The municipality of Siikalatva has at least three famine memorials (as it is was formed in 2009 from a collection of smaller towns): Rantsila, Piippola and Pulkkila. This part of Northern Ostrobothnia suffered terribly in the 1860s (the fourth town of Siikalatva, Kestilä, also featured regularly in harrowing newspaper reports). In 1866, it was reported from Pulkkila that it felt like war-time, as hunger and disease fought violently against the local population. [Oulun Wiikko-Sanomia, 30 Jun. 1866). In his speech to the Pulkkila Society’s “Museum Picnic” in July 2018, Matti Leiviskä described how over six hundred (of fewer than two thousand) people from the Pulkkila chapel parish died between 1866-68.
As with other sites in Northern Ostrobothnia, the Kirjastovirma website was my original source of information. In the entry for Pulkkila Church, it notes that in spinney behind the church is a white wooden cross, which was the graveyard of those who fell in the Battle of Pulkkila (in May 1808, during the Finnish War between Sweden and Russia), as well as those who perished in the Great Hunger Years (1866-68).
Another site in Northern Ostrobothnia (n.b. when I started this project, Vaala was in Kainuu) which I’ve not yet had the chance to visit. In August 1985, newspapers printed a syndicated report from the STT (Finnish Information Bureau) newsagency:
MEMORIALS AT TWO MASS GRAVES IN VAALA: This Sunday, two memorials will be unveiled at the old cemetery in Säräisniemi, Vaala, in connection with two mass graves from over a century ago. Both of these granite memorials have plaques attached, on which are engraved details of these events from the mid-nineteenth century.
At the shipwreck-victims’ graveyard fifteen bodies are buried. These people were lost when a church boat sank on Oulujärvi on the 6th October 1856.
Nearby, at a second mass grave, are buried people were were lost to dysentery at the Pelsonsuo Canal worksite during the hunger years of the 1850s and 1860s.
The works at Pelsonsuo might be considered more of a mass drainage / drying of the bog, with canals being a part of this process.
A site visit will follow in Spring 2019, and details of the precise location etc will be included on this entry.
Note:although not of direct relevance to this blog, the wikipedia entry for “Church Boats” in Finnish indicates that there were sixteen, rather than fifteen, people from Vuolijoki who drowned on the way back from church in 1856.
All is all, but at the same time all is not all… And so it is that the flood of beggars has reached such an extent that the end is nigh for both the feeders and the fed. The year’s harvest took everything… there are lots of thefts, a large amount of reindeer thefts since the last assizes.
Oulun Wiikko-Sanomia, 8 Feb. 1868.
I can see that I used an image of the famine memorial at Pudasjärvi for a lecture that I gave at Lund University, Sweden, in 2013, so I seem to have been aware of the stone long before I incorporated famine memory and memorialisation into my project. To date, this is the most northerly 1860s memorial that I have found, and the only one I’ve visited so far that lies within Finland’s reindeer husbandry zone.
Along with some of the other memorials in Northern Ostrobothnia, I obviously “discovered” the Pudasjärvi memorial via the Kirjastovirma website – and finally visited in person in the late summer of 2019, during a trip to Oulu. The church is situated a few kilometres from the centre of this vast municipality, on the north bank of Pudasjärvi lake.
The church building dates from the later part of the eighteenth century, and contains some impressive paintings . The belltower is slightly older than the current church building (dating from 1761), and paintings from 1765 by Mikael Toppelius remain above its front door.
The famine period hit Pudasjärvi hard, and deaths outnumbered births in the parish in 1866, 1867 and 1868. As early as January 1866, a letter from Oulu in the Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper noted large numbers of people arriving into the town from the “upland areas” such as Pudasjärvi, Hyrynsalmi and Sotkamo, “in search of life’s sustenance”. The famine memorial is next to the church, on the south-eastern side. The plaque on the memorial features rye stems, and records the 962 parishioners who perished between 1866 and 1868. It also (quoting Matthew 6:11) uses the common “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” petition.
The monument at Piippola is particularly notable for being the first 1860s memorial (to the best of my knowledge) to be inaugurated after World War Two. It stands in the grounds of the wooden church (built 1769), and features a large gravestone with long inscription, and a central plaque. The signpost for Piippola is familiar for many who travel between central Finland and Oulu, and is one of several memorials in the vicinity of “Nelostie” (Road 4) – as well as being close to the “geographical centre” of Finland. At nearby Pulkkila Church (approximately 10-12 km NNW), there is also a famine-era mass grave (which had earlier been used during the Finnish Wars of 1808-09).
Year of Memorial: 1946. Central plaque added 2003.
Inscription: “Travelling Man. We had belief in prayer, and work. You reap the harvest. Sanctify your thoughts while you stand on our resting place”. [PLAQUE: In this place are buried five hundred of parishioners who died victims of hunger and disease in the years 1866-68. Give us this day our daily bread. Matt 6:11.] “Blessings on our ancestors and gratitude for their labours – from the current generation”.
M–i S–o writes from Merijärvi on the 13th of May, amongst other things: surprisingly, not one of our poor in the workhouse has died, and at the moment, we do not have a single diseased patient, and what’s more no-one has as much as a scratch… the fish catch is very meagre this summer, as all the fish died during the winter, and the flood waters brought their corpses floating down the river like logs.
Oulun Wiikko Sanomat, 20 Jun. 1868.
Antti Häkkinen (1994), notes that Merijärvi was one of the parishes which did not include a work obligation as a part of its poor relief system, and as a result had lower mortality than some neighbouring places (Häkkinen, 1994). Despite the upbeat tone of the report in June 1868, the small sub-parish of Merijärvi – as with most other parts of Ostrobothnia – suffered excess mortality during the longer period 1866-1868. According to Finland’s Official Statistics, 41, 33, and 65 perished in 1866, 1867 and 1868 respectively (leading to a population decrease of 43 during those three years).
As with several other sites in Northern Ostrobothnia, I was able to research this particular memorial before making the trip north, thanks to the invaluable Kirjastovirma website, as well as an entry (with picture) in the Pohjanmaa volume of Suomen Muistomerkit. The memorial, featuring two broken rye stems on a polished black stone, was erected near the gates of the graveyard in memory of those who died in the parish without receiving a formal funeral / headstone.
Modern Region: Northern Ostrobothnia (Pohjois-Pohjanmaa).
Year of Memorial: 1992.
Inscription: “To the victims of the Hunger Years 1866-1868. Merijärvi Parish, Municipality and Local Society [Kotiseutuyhdistys]. 1992”.
Oulun Wiikko Sanomat, 20 Jun. 1868
Suomen Muistomerkit. Osa 4. Pohjanmaa (Nousiainen, 1996), p. 44.
Suomenmaan Virallinen Tilasto VI – Väkiluvun-Tilastoa (Toinen Vihko) (Helsinki, 1871), pp. 100-101.
Antti Häkkinen, “Vaikuttivatko väärät hätäaputoimet vuosien 1867–1868 suureen kuolleisuuteen?” in Petri Karonen (ed.) “Pane leipään puolet petäjäistä” – Nälkä- ja pulavuodet Suomen historiassa (Jyväskylä, 1994), pp. 62–77.
His first years as a priest were hard for Schwartzberg, both externally and internally. It was during those frightful years of hunger, the terrors of which were felt strongly in the remote parishes. The priests of Pyhäjärvi were quite traumatised when they came to realise that a Pietist man had died of hunger without coming to ask for help. Extremely violent internal battles raged in his heart during those early years in the priesthood.
J.A. Mannermaa, 1915.
I am going to write a couple of short entries now, about sites which are (at least on the face of it) slightly problematic in terms of inclusion on a list of memorials to the 1860s “Great Hunger Years.” The first is in Northern Ostrobothnia, at Pyhäjärvi – itself in close proximity to other memorials (e.g. Kärsämäki to the north, Haapajärvi to the west, Kiuruvesi to the east – all less than half an hour away). The problem here is one of definition: what actually constitutes a “memorial”? I have tended to follow Emily Mark-Fitzgerald’s guidelines from her project on Irish Famine Memorials:
For the purposes of this project, a Famine monument has been defined as a three-dimensional form set in public space. The summary catalogue excludes wall plaques (if not accompanied by other memorial objects), as well as any memorial erected on publicly inaccessible property.
Nevertheless, this precludes sites in Finland that, instinctively, should probably be considered (such as the wall-plaque at Kauhajoki Cathedral, or the stones of Katinen Manor near Hämeenlinna). Similarly, sites with visible remains but which have an interpretive “tourist” board rather than an actual stone memorial, are worth adding to a list, even in an appendix (e.g. Puolanka).
At a certain point, I started looking in a more focussed way for sites, based on areas where mortality was at its highest, or other factors (such as there being other memorials in neighbouring parishes). On the parish website for Pyhäjärvi, the section dealing with graveyards and memorials contained a historical narrative of the parish’s old graveyards. One of these – Jumalanpelto (“God’s Field”) – was said to have been in use from 1737 to 1875, and was reserved in the nineteenth century for victims of infectious diseases (especially in the 1830s and 1860s). What struck me in particular was that “in the middle of this field, surrounded by a stone wall, is a memorial to the graveyard and to the dead of the famine years”. Somewhat frustratingly (all clues are welcome when looking for these stones), there was clearly a photo of the memorial at some point but it is not visible on the website.
My first attempt at reaching Pyhäjärvi was in July 2017, on the way down from Kärsämäki – however, another failed time-saving effort meant that the visit was postponed (it’s embarrassing, but probably instructive – basically this was a rare occasion when I used my phone’s mapping service and navigator rather than a “hard-copy” road atlas, and instead of going to Pyhäjärventie 470 in Pyhäjärvi, we went to Pyhäjärventie 470 in Haapajärvi… for most of the journey the route would have been quite similar so I didn’t really notice until we got there, by which time the tight schedule of the day ruled out retracing our steps and we pushed on to Reisjärvi… a good example of disengaging the brain and relying on technology…).
Soon afterwards though, in August 2017, I was able to return and after some scrambling around in the vicinity of Pyhäjärvi Church, on both sides of the road, it was possible to find “God’s Field”. The memorial, as per the parish website, is in the middle of the field, and it is a fine monument. The “problem”, if it can be called such, is that there is no explicit mention of the Great Hunger Years. For a while I wondered if I was missing something – was there a smaller stone somewhere, or a small inscription to which I was blind? It seemed not – and in turn that made me think about the nature of these memorials. If a stone with “1867” carved in it becomes a memorial for many generations – a piece of tangible heritage which forces those who see it to think back to that year – it is nonetheless a memorial. It does not explicitly have to mention the “Great Hunger Years” – indeed, I have even considered sometimes whether the memorial stones of 1867 might originally have had a different purpose (lots of Finnish municipalities were founded in that year, for example, and I have wondered if stones might have commemorated this foundation rather than, initially, the famine), but over time came to be used as a way of connecting to lost ancestors.
With this in mind, it is not for me to decide whether or not this is a “famine” memorial simply because it lacks a specific text. If the parish considers it to be a memorial to the mass burials which took place in that field in the 1860s, then I also consider it to be worthy of inclusion in this blog. If the Kotiseutumuseo (opposite the graveyard, and itself housed in an old grain-store which had been established in 1866) had been open on the day, I would have gone to ask a bit more, and I hope that some day I’ll get to go back and do that. The only nagging doubt in my mind is that somewhere in Pyhäjärvi there is, in fact, a specific memorial to the famine.
Sievi, in Northern Ostrobothnia, was the seventeenth-worst hit parish according to Turpeinen’s data – one of the places that lost over one-seventh of its population. The church in Sievi, is yet another beautiful wooden construction, actually from the start of the famine decade (1861-2), and features the vaivaisukko (fattiggubbe or “pauper statue”) typical of many Ostrobothnian churches.
The memorial itself, which is near to the gate of the cemetery, across the road from the church, has many typical features of the Finnish famine memorials. It was inaugurated in the famine’s local centenary commemorations (1966) and is inscribed on black stone with words from Runeberg’s 1830 poem Saarijärven Paavo: “Vaikka Kokee Eipä Hylkää Herra”. (“Although the Lord tests [us], He does not abandon [us]”). [I am grateful to Kaisa Kyläkoski for correcting my earlier translation, and for noting the original Swedish text – this should also be taken as a correction to the Sesquicentennial Report.] This theme embodies important elements (forbearance, sedulity) of the Finnish national autostereotype. In addition, the monument is dedicated to the memory of the famine victims (dates here given as 1866-68), and features the broken rye stems seen at many other sites. The stone was designed by Hannu Koskimies and unveiled on 16th July 1967.
In Ostrobothnia, the memorials are sometimes clustered so closely together that it can be frustrating to know that, by taking a left turn somewhere along the line to follow a pre-planned itinerary, you are heading away from a memorial that might lie only half an hour in the other direction. After Sievi, on this occasion, I needed to get to Kokkola and the motorway down to Vaasa, in the hope of getting to the memorial there before sunset. This meant leaving, for example, Nivala, Merijärvi and Lohtaja for the next time, as well as passing by Kälviä (which I was unaware of until later) – although I did stop for a while and look at the churchyard in Kannus, which just seemed like such a likely place to have a famine memorial (but didn’t, as far as I know).
Jumping around a little here, but after starting this blog, certain episodes of this (ongoing) mini-Odyssey around Suomenmaa have come into my mind, perhaps none more regularly than my faintly comical / ridiculous visit to Rantsila in December 2016. I had been sitting at home somewhat frustrated that the weather had hindered my fieldwork for a few weeks – there’s really not much point travelling hundreds of kilometres only to find a graveyard or other potential memorial site lying snugly under a metre of even, virgin snow. However, bus travel is now reasonably cheap and so I decided to go by bus to Oulu, stopping off at Viitasaari and Rantsila (I was unaware of the memorial in Kärsämäki at this point, which is probably just as well as the usable part of the day was really very, very short). It also seems from my diary that I planned originally to spend the next day going to and from Pudasjärvi from Oulu (which given winter bus timetables would then have required another night in Pudasjärvi and / or a taxi to Pudasjärvi Church… I didn’t go through with the idea).
After some stress in Viitasaari, which I’ll recount later, I was in two minds about pressing northwards or just admitting this was a stupid idea and going back home (the Oulu-bound bus was late and there was another due to Helsinki any minute…) The bus arrived, however (always risk-averse, I’d reserved a seat – and there was a large cardboard disc with my name on it – on an otherwise completely empty bus) and I carried on up the Nelostie, glad only of the fact that I was not driving myself along the icy highway.
I can see now from my notebook that the first time I mention a memorial in Rantsila was in the middle of 2014, having read about it via Kirjastovirma… so clearly after eighteen months I couldn’t possibly wait another minute. The sun – such as it was, hiding far above heavy snow clouds – was due to go down at around 2.20pm, and I was only due to get to Rantsila at about 3.35pm, so I was well-prepared with a torch and a shovel (for clearing snow), and a more-or-less clear idea of where the churchyard was. I had an hour and fifteen minutes before the next Oulu bus, which I thought would be sufficient. I had an idea what the memorial looked like, from Kirjastovirma, but in the dark and with powdery snow falling it wasn’t immediately apparent. My torch cast a pathetic beam which was really just bouncing back off the snow. With a bus “deadline” in my mind, a minute or two probably felt much longer. However, I did find the memorial, and although the photos were not exactly special (taken with the torch jammed between my chin and my neck to illuminate the memorial, as my phone battery and fingers faded rapidly in the cold), it did feel as though an ambition, albeit a lowly one, had been achieved.
What was most notable about this trip was that it dawned on me, while in Rantsila, that there was something intrinsically comical about a middle-aged foreign man, howking around a small Finnish graveyard with a torch and a shovel, in the middle of winter. I was more than prepared to have to explain myself. As usual, however, I didn’t see anyone, other than the kindly shop assistant in the local Sale who sold me a Tupla before I hunkered down at the bus-stop and wondered whether the bus to Oulu would appear. [It did, it’s just that I am told these stories need to have some element of heroism or jeopardy to make them interesting].
It was a memorable day, though… A long day on a very short day.
I was able to return during daylight in the summer of 2019, and took a few better pictures – quite striking how different the memorial looked in different weather.
[note: as with some other sites, there is ambiguity as a result of municipal mergers. Rantsila was consolidated into Siikalatva in 2009, but I have referred to Rantsila here as it makes the most logical sense regarding the church and the meaning of the memorial].
Aid Collection on Behalf of the Distressed of Kärsämäki:
Recently we have been reading terrible stories in the newspapers, the description by the rector of Kärsämäki about the misery and need, [and] that hunger afflicts almost all of the parishioners.
Ilmarinen, 21 Jun. 1867.
Returning to those areas that lost over one-seventh of their populations during 1868, and specifically back to Northern Ostrobothnia, Kärsämäki is one of the most recent parishes to establish a memorial. At the time of writing the Sesquicentennial Report, it was the newest of the memorials that I had found, and as with some of the others it came to my attention via the parish website. It also connects with several other memorials in the area to highlight a larger area of catastrophe – Reisjärvi and Haapavesi have been discussed below, and Sievi and Haapajärvi will follow – in Northern Ostrobothnia. The memorial was inaugurated in 2014, and financed by Teija and Timo Surakka, local businesspeople. It is a tall rock, and engraved on both sides – one with a biblical verse, the other with a quotation from the well-known churchman and author Juhana (Johan) Frosterus, who had been the parish priest in Kärsämäki in the 1770s. The family connection had persisted, as Berndt Leonard Frosterus, grand-nephew of Juhana, was the rector of Kärsämäki in the 1860s, and was appointed Provost in 1867. According to Vahtola, he “constantly fed” the hungry in 1865-66, but Pitkänen notes that he gained a reputation as the “Strict Provost” for sending beggars away back to their own parishes. At the base of a low, square plinth, there is a dedication to the memory of those who perished from hunger in 1866-1868, on behalf of the parish of Kärsämäki.
It is quite notable, that the Kärsämäki Famine Memorial is in close proximity to the “Sankari Hautausmaa” [Hero Graveyard], rows of those from the area who were fell in patriotic defence of Finland. In 2017, I speculated that:
…the location of many of these memorials in graveyards overseen by the state church, along with biblical quotations stressing forbearance and stoicism in the face of Divine challenge; the proximity in many cases of “Hero Graveyards”, the graves of locals who fell in battle in 1918 and 1939-44 (and in the case of the Civil War limited to those who fought the “White” cause) indicates adherence to a particular narrative of adversity; the inauguration ceremonies for these memorials often follow a well-established format, including the traditional interpretation of the famine years as a frost-induced natural disaster; the inclusion of the Great Hunger Years as a “building block” for the nation, alongside later traumas.
Newby, Sesquicentennial Report, p. 178.
This idea is more explicit in some memorials – see especially the “Hard Times” memorial near the canal in Vääksy / Asikkala – than in others. And nowhere in Finland do we see anything approaching the explicit politicisation of some famine memorials relating e.g. to the Great Hunger in Ireland, or the Ukrainian Holodomor.
Modern Region: Northern Ostrobothnia (Pohjois-Pohjanmaa)
Date of Memorial: 2014
Inscription: Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17) // You Read Once, You Read Twice, Maybe Even Thrice. Read It Thoughtfully, Consider The Matter Carefully, Maybe It Finds Room In Your Heart! (Juhana Frosterus) // In Memory of those who died of hunger 1866-1868. Kärsämäki Parish.
[Notes: (i) it appears that the quotation from Frosterus is is a preface to his well-known Runo-Laulu Jumalan Pyhästä Laista (see “Kirjallisuutta”, Kuopion Sanomat, 12 Sep. 1857), but I need to check this as it is not attributed on the memorial; (ii) there is no ideal English translation for the term “Kirkkoherra”, which I would argue denotes a position above a parish priest. I have used “rector” in the absence of a universally accepted alternative]
Kuopion Sanomat, 12 Sep. 1857.
Ilmarinen, 21 Jun. 1867.
Andrew G. Newby, “Finland’s ‘Great Hunger Years’ Memorials: A Sesquicentennial Report”, in Andrew G. Newby (ed.) The Enormous Failure of Nature: Famine and Society in Nineteenth Century Europe (Helsinki, 2017), p. 178.
Kari Pitkänen, “Kärsimysten ja ahdingon vuosikymmen – 1860-luvun yleiskuva”, in Antti Häkkinen, Vappu Ikonen, Kari Pitkänen & Hannu Soikkanen (eds.) Kun Halla Nälän Tuskan Toi (Porvoo, 1991), p. 73.
Jouko Vahtola, “Rovasti Berndt Leonard Frosterus Kärsämäen seurakunnan maallisena ja hengellisenä johtajana vuosina 1847-1887,” originally a lecture given in 1990, reproduced at http://www.kirjastovirma.fi/karsamaki/frosterus (accessed July 2018).
Haapavesi, like many Finnish municipalities, was founded on the eve of the Great Hunger Years. With such calamitous mortality (approximately 20% in 1868) in the years immediately after its foundation (and indeed dearth and crisis in the years leading up to it, as per this newspaper article from 1865), it seemed like a place that might have a memorial. However, I was unable to visit before the publication of the Sesquicentennial Report, and nor did I uncover any secondary sources which would have proved the existence of a famine memorial. In March 2017, however, Anu Koivunen’s Kirjava historia blog published an interesting and wide-ranging account of the the “Hunger Years in Haapavesi” (in Finnish). Alongside material from manuscript sources and local newspapers, Anu also published a photograph of Haapavesi’s memorial to those who had died from hunger, erected in 1963. From this photo I was able to compare with other images – as well as check Google Earth, where it is visible from the road – and see that the memorial was outside the bell-tower of the main church in the town.
On 5th July 2017, I travelled to Haapavesi and other sites in Ostrobothnia. The immediate reaction on reaching Haapavesi Church is the architectural contrast between the actual church and the bell-tower. The church was built in the 1980s, after the previous building was destroyed in a fire (May 1981). Standing separately from the main church building (the outline of which remains as a garden of reflection), the bell-tower, dating from 1751, was spared destruction. Unlike some other sites, the famine memorial was very easy to spot in Haapavesi, and is very distinctive in its form – an irregular stone placed atop a millstone, with a plaque. The millstone is a regular feature in Finnish famine memorials, occurring in four or five instances (e.g. Sonkajärvi, Evijärvi, Ilmajoki).