In 1913 Gus­taf Hög­lund cast his mind back over fif­ty ye­ars to a yo­uth spent in the Uni­ted Sta­tes. He had long sin­ce re­tur­ned to his na­ti­ve Ja­kobs­tad/Pie­tar­saa­ri, but re­mem­be­red much of his time in 1860s Ame­ri­ca. It was a land where fel­low Fin­ns were few and far bet­ween. “I had no fel­low-count­ry­men at that time at the pla­ces where I was, be­lon­ging to a far-off count­ry,” he exp­lai­ned.

Hög­lund’s me­mo­ries of iso­la­ti­on are bor­ne out by the his­to­ri­cal re­cord. When he first ar­ri­ved in New York in 1861, the “Great Mig­ra­ti­on” from Fin­land ac­ross the At­lan­tic lay in the fu­tu­re. The 1860 US Fe­de­ral Cen­sus, ta­ken just months ear­lier, re­cor­ded just 165 Fin­nish-born pe­op­le in the en­ti­re count­ry.

As es­tab­lis­hed by Fin­nish mig­ra­ti­on his­to­ri­ans such as Rei­no Kero, im­mig­ra­ti­on to Ame­ri­ca be­fo­re the 1870s was high­ly spo­ra­dic. Prior mo­ve­ment was do­mi­na­ted by Fin­nish sai­lors, exp­loi­ting the op­por­tu­ni­ty their oc­cu­pa­ti­on pro­vi­ded to cross the world’s oce­ans. Gus­taf Hög­lund was one such man. Now his story—and words—are among the do­zens being re­ve­a­led as part of a ma­jor new exa­mi­na­ti­on of sai­lors in the 1860s Uni­ted Sta­tes Navy. It ta­kes as its fo­cus an event that we now know doub­led Fin­nish rep­re­sen­ta­ti­on in the Uni­ted Sta­tes—the Ame­ri­can Ci­vil War.

Men who wore the US Navy’s “bluejacket" 

Hög­lund is one of 152 Fin­nish-born war­ti­me U.S. sai­lors iden­ti­fied thus far as part of the UK Arts & Hu­ma­ni­ties Re­se­arch Coun­cil fun­ded Ci­vil War Blu­e­jac­kets Pro­ject. Led by Pro­fes­sor Da­vid Glee­son of Nort­humb­ria Uni­ver­si­ty, it in­vol­ves a mul­ti-dis­cip­li­na­ry team of his­to­ri­ans and in­for­ma­ti­on scien­tists in the UK, Ger­ma­ny and the US. The pro­ject is using the ext­ra­or­di­na­ry we­alth of sur­vi­ving war­ti­me na­val per­son­nel re­cords to re­ve­al new in­sights in­to the c. 118,000 men who wore the US Navy’s “blu­e­jac­ket.” 

Many of these men were drawn from the poo­rest ranks of Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty, inc­lu­ding thou­sands of re­cent­ly ens­la­ved Af­ri­can Ame­ri­cans, and thou­sands of re­cent Eu­ro­pe­an im­mig­rants. At the he­art of the pro­ject is a ma­jor ci­ti­zen scien­ce ini­ti­a­ti­ve to transc­ri­be Ci­vil War “mus­ter rol­ls,” the lists of ship’s crews which re­cord de­tai­led in­for­ma­ti­on about in­di­vi­du­al sai­lors, inc­lu­ding where they were born. The Fin­nish sai­lors rep­re­sent one of the on­going pro­ject case stu­dies. 

The data in­di­ca­tes that many of these Fin­nish sai­lors had not li­ved in the Uni­ted Sta­tes prior to the Ci­vil War. Ins­te­ad, most for­med part of a con­cer­ted ef­fort by the US navy to rec­ruit from amongst the ex­pe­rien­ced Eu­ro­pe­an merc­hant crews that fre­qu­en­ted Ame­ri­can ports. 

De­tails of the sai­lor’s pre-en­list­ment oc­cu­pa­ti­ons de­monst­ra­tes that 95 per­cent of Fin­nish rec­ruits had a trade di­rect­ly as­so­ci­a­ted with ma­ri­ti­me ac­ti­vi­ty. Their place of en­list­ment furt­her sup­ports this, re­ve­a­ling that Fin­nish rec­ruit­ment was con­cent­ra­ted in the ma­jor port ci­ties of the At­lan­tic se­a­bo­ard; more than half joi­ned up in New York and Brook­lyn alo­ne. Ad­di­ti­o­nal­ly, where in­for­ma­ti­on is avai­lab­le on pre­ci­se place of birth, it con­firms Fin­land’s co­as­tal towns as a ma­jor ori­gin point, with ci­ties like Hel­sin­ki, Ou­lu, Pori, Vaa­sa and Vii­pu­ri among those rep­re­sen­ted.

Such in­for­ma­ti­on con­firms what is known about pre-1870s Fin­nish mig­ra­ti­on, but it is furt­her en­han­ced by the more de­tai­led ana­ly­sis of in­di­vi­du­al men it fa­ci­li­ta­tes. Much of this co­mes via Ame­ri­can pen­si­on claims made by for­mer sai­lors in the de­ca­des af­ter the war. These re­cords of­ten pro­vi­de re­mar­kab­le deg­rees of de­tail, inc­lu­ding di­rect sta­te­ments from men such as Gus­taf Hög­lund. By lin­king re­cords in this way, the pro­ject is ab­le to ana­ly­se the ser­vi­ce and li­ves of war­ti­me eth­nic groups such as the Fin­ns in gre­a­ter de­tail than ever be­fo­re. 

Phenomenon of name-changing 

A case in point co­mes with the phe­no­me­non of name-chan­ging that was such a fe­a­tu­re of Nor­dic emig­ra­ti­on. Re­la­ti­ve­ly few Fin­nish sai­lors en­te­red Ame­ri­can ser­vi­ce un­der their real na­mes, but sub­se­qu­ent pen­si­on ap­p­li­ca­ti­ons can of­fer a win­dow in­to ori­gi­nal iden­ti­ties. For war­ti­me sai­lors, adop­ting the sur­na­me “Brown” was the most po­pu­lar choi­ce, fol­lo­wed by John­son, Smith and Thomp­son. 

Gus­taf Hög­lund elec­ted to go to war un­der the name “Wil­li­am Brown,” and re­mar­kab­ly we have an exp­la­na­ti­on as to why he chose it. The merc­hant sai­lor had made his way to the Uni­ted Sta­tes as a crew­man abo­ard the SS Great Wes­tern, sai­ling from Li­ver­pool, Eng­land. He re­la­ted that when he first went abo­ard, the Cap­tain told him his name was “hard to pro­noun­ce in Eng­lish” and sug­ges­ted “Wil­li­am Brown” as an al­ter­na­ti­ve. Hög­lund re­la­ted that he “ac­cep­ted his pro­po­sal wit­hout he­si­ta­ti­on and the­re­af­ter used that name.” Anot­her who ser­ved as a “Wil­li­am Brown” was Wil­li­am Chel­man, a Finn who had “been at sea sin­ce bo­y­hood.” His name was al­most cer­tain­ly se­lec­ted for him, gi­ven that he was “un­fa­mi­li­ar with the Eng­lish lan­gu­a­ge” when he joi­ned the US Navy.

Tattoos revealed beliefs and sense of identity

The rich­ness of de­tail avai­lab­le on some of these Fin­nish sai­lors even ex­tends to desc­rip­ti­ons of the tat­toos that mar­ked their bo­dies, of­fe­ring in­sight in­to both their be­liefs and sen­se of iden­ti­ty. Un­surp­ri­sing­ly, gi­ven their backg­round, anc­hors were a po­pu­lar choi­ce. And­rew Nel­son and Char­les Wil­son were among those who had the ma­ri­ti­me mark tat­too­ed on their hands. Ships were al­so po­pu­lar; Char­les Fis­her and Au­gust John­son had ves­sels de­pic­ted on their right arms. 

Ot­her the­mes inc­lu­ded ini­ti­als (for iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on if lost at sea) and re­li­gi­ous sym­bo­lism; Wil­li­am Brown had a cru­ci­fix on his chest, John Brown the cru­ci­fi­xi­on of Christ on his arm, and Frank Sim­ber­man bore a rep­re­sen­ta­ti­on of Adam and Eve. Some even bro­ad­cast com­mit­ment to their new adop­ted home. Fran­cis Brown from Pori had the US coat of arms, an ima­ge of Po­ca­hon­tas, an eag­le and the God­dess of Li­ber­ty per­ma­nent­ly etc­hed on his body. 

The mac­ro and mic­ro data out­li­ned here of­fers but a brief glimp­se of the ex­ci­ting po­ten­ti­al this ma­te­ri­al has to en­rich our un­ders­tan­ding of these ear­ly Fin­nish mig­rants, and the role of Eu­ro­pe­an merc­hant se­a­men in the Uni­on’s war ef­fort. The Ci­vil War Blu­e­jac­kets pro­ject will con­ti­nue to re­se­arch them in the months and ye­ars head, en­de­a­vou­ring to add furt­her de­tail to these men’s story, and set­ting it wit­hin the con­text of Fin­land’s ni­ne­teenth cen­tu­ry emig­rant ex­pe­rien­ce.

If you are in­te­res­ted in le­ar­ning more about the Ci­vil War Blu­e­jac­kets pro­ject vi­sit­vil­warb­lu­e­jac­, where a more de­tai­led ear­ly exa­mi­na­ti­on of these Fin­nish sai­lors is al­so avai­lab­le.

Dr Da­mi­an Shiels is a Re­se­arch Fel­low ba­sed at Nort­humb­ria Uni­ver­si­ty, Eng­land where he works on the Ci­vil War Blu­e­jac­kets Pro­ject. A his­to­ri­an and arc­ha­eo­lo­gist, he spe­ci­a­li­ses in the study of conf­lict, di­as­po­ra, so­ci­al his­to­ry and pub­lic en­ga­ge­ment, to­pics on which he has pub­lis­hed and lec­tu­red wi­de­ly. His books inc­lu­de The Irish in the Ame­ri­can Ci­vil War (2014) and The For­got­ten Irish: Irish Emig­rant Ex­pe­rien­ces in Ame­ri­ca (2016). He li­ves in Ja­kobs­tad, Fin­land.