The Finnish Connection

During the first half of the 19th Century many adventurous Finnish settlers contributed to the development of Russian America. The 1700s and 1800s were a time of imperial expansion and colonial occupation for many European nations. At this time the Russian Empire extended well beyond Russia's current geographic boundaries. Modern-day Finland was among the key territories of this empire. It was established as a Grand Duchy, or semi-autonomous territory, in 1809 just five years after the Russian establishment of New Archangel, or modern-day Sitka.

A map of the Russian Empire from 1801 to 1914 with the borders of Finland highlighted.
Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1917.

Strengthening Foundations

The administration and government of Russian America was carried out largely by the Russian American Company, which had been given a monopoly on the resources of Russian America. Thus the Company's leaders played an important role, both in the company and in the local community. An exceptional example of this was the Finnish naval officer Arvid Adolf Etholen.

A painted portrait of Arvid Adolf Etholen.
Arvid Adolf Etholen

Etholen began his career with the Russian Imperial Navy in the early 1800s, leading trips into Russia's American territories. He served as Chief Manager of the Russian American Company from 1840-1845. As the leader of the Russian American Company, Etholen resided in New Archangel with his wife, Margaretha Hedvig Johanna Etholen.

While in New Archangel, Etholen instituted the practice of laying cut stone foundations for important buildings, dramatically improving their lifespans. He oversaw the construction of the Russian Bishop's house, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the first stages of the construction of St Michael's Orthodox Cathedral. He also endeavored to improve the strained relationship between the native Tlingit community and the Russian colonists. He hired Tlingit men to work on construction projects and threw festivals outside the city walls, to which all were invited including prominent members of Tlingit society who were honored with gifts.

A painted portrait of Margaretha Etholen.
Margaretha Hedvig Johanna Etholen

Margaretha Etholen also made important contributions to Russian America during her years in New Archangel. Originally a teacher, Margaretha began a successful boarding school for girls. Drawing upon Finnish teaching methods, the school catered to all social classes and represented a progressive stance on education.

Community Connections

The Finnish community in Russian America included many active members of the Lutheran Church, which reflected the diversity of the Russian empire. It served not just Finns, but also Baltic Germans, Swedes, and Danes (however, it was never as successful in attracting Alaska Native converts as the Russian Orthodox Church). The first pastor of the Lutheran Church in New Archangel was Finnish Pastor Uno Cygnaeus, who accompanied the Etholens from Finland to New Archangel, and worked with them in many of their endeavors.

Finnish settlers in Russian America were successful in many other ways. Finnish physicians Dr. Frankenhaeuser and Dr. Pippingskiold served the health needs of Russian American Company employees; scientist Henrik Holmberg published an ethnography of Russian America; and the Finnish engineer Hjalmar Furuhjelm opened the first coal mine in Alaska. And of course, in an era so characterized by seafaring, the Finns contributed notably to that as well. J.J. Conradi, J.W. Weckman, Axel Juselius and Lars Krogius were just a few of the Finnish officers who commanded vessels for the Russian American Company.

The Finnish Legacy

Of all the Russian American settlers, the Finns were among those that traveled the furthest from their homes to seek fortune in the distant, unforgiving American colony. These brave and hard-working people brought invaluable skills from their homeland. They enriched the communities of Russian America and played an important role in its diversity. Finnish settlers contributed greatly to the legacy of Russian America.

Last updated: November 19, 2021

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