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Settlement of the Tornio River Valley – Part I


Author’s note: One doesn’t tend to think of Finland and Sweden as a hot-bed of multiculturalism. Think again. The culture of the Fenno-Swedish border is a fascinating mix of peoples that came from all over the region. In Part I, I will explore the ancient settlement history of an area travellers should put on thier TO DO list. In Part II, I will look at some more recent history, travellers that have passed through and my time there.

Although a river, the Fenno-Swedish border is an artificial feature. It’s a political demarcation which divides a region that gave birth to a culture that lived from the Kalix River in the west to the Ounasjoki in the east and from the estuary north to Karesuando. 

The river has been described as a sort of “Main Street”.  Instead of a divider, the Tornio was what bound the people of the valley together.  And the people of the valley consider themselves unique among Finns and Scandinavians alike. The culture is, historically, a Finnish one, with a particular Finnish dialect being spoken on both sides of the river: mäenkieli – our tongue. 

Traditionally, historians and archaeologists have maintained that there was no real permanent settlement in the Tornio before the 1300s and that subsequent colonization took root and exploded in the 1400s.  But, as Dr. Kirvesmies pointed out, once you have set your mind on a particular reality, you stop looking for any alternatives and therefore, you never find any.  Thus, for a long time there was very little research into whom the people of the Tornio actually were.  That began to change in the 1970s.

Who are the people of the Tornio? In fact, they seem to be everybody:  Sámi, Karelian, Scandinavian, German and Finnish.

The coastline and inland rivers afforded bountiful fishing and fur trapping opportunities together with easy contact to trading routes.  The recently uplifted soil was very favorable to agriculture, which flourished along the river banks and in the broad headlands of the bays.  This was also one of the richest salmon-spawning areas in Europe. It was perfect for settlement.

The first settlers were nomadic, occupying seasonal hunting and fishing sites and occasionally cultivating small plots of crops such as nettles and species of plantago.  By four thousand five hundred years ago, however, sites such as Kainuunkylä, just north of Tornio, were permanently inhabited.  Pollen analysis and archaeological finds indicate that the earliest settlers burned the surrounding birch forest and began planting cereals.  For the next thousand years these small farms grew a mix of rye and other cereals in high concentrations at the edge of an extensive spruce forest.  By the first year of the Christian Era, they were also growing hops in substantial quantities and had integrated livestock production into their economies.

The Sámi were here quite early, although when exactly is open to speculation.  Their ancestors may have been those original settlers, if we can take the Theory of the Donut at face value.  Sámi place names are scattered throughout the region, even reaching the coast.  Their frequency increases north of Pello and to the east and west from there, beyond the confines of the valley.  They are primarily environmental names, describing rivers or hill tops.  Still, some of the oldest villages in the valley, Juoksenki, Karunki, Matarenki and Sangi, are of Sámi origin.

The earliest outside colonization may have comes from the region of Tavastia and Satakunta.  That is, the Häme area which is about an hour’s drive north of Helsinki.  Take the name Tornio itself, an ancient Scandinavian word for “lance” that entered the Häme vocabulary prior the Viking Age.  The name of the town Oulu is old Häme for “flood”.  The Tornio valley is strewn with place names containing the prefixes Virka-, Reväs-, Naara-, Keidas-, and Vekara-, all connected to ancient Häme’s hunting culture.  These Häme words describe environmental place names such as hills, creeks and rivers, as well as settlement names.  None of the earliest appellations contain names of Christian origin, indicating their great age and nearly all are located relatively far up in the Valley and away from the coast between Yli-Tornio and Pello. 

What seems to have happened is that at sometime around the year 600 a large proportion of the hunting people of Häme moved north to become agriculturists along the Tornio River and its tributaries.  This population movement reached its height in the Viking Age (800-1100) but continued on well into the 16th Century.  Researchers point again to Kainuunkylä as the area that most probably was settled first which makes sense considering its rich flood plains, bountiful salmon fishing and the numerous lakes filled with all sorts of fish.  In addition, it was an existing trade and communication route, affording easy contact with the region’s other settlements.  What caused the Häme people to make this change is unclear.  Overpopulation, competition or war between groups, or even disease, could have forced the displacement.  

The people of the Tornio Valley are also Karelians.  During the largest phase of Karelian expansion (1100-1300) Karelian settlers spread out as far as Northern Sweden, the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia and the Kemi and Tornio river valleys.  The heaviest influence is in the south, along the estuary near Vojakkala, where you will find such Karelian place names as: Lakkapää (the broad top of a tree), Nilos (naked cliff), Puutikka (path with snares) and Karsikko (memorial tree for the dead).  Vojakkala itself has its root in the word for “brother-in-law”.  Many of the farms and personal names in the southern part of the Valley – Teppola, Isto, Pajari, Tano, Romo, Prokko – also originated on the Karelian isthmus.

There are relatively few examples of place names that originated from the Scandinavian dialects and these are all centered around Kainuunkylä or on the islands in the gulf beyond the estuary.  Examples of these are: Uksperi, Riisperi, Pukulmi, Uksei, Poti and Kunnari.  A very small number of these names are clearly of Norwegian origin, Anund and Ivar, while a surprising number are of German origin.  German influence appears most heavily in the Kemi river valley and the southern part of Tornio.  Gesth (a merchant), Kestilä, Viinikka, Frankkila and Kurttila are among these names.  German or Hansa people probably settled, or at the very least, had substantial relations with the area from about 1300 – 1600.

The Savo region also contributed heavily to the making of the Tornio people.  Fiscal documents such as King Erik of Pomerania’s ‘tax books’, the Olai Due and Instruction on the Revenues of the Realm: 1530-1533 are heavy with family names of Savo origin suggesting a flood of new settlers from eastern Finland.  These documents also demonstrate that the population of the valley exploded during the 1400s and that the size and number of settlements expanded greatly. 

By the 1600s, it was well known throughout the Swedish Kingdom – remember, most of Finland was part of Sweden until 1809 – that the people of the Tornio did things in their own unique way.  For example, the typical agricultural district of the Kingdom had fields distributed in rows on a communal ownership basis.  Villages were tight clusters of homes, barns and gardens.  In the Tornio, however, there was no common field ownership.  Each farm operated as an individual entity on its own parcel of land.  Farms stretched along the river bank so that each home and field bordered the water.  Often, a single farmer owned land on both sides of the river. 

There was no rigid village structure, the term ‘village’ being used solely to denote taxing areas.


Tornio River Valley

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