Wait…. Are My Kids Russian?

Our trip to Finland this summer was incredible for so many reasons.  My favorite being connecting with extended family on my husband’s side. Another important part of the trip was learning more about Scandinavian history. Specifically, this year is the 100 year anniversary of Finland as a country.  The Republic of Finland, as we know it today, gained independence from Russia in December 1917.

History of Finland from Wikipedia

The area has a long history though.  After the middle ages, Finland became part of Sweden.  It remained this way until the early 1700’s when Sweden and Russia began to take turns controlling the area.  Russian forces occupied Finland twice in the first half of the 1700’s.  Sweden once again regained control of the area by 1743.  Also by this time the area was called Finland by both the Swedish and the Russians.

The Finnish war of 1808-1809 ended with Finland being taken over by Russia once again.  It was declared the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1918.  This was an autonomous part of Russia.  Finland was okay with this arrangement until Alexander III took the Russian throne in 1881.  He began a period of “Russification.”  My husband’s relatives explained this time as Russia remembering they owned Finland and began to exploit it.  Men were required to spend time in the Russian Army, the Finnish economy was overtaken by Russians, towns were renamed after Russians, etc.  The worst of it came in 1899 when Russia declared Russian Law as the law of the land.

The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917.  Finland took the opportunity to declare their independence and create the Republic of Finland.

So what does this history have to do with my children?  A lot.  My husband’s 2nd great grandparents, Charles Mattson and Wendla Batmaster, both immigrated to the San Francisco area from Ostrobothnia at the turn of the century. Both left Finland due to hard economic times under Russian rule. Both were born in the 1880’s and both identified as Finnish.

So are my kids Russian or Finnish?

When looking at history, technically they were Russian since Finland was part of Russia.  Deep history would indicate they were Swedish.  Sweden had control of the land area first.  So maybe my kids are Finnish Russian Swedes? Haha! Just kidding.

The answer is no. Your identity is not always rooted in the dates of history.  My kid’s immigrant ancestors came from families who had lived in Finland for hundreds of years.  We know Finland was referred to as Finland and the people as Finnish since the late 1600’s.  The families identified as Finnish even during Russian rule.  My kids are part Finnish.

New Social Research Methodology

I have returned from an incredible trip abroad.  Part of our trip was to Finland for my husband to attend a conference and the family to visit the homeland. The hubby, kids, and I met up with my in-laws for this portion of our trip.

After a few days relaxing in the Åland Islands between Sweden and Finland, we took the ferry into Turku, Finland. We drove north towards the area around Vasa, Finland.  To break up the drive, we spent the night in Kristinestad, Finland.    This is where I learned something new about research methodology.

Let me back up and give you some information important to this story.  My husband has 2nd great grandparents who immigrated from the area outside Vaasa, Finland.  Grandma Shirley (hubby’s grandmother) was the granddaughter of Wendla Båtmäster and Charles O. Mattson. Forty years ago Grandma Shirley and Grandpa John visited the family that still remained in Finland.

Grandma Shirley passed away in 2003.  She was the main contact from our branch of the family to the family from Finland.  Before our trip, Grandpa John was able to put together a list of names and addresses he still had.  We were unsuccessful with the phone numbers before our trip began.

While on the trip, we decided to focus on finding one person from the list who we knew was young enough to still be alive.  I will call her Anna Lena for privacy.  Anna Lena came and stayed with my in-laws during the 80’s when she was about 16 years old.  My husband was about 9 or 10 years old during this visit.

We had tried phone numbers and Facebook but our biggest problem seemed to be marriage.  We did not know what Anna Lena’s married name was.

Plan B, if we could not find Anna Lena, was to drive to the addresses we had and cross our fingers that the current occupants would have information about my husband’s ancestors.

Back to Kristinestad. Kristinestad is a town in the southern area of Ostrobothinia.  Ostrobothinia is the equivalent of a state in the United States. Vasa is a little more than an hours drive north of Kristinestad.

The owner of our hotel in Kristinestad checked us in. He was incredibly welcoming and nice (a theme we found with every person we met in Finland). We spoke for a few minutes about the area and how we, as Americans, came to visit.  My father-in-law (will be referred to as J) used the opportunity to say we were trying to visit family from Sundom and Malax (just south of Vasa).  He explained we had a list of names and addresses that was old and were having a hard time contacting family.

The hotel owner offered the phone book because it included towns south of Vasa.  J was unable to find Anna Lena in the book.  The hotel owner told us to wait a minute because he was going to try to look up something online.  He returned from his office with a slip of paper which had a phone number for a woman named Anna Lena.  Her last name was very close to the information we had.

J made the phone call.  The woman who answered the phone was not our Anna Lena.  But she knew of our Anna Lena! She promised to call Anna Lena’s mom for us.  A half hour later we had a text from the woman we called.  She informed us she had spoken with Anna Lena’s mom and had learned Anna Lena was married and living in Norway.

We were so excited to have found the information we were looking for but bummed we would not be able to visit Anna Lena. During dinner, my husband received a text from Anna Lena herself!  Quickly the conversation moved to a telephone call. Anna Lena was happy to speak with us.  Apparently she had tried to reconnect with our family too but did not remember enough information to find us in California.  She said most of the people on our list of family had passed in the last several years but she would make some phone calls to see if anyone else could see us.

With Anna Lena’s help, we spent the next day in Sundom and Solf visiting with J’s 3rd cousin and his family.  We also got to meet a couple of people in the prior generation who showed us where some of the “old” family lived.  It was an incredible moment when Henrik brought out a framed picture of his and J’s common ancestors, Jonas Båtmäster and Britia Maria Marander.  We have seen copies of the photo from Grandma Shirley’s trip but the original was amazing. The other highlight was watching my kids play with their 4th cousins even with a language barrier.  They had so much fun together.

So lesson learned.  Don’t be scared to be the person who asks questions! Although the hotel owner lived more than an hour south of Sundom, he got us started in the right direction.  If J had not spoken up, we would not have gotten to enjoy the best day of our vacation.

If you want to have solid research skills, they need to include talking to anyone who will listen.  You never know who has the missing piece.

Serendipity While Traveling

Last month my family had the opportunity to travel to Finland.  It was part work for my husband and part vacation travel.  Our adventure started when we met up with my husband’s parents, J and S, who had been on their own vacation. Our travel plans included arriving in a few days in the Åland Islands on our way to Finland.

J was very excited to be going to Finland.  His great-grandparents, Wendla Båtmäster and Charles Oscar Mattson, had immigrated to the United States from Finland.

Although Wendla and Charles came from towns only 13 kilometers apart from each other, all family oral histories say they met in San Francisco through the Star of Finland Relief Society.

Grandma Shirley, J’s mom, did an excellent job of documenting her family in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  I am so thankful to have digital copies of her research!  While she had information regarding family in Finland for Wendla, there is really no further information for Charles.  Part of this is due to the fact he died the young age of 33.  His obituary states he left behind (besides his immediate family) a brother, Matt Mattson, and a sister, Mrs. Lena Carlson.  Grandma Shirley had also found out Charles was from the town of Malax, Finland.

Basic searches for Charles did not have any positive results before our trip.  I have to admit, I was not very thorough with my research due to the crazy that was the end of the school year.

Back to our trip.  The Åland Islands were included in our trip because Grandpa John (J’s dad) had such fond memories from the trip he and Grandma Shirley had taken 40 years ago.  We arrived early in the morning after an overnight ferry from Stockholm.  The morning was spent enjoying Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands. We then made our way to the summer cottage my husband had found for us to stay at.  It was gorgeous!

View from our porch

Every afternoon was spent enjoying the front porch.  The wifi made it one of the best offices my husband has ever used.  I spent some of the porch time on my tablet trying to find more information about Charles Mattson and his family.

Then it happens.  I get a hit for Lena Carlson at Ancestry.com.  And not just a little hit.  A big, bright shiny moment of search success.

It turns out Lena Carlson was just one of variations of names for Charles’ sister.  And I was lucky enough to have most of them listed on the Petition for Naturalization I found.

No wonder why I was having difficulty finding her!  I have found Lena under every possible variation of the above name  plus the additional variations using her husband’s last name, Victor. More proof the family was from Malax, Finland but again no names for Charles’ parents.

So what is the serendipitous moment? About half way down the Petition for Naturalization are questions about Lena’s husband Victor.  Guess where he was born?  Mariehamn, Åland Islands, Finland.  You will notice  Åland is spelled with an “O.”  This is not surprising at all since  Å with a ring above it is pronounced  as “oh”.

Seriously, how crazy that I had traveled a little more than 5,300 miles to find a document online that says Lena’s husband was born only 10 miles from where I sat on the porch with the most incredible view?!