Finns were among the earliest settlers in North America, forming a substantial portion of the colony of New Sweden, founded in 1638 along the Delaware River (see Delaware colony). In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 623,573 Americans and 114,690 Canadians claimed Finnish descent. Finns were widely dispersed throughout the northern tier of the United States, with Michigan and Minnesota having the largest numbers. More than half of Canadian Finns live in Ontario.
Finland occupies 117,800 square mile of Scandinavian Europe between 60 and 70 degrees north latitude along the Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland. Norway borders Finland to the north, Russia to the east, and Sweden to the west. The southern and central regions of the country are relatively flat, with many lakes. Northern regions are mountainous. In 2002, the population was estimated at 5,175,783. Ethnic Finns make up 93 percent of the people, while Swedes compose another 6 percent. About 89 percent of the population claims Evangelical Lutheranism as their religion. Eurasians first settled Finland, but Sweden controlled the territory from 1154 until 1809, when it became an independent grand duchy of Russia. Throughout the 19th century, Finland was granted extraordinary freedoms of self-government and religion and exemption from Russian military service. Pan-Slavic policies during the first decade of the 20th century, however, spurred a rise in nationalism that led to a declaration of independence in 1917. Finland was first recognized as a republic in 1919, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the creation of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union took control of large amounts of Finnish territory in 1939 and even more throughout World War II (1939–45). Following the war, however, a treaty of mutual assistance was signed (1948), enabling Finland to develop largely outside the cold war conflicts so prevalent in other parts of Europe. A new treaty was signed in 1992, and in 1995 Finland became a member of the European Union.
Finns were among the colonists who established New Sweden along the Delaware River in 1638. As the colony successively changed hands, however, first going to the Dutch and then the English, by the 18th century, Finns had blended into the predominant British culture. In Alaska, Finns and Russians settled in the 1840s and 1850s, especially around Sitka. Perhaps 500 moved to British Columbia and California when Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, finding work in mines or on the railroads. The number of Finnish immigrants remained small until the 1860s, when widespread economic depression led to massive emigration, particularly from northern Finland. Most of the immigrants had taken part in the Laestadian religious revival of the 1860s, and their migration was characterized by families hoping to maintain a separatist lifestyle. Finland was also experiencing unprecedented population growth, tripling during the 19th century and creating a large surplus population for which there were few jobs and no land. From the 1890s, the majority of immigrants were young and from the more populated south, motivated by both economic opportunity and, after 1904, opposition to Czar Nicholas II’s newly imposed nationalistic policies and forced military service. A high percentage of Finns had become politically radicalized prior to leaving Europe and often became involved with socialist or anarchist politics upon their arrival. It has been estimated that some 300,000 Finns settled permanently in the United States between 1864 and 1924. The actual number of immigrants was higher, but there was an unusually high rate of return among Finnish radicals. In the 1920s and early 1930s, 10,000 immigrated to the Soviet Union, although thousands of ordinary Finns seeking a better life still sought permission to immigrate to the United States. When passage of the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 drastically cut the Finnish quota, Finns increasingly turned their attention to Canada.
While a few hundred Finns migrated to British Columbia when Alaska was purchased, others were just beginning to seek economic opportunities outside Finland and Sweden. Immigration figures prior to World War I (1914–18) are unreliable, as they were frequently classified or grouped in various combinations with Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, or, in the case of continental migration, Americans. Perhaps 5,000 Finns immigrated during the 19th century, and another 20,000 between 1900 and 1914. With the application of restrictive legislation in the United States, more than 36,000 Finns flocked to Canada between 1921 and 1930, before they, too, were shut out by Canada’s depression-era policies in the 1930s. Undoubtedly many of these Finnish immigrants used Canada as a backdoor to the United States, but thousands stayed to settle. Many who did were active in socialist politics, founding radical newspapers and helping to organize the Lumber Workers Industrial Union of Canada in northern Ontario. Disheartened by slow progress and the onset of the depression, thousands left Canada during the 1930s, most for Finland, but many too for neighboring Soviet Karelia.
The Russian invasion of Finland in 1939 prompted a new wave of sympathy for the Finns and a new era of Finnish immigration. Between 1948 and 1960, more than 17,000 immigrated to Canada, many fearing renewed Soviet aggression. During the later 20th century, immigration to both the United States and Canada was small, composed mainly of students and professionals seeking educational or economic advancement. Between 1992 and 2002, an average of fewer than 600 immigrated to North America, with about five-sixths of them coming to the United States. Because Finns tended to immigrate individually, rather than communally, they became largely indistinguishable from the greater society, just as had been the case in the colonial period.