The Forest Finns are close to my heart. I consider myself a Forest Finn in the context of the national minority framework. It's not my whole identity, but an important part of it. I've grown up in Eastern Norway, in areas that were populated by the original Forest Finns; I learned about the culture in school, and as a child I was shown the remnants of century-old farmhouses and saunas in forest clearings. I like to use my voice on social media to spread awareness of our people's history and continued existence, and I consider this blog post a part of this endeavour.
Who are the Forest Finns?
The original Forest Finns (Norwegian: skogfinner; Swedish: skogsfinnar; Finnish: metsäsuomalaiset) were people from the forests of Eastern Finland (Savo and northern Häme/Tavastland) and Karelia who emigrated westwards to Sweden and later Norway in the 1500s and 1600s. They practiced a form of agriculture called slash-and-burn farming, "a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field called a swidden" (Wikipedia). After the burning was complete, the Forest Finns would sow rye in the ashes. In order to avoid depleting the soil completely, the farmers would shift their cultivation from place to place, which meant that they needed large areas of forests in order to sustain themselves.
In the 1500s, Finland was part of Sweden. For various political and economic reasons, Finnish slash-and-burn farmers were invited by the government to settle in certain areas of Sweden at this time, and since the farmers were constantly on the lookout for more forest land, they accepted the offer. From the early 1600s and onward, the Forest Finns began moving into Norway, and settled across a rather wide territory in the eastern part of the country. Their core cultural area was located right on the border with Sweden, and that area is still known as Finnskogen ("The Forest of the Finns").
Modern-day Forest Finns are people who can document descent from one of the original Forest Finns, and who feel a connection to that people and their culture.
At least three of my great-grandparents have Forest Finn roots that are documented in traditional records:
My great-grandfather Harry (1919-1991), whose Forest Finn lines run through Trysil, Våler and Elverum in eastern Hedmark county;
My great-grandmother Aase (1920-2000), whose Forest Finn lines run through the Oslo Woodlands (Oslomarka), specifically Sørkedalen and Krokskogen;
My great-grandmother Gerd (1924-2005), whose Forest Finn lines run through Marker in Østfold county and Aurskog in Akershus county.
In addition, my great-grandmother Ingrid (1905-1990) had a great-great-grandfather of Finnish ethnicity who was most likely a Forest Finn. However, absolutely nothing is known about him except his first name, his Finnishness, and the fact that he fathered a child - my ancestor - in Steinkjer, Nord-Trøndelag county, in 1805.
Autosomal DNA testing shows that I have Finnish admixture, the amount of Finnish DNA being more or less consistent with the amount of known Finnish ancestry in my family tree. 23andMe seems most accurate, giving me 1.1% Finnish, spread out across my chromosomes in this manner:
Due to endogamy among the Forest Finns in Sweden and Norway, people with Forest Finn ancestry will seem to be more closely related to their Finnish DNA matches than what is actually the case. Every company I have tested with, or uploaded my DNA to, gives me a significant number of cousin matches living in Finland today. Our common ancestors would have lived in the 1500s or even earlier.
In the following sections I will discuss two of my most recent Forest Finn ancestors in detail.
My ancestor Marthe Thomasdatter (1704-1759)
My most recent-born Forest Finn ancestor of whom anything substantial is known, is a woman named Marthe Thomasdatter. She was born at a small farm or croft called Høgfall in Aurskog in 1704 as the daughter of Thomas Hansen (c. 1661-1748), a slash-and-burn farmer born in Marker in Østfold, and his wife Berthe (Birgithe) Jakobsdatter (c. 1669-1739), whose birthplace is unknown. The family's ethnic identity is not explicitly noted in the records, but their names, as well as their slash-and-burn farming technique which is evidenced by the name of their farm (Høgfall = "High Swidden"), strongly suggest that they were Forest Finns.
My great-grandmother Gerd descends from Marthe Thomasdatter through both her father and her mother, so I consider Marthe an important and significant part of my Forest Finn heritage. She married an ethnic Norwegian, and her descendants seem to have assimilated into the majority culture rather quickly.
My ancestor Anders Henriksen Himainen (1692-1772)
Of all my Forest Finn ancestral lines, it is my great-grandfather Harry's family that seems to have preserved its Forest Finn identity and culture the longest. Harry's great-great-great-grandmother Marthe Andersdatter was born in 1738 on Sæteren farm in Elverum, Hedmark county. Her parents were Anders Henriksen Himainen (1692-1772), a man of fully Forest Finn ancestry, and Marit Eriksdotter Knausen (1691-1765), an ethnic Norwegian woman. Their marriage at Flisa on January 6, 1716, is one of the earliest recorded mixed marriages between a Forest Finn and an ethnically Norwegian person. It is very likely that the children of Anders and Marit learned at least some of the Finnish language, and that elements of Finnish language and culture persisted among their descendants - including my own family - at least until the early 1800s.
Several lines of Anders Himainen's ancestry can be traced all the way back to Finland, more specifically the former parish of Rautalampi on the border between Savo and Häme, the village of Suonenjoki in Savo, as well as the village of Himalansaari on the border between Savo and South Karelia. One family line, the Mulikka family, were farmers in Saarijärvi in Rautalampi, but genetics show that they were originally from the Vyborg area on the Karelian Isthmus. We also have one ancestor, Berte Larsdotter Hakkarainen, whose recent ancestry is of uncertain geographical origin; however, the Hakkarainen family is said to have originally been stone-cutters in Russian Karelia. In other words, our Forest Finn ancestors were a mix of ethnic Savonians and ethnic Karelians, and probably Sámi people too, since the Forest Finns' core area of origin around Rautalampi was populated mainly by Sámi until around the year 1500. One of my Forest Finn ancestors did in fact belong to mtDNA haplogroup U5b1b1a, which is considered very typically Sámi (although it is also found among other populations).
The Forest Finns in Norway today
Today, the Forest Finns are a legally recognized national minority group in Norway, in spite of the fact that the descendants of the original Forest Finns have been largely assimilated and their Finnish language has died out. There are many groups and societies dedicated to researching, preserving and celebrating Forest Finn history, genealogy and heritage sites, and many modern-day Forest Finns take great pride in their Finnish roots. The Finnskogdagene (Finn Forest Days) is an annual festival celebrating Forest Finn culture, drawing hundreds of visitors every year. Musicians and singers such as Sinikka Langeland have been revitalizing the ancient Forest Finn song tradition.
The Forest Finns do not yet have their own flag, but certain activists are working on designing one.
Some modern-day Forest Finns have even started taking back their families' Finnish surnames, which have been passed down orally for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, since these surnames often went out of official use at a very early point in time, Norwegian authorities are reluctant to allow descendants to take back their families' names, claiming that the connection is too distant. Some Forest Finn activists are campaigning for greater rights in this respect, arguing that the disappearance of the Finnish surnames did not happen by the choice of the Forest Finns themselves, but because of assimilation pressure from the Norwegian government.
As a self-identifying Forest Finn and as a citizen who is concerned with minority rights, I have involved myself in the Forest Finn community, naturally in the fields of genealogy and genetic genealogy, but also as a political activist. I participated in the petitioning and protests for a Forest Finn museum in Norway, as part of the action group Skogfinsk museumsbygg NÅ! The protests paid off; there will be a Forest Finn museum, and the winner of the architectural competition was recently announced.
As more and more people in Norway are expressing interest in Forest Finn history and culture, I have high hopes for the future of Forest Finns in Norway. If you have Forest Finn ancestry but haven't explored it before, I urge you to do so now, because it is a fascinating history and people to be connected to. If you have Norwegian or Swedish ancestry but are unaware of Forest Finn roots, keep searching! You might have Forest Finn ancestors hiding somewhere in your family tree, waiting for you to find.