May 8, 2018

A Church in Finland


For Christmas, my wife bought me a subscription to Ancestry.com. My maternal grandparents were born in Finland and my paternal great-grandparents in Sweden. So I set off to learn a little more about where I came from. I didn't expect this to be the start of a Great Adventure that will not end.

It didn't take me long to find several Swedish 5th great-grandparents, including Nils Jonsson, born in 1691 in Ostra Boda, Sweden. At the other end, I also located several distant cousins in the U.S., many that I remember from when I was young, a flash back to a world so long ago.
Old Church of Isokyro

But I wasn't prepared for what I found in Finland. My maternal grandparents immigrated separately to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan around 1902 when they were about 20. They married and brought up ten kids in the hovels of Ishpeming, my hometown. My grandfather and later my uncles worked underground in the iron ore mines. 

I heard endless stories of life without plumbing or central heat, sleeping three in a bed, living off poached fish and deer. But even with the deprivations, they all made it to adulthood, all held reasonable jobs, all married and only one divorced. Together they had 27 kids, nearly half of whom completed bachelor degrees. Not bad for grandparents who never spoke English.

I found 2nd great-grandparents from my grandfather's side. I discovered that he wasn't born John Wuorenmaa, as I had I always known him. He was born Juho Kustaa Vuorenmaa and anglicized it when he arrived in the U.S., a common immigrant practice.

On my grandmother's side, though, I discovered 34 great-grandparents going back twelve generations to the 16th century. For those twelve generations, they mostly lived and died in and around Isokyro, a small village thirty miles inland from Vaasa on the west coast of Finland, on the Kyronjoki River. It's not far from where my grandfather and his family lived in Kauhava. I suspect the records of these twelve generations (and more) come from the Old Church of Isokyro, a massive grey stone church built in the early 1500s that is still standing. 

At this time, Finland was governed by Sweden. Presumably my relatives were peasants living generation after generation in the same small area, probably engaged in farming and fishing, with not much changing through dozens of decades. Eventually, Russia took control from Sweden and before Finland was freed to be their own country, my grandparents had relocated to the U.S. 

This was part of mass migrations from this area due to a lack of jobs and Russia's repressive attempts at Russification of Finland. Still today, 16% of the Upper Peninsula is Finnish, with some small townships approaching 50%. I've heard that the U.P. has the largest concentration of Finnish people outside of Finland. Ironically, two generations later, I immigrated to Minnesota due to a similar lack of jobs.

Most of my life, I've heard about premodern life without medicine, electricity and cars. But now it's more than some esoteric discussion. I have the names, birth and death dates, and towns across centuries where half of my DNA comes from. Maria Bertilintyt√§r ("Bertil's daughter") Kiikka was born June 1, 1725 in Isokyro before the U.S. was established, and died there at age 74 on March 16, 1800. 

Which was another shocking revelation. Yes, many died before reaching adulthood but if you survived long enough to procreate, at least my relatives lived to a median age of 64. Contrary to impressions given by life expectancy data, centuries ago even peasants apparently did not normally die of old age at forty and some lived to eighty.

Walking through generations of my ancestry, I'm struck by some aspects of life. First, people are born and die at a time and a place, and they are given a name that remains a fact regardless of whether it is changed (which they are for more reasons than marriage). Second, marriage and children helps in giving one a place in life's book, which is the closest to immortality many of us will get. 

Finally, most of the rest of our lives - our thoughts, work, accumulations, successes and failures - are lost behind the amazing fact that we have been part of a DNA chain that's still alive. My wife and our three kids are by far the highest priorities in my life. As they should be.

Also, when I envision the life a dozen generations of my ancestors lived in Finland over hundreds of years, I'm also aware of some similarities. By choice, I live in a geography and climate that is very similar to where they lived. By choice, I live in a smaller urban area and we have a vacation home in a small rural community north of here.

We have a garden with asparagus, lettuce, beets and peas. We regularly hike in the surrounding boreal forests and I still occasionally hunt and fish. And although we have central heat, Internet and SUVs, we live a somewhat minimalist life focused on experiences, nature, relationships and simpler pleasures. Finally, like my ancestors, we are involved in a church that, unfortunately, will probably not be around in half a millennium. 

So where next? I'm not done flushing out my maternal grandparents. I'm trying to solve why one lineage in this same area ends so abruptly (I suspect an incorrect name translation). Then I intend to do the same look at my Swedish lineage. A cursory look through my wife's relatives gets me back at least two centuries into Norway, Ukraine, Switzerland and England. When I'm comfortable with my findings, I will share them with any of our relatives that care to look, and I may even pay a professional to review it.

And I finally have something on my bucket list: I am going to visit Isokyro and its medieval church.