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Forest Finns' Letters to Gottlund

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Metsäsuomalaisten kirjeet Gottlundille

Carl Axel Gottlund (1796–1875) was a collector of folklore, researcher of the Finnish language, writer, Finnish national awakener and the man behind the idea for Kalevala. He made his most significant contribution at the beginning of his career in Sweden. When studying at Uppsala University, Gottlund heard about the Forest Finns living in Sweden. Their ancestors had been slash-and-burn peasants from the Savonia region in Finland. In Finland, little was known about them. Gottlund visited the Forest Finns two times: in 1817, Gottlund made a trip to the Dalarna area, and in 1821–1822, he visited Värmland and Norway. Gottlund’s travel journals from both trips have been published. Later, Gottlund worked actively to improve the difficult living conditions of the Forest Finns. He made detailed notes about their language, last names and traditions.

The Finnish Literature Society is now publishing the letters that the Forest Finns sent to Gottlund. The collection of nearly 250 letters is mostly written in Finnish, but there are also some letters in Swedish and Norwegian. The letters were written between the1820s and 1870s. The significant letter collection was written by self-educated writers. The material rich in content is unique from the perspective of many scientific disciplines. The letters are kept in the SKS archive where they were digitised and the Finnish letters were transcribed. The transcription work was partly funded through the research project Exploring Social Boundaries from Below: Class, Ideology and Writing Practices in Nineteenth Century Finland (Academy of Finland, 2011–2015) led by Docent Anna Kuismin.

The Finnskog areas on both sides of the Swedish-Norwegian border

From the latter part of the 16th century onwards, there were fewer and fewer wilderness regions suitable for slash-and-burning in the interior of Finland. In addition, the turbulent times and the Swedish land settlement policy resulted in Finns migrating to forest regions in the Dalarna and Värmland areas and to Norway. The Finnish settlement became culturally homogenous, and the area, Finnskogar i.e. Finn forests, remained distinctively Finnish for several centuries.

Finnish people prospered at first. Settlers were given a seven-year exemption from tax and full ownership of their houses. Finnish people succeeded in farming even during years of crop failure, because they used the slash-and burning method on northern hills. They benefitted financially when Swedish people had to buy corn from them. As the mining industry developed, Finns also received considerable income from selling charcoal to factories.

However, the land settlement policy of the Swedish Government changed in the 1630s. Forest Finns were envied for their success, and they were even persecuted as a result of the complaints made to the Government. Swedish people wanted to make Finns, who were not controlled, move to cities, and burn-beating was forbidden. In the following years, the regulations became stricter, and in 1640, an order was given to burn Finns’ houses and confiscate or burn their corn. Since the mid-17th century, mountain mines were given to private owners who were also given the surrounding crown lands with the houses and the right to collect state taxes. In the 18th century, debts to ironworks led to the tenant farming system in practice, and Finns ended up in miserable conditions for decades because they had to pay considerable taxes.

In Norway, commercial houses in Christiania (later known as Oslo) got a hold of the slash-and-burn areas previously owned by Finns in the 1750s and 1760s, in particular. Finns ran into debt and had to give their household registration books to merchants as a pledge. By the beginning of the 19th century, they had become commercial houses’ tenant farmers officially or in practical terms.

Gottlund as a defender of the Forest Finns

Gottlund realised how difficult the circumstances were for Finns when he visited the northern parts of Värmland and Norway, in particular. He was determined to help them. On his initiative, a delegacy of 12 Forest Finns was formed. In 1823, it requested the King for permission to establish a Finnish jurisdictional district. The plan was to have three Finnish congregations with Finnish-speaking clergymen. In addition, the Forest Finns pursued regional autonomy in financial administration, religious and social matters, and many Finns living in Norway wanted to buy their farms from the Norwegian landowners. Although the delegacy’s request was denied, Gottlund’s actions drew the Government’s attention to the Finns’ distress. Finns were given two new churches and tax relief, for example. Many Forest Finns living in Norway were also allowed to redeem their farms. Furthermore, the Government found it necessary to spread Finnish religious literature in the Finnish areas. Gottlund arranged an agent to take care of a bookshop in Karlstad so that Forest Finns could order Finnish books and papers there. The bookshop received support from Finland where they donated a couple of hundred Finnish Bibles and New Testaments as well as more than 1,000 copies of other books written in Finnish. Finns always remembered Gottlund’s contribution and considered him as their great benefactor.


The majority of the letters that are now being published were written in the 1820s and 1830s, but some were written later at the beginning of the 1870s. Nearly one hundred letters were written by Poavo (Paavo) Räisäinen (1786–1855), who met Gottlund when he visited the Solør-Värmland region in 1821. Räisäinen was a peasant who occasionally worked as a teacher in Finnskogen. He was one of the leading figures in the delegacy in 1823, and he became a leader figure in Finnish popular education in the Solør-Värmland region. According to Räisäinen, he had received inadequate school education, but he knew how to write Finnish well and the letters sent to Gottlund were clearly written. Other significant collections include the 45 letters written by Antti Porkka, who was from Östmark, Värmland, as well as the two dozen letters written by Pekka Karvainen, who was from Grue Finnskog, Norway. Especially Räisäinen and Porkka also wrote letters on behalf of other Forest Finns. The letters were written by well more than a hundred writers or interested parties in total.

Nearly 250 letters is not much compared with the correspondence of 6,300 letters by Elias Lönnrot. However, Forest Finns’ letters contain detailed information about their daily lives, dwelling places, place names and traditions. They therefore form a unique collection from the perspective of many scientific disciplines. Forest Finns’ distinctive dialect and the fact that the writers were self-educated make the collection significant in terms of language research as well.

Linguistic features also make it challenging to publish the material. Every self-educated writer’s ability to write was different and they used their own kind of grammar and inflection, which makes it difficult to transcribe the letters. The names of people and places have been written in various ways by different writers, but the same writer could also write them in different ways in different letters. Names had to be standardised to make it possible to search for metadata, such as personal and place names. For the writers’ names, we decided to use a certain primary form in the headings of the letters, and we included alternative forms used in each letter in the metadata. With regard to place names, we used the work Skogsfinska släktnamn i Skandinavien The names found in the texts were kept as is in the transcriptions, and they can be searched for using free text search.

We would like to thank Professor Taru Nordlund and Professor Lea Laitinen from the University of Helsinki, as well as Associate Professor Tuula Eskeland from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark for their consultation help. In particular, we would like to thank Professor Gabriel Bladh from Karlstad University for his valuable help in determining the standard forms of place names.

Maria Niku


Bladh, Gabriel, Myhrvold, Jan, Persson, Niclas (eds.): Skogsfinska släktnamn i Skandinavien. Karlstad University Studies 58. Karlstad 2009.

Hirvonen, Maija: Esipuhe. In: K. A. Gottlund, Vermlannin päiväkirja 1821, translated into Finnish Maija Hirvonen, 7–11. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura 1986.

Pulkkinen, Risto: Vastavirtaan: C.A. Gottlund 1800-luvun suomalaisena toisinajattelijana : psykobiografinen tutkimus. University of Helsinki: dissertation, 2003.

Pulkkinen, Risto: Gottlund, Carl Axel. The National Biography of Finland online publication. Studia Biographica 4. Helsinki: The Finnish Literature Society, 1997– (referred to on 16.11.2020) (ISSN 1799-4349, online publication).

Wedin, Maud: Räisäinen, Poavo. The National Biography of Finland online publication. Studia Biographica 4. Helsinki: The Finnish Literature Society, 1997– (referred to on 16.11.2020) (ISSN 1799-4349, online publication).


PhD, Bachelor of Science, software developer Maria Niku and PhD Kirsi Keravuori, Director of Scholarly Publishing at the Finnish Literature Society, were in charge of designing and implementing the publication. Maria Niku built the publication on the eXist-db platform using the TEI Publisher application The layout follows the model made by graphic designer Marko Myllyaho for SKS’s online publications.

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