Finding Your Finnish Ancestors

April 15, 2019  - by 

Located at the very top of Europe, Finland sometimes flies under the radar. But with its vast natural beauty, excellent education system, and of course, as the official home of Santa Claus (at least according to the people of Finland), perhaps it shouldn’t. 

With a population of around 5.5 million people, Finland has one of the lowest population densities in Europe. Yet Finland also has a rich cultural heritage and history, with deep connections to both Sweden and Russia. Finland has also sent a significant number of people out into the world, with Finnish immigrants settling in the United States, Canada, and many other countries. 

Today, people with Finnish ancestry have access to great records, many available through FamilySearch’s online Finnish collection. Getting acquainted with the Finnish language and naming traditions can be challenging at first. But once you get a grasp on them, you’ll likely find success in the thoroughly kept and well-preserved records.  

If you want to understand and trace your Finnish heritage, here’s some information to help you dive in! 

A Peek into Finnish History 

Having a basic understanding of Finland’s history can help you be more effective in locating your Finnish ancestors. Finland did not become an independent country until 1917. From about 1150 until 1809, Finland was a part of Sweden, which means many records throughout this period were kept in Swedish. Both Sweden and Finland were impacted by the Reformation and became predominantly Evangelical Lutheran, with Lutheran Church records including nearly every member of Finnish society. 

When Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War in 1809, Finland became part of the Russian Empire. Under Russian rule, Finland had more autonomy, and Finns developed a stronger sense of their national identity. Finnish became the country’s official language in 1863 and churches gradually began keeping records in Finnish. 

A timeline of Finnish history.

Not long after Finland established its independence in 1917, it passed the Family Names Act of 1920. This act standardized Finnish surnames, making it a legal requirement for everyone to use family surnames. Before this, Finnish names could follow several different naming traditions. In western Finland, many people followed the patronymic naming system as was done in Sweden. In this system, surnames are based on the father’s first name and change from generation to generation. Eastern Finns tended to use regular family surnames. However, in both areas, people sometimes took on farm names. This meant that a person adopted the name of the place where he lived, taking on a new name when he moved. The change enacted by the Family Names Act makes Finnish genealogical research in this period much simpler! 

Finnish Emigration

Between 1864 and 1914, over 300,000 people left Finland for the U.S. and Canada. This was the first of several major waves of Finnish emigration. Today, around 640,000 Americans claim Finnish heritage. Michigan, Minnesota, and Massachusetts saw the largest number of arrivals. Significant Finnish populations can also be found in Sweden, Canada, Russia, and Norway. In fact, Finnish emigration to Sweden peaked from 1950 to 1970, when many Finns left in search of employment. 

A chart of finnish populations around the world.

Finding your ancestors in emigration records can also help you piece together their stories. Finns left through several different ports, including ports in Sweden, Germany, and England. Finnish ancestors can also sometimes be found in Canadian border-crossing records or U.S. arrival records. After 1891, many Finns emigrated with the Finland Steamship Company. FamilySearch has a large collection of emigration (departure) and immigration (arrival) records that you can search. 

Now that you’ve got a basic introduction, it’s time to get started! Take a few minutes to learn more in the attached articles, or head right over to FamilySearch—and get acquainted with your Finnish family.   

Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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  1. Thank you very much for your pages on Finland. I served a mission there in the late 1950s and in 1960 married a former sister missionary born in Oulu, Finland. Our 5 children have a least one Finnish name. After 51 years of marriage my wife Terttu Tuulikki Aunola died.