Great Emigration – Utopian Colonies

Finnish Utopian Colonies were an interesting destination for emigration in the early 1900’s. Religion, labor conditions, and even “Tropical Fever” were ideas that a single individuals or small groups built on to create new communities of like minded individuals. People moved their entire family following a charismatic individual across oceans in hopes of finding a better place .

Finnish Utopian Communities were not unique to the Americas.  In addition to the ten in the Americas there were at least four other Finnish Utopian Communities (two in Russian and one in Australia and Israel).

1899 to 1917 was a tough time for Finns.  In Finland, Russia was tightening her reigns with Russification.  Newspapers promoted “New World” opportunities.  As the Tsar had shut down many of the papers, most of the papers that promoted these opportunities were published in the U.S. and Canada.  As such, those papers had Finnish-American readers.  In the U.S. and Canada, Finns were getting tired of working conditions, mostly those in mining.  Words of equality and sunshine rang with them as well.

There were three main factors for migration to utopian colonies.  Some were built on just one factor but many used two or all three of these reasons.

  • Religion – With the Feburary Manefesto of 1899, the Russian Tzar mandated that the main religion of Finland be the Orthodox Russian Church.  People felt that their religious freedoms were being violated.  In the Americas, it was not about belonging to a specific religion but rather the freedom of religion that was the factor.
  • Cooperatives – Labor issues drove much of the Finnish-American migration into utopian communities.  Conditions on the job or in the community led to the idea that as a group the utopian community could support the needs of all.  A majority of these were mine workers.
  • “Tropical Fever” – White sandy beaches, colorful birds singing, bright sunshine, and all the fruit you can eat.  What more do you need to say to people in the middle of a Finnish winter?

No more than 10,000 would ever migrate to these communities.  For some, especially those looking to get rich quick or relax in luxury, the trip became a quick visit.  In most cases it was communal living; shared housing, shared meals, and shared labor.  The communities were mostly agricultural but most were not farmers and the land was often not suitable for farming, thus making labor difficult.  In the end there was often leadership problems.  In some cases the people felt they had been swindled.  If it wasn’t community conditions, the final straw for others was the Great Depression.

As the communities failed, those that could moved elsewhere.  Some moved back home.  Some of those that had come from Finland moved to the U.S or Canada.  Still others stayed around and tried their best.  Yet another showing of Finnish Sisu (preservation through adversity).  I found a story about one of the last resident of Itabo still living in Cuba.

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A brief synopsis of the Finnish Utopian Communities in the Americas:

  • Sointula, British Columbia, Canada (1901-1905) – Still a community today.
    Sointula was a cooperative utopia founded by Matti Kurikka and Austin Mäkelä.  It is considered one of the most successful Finnish utopian communities.  It was started by Vancouver Island coal miners who were tired of the working conditions.  Even after a series of management issues, the town’s people remained and built a community based on co-operative values.  Many businesses on the town today are co-ops.  The town is slowly becoming a summer retreat for Californians.  At it’s peak the community had 1,000 inhabitants.
  • Sammon Takojat, British Columbia, Canada (1905-1912)
    Sammon Takojat was a new cooperative founded by Matti Kurikka with theosophic leanings.  Matti Kurikka had been the original manager of Sointula but because of a series of issues with the former community started this new community.  As an exclusively all male community, it did not last long.  At its peak the community had 50 inhabitants. The town is now called Websters Corner.
  • Colonia Finlandesa, Misiones, Argentina (1906-1940) – Nationalist
    Colonia Finlandesa was founded by Arthur Theslef.  The original 120 settlers were mostly upper class Swedish speaking Finns.  They expected a land where they could get rich quick.  Most returned to Finland.  In 1920, a second influx of mostly Eastern Finns moved into the Oberá region and started to develop the land.  At its peak the community had 500 inhabitants.
  • Ponnistus, Omaja, Cuba (1906-1909)
    Ponnistus was a cooperative founded by Oscar Norring, a merchant seaman, and William Keskinen.  Like Itabo, it was founded by Finnish-Americans who were mostly loggers, miners, and craftsmen.  Norring had been in the employ of the Buenvista Fruit Company and his vision for the community was as a citrus grove.  Lack of water and poor connections to the railroad made the efforts difficult.  Fortunately the local community has decided to maintain some of the history.  Today there remains one home and a church from the settlement as well as an example of their carpentry work.  While no Finns remained, Finnish delegations have stopped by to see what remains of the community in recent years.   At its peak the community had 50 inhabitants.
  • Redwood Valley, California, United States (1912-1932)
    Redwood Valley was a cooperative founded by Alex Kauhanen.  The settlers were Finnish-American miners from Butte, Montana with hopes of building a farming community.  Farming was never successful and the popularity of the town was mostly for San Francisco Finns traveling up for the weekend or summer breaks. At its peak the community had 120 inhabitants.
  • Colonia Villa Alborado, Paraguay (1920-1940)
    Colonia Villa Alborado was a vegan co-operative founded by Armas Nikkinen and Eero Laulaja.  This was situated close to Colonia Finlandesa.  At its peak the community had 60 inhabitants.
  • Georgian Osuusfarmi, Georgia, United States (1921-1966)
    Georgian Osuusfarmi was a cooperative founded by Arvo Vitali near Jesup, Georiga in old town of McKinnon.  At its peak the community had 50 inhabitants.  Like the other Finnish Utopian communities in North America, this was a Finnish-American migration mostly from Brooklyn, NY.  If you want to find it on Google Earth, search for “Finland St.”, “Sauna St.”, or “Sisu St.” in Georgia.
  • Viljavakka, Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic (1929-1932)
    Oskari Jalkio founded the vegan utopian community after he was refused entry to Brazil for lack of immunization.  At its peak the community had 140 inhabitants, mostly from Vyborg and Vaasa.  The community was intended to grow rice in Villa Vázquez.  Very few colonists had farming backgrounds and growing rice in the Caribbean wasn’t easy.  The Great Depression was the final straw.  By 1932, most were either returning home with money borrowed from family or moving to other parts of the Dominican Republic.
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