finns of the Great Plains reflected the general Finnish settlement picture of North America.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Finnish Architecture.

Arnold R. Alanen University of Wisconsin-Madison

Anderson, Alan B., with Brenda Niskala. "Finnish Settlement in Saskatchewan: Their Development and Perpetuation." In Finnish Diaspora I: Canada, South America, Africa, Australia and Sweden, edited by Michael G. Karni. Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981: 155–82.

Roinila, Mika. "A Century of Change: The Rolla/ Rock Lake Finnish Settlement of North Dakota." Finnish Americana 11 (1995–96): 32–40.

Warwaruk, Larry. Red Finns on the Coteau. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Core Communications, Inc., 1984.

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