The legacy of the 17th century "Forest Finns" lives on in the border areas of Norway and Sweden
By some curious historical accident, George W. Bush may have his roots in Finnish Savo
By Kalle Koponen in Södra Finnskoga, Sweden
The flicker of a fire in the sooty blackness of a smoke sauna carries the mind easily back through the centuries, on an epic journey from the Savo region of Eastern Finland, via the wilds of Central Sweden and Eastern Norway, and across the Atlantic to the United States and to the long and bitter struggle for the Presidency now entering its final phase.
This may seem a stretch, but there is a common denominator between Savo, the Swedish border with Norway, and one George W. Bush, the current incumbent of the White House.
The word is metsäsuomalaiset, or “Forest Finns”, skogsfinnar in Swedish.
Here in Finland the expression these days is generally pejorative; a term of distaste pulled out when the boorish behaviour of some Finn or Finns causes others to sigh and lament that after all we came down from the trees only so very recently, and really one can’t expect anything better or more sophisticated.
However, the Forest Finns also have a real historical dimension that has left its mark on a small backwoods area straddling the Swedish and Norwegian border, to north of the Swedish city of Karlstad.
“Mats has Finnish blood in his veins, so he has a right to carry a knife”, laughs Knut Bengtsson in the smoke sauna in Södra Finnskoga, a little community now swallowed up in the municipality of Torsby, in the area of Sweden known as Värmland.
Bengtsson and his friend Mats Brendå belong to a small group who keep alive the cultural legacy of the so-called "Forest Finns" in the Värmland Heritage Society.
So who were they, these Forest Finns? On either side of the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, large numbers of people from the Savo districts of Eastern Finland wandered westwards into what is today Sweden, to become slash-and-burn farmers.
Thousands of them ended up here, in a largely uninhabited and roadless forested area on the border with Norway, to the north-east of Oslo.
Until the latter part of the 19th century, these immigrants from Finland lived to all intents and purposes outside Swedish society, keeping to themselves, speaking in the Savo dialect, and having little or no mixing with the mainstream Swedish or Norwegian population.
"The place-names have stayed in Finnish. There wasn't an awful lot known about these folks before roads began to be built at the back end of the 19th century and before elementary schooling became compulsory", reports Tellervo Zetterberg, from the Finnish Cultural Centre in Torsby.
"For example in Nyskoga [see map] there were no Swedish people living there at all. The Savo immigrants had to learn their Swedish directly from books as written language, and for this reason even now the locals do not speak with the regional Värmland dialect."
The Finns lived in smoky huts without chimneys and well separated from one another; they practiced their slash-and-burn agriculture, and grew - with no little success - excellent rye on the fields.
The forest gradually disappeared and the people moved steadily westwards, across into modern Norway.
On the Swedish side of the border there are still many of the old primitive Finnish cabins that local folk museums and heritage societies keep open to the public.
When the Swedish mining and iron industry began to develop in a big way, timber was needed in large quantities to make charcoal and keep the smelters going.
Slash-and-burn was a threat to the burgeoning industry and was duly forbidden, and the Forest Finns became outlaws in some places.
The Finns, now rather surplus to requirements, were shipped off in 1638 to a short-lived colony in the New World, known as New Sweden.
This was a settlement along the Delaware River, on land that had been bought from the American Indians. It was cultivated mainly by Finnish hands.
In the centre of the colony, at Fort Christina in what is now Wilmington, Delaware, in 1662 most of the families were of Finnish origin.
"The Finns were a thick-skinned bunch and they coped alright in the colony", says Zetterberg.
And now we come to George W. Bush.
An American geneological study has determined that one of Bush's early ancestors was a certain Måns Andersson, who became a tobacco farmer in New Sweden in the mid-17th century.
Andersson came to America from the village of Sillerud in the Forest Finn region of Sweden, crossing the Atlantic on a vessel called the Kalmar Nyckel.
In Torsby it is believed that Andersson might in fact not have been a Swede at all, but was named Mauno Antinpoika [Mauno, Antti's son], and one of the Forest Finns.
"In Sweden it was always a Swedish version of the name that was written into the parish registers, because the Finnish names when they were pronounced in the Savo dialect were far too difficult for the clergy to deal with", explains Zetterberg.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were still around five hundred Forest Finns inhabiting the woods of Värmland.
By 1954, there were just a few dozen.
The last occasion on which people of Finnish stock lived in a chimneyless hut in this area was in 1964, when Henning and Beda Jansson moved out of their house - which even then had no electricity or running water - and into an old people's home.
Nobody these days speaks Savo dialect here, either on the Swedish or the Norwegian side of the border.
All the same, in Norway the Forest Finns are to this day accorded the status of an official ethnic minority.
On the Swedish side, close to the border, at summer festivals there has also been established a tongue-in-cheek "Republic of Forest Finns" - Republikken Finnskogen - with its own coat of arms and its own national anthem, albeit that the lyrics are in Norwegian.
"All of us these days are a mix of Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian bloodlines", says one resident of the impressive upland landscape known as Anttilanvuori. A more Finnish name would be hard to find.
Indeed the place-names in this part of Sweden tell their own story if one hikes along the 200 kilometres of marked paths.
When you leave Anttila [basically "Antti's place"] and head west along forest tracks, you come across Mattila and Juhola.
The first signpost after the Norwegian border directs us to Mullikkala.
The only thing that is missing is a signpost to Washington DC.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.10.2008
Virtual Finland: Finland, a Land of Emigrants
Forest Finns (Wikipedia)
The Forest Finns in Scandinavia (.pdf file, contains two nice photos but little text)
New Sweden (Wikipedia)
Måns Andersson (Wikipedia)
Södra Finnskoga Regional Museum
Finnskogen - the culture of the Forest Finns (.pdf file)
Torsby Finnish Culture Centre
KALLE KOPONEN / Helsingin Sanomat