The Collection of Immigration Archives at the University of Turku

The development of migration research in Turku

From the late 1960s up until the early 2000s, migration history was the most visible area of research in the Department of General History at the University of Turku. Professor Vilho Niitemaa originally initiated the study of migration at the Department. The research on migration in Turku started when Professor Niitemaa made his acquaintance with Professor John I. Kolehmainen (Heidelberg College, Ohio) in the 1950s. They met when Niitemaa was still living in Helsinki and Kolehmainen was based there as a visiting lecturer. Kolehmainen was already at this time researching Finnish migrants in the United States.

In 1957, Niitemaa was appointed Professor of General History at the University of Turku. After his appointment, Niitemaa started a concerted process to develop his department. As a result, migration history emerged as one of the areas of special expertise in the department.

The research project on migration began in the fall of 1963 when Professor Niitemaa assigned his assistant, Reino Kero, a master’s thesis on a scantly researched subject: migration from Satakunta province to North America. A historical review issued by the department describes Kero’s role in the research project thus: He “practically established the study of migration at the University of Turku, and it soon became his primary area of research.” Professor Niitemaa had, however, a major role in securing funding for the research project until the late 1970s. This was an area where he had special talents.

The research project on migration history became a real success story. Over sixty masters’ theses and seven doctoral dissertations were completed under the auspices of the project. One reason behind this success was the fact that some of the most proficient students at the department gravitated towards the research project. Some of these young students, including Keijo Virtanen, Auvo Kostiainen, and Arja Pilli, emerged as accomplished scholars in their own right.

The establishment of the migration history archive in Turku

2014-2-kero3Compiling the research archive of migration history was the brainchild of Vilho Niitemaa and it was the research on Satakunta province’s migration history that kick-started the project. As Reino Kero was assigned his topic of research on the Satakunta province, he was also urged to collect migrant letters that Finns from Satakunta had sent to their families and friends in Finland. Over 5,000 letters were collected. The towns of Merikarvia, Siikainen, Ikaalinen, and Jämijärvi proved to have the best preserved collections of migrant letters. The letters collected from Eura, Hinnerjoki, and Honkilahti were also notable for their high quality. Reino Kero was in charge of supervising the collection of the letters, their organization and microfilming.

When the letters from Satakunta province had been collected in the archives, the focus of the researchers turned southward, to the province of Finland Proper. This time the person in charge of the project was Esa Vähäkyrö, a student at the department. Finland Proper proved to be as fertile a region for letter collection as Satakunta had been, with almost the same amount of letters collected from this region in southwestern Finland as had been previously collected from its northerly neighboring province. Indeed, the Finland Proper collection of migrant letters consists of thousands of letters and postcards.

The collection of letters from America at the University of Turku’s Department of General History – estimated to number some 11,000 letters – is most probably the largest in Finland. It may well be the largest in the world. The collection has provided valuable source material especially for studies that seek to explore the relationships between the migrants and the “Old Country.” The letters have often been consulted in popular accounts of migration history as well. The lively stories they tell help to enliven scholarly analyses of migrant life in North America.

The first master’s thesis on migration history saw the light of day in 1965, and it was during this time that Professor Vilho Niitemaa assigned his students with new topics of research. International contacts were actively sought and as a result of this increasing desire for internationalization, Professor John I. Kolehmainen from the United States was invited as visiting professor. But the Atlantic was being traversed in the other direction as well. In August 1966, Reino Kero left for Minnesota with an ASLA scholarship. During his one-year stay in Minnesota, some two hundred interviews of Finnish migrants were collected for the Department of General History’s migration archive in Turku. Kero conducted his first interviews with return migrants in the Satakunta province in Finland, but he soon extended the reach of his collecting effort to North America, conducting several interviews with Finnish migrants who had stayed across the Atlantic. At the moment, the interview tapes are still stored in the Department of General History’s archives, but are generally in poor condition.

The first archived collection found by Reino Kero in North America was in Nashwauk, Minnesota. This collection of papers was handed over to the University of Minnesota, but a microfilmed copy of the papers was secured for the University of Turku’s Department of General History.

The expansion of the archive: survey forms

As 1967 drew to a close, the archive collections at the General History department were still rather modest. In 1968, however, the wheels began turning and things started to happen. Thousands of Finns in the United States and Canada were sent an inquiry form that sought to map out the life experiences of Finnish migrants in the New World. These migrants were also asked to send any potential materials for historical research – such as minutes of labor organizations – to Turku. The mail addresses of the migrants were acquired from Finnish-American newspapers. Finnish Americans had a habit of sending greetings to migrant newspapers for Christmas and May Day, and it was not uncommon for them to attach their postal addresses to these greetings published in the newspapers.

2014-2-kero2These inquiry forms was a veritable success. Some ten thousand forms were sent out and a substantial number of them were returned carefully filled and signed. The personal information acquired from the forms was of importance, but what was perhaps even more intriguing was the fact that many migrants offered to donate their personal collections to the department’s archive. Forms kept coming in via mail after 1968 as well, but the enthusiasm of Finnish migrants to donate their papers to Turku soon started to fade. This was at least in part because after 1970 the University of Minnesota started to gather material related to migration history. While the Finns were not the sole focus of interest from the University of Minnesota, the collections related to Finnish-American history remained for a long time one of the largest collections in the Minnesota archive.

The renowned migration historian Rudolph J. Vecoli was a long-time leader of these migration history projects at the University of Minnesota, but Michael Karni, Douglas Ollila, Timo Riippa, and Auvo Kostiainen – the last of whom was working on a scholarship in Minnesota at the time – were also instrumental in setting up the archive in Minneapolis.

At the same time, a survey was compiled of returnees to Finland in a manner similar to the earlier survey of Finnish migrants in North America. The person who did much of this work was Keijo Virtanen who was in the process of doing a dissertation on the subject. 

Expansion of the archive: microfilms

2014-2-kero1The last major effort to develop the archive in Turku was the collecting of microfilmed material. The first, albeit quite small collection of microfilmed material was received already in 1967 when Reino Kero, working on a scholarship in Minnesota, microfilmed a collection of archival material that he had on loan at the time. A much more comprehensive collection of microfilmed material was received by the archive in 1970, when Reino Kero and Keijo Virtanen took a camera on tour to the Finnish communities of Minnesota, Michigan, and the Eastern Seaboard. The most extensive collections of material were microfilmed in Michigan and New York.

The archive of Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan, holds a considerable amount of archival material from Finnish religious organizations and temperance societies. They were microfilmed under the direction of Keijo Virtanen in 1973. In the early 1970s Keijo and Orvokki Virtanen systematically toured the Finnish communities of the United States and Canada and the result was staggering: hundreds of archival collections were captured on reels of microfilm. The project was brought to a close in 1976.

The response from the Finns in the U.S. and Canada to the microfilming project was overwhelmingly positive. The author of the present article first met with Finnish migrants in 1966. They welcomed this student from Finland with open arms. The Finnish immigrants, many of them already past retirement age, considered it important that someone was interested in their experiences as immigrants. Hence, the help needed to collect the archival material was not in short supply: accommodation, food, and free transportation for long journeys were always provided.

Significance of the Archive

What has been the significance of the collection of migration archive to Turku? First, one might say that the collection of the material was done at an opportune moment. In the late 1960s, thousands of immigrants were still alive and enthusiastic to tell their stories for inquiring researchers. A mere decade later the information available would have been far scarcer. A unique oral tradition was salvaged.

The collecting of minutes and other such papers was also done at the right moment. Much material of interest to migration historians had already disappeared for good. To the detriment of later generations of migration scholars, many Finnish-language immigrant newspapers, for example, had been lost for good as there had been no general interest in cherishing the old newspapers. Even in the late 1960s, some archival materials were saved in the nick of time. The rich papers of the workers’ society of Superior, Wisconsin, for example, were salvaged from a landfill and later sent to Turku.

The collection of material for the University of Turku’s immigration history archives started in the Satakunta province. This collection was begun as part of a dissertation project and the intention was to connect the collection of archival material intimately with research. This intention went partly unfulfilled. As research on migration expanded, not all archival materials needed by the researchers could be attained by the archive. The interviews, letters, and immigrant newspapers in the archive have served researchers and students so well that one can justifiably call the assembly of the immigration history archive at the University of Turku a veritable success story.

Photos: Card collection of Department of European and World History, University of Turku and Anniina Lehtokari, 2014

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