Finns in the Sugar Island Networks

Post by: Saara Kekki

As present-day islanders will tell us, Frank Aaltonen was one of the first Finns on the island and quickly rose to prominence (see also Rani Andersson’s post on Aaltonen’s politics and Justin Gage’s on land ownership). Our research supports this view, especially when it comes to the variety of positions he held. We found him a member in at least the

  • Building and Grounds Committee
  • Chippewa County Board of Supervisors
  • Dock Committee
  • People’s Party
  • Election Board
  • Taxpayer Committee,

and serving as the

  • Clerk to Highway Commissioner
  • Constable
  • Health Officer
  • Supervisor of Township Board (8 times)
Network image depicting a selection of Finns on Sugar Island
A segment of Sugar Island network featuring Frank Aaltonen

Especially his number of terms as the supervisor of the township board is astonishing. However, what we also found was that he held many positions that none of the other Finns had. This makes him, on the one hand, stand out as a Finn, but also isolates him from the rest of the Finnish community and the larger Sugar Island community for that matter.

And, as prominent as Aaltonen was, the runner-up Finn with the second largest number of positions or memberships, Emil Hyytinen only lost to Aaltonen by one occurrence. Although some of his positions were the same as Aaltonen’s, such as his service as the Constable or in the Election Board, Hyytinen’s term as the Justice of the Peace is a position Aaltonen never had. In some ways, the Justice of the Peace can be seen as a more influential or prestigious position than most of Aaltonen’s assignments.

What differentiates Hyytinen as well, is that he appears more connected with the other Finns. Appearing on Sugar Island around the same time as Aaltonen, he stayed on the island permanently and thus had time to integrate with the community. One of the larger activities Hyytinen shared with many Finns was “road work,” an umbrella term for various kinds of tasks aimed at improving island infrastructure. This was by far the most unifying “organization” for the Finns. Perhaps following Aaltonen’s “pioneer spirit,” road development seems to have been a matter of the heart for the early Finns. Land close to the scant existing infrastructure had mostly been occupied by the time the Finns arrived, but they were prepared to labor for the improvement of their surroundings.


Network image showing a detail of social network

Socialists or Communists?

Finns are known for their participation in the labor movement in the United States, and they were often considered socialists if not communists. Aaltonen was even labeled an “agitator.” On Sugar Island, though, he was a member of the People’s Party, although the competing Communists also formed a branch on the island.

While the Communists appear to have had more members, the members of the People’s Party appear to be more central in the community: the Communists only have Frank Kuusisto connecting them to the wider Finnish community, whereas the People’s Party members have many more additional assignments.

One way to look at this difference would be to consider the ideological differences between the two groups. While leftist in orientation, the Communists were much more left-wing than the People’s Party. Although little information is available on Finns in the People’s Party, it seems it was focused on advancing agrarian principles and rather corresponded to the Finnish Social Democratic Party. Thus, the People’s Party was perhaps more moderate, despite Aaltonen’s agitator status, which might also explain why its members were more integrated in the community.

One Sugar Island Finn was also associated with a third political group, the Progressive Party. In the United States, the group was short-lived and merged with the Republicans, but in Finland, a party with the same name and similar ideology was active until 1951.

Finns in Relation to the Rest of the Island Network

You can view a simplified model of the Sugar Island “political network” from 1917 to 1939 by clicking Sugar Island Political Networks (opens in a new tab). The individual ”nodes” (circles that represent the people and the groups) become clearer when you zoom in either with the tool on the right or with you mouse wheel. You can also drag the entire model on your screen for better viewability.

The office holders and compositions of committees are derived from Sugar Island township records, held at the Chippewa County Historical Society in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Names in the visualization appear as they were in the census records (in the event of differences between the census years, the most common spelling was selected). The colors are based on ”communities”: people and groups that have a lot of links amongst each other are grouped and colored together. You can change the color scheme and the size of the nodes by clicking the little arrow on the left.

Different options for sizing the nodes include in-degree (positions with the largest number of holders become largest) and out-degree (individuals with most memberships become largest). Through the same little arrow, you can also search for individuals or positions.

These models have been created with Gephi, converted with NoCode Functions, and shared through VosViewer.

In this model of the political appointments of Sugar Islanders several men stand out, none of them Finns. The greatest number of different appointments (as viewable in the model above) belongs to David C. Wilson, who was born in Canada. According to the 1930 census, he had emigrated to the United States as a teenager. He served as the township clerk, health officer, notary public, justice of the peace, and treasurer between 1919 and 1927, not holding public office in 1923 and 1925.

Instead of looking at the number of positions a person has held, we can study the number of years they have held the same position. In this type of view, we get Alfred Delisle and Adelard Maleport as the most influential “politician,” both serving as justice of the peace six times.

The third way to measure direct influence is to look at the “weighted degree,” or the combined strength of positions. In Sugar Island politics, such person of influence is William A. Murray, who was township supervisor, treasurer, and clerk, as well as justice of the peace multiple times. The above is just a preliminary look into political power—stay tuned as we keep sharing more of our discoveries!

Published by Rani-Henrik Andersson

I am a Senior University Lecturer in American Studies at the Department of Cultures (Faculty of Arts). My research interests are Native North Americans, environmental history, and digital humanities.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *