"Then and Now" /A celebration in the Finnish /American Perspective/ "Ennen ja Nyt"/
Educational Program Series 2010 

Why They Came....Why They Stayed....

Finnish American History

The Legacy of the Swede-Finn Delaware Expeditions

By Elaine Lillback

Living with great hardships in Finland’s forests during the seventeenth century Swedish rule, some the hardy Finns were happy to accept the invitation of Swedish King Gustave Adolphus to move to one of Sweden’s “Finlands” such as Vermland in south central Sweden to develop farms.  slashburnThis brought the Finnish expertise of burn-beating (slash and burn agriculture) to Sweden’s native forest areas.

Cutting down trees, burning the scrap wood, and then using the ashes as fertilizer, made for good soil for growing rye. 


Using the logs, the Finns created their cabins, barns, and saunas.  The rye crop was also beneficial to the Swedes as they liked the resulting rye bread, and enjoyed the influx of the fearsome young Finnish men (the Hakkaa Päälle (Strike on the Head group) who became soldiers serving in the 30 Year’s War with Poland.

After copper was discovered in Sweden, the Finn’s slash and burn method became taboo.  Charcoal produced from burned wood was needed to prepare copper ore.  Royal orders were given against this “now’ destructive farming methodology.  When these royal orders weren’t obeyed, conflict resulted between farmers and the authorities.

Farmer’s homes were set on fire on that infamous 1637 Waspurgis Night.  The Swedish government, forcing families to retreat to the mountains, burned Finnish homes.  There the Finns survived in their temporary kotas (tepee type structures) getting sustenance by hunting and fishing.  Now the government deemed their eating the King’s forest animals as illegal.  Killing deer or elk would put the miscreants into prison. 

DelawareMapThe Dutch West Indies Company desired to establish trade with the American Indians for tobacco and fur pelts.  They convinced the Swedes to join in an enterprise which established the new Sweden Colony in America’s Delaware River area.


The expedition challenged King Adolphus.  It was an opportunity for gaining national riches and also for evangelizing the Indians.  However, Adolphus died in the European war before seeing the development of the colony.  This left Sweden under the rule of child-queen Christina and her general director, Finnish nobleman Admiral Claus Fleming.  Claus had a real interest in the expeditions and worked with the Dutch.



The Kalmar Nyckel and the Fogel sailed out in 1638, arriving April 17, 1640.  Most of the crew was Dutch, as was the Director Peter Minuit, but there were those first Swedes and Finns aboard.  Fort Christina, now Wilmington, Delaware, was created by this first expedition, with Peter Ridder directing.  In the following years after 1638 through 1655, there were a total of twelve expeditions.  Some were successful in bringing colonists to New Sweden.  Then returning ships carried home to Sweden large cargoes of furs and tobacco.  Only one expedition of three hundred and fifty people was a total loss.  One survivor returned years later to Sweden to tell his tale of the ship’s disastrous end, of piracy, death, island kidnapping and slavery.  (Picture source:  Thanks to the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, see )  Note the Finnish and Swedish flags flying on the main masts.

Following Peter Ridder’s directorship was that of Johan Printz, an army man from Finland.  He was to stay only three years, but stayed, serving nine years as an autocratic ruler.  He was chief executive, legislative officer, prosecutor and judge.  He ruled from his capital on Tinicum Island.  The people accused Printz of avarice and brutality.  Angered, he invoked the death penalty against Anders Jonsson for treason in presenting the written petition against his despotic rule.  There was no trial. 

Printz made a hasty departure, and Johan Rising was sent to take over the colony.  The Swedish rule did not last long as the Dutch made war on New Sweden.  The Dutch gave the Finns freedom to self-rule since the Finns were fair-minded and able to cope with the Indians.  Their rule developed into a court in the Chester (known as Finland) area where the earliest colonists Israel Helme, Lars Andriesson, Olli Swenson, Peter Rambo, and Otto Cock served as justices of the peace.  The Dutch ruled the colony from 1655 to 1664 as a possession and then as a colony under Amsterdam in Holland.

ShipOrnThe ship Orn was carrying the three hundred and fifty passengers from Gothenburg to Delaware in 1654.  Illness struck, and one hundred died and were buried at sea.  On board the Orn was the family of Morten Mortenson from Finland, the builder of the preserved log cabin on Tinicum Island.  It is the oldest existing American log cabin.  Morten was the great grandfather of John Morten, the deciding signer of the American Declaration of Independence in 17 76. 


King James of England took over the Swedish Colony from the Dutch in 1664 by making a land grant to the Duke of York.  King Charles II made Admiral Penn the proprietor of the former lands of the Swedish Colony.  WPennHis son, William Penn was given the land, which became known asPennsylvania (Penn’s Forrest) to govern. 

The English were harsh in their dealings with the Indians; therefore the Finns and some Dutch appealed to the English for permission to create a Lutheran Church in New Netherlands.  The house church that was built there by the Finns on Manhattan Island was located in the present day Battery Park.

There were many Lutheran ministers who had come to the Delaware area during those expeditions.  One notable person was Rev. Johan Campanias who came in 1683 with a desire to teach the gospel to the Lenape and Minquas Indians.  Living among them for five years, he learned their language, and later composed a Little Catechism and the Ten Commandments in the Indian language.  This was used in early America in reaching American Indians.

What is the legacy of these twelve expeditions?  Sweden’s hope was for enlarging their wealth, promoting the Lutheran religion and increasing land holdings.  The underdog Finns, hard pressed pawns under fire, developed a “Sisu,” producing a people willing to work, fight, and uphold fair government for all people. AmericanLogCabin

Forest farming, log cabin and sauna techniques kept the culture alive, providing the knowledge to other nationalities.  We are indebted to the Swedes for bringing the gospel to Finland and aiding the building of Wilmington’s Trinity and Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei churches.

The cabin to the left still stands on Tinicum Island and serves as a reminder that the American log cabin had its roots in an original Finnish design. 


Text © Elaine Lillback; pictures, maps and watercolors © Elaine Lillback

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