In 1890, industrial productivity came to a standstill in Finland because of a failure to technologically compete with countries such as Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. The lack of economic opportunity in late 19th century and early 20th century Finland, other than in agriculture, led to mass emigration to the United States. Initially, most Finns migrated to the Midwest, specifically northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, to work in mines. By World War I, a handful of Finns migrated to port cities such as Alexandria, Virginia to work in shipyards as part of wartime mobilization. However, very few of the Finns in Alexandria have been documented as living in the Midwest before coming to Alexandria. These exceptions, however, are listed in the 1920 U.S. Census in Alexandria, Virginia.
Although most Finns living in Alexandria were young, single men who worked in the shipyards, it was not unheard of for Finnish immigrant families to settle in the Midwest prior to moving South. Two families in Alexandria represent this phenomenon. Their migration can be traced by the children’s birth places in the 1920 U.S. Census. The Hermansons and the Larsens had children born in Wisconsin prior to coming to Alexandria. Herman and Mary Hermanson both immigrated to the United States in 1894. In 1920, Herman worked as a bolter at the shipyard, while Mary had no occupation listed but probably took care of the household. They had two children Aune and Aino. Aune, who was seven years old in 1920, was born in Canada. Aino, who was six years old in 1920, was born in Wisconsin. This means that when the Hermansons travelled to the U.S. they did not come directly to Alexandria. Instead, they immigrated to the U.S. and then crossed the border into Canada for an unknown amount of time and then returned to the U.S. some time around 1914 when their second child was born. The Larsens also settled in Wisconsin prior to moving to Alexandria. Similar to Herman, John Larsen was a bolter at the ship yard, while his wife, Annie, was in charge of domestic arrangements. John came to the U.S. in 1890. The year of Annie’s immigration is unknown, although the census shows that she naturalized with her spouse. Their son, three-year-old John Larsen, was born in Wisconsin. It is unknown how long the Larsens lived there.
The 1920 U.S. Census also lists the birthplace of every individual’s parents, which makes it possible for Finnish migration to the Midwest to be studied by collecting information on the second generation. An example of this is Emma Korhonen and her husband Charles Korhonen. Emma came to the U.S. from Finland in 1911 and became a citizen in 1917. Her husband, Charles, was born in Wisconsin. This marriage may initially appear to be an instance of out-group marriage but upon further research, it became obvious that Charles was of Finnish descent. In this case, both of his parents were born in Finland and migrated to the U.S. It is unknown what year his parents migrated, but it can be said that they were in Wisconsin around 1897 because Charles was twenty-three years old in 1920. It is unknown whether his parents later migrated to Alexandria, or if he migrated south on his own. Charles also had an 18-year-old brother, Rudolph Korhonen, who was born in Wisconsin. They were both riggers at the shipyard. It is likely that they migrated to Alexandria together in search of jobs.
Mark Knipping’s book Finns in Wisconsin (1977) tells readers that although many Finns immigrated to Wisconsin, they often did not settle there for too long because the only jobs available were in mining and farming. It was difficult for Finns–as with other immigrant groups–to find economic stability within the mining industry. The small farms were similar to life that they had left behind in Finland, only furthering their frustration with the type of job opportunities in the region. This situation created the impetus for many Finns to move elsewhere, including to Alexandria. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Finnish Americans were able to able to find steady employment in the shipyard. Knipping stresses that economic opportunities were the main reasons for Finnish immigration to the U.S.; however, Finns continued to migrate around the country in search of jobs.
Although most Finns in Alexandria were usually not family units, there were a small number of Finnish-American families that came to Virginia after initially settling in the Midwest. These families usually moved in response to possible economic opportunities. This phenomenon can be seen through the birthplaces of their children and through studying Americans of Finnish descent. Finnish Americans moved to Alexandria because of stable employment and, specifically, to work at the shipyard.