Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Stacy Siirilä Johnson is a second-generation Finnish American and a native of Michigan. She is accredited for research in France, has bachelor’s degrees in history and French, and specializes in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany. We asked Stacy about her experiences in Finnish research to learn more about the nuances of researching ancestors from Finland.
Q: What got you interested in genealogy and your areas of research?
A: Everyone has a story to tell. My mother died when I was 15 years old, and ever since then, I have been interested in the past. History is fascinating to me, plus I just really loved learning about people’s lives.
I started out learning French and went to France when I was in high school. From there, a love for languages and other countries was sparked. I then wanted to learn about my paternal grandparents, who came to the United States from Finland. I also went to Finland and fell in love with the language, its people, and the country.
Q: Is research in Finland different than research in other countries?
A: It’s the same in that you’re looking for vital records. And there are different jurisdictions and boundary changes, just like in the United States. It’s always good to study the history of an area that you are researching.
“Actually Finland (or Österland as it was initially called) was part of Swedish kingdom from the middle ages until the Finnish War 1808-1809 that was part of Napoleon’s wars in Europe. After the Peace Treaty of 1810, Finland was an Autonomic Grand Duchy of Russian Empire until 1917 when Finland became independent during the turmoil of WWI and the Russian Revolutions.
The administrative and church language of Finland was Swedish until 1880s. Even names of people were written in Swedish whether they spoke Finnish or not. A hint about the language of an area are the names of farms and cottages. The biggest ones were Gård or Säteri and officers often lived in Boställe. If the rest of the names are mainly Finnish (careful with their odd spellings) then the area was probably Finnish.” Contribution by reader Pekka Neva.
A difference would be the system of patronymics, where the child’s surname comes from the father. For example, Heikki Matinpoika (Matt’s son), Maria Juhontytär (Juho’s daughter). Permanent surnames for Finns were not required until 1920.
Q: What is a farm name?
A: My grandparents both had the last name of Siirilä. When I was researching my family, I was confused about why they had the same last name before they were married. Because they both lived on a Siirilä farm and a farm can have many families that live there, they sometimes can have the same name.
Both of those names were attached to my grandmother. It was an easy way to track where the people were. And when they came to America, for example, sometimes they took one of those names, whichever one they decided to take.
Q: Are records easy to access in Finland?
A: There are vital records such as birth, marriage, and death. They have probate and land records. They also maintained lists of inhabitants of a parish by village, farm, and household. They are sort of like a census where they track individuals as a family unit. The records were created by the Lutheran priest and each parish. Each member was interviewed annually, and community books typically covered a five- to ten-year period.
In addition to those records, they had moving-in and moving-out records so you can follow individuals from one place to another. They are quite easy to access, and most of them are online. The more recent years aren’t as readily available.
Q: Do you speak Finnish or work with Finnish-speaking families?
A: I do speak Finnish. Most of the Finnish projects that I do are from Americans tracing their ancestors back to Finland. None of them speak or read Finnish. A typical Finnish-speaking family, however, can usually speak some English. They learn English in school. It’s just the older generation who have a hard time with English or don’t know English. But you do not necessarily need to know Finnish or Swedish to do your research in Finland.
Q: Where do most of your projects come from?
A: They mostly come from middle Finland and down to southern Finland. Rarely do I get any that are from northern Finland. Most of the people that left Finland were from middle Finland.
I quite often find individuals or clients whose ancestors ended up living in Upper Michigan, where I am from, or in towns nearby. So, I end up doing research in my hometown and learning about the different Finnish parishes. That’s quite fun. I learned a little bit more about friends in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Q: Can you talk about immigration from Finland to the United States and how that might impact your research?
A: The largest migration to North America happened during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1864 and 1914, more than 300,000 Finnish settled in the United States and Canada. The largest wave was reached in 1942 when more than 20,000 emigrated. Immigration continued on a large scale until World War I when the United States government started restricting the admission of immigrants. Immigration then shifted to Canada, mostly in Ontario.
Most of the Finnish immigrants originated mainly from Northwestern Finland, and nearly half of them came from the province of Vasa. The majority were men and unmarried. Many came to North America to work in mines, lumber camps, factories, and railroad construction. The Finnish settlements were concentrated in Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, Oregon, and New York.
There are documents related to their journey to the United States and other countries. We have travel routes as well as specific Finnish steamship companies that individuals traveled on. Passenger lists of Europeans arriving in North America have been made since 1820. There are passport lists and border crossings are also available.
Q: Did Finnish people go to other countries for economic reasons?
A: I think they were poor and wanted a better life and to support their family. For example, the father might have gone to America to work for a little while, and then went back to Finland. He either stayed or brought a wife back. My grandfather came to the United States, bought land, then went back, married my grandmother, and then they came back. On the other hand, my cousin’s father came to the United States and made money working in logging in Upper Michigan and then went back to Finland.
Although some of them came with a priest that had been in Finland. They often followed the priests wherever they went.
Q: What are some challenges with the names of those who migrated from Finland?
A: In Finland, you need the name of the village or parish to find the record of a birth. It helps to have an individual’s name. It’s challenging, especially if an individual changed his or her name when arriving in a new country. Most of the immigrants from Finland already had a family name, and if it was difficult to pronounce, it was changed to better fit the language of the new country.
Sometimes when they migrated, the person who was documenting their information could easily say, “I don’t know what you’re saying, so I’ll just give you this name.” The way to track whether the name is the real name from Finland is that it will show up somewhere as you go back in time.
Some difficulties include shortening a Finnish name, i.e., Peltomäki to Maki or Hautaniemi to Niemi. Similarly, the surname could have been translated from Mäki to Hill. Conversely, it could have changed to sound phonetically similar, i.e., Valtonen to Walton. Others may have chosen a completely new surname to a common name in the new country, like Hietala to Wilson. Even first names were changed to English equivalents like Maria to Mary and Kalle to Carl. Some also chose a completely different name to have a common name. One used his occupation as his name. He was a blacksmith, and he used the name Smith. An individual can also end up with more than one last name. Quite often, they take on a farm name and add it to the one they already have or drop a farm name and take on a new one when they move.
Q: Can you talk about a difficulty you’ve overcome in your research?
A: I had a project where there were ten children in the family and five or six came to the United States. Each one took a different name (not one of them had the same last name). And they did not live in the same general area. Some used farm names, others chose a whole new name.
I overcome challenges by just keeping track of all the names, the locations, the occupations, following all records for the individual as well as siblings and parents, neighbors, and friends. It’s important to track everybody and all of the names. And then eventually it all comes together.
Q: How does using a professional genealogist benefit someone, rather than trying to research on their own?
A: Each project undergoes a very strict review process. It’s quite easy to miss details and perhaps even trace the wrong ancestral line when researching on your own. Hiring a professional genealogist saves time and money, and they often have access to collections that an individual does not have access to. Professional genealogists have experience solving difficult genealogical problems, which is a great benefit when you’re doing research.
For most of our researchers, their interest in discovering family histories started with a personal family mystery they wanted to solve. If you have a mystery that you can’t solve, share it with us and we can help you discover your legacy. Contact us for a free estimate on research.
Barbara Johnson says
Hi !! I’m 80 years old and would love to know how my father was. I have been on You and me 23 also A ancestry.com,still nothing.Does your company do more then them. Thank you B Johnson
Beth Harrison says
Thank you for reaching out! Our researchers conduct detailed, personalized research to tell you who your family/ancestors were, where they lived, and much more. We can provide the next steps to help you learn more. To get a free estimate on research, please contact us by filling out the form on our Get in Touch page.
John Paul Garrah says
I found the Finnish article very interesting. My late wife was one/third Finnish, Her grandfather was Hakki Soumala (“Adolph the Finn”) from Kellontorma (ClockHill)and when he came to the US, his name was changed( by a Swede?) to Adam “Gallondorm”.
We eventually solved the mystery and were able to find the right family. Since that time we have exchanged home visits with several kin and have updated each other. Hakki had six siblings living when he left. They divided the property and left a part for him if he returned, We gave his share to his living relatives to divide since we did not think we should retain ownership. We still visit Finland and were heir a year ago.
Beth Harrison says
John, that’s a great family story – thank you for sharing!
Annamarie Hamilton says
Hello my name is Annamarie I don’t know how to find out who my father is I come up with all these relatives and I just cannot seem to point out who my father is I cannot afford to have someone do it because it cost so much is there any cheaper help out there ? Thank you
Beth Harrison says
Hello Annamarie, thank you for reaching out. If a full research project is not within your budget, you should consider a 45-minute consultation. You can speak with one of our consultants, let them know your goal, and they can give you some direction in your research. Please contact us on our Consultation page to see if this is something you are interested in scheduling.
My Great Grandfather and Mother were from Norway. I believe a citation I found isn’t correct and wonder if you can help me with Ole Olson b: June 23, 1859 in, I believe, Dovre, Dovre, Oppland, Norway.
Beth Harrison says
Hi Jill, we can definitely help you! Please contact our Client Solutions Specialists through the form on our Get in Touch page. They can point you in the right direction and provide a free estimate if research is needed.
Pekka Neva says
Correction to “Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom until after 1863, so records were not kept in Finnish until then (it had not been the official language used in record keeping until that time).”
Actually Finland (or Österland as it was initially called) was part of Swedish kingdom from middle ages until the Finnish War 1808-1809 that was part of Napoleon’s wars in Europe. After the Peace Treaty of 1810 Finland was an Autonomic Grand Duchy of Russian Empire until 1917 when Finland became independent during the turmoil of WWI and the Russian Revolutions.
The administrative and church language of Finland was Swedish until 1880es. Even names of people were written in Swedish whether they spoke Finnih or not. A hint about the language of an area are the names of farms and cottages. The biggest ones were Gård or Säteri and officers often lived in Boställe but if the rest are mainly Finnish (careful with their odd spellings) then the are was probably Finnish.
Heather - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Thank you for adding more detail to the original answer. We have cited you in the article giving you credit for the additional clarity. Thank you.
Jon Waara says
Lengthy details below are provided to inform any consultation advice LegacyTree might offer in response to this reply. Details are not intended to suggest Legacy Tree do the work.
More and better-informed novice searching has repeatedly presented brick walls against finding the following desired specific biographical documentation. With my family line recently found, I am looking for missing documentation which might be possible to locate–if one knows the correct resources for tracking Finnish immigrants of 1888. (I am in Ancestry, Geni, My Heritage and using newspaper archives.)
Minimally, I am presently blocked by ignorance, I assume, but am still seeking copies of whatever can be found among six items: a passport, a record of entry, a ship manifest, a border crossing and naturalization documents. Those are for my grandfather who, along with his family line, has fortunately and recently been found.
The parish birth record of my Finnish grandfather, from Karungi on Sw side of the Torne River boundary, showed his birth date as 1 Oct. 1968, his name as “Johan Eric Xxxxx”.
I’ve seen his signature with the anglicized name “John Xxxxx”. A deceased aunt and other unofficial indications variously spelled his middle name as ” Erick”, “Erik” or “Eric” if he used one at all.
He self reported immigration in 1888 and was married in Lead, South Dakota, to Mathilda Elizabet (Elizabeth “B” or “M”) Xxxxxx in 1905. They began a cattle ranch and family in what came to be named as “Harding”, then “Butte” and then, again, “Harding” County, County, SD.
Dad thought grandfather might have landed in Canada and gone to Butte, MT. I’ve looked at a few ship manifests (Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, New York)–a daunting task if visually scanning all those is the only hope for nailing down his 1888 arrival the U.S.A. I understand better search resources came to be available in 1895.
He’s believed to have worked at the Homestake mine in SD before going to the Yukon (1897), that by way of one of the passes out of Skagway. He was boarding in Astoria, OR, at the 1900 census, en route it seems, back to Homestake.
My aunt reported his passport showed Malmberget in Gallivare, Norrbotten, Sw as his birthplace and DOB as 5 Dec. 1870–both wrong, maybe not her fault. He could have begun emigration from Malmberget, but probably not in “Arctic air” of Dec., whether heading to the ice free Narvik Norway port or across the frozen Bay of Bothnia to Oulo, Finland. He might have taken a train south from closest by Lulea, Sw (which is shown to have rails, later, in a 1917 Atlas I have).
A younger brother who immigrated 16 years later (1904) departed Scandinavia from Gotteberg, Sw, bound for Hull or Liverpool then to New York. He likely traveled there by Swedish rails, it seems.
Heather - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
You have gathered a great amount of details that are very helpful for this type of research project. Given the amount of information and what you seeking, scheduling a Genealogist-on-Demand consultation with a genealogist would be a great place to get direction. You can learn more about the consultations here: https://www.legacytree.com/genealogy-consultation. Thank you.
gail Beers says
I spent several years trying to find an ancestor named Mary Bartleson who married into my Rittenhouse line. Years later–while living in the state of Delaware I think I found her as a descendant of two of the the Finnish burn beaters that were sent to populate the Delaware Colony of New Sweden. My research has led me to believe many Finns came to that colony. John Morton a signer of the Declaration of Independence seems to have been a descendant of of one Morten Mortensen. Just thought you might find this of interest. A ship in the Wilmington, Delaware water front is a replica of their ship.
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hello Gail! What an interesting journey you’ve been on! Thank you so much for sharing this information. Good luck as you continue your research!