3 Forest Finns

Forest Finns

Forest Finns (Norwegian: "Skogfinner", Swedish: "Skogsfinnar", Finnish: "Metsäsuomalaiset") are people of Finnish descent in the forest areas of Eastern Norway and Central Sweden. The Forest Finns immigrated from Savonia in Eastern Finland during the late 16th and early to mid 17th centuries, and traditionally pursued slash-and-burn agriculture.

The Name

The use of the term "Forest Finns" is first reported in sanctions issued by the Dano-Norwegian king in 1648, although they (at least locally in Norway) more commonly were known as Savolaksfinner ("Savonian Finns"), Rugfinner ("Rye Finns") from their major crop, or notably Svedjefinner ("Slash-and-burn Finns"). The people itself often use the term Finnskoginger.


The origin of the Forest Finns lies in the Swedish colonisation policy in Finland, a part of the Swedish Empire since the 13th century. The powers to the east of Finland, Novgorod and later Russia constantly challenged the Swedish sovereignty of the often sparsely populated provinces of Eastern Finland. To secure their realm, the Swedish kings, notably Gustav Vasa (r. 1528-60) and Eric XIV (r. 1561-8), encouraged farmers to settle these vast wilderness regions, which in turn were used to the traditionally slash-and-burn agriculture.

These settlements faced several problems, from conflicts with the original populations of Sami people and Karelians to harsh conditions living in frontier lands during war times. The fact that slash-and-burn itself requires a relatively low human population density or a continuing supply of new "frontier" lands, also caused overpopulation and by the late 16th century forced migration by Forest Finns from Savonia and Häme (Swedish: "Tavastland"). The main part moved north to Ostrobothnia ("Österbotten") and Kainuu ("Kajanaland"), east towards northern Karelia ("Karelen"), and south towards Ingria (Swedish land at that time, now part of Russia). However, an estimated 10-15% went across the Baltic Sea in search for largely unhabitated lands fit for their needs.

The first Forest Finn settlements in Sweden proper were established in Norrland, in the provinces of Gästrikland, Ångermanland and Hälsingland in the 1580s and 90s. Another migration route started from Medelpad and continued through the 17th century in the provinces of Dalarna and Värmland among others and eventually to Norway from the 1620s. In Norway, they settled in the Eastern counties of Hedmark, Oppland, Akershus, Oslo and Buskerud. The largest concentrations of settlements were however in the forest rich Eastern part of Hedmark close to the border with Sweden, in what is now denoted as "Finnskogen" in Norwegian and "Finnskog [arna] " in Swedish (literally "Finn Forest [s] "). In this largely uninhabited region they were able to move back and forth between the two countries - the border itself was not properly established until 1751.

Contemporary acceptance

In Sweden, the Forest Finn migration was initially well accepted and even encouraged by the kings, notably Charles IX (r. 1604-11) and Gustavus Adolphus (r. 1611–32), in order to make the vast border areas of the North and East of the kingdom inhabited. A seven years tax release was promised to them as an attraction. The situation was later to turn to the worse as the emerging, but primitive, iron industry was growing in the beginning of the 17th century and charcoal was needed for use in smelting. The Forest Finns with their demanding slash-and-burn agriculture were suddenly considered as an economical threat. The burning of the forests was officially forbidden in 1647 and the Finns were obliged to support the iron factories by providing charcoal at a minimum price. In the end of the 18th century the very existence of the Forest Finns was forgotten and they were considered to have incorporated into the Swedish population.

In Denmark-Norway (Norway was then part of a union), the situation was somewhat similar, at least by effect. The Dano-Norwegian authorities in Copenhagen were allegedly in favour of the de facto immigration and their slash-and-burn agriculture due to the relatively high yield production of rye, compared to traditional Norwegian grain crops. However, already from the middle of the 17th century the locals communicated their dissatisfaction with the newcomers, and in 1648 king Frederick III issued "sanctions on the Forest Finns" (Norwegian: "Forordning om skogfinner"), according to which they were either forced to return to Sweden or accept the same taxation and other duties as the locals.

Despite a new issue in 1673, the immigration continued, and the authorities replied by arranging the Forest Finn Census of 1686 (Norwegian: "Finnemanntallet") - until that time possibly the most detailed census commenced in Norway, as it not only included men, but also women and children of the Forest Finn population. The 1686 census still exists and provides valuable information about the extend of the immigration to Norway at that time, and a total of 1,225 people (including 160 of mixed Finno-Norwegian descent) were accounted for. Furthermore, most of them were in fact not born in Finland at all, but were second or third generation since the exodus from Savonia.

During the next centuries, the opportunities and needs for their traditional slash-and-burn method declined. The grass that grew on the swidden soil was good for pasture, and keeping animals gradually became a more important part of the Forest Finns' existence. Gradually as the value of the forest increased, forestry as a practice in itself became useful to both the Forest Finns and the locals in general. During the 19th century primary dependence upon the slash-and-burn method slowly stopped because of the changing economy, the building of an education system and the development of communications. There was a long-term pressure to adapt, and the influence of intermixing with the respective local Norwegian and Swedish populations made itself felt.

Carl Axel Gottlund

Carl Axel Gottlund (1796-1875) was one of the central Finnish national awakeners, who is commonly attributed with saving the folklore of the Forest Finns, and he also tried to act as a national awakener among them.

Gottlund was born into the family of a Finnish clergyman, Mattias Gottlund, one of the most outstanding representatives of Enlightenment ideas in Finland and Carl Axel was raised in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and the basic structure of his thinking represented rationalistic Enlightenment ideals. The family had lived in Juva, Savonia since 1805. The language of the family was Swedish because of the Swedish-speaking mother, but in the Finnish-speaking neighbourhood the young Carl Axel became finnicised.

Gottlund made two trips to the Forest Finns, the first in 1817 to Dalarna and the second, a longer one in 1820-1 to Värmland. He collected folklore and other ethnographic data as well as genealogical information. The latter partly because he wanted to improve the social circumstances of the Forest Finns and to prevent Sweden from taking ownership of their land. He estimated that in the beginning of the 19th century there were about 40,000 Finns in Central Scandinavia, of which about 14,000 were in Värmland.

His social and political activity for the benefit of the Forest Finns was idealistic. He wanted to create an autonomous area from the Finn Forests on both sides of the Swedish-Norwegian border, with great economic and political independence. The tax border would have been removed and land ownership by Swedes and Norwegians would have been restricted. He would have closed the iron factories. He himself wanted to become the vicar of his planned Finnish parish. All these plans failed and Gottlund himself was exiled from Stockholm to Uppsala.

In spite of this total political failure, Gottlund had positive cultural influence on the Forest Finns, many of them were no longer so ashamed of their descent and language and Gottlund himself became a legendary, heroic character in the Finn Forests.

Situation today

Today the Forest Finns are fully assimilated into the Norwegian and Swedish societies and their language extinct, but their culture lives on in both countries and a number of place names commemorates the Finnish origin. They are defined as a national minority in Norway, and it is estimated that a couple of hundred thousand Norwegians are descendants of the original Forest Finns.

Forest Finns are a distinct group from Kven people, which are found in the Northern Norwegian counties of Troms and Finnmark, although they both originate from Finland.


* [http://www.hum.uit.no/nordlit/10/1eskeland.html Place names and Identity] (In Norwegian.)
* [http://www.skogfinner.no/sider/e_articles.htm Forest Finns Interests in Norway] (Some in English, mostly in Norwegian.)
* [http://www.finnsam.org/index.htm Finnsam - Forest Finn areas in cooperation] (Some in English, mostly in Swedish.)
* [http://runeberg.org/authors/gottlcar.html Carl Axel Gottlund]

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