This is the first post of three in series called Changing Sugar Island: A Study of Twentieth-Century Finnish American Settlement. Look for the next two posts in the menu above.

One of the goals of the HUMANA Project is to understand the social, economic, and political impact Finnish-born migrants had on Sugar Island, Michigan once they began arriving there in larger numbers in the late 1910s and 1920s. From the local histories written by Allan Swanson and Bernard Arbic and the oral histories of past and present residents of Sugar Island, we knew that Finnish Americans became an important part of the community. But through our own research, we were surprised to learn just how much the Finns came to impact the community economically and politically and how much they changed the island.

Over a twenty-year period, Finnish-born Americans acquired a disproportionate amount of land on Sugar Island. Out of the 437 property owners on Sugar Island in 1938 (not including properties owned by businesses and governments), 98 of them were Finnish-born (22.4% of the population), but those 98 Finns owned 6,322 of the 21,581 acres inventoried, or 29.3%. Finns built homes, started farms, and got into other businesses, especially lumber. By 1938, Finns owned nearly as many homes and acres of land as Michigan-born residents, they owned more agricultural property than both the American-born and Canadian-born residents (1,606 of the 4,520 acres of cropland were owned by Finns, or 35.5%), and their economic success and political influence brought roads and a ferry service to Sugar Island. Finnish settlement transformed the landscape.

Total Acreage of Land Owned on Sugar Island, by Birthplace, 1938
Total Acreage of Land Owned on Sugar Island, by Birthplace, 1938

Finns were even much more likely to own an automobile than other residents. By 1938, of the forty-two garages built on Sugar Island, nineteen were owned by Finnish American families.

Number of Home Garages on Sugar Island, by Birthplace, 1938
Number of Home Garages on Sugar Island, by Birthplace, 1938

Using data from the Works Progress Administration’s Rural Property Inventory (conducted during the Great Depression, more info in our previous blog post), along with property records and census data, I have constructed a series of maps, charts, and other visualizations that help us better understand the land on Sugar Island, the people who controlled it, and the purposes for which those people used the land. Much of the data demonstrates the prominence of Finnish Americans in the Sugar Island community by 1938.

Unfortunately, the success of Finnish Americans often came at the expense of Sugar Island’s Anishinaabe population, the only population native to the region. We should understand Finnish development on the island as part of a continual process of settler colonialism in the United States. Land that was controlled by Native Americans came into the hands of Finnish settlers, who used that land in new ways for their own benefit. The Finnish American settlers on Sugar Island believed they were “civilizing” their new home. Original Finnish settler Frank Aaltonen wrote in his own memoir that Sugar Island was a wilderness (even though some 620 people were already living on the island when Finns arrived). It would only benefit humanity, he thought, if it became civilized through the clearing of forests, agricultural production, the construction of roads, and the creation of a ferry that would finally unite Sugar Island with the United States.

The United States government, along with American and Canadian settlers, forced Anishinaabe peoples to cede millions of acres of land in the Great Lakes region in the first half of the nineteenth century. Sugar Island Anishinaabe, who are largely Ojibwe (now members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), got some land back from the U.S. in the second half of that century, but it was not much and in the case of the 1872 allotments, they were given the least valuable land on the island. White Americans came to dominate the island, thanks largely to free grants of federal land. By the time Finns arrived on Sugar Island in the 1920s, however, Anishinaabe families and families of mixed Native and European ancestry still represented a significant portion of the population, giving them political sway. But as more and more Finns arrived, Anishinaabe political power waned. Finns also purchased land from Anishinaabe and lands from whites that had been in the hands of Anishinaabe since the 1870s.

This will be the topic of this blog post, the first of three about Finnish, Native, and white American-born property owners on Sugar Island.

Below is a bar graph of total land ownership by ethnicity (governments and white-owned businesses are categorized here under ‘white’), which demonstrates the disproportionate amount of land owned by whites compared to the island’s Anishinaabe population. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, 169 out of 701 people living on Sugar Island were identified as “Indian,” or 24%. But according to the 1938 WPA inventory, people of Native ancestry only owned 4% of Sugar Island’s individually held acreage (this includes the 9.2 acres held by the Bay Mills Chippewa Tribe on the island). If you include government and business-owned properties, people of Native ancestry only owned 3% of Sugar Island’s acreage. The inventory only lists 38 property owners of Native ancestry. Although Finns were not entirely responsible for the disparity of Native-owned lands on Sugar Island, their intense acquisition of land in a 23-year period beginning in 1915 (and ramping up in 1920) contributed to this process.

Total Acreage of Land Owned, by Ethnicity, 1938

The maps below visualize land ownership in transition on Sugar Island. This link will take you to a full-screen version. Each square on the maps represents a quarter-quarter section of surveyed land, which amounts to 40 acres (a quarter section is 160 acres and a section is 640 acres). Sugar Island is close to 49,000 acres.

The first map shows the federal land grants distributed on Sugar Island between 1849-1927. Use the key on the right side of the map to understand the colors on these maps and to filter what is displayed on them. Here, for instance, you can only see the land grants made to Finns by only checking the ‘FINNISH’ box in the ‘Ethnicity’ filter. Like millions of other Americans who settled on western land between 1862 and 1934, Frank Aaltonen got some free land from the U.S. government. He made a forty-acre homestead claim on Sugar Island in 1915 (the map shows 1920 because that is when the land officially became his). His brother Toivo claimed a twenty-four-acre plot. The 1862 Homestead Act offered settlers up to 160 acres of free land if the settler resided on and made improvements to that acreage for five years. Around 1.6 million families, most all of them white, took advantage of the Homestead Act, which legally redistributed 246 million acres of lands formerly held by Native Americans to non-Natives (nearly ten percent of all the land in the United States). After five years on their respective claims, the Aaltonen brothers were given their deeds. Toivo immediately sold his land to his brother. Four other Finnish families took advantage of the remaining homestead land on Sugar Island after the Aaltonens.

The second map shows allotments made to Ojibwe in 1872. Again, this link will take you to a full-screen version.

The third map shows the land transactions made on the island between 1915-1939 that involved at least one Finnish American party. Because of the limitations on research during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not clear if these property records, compiled from the Chippewa County website database, are complete.
Also, while each of these colored blocks visualizes a quarter-quarter section of land, these land transactions were not always bought and sold in 40-acre plots. Many of these transactions were smaller than 40 acres. Thus, this map (and the following two maps) visualizes the quarter-quarter section in which each plot sits. Be sure to use the ‘Year of Date’ slider in the key – this will give you a look at the transactions over time. Also notice that you can filter the lands that were in the hands of Anishinaabe families after 1853. Only a handful of these transactions involved a direct sale from an Anishinaabe to a Finn. Also, it is likely that there were more Anishinaabe-owned lands that were purchased by Finns during this period (whether from Anishinaabe or whites), but those filtered as ‘Yes’ are ones that I can determine with some certainty.

The fourth map shows the land purchased by Finns (from people of all ethnicities) and the fifth map shows the land sold by Finns (to people of all ethnicities). Scroll through the maps using the left and right arrows. The remaining visualizations offer a timeline of the transactions and additional information on individual Finns and their land transactions. In many of the years between 1920 and 1939, Finns bought up a disproportionate amount of land. Most of the total number of deeds from these years have Finnish names on them (if you exclude the massive transfer of land from the former governor of Michigan, Chase S. Osborn, to the University of Michigan).

Look out for the second of three blog posts about Finnish American migrants to Sugar Island, Michigan and their use of the land next week. I will focus on all of the island’s property owners in 1938, how much land was occupied, how much was used for farming, and how many barns, granaries, and warehouses were constructed by the Finnish Americans and other residents.

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  1. I am so impressed with this project. Years ago when it was presented to the community at our Finn Hall, I had no idea it would become such a fascinating report. I intend to keep a copy of all the blog reports and have them filed with the Sugar Island Historical Preservation Society. Someday we hope to be able to employ the internet for our society. At this point, we are still a paper and pencil operation for the most part.

  2. Very interesting and informative My grandparents, Esko and Hella Kaikkonen and uncle Ossie (Oswald) Lahti lived on Sugar Island for many years. I visited them every summer and met many of their Finnish friends and neighbors.
    My uncle and grandparents owned Lahti Construction and they built many of the roads on the island.

    1. Olisin erittäin kiinnostunt Lauri ja August Karimon elämästä ja vaiheista Sugar Islandilla. Kirjoitan juuri artikkelia urheilijoista Lapinlahdella sata vuotta sitten: Lauri Hujanen 1891-1951 ja August (1896-1957) sekä Esko Kaikkonen (k. 1964). You can write too english.

    2. Hi,
      Yes road construction was indeed iportant and Finns were very active on that front.
      Thank you for your comment,

  3. Ho David,
    Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot that you find this interesting and useful. We remeber fondly our visit and would certainly have come back but then Covid hit. One day hopefully. Stay safe

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