Finding Family History

Jennifer Niemela

In Finnish, my last name means, “peninsula.” The NiemelÑ side of my family hails from the northeastern part of Finland, which is striped by narrow lakes that mark an ancient glacial path. I imagine my ancestors — tough, tall outcasts of primitive Germanic tribes — settling on a rocky tip that juts into an icy lake.
For my father, our Finnish heritage is the most important aspect of our family’s identity. He grew up in northern Minnesota, the grandchild of Finnish immigrants who arrived here during the 1905-06 exodus of Finns escaping Russian pogroms.
I am fortunate that my father has continued contact with extended relatives in Finland, but most fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation Americans I know have very little contact with their family histories.
Always on the alert for yet more information about Finland and the history of my family, I was fascinated to hear about the University’s Immigration History Research Center. A center employee I interviewed for another story told me about her work, and I began a pilgrimage of sorts into the center’s Finnish archives.

Into the past
Relegated to an off-campus building one mile east of campus on University Avenue, the center is housed in a renovated coffee bean warehouse. Entering the center is a historical experience in itself: 1950s office furniture and the musty smell of old documents in storage create an appropriate ambiance for studying one’s ancestors.
The center is home to more than 5,000 linear feet of manuscript material, which consists of letters, diaries and other primary sources, and more than 26,000 books and pamphlets about the immigration experience of 24 ethnic groups. Thousands of boxes of letters, diaries and journals are stacked on huge metal shelves reaching to the ceiling of the primary source storage warehouse. Acting Director Joel Wurl said the center receives about 150 feet of printed material each year from various heritage associations.
Despite the distant location and pre-digital research system, the center is extremely user-friendly. New patrons fill out a short form that asks which ethnic group they wish to study and the purpose for their research. They are then ushered into a reading room where a librarian guides them to available reference materials.
Unlike most of the library facilities in the University system, the center uses more hard-copy than online material for searching. The only computer for public use is an old-model Lumina terminal with a harsh green screen.
I was able to locate books about Suomi College in Hancock, Michigan, where my great-grandfather Matti KortesmÑki met my great-grandmother Selma Luoto in 1912. I assumed I would be able to locate some mention of Matti since he was a seminary student and Finnish churches are known for their meticulous record-keeping. However, all of the material was dated after 1915, three years after my great-grandparents graduated from college. I had reached a dead-end, as often happens to genealogical researchers.
Disappointed but undeterred, I continued the search.
History from the bottom up
Wurl explained the center’s mission as “looking at history from the bottom up.”
“The question is what the immigrant groups contributed to American culture,” said Wurl, adding that before the center’s beginnings in 1965, “there was no home for the raw materials that contained the memories. The center established close relationships with ethnic groups that have persisted to the present, largely as custodians for these memories.”
While the center’s collections contain mostly European material, Wurl said the center is trying to get information and materials about the recent wave of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American immigrants who have been arriving in the U.S. for the past few decades.
“We’re again seeing immigration in epic proportions,” Wurl said. “We’re trying to capture some of the information of current ethnic groups, but we haven’t really included the recent wave of immigration in our collection.”
Beyond the melting pot
History professor Sara Evans said the American identity is tied closely to the immigrant experience. Every group of new arrivals had a different experience upon immigrating to the New World that shaped their beliefs in what it meant to be American, she explained.
“Anyone who studies the history of these groups knows they didn’t immediately get absorbed into a melting pot,” Evans said. “The way they survived was organizing themselves around their religions and helping each other out. As people became more American through their ethnicity, there were efforts to erase all of that. Those efforts were ill-founded, and they didn’t work.”
Wurl said not knowing about the experiences one’s ancestors had as immigrants and the way cultural differences played out in subsequent generations makes for a lack of understanding of contemporary American society.
“If we live simply in the present, without an understanding of the past and the cultural experiences and heritage that constitute who we are, we’d have a limited understanding of why it is that we go about living the lives we live,” Wurl said. “Who are the people around us? Why is Minneapolis composed of the kinds of cultural groups it is? Why did different cultures form cities like Milwaukee or Chicago?
“We can survive without answers, but how can we have rich lives without questioning the past and becoming more aware of the part immigration plays in our background?” Wurl said.
Finding my isoisÑ
Timo Riippa, the center’s resident Finnish curator, is the perfect Finn. He was born in Finland and moved to the Cities in the 1940s, where his mother insisted he retain his Finnish language skills. When I asked if I could interview him for this story, he shrugged and took a step back, which in Finland means “OK, if you can’t find anybody else.”
When answering questions, he paused between each phrase, conjuring the most understated words for his answers. My father says that Finns talk so carefully, you can never be sure whether they’ve finished or are just thinking about it some more.
When I went back to the center, I took a different tack in my search. Riippa told me newspapers and obituaries are the best place to begin searching for information about a family. Since my great-grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, the most likely place to find anything about him would be a religious periodical.
I began searching through Finnish Lutheran periodicals from the 1910s, when Matti was embarking on his career as a Lutheran pastor. Suddenly, a find: his name, M. KortesmÑki, at the bottom of a short list of times and locations of Lutheran services in northern Minnesota. Riippa told me Matti would have an obituary in a Lutheran church book the center had. Riippa retrieved the book and opened it to the page in question. I had before me a picture of my great-grandfather, or isoisÑ, handsomely solemn in his clerical frock.
“This gives me a lot of satisfaction,” said Riippa when we were talking after finding my great-grandfather’s picture. “It makes me happy at the end of the day to help provide people with some piece of information they didn’t have and they were looking for.”
Riippa said he doesn’t think much about the philosophical aspects of keeping ancestral ties strong; he simply likes to use his language skills to help people in their research. Language can be a barrier in the search for one’s American ancestors. The center doesn’t have a resident linguist for each of the ethnic groups with data housed at the center. However, if people have names or the names of towns their ancestors settled in, it’s possible to locate information, photocopy it, and have it translated elsewhere.
I told Riippa about how my father, a second-generation Finnish-American, spent the first six years of his life speaking only Finnish, and that he didn’t know a word of English until he went to first grade. Now my father can follow a slow, simple conversation in Finnish, but he can’t read it and he can’t speak it. Riippa said many immigrant groups experience a culturally crippling loss of language skills.
“They were right when they said that once the language goes, the culture goes,” Riippa said. “It’s a natural process, we’ve seen it with any number of immigrant groups. The second generation maintains the language, the third doesn’t as much, and the fourth doesn’t know anything. That’s just the way it is.”
Riippa said he lives in an area that contains many Hmong, a group that is part of the newest wave of Minnesotan immigrants. He said the immigrants’ children, who were born in the U.S., speak Hmong with their parents and English with their friends. He said the immigrants’ grandchildren will probably not know any Hmong and be thoroughly Americanized.
Riippa said this loss of language skills and the subsequent loss of ethnic identity is the very reason the recent wave of immigrants should record their immigration experience.
“To many Americans, (recording the immigration experience) isn’t important,” Riippa said. “But I think there’s a certain psychological security in knowing who you are and who your forbearers were. There’s also the philosophical question of ‘who am I?’ and this answers that question for many people.”
Discovering my isoisÑ at the center was more like finding a puzzle piece than attaining a goal. Although the image of my ancestors taking a sauna on a rocky beach will always pictorially sum up my Finnish identity, a black-and-white portrait makes my heritage a little more real.
Not everything needs to be left to the imagination.