finding your roots

Finland To America 1912

Linda Pensala Morley June 10, 2012

As a second generation American child of Finnish descent, one of my earliest memories was of asking my Finnish Grandmother, Katri, and her Sister Hilma, about “why” they came to America in 1912. Let me correct myself….I badgered these enormously intriguing women incessantly whenever I saw them. And I saw them almost every single day until I was 16.
My thoughts as a child were “how could they leave their Mother forever?” Of course, they would inevitably start crying while they told me stories…“we heard that America had streets paved with gold, and that there was great opportunity in the new land.” But their crying didn’t stop my insensitive curiosity.
So this began my lifetime quest to build relationships with our current relatives in Finland and to research my Grandmother and Great Aunt’s family background.
In my book…..Kirra and Karra Families…Finland to America, I was able to track both of their parents’families, and further descendants from Kullaa, Finland (about four hours north of Helsinki) to 1762.
Katri and Hilma’s parents had a true love story of “boy (Juho Kirra) meets girl next door (Hilma Karra).” They married in 1883 in Kullaa, Finland, but unfortunately, their love didn’t get a chance to last forever, as Juho died at age 42 in 1900. By then they had seven surviving children (the youngest was two years old) and within a month of his death, Hilma had to auction off all of the farm equipment and animals in order to survive. At that time Finland had been under Swedish rule and they had tripled the farm taxes making profitability almost impossible. So it became a “Perfect Storm” of problems that was almost insurmountable. The Kirra and Karra farms were next door to each other and were considered “Great Houses” of that era. They both had a lot of land and large homes, and employed many people. And they were very successful from the beginning. Both farms started at the same time in 1790, and they became lifelong good friends, neighbors and became family.
So the story of Hilma in Kullaa takes many twists and turns in order to survive, but her two daughters and one son, Frans Vihtori, all had plans and dreams of coming to America in 1912. The first one to leave Finland was Hilma Aleksandra, the oldest daughter. She originally wanted to travel on the great new state of the art ship that everyone was talking about, the Titanic, but didn’t want to wait until April for her journey. She arrived in America in January 1912, and her brother and Katri arrived not long after that. We are really happy that none of them traveled on the Titanic.
Once they arrived in America, they were met by their only American immigrant relatives, Ida and Wiktor Karra of Duluth, Minnesota. Ida and Wiktor, their aunt and uncle, owned a boarding house in Duluth and were thrilled to have other family members join them. The Kirras eventually settled in a suburb of Chicago in a Finnish community where the people in the shops and the church all spoke fluent “Finn”. As children we even attended a Finnish School so that we could learn the language and speak to our Finnish relatives.
These women, Katri, Hilma and their cousins Aili and Irene Karra , completely intrigued me and were incredible role models. They never complained, they worked hard, they stuck together throughout their lifetimes, and they were very proud of their heritage.
So, I have written their stories and family relationship charts, made many trips to Kullaa , Pori and Helsinki, and currently keep in touch with our families often. I have also written a Television Proposal for a one hour show based on people who have already traced their roots & keep in contact with family from the old country. It combines genealogy, travel & culture…… and tries to answer the question “What did Your Ancestry Contribute to America?” The show title is… “The Melting Pot”…….

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The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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