Finn Slough Heritage & Wetland Society



The Jacobson family of Richmond BC has always known that they had a relative who was involved in the foundation of the Finn utopia of Sointula on Malcolm Island. His name was John Mikkelson and when I began looking for records of the Finns who set up the community at Finn Slough in Richmond his name did not appear so it was easy to assume that he had gone to Sointula and never returned. The Richmond City archives have a tiny file on the Finns and I found an essay written by a young Ron Jacobson based on a 1977 interview with his uncle Jack Jacobson. In that interview Jack talks about having four half brothers because his mother was a widow before she married his dad and his dad was also a widower who had kids from a previous marriage. All of the Jacobson children from that generation are now dead so there was no simple way to find more information on these half brothers.

The Sointula story is an interesting one and Paula Wild who lived on Malcolm Island has written a good book about the history of the settlement (name of book here) I had only just read the book when Eve Jacobson showed me a picture of John Mikkelson . I was interested to see a picture of someone who had left a remote part of Richmond to go to an even more remote part of BC at the turn of the century to join in the building of a utopian community. I was even more interested to see that he was holding his right arm very stiffly as he posed for the studio portrait and that his hand looked a bit strange, he appeared to be missing a right thumb. I asked Eve if she knew what had happened to him but she did not so we decided it was probably from a fishing accident as he had worked as a fisherman on the Fraser River and it would be easy enough to lose a thumb when laying out net lines.

I don’t have the best memory when it comes to reading books and I have tried to read the same book more than once because I came across a copy with a different cover so when it was time to send the Paula Wild book back to the library I thought I should quickly go through it again to see if there was anything I should write down and I came across an account of the first boat trip the Finns made to Malcolm Island in 1901 and the captain of the boat Johan Mikkelson had been injured by a shotgun when he picked it up. It had damaged his right hand. There was not much doubt that these two men were one and the same. The Jacobsons knew that John Mikkelson went to California in the late 20's or early 30's and he went with his wife and kids but there was no record here of a marriage. We are only allowed to search marriages till 1925 but it should have happened before then and the California records are easy to search and there was no record of any of them being there so where did they go? I gave up on it as being too far away from the point of my investigation which is to rediscover the history of Finn Slough.

The process of looking for records of the old Finns is made somewhat easier when they keep the original spellings of their names. Those double AA’s and double II’s just don’t turn up in Anglo-Saxon names. However there are many problems with spelling. Brothers and sisters with the same mother and father can be written into documents with different spellings for their surnames presumably because the officials responsible were transcribing versions of what they heard. This means that in a document search it is necessary to try every possible combination of letters from a name to see what turns up. In the case of the Jacobsons the story is that the patriarch and pioneer Mikko Hihnala was at some point in his travels being berated by some bureaucrat for the unpronouncability of his name and he decided that being the son of Jacob was the best way to solve the problem he was having with English speakers. This was a very common way for Finnish settlers to solve this dilemma and perhaps helped to defuse some of the dislike English speakers of that time frequently directed at the Finns for having not learned English. According to the Finns who worked in the coalmines of Nanaimo they were rated as slightly better than the Chinese but as less desirable than other Europeans even though they were acknowledged to be the toughest and most productive workers.

There were several Finns named Hill at Finn Slough but that does not mean that they all came from the same family. Martin Hihnala who may or may not be related to Mikko Jacobson changed his name to Hill. Herman Hill may have changed his name from Hillila or from some other name. There was no system to how these names changed and people with completely different surnames can be closely related. This is especially true when, as in the case of the Jacobsons, partners could die early which happened frequently in those days of logging mining and fishing. It was not unusual for women to die in childbirth leaving a young family with a father who had to find another wife so that he could keep working to feed his kids.

For a researcher going backwards in time might show up the point where a name changed and you never know what the clue might be that leads you to that point. Herman Hill married Lusina Tuarila on 23 march 1911 in New Westminster BC. Now there is a good Finnish name to follow, Lusina. It was not too hard to find her amongst all the hundreds of Hills when I wanted to find out when she died. The next question was ‘who were her family?’ and ‘what happened to them?’ and ‘will they be related in other ways to Finn Slough?’. In the BC census of 1901 I have counted off and made a record of every person listed as a Finn or as a Russian (sometimes the Finns are described as Russians, perhaps because they had Russian papers) and given that the census may have missed a few people in those days there were probably only 500 Finns in BC and they probably knew each other. They tended to move to areas where Finns already lived and the choice was the Fraser River delta, the coalmines in Nanaimo, or after 1901 Sointula. Marriages tended to happen within these groups or between these groups and so the family ties became extremely complex as in the case of Lusina who had a sister who in 1917 married a man named Maikson. Amalia Tuorila, notice the ‘A’ has changed to an ‘O’, is most certainly the sister of Lusina as we have a photo now of the two sisters together.

Maikson did not seem Finnish to me but I already knew that name from the payment records from the City of Richmond Dyking commission. The City was glad to employ the local Finn fishermen to work on the dykes here in the off-season when they were not fishing. It was a convenient arrangement since the nearest labour pool at that time was a full days journey away (it now takes 20 minutes) and the work was not constant enough to move full time workers here.

In this system of naming yourself after your fathers first name Mikkelson can be seen as an attempt to name yourself after a father named Michael. But for an English speaker the spelling is wrong. I would not say Michael-son but Mickle-son and I think this is what happened to Johan Mikkleson. Mikko Jacobson (not his actual father) changed his name to Mike and John Mikkelson wanted to be called son of Mike and the only way to get an English speaker to do that was to change his name yet again to Maikson. When he first came to Canada he lived and worked in the Fraser River fishing industry and lived here with his mother and stepfather. Perhaps it was important to claim his stepfathers name rather than a name from his mothers family. Her previous name was Annanalli in the spelling that has been handed down but she may have been married twice before she met Mikko because there is a story that one husband died before they had any children so how will we know if Annanalli is Johans father or the husband who died too soon to have any children.

Maikson makes more sense as a spelling so I went back to the California records and there they were. John Maikson died in 1952. His mothers maiden name is listed as Olli. We have a photo of a handsome man in a wonderful military style suit, but far too decorative to be the real thing, holding a saxophone and with the inscription Jack Ollie. Is this his brother? We don’t know but it seems likely that he is a relative.

Amalia Tuorila is listed as Emily L Maikson. Notice how Amalia has been anglicized to the more easily said Emily. Her mothers maiden name is listed as Kekolaht. They had two sons George and Eino and a daughter Ann. Eino’s mothers maiden name is listed as Tuorillo.

In October 2000 I was able to look up Johan Mikkleson in an MA thesis written by Allan Salo for the University of BC in 1972. The “Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company, Limited: A Finnish-Canadian Millenarian Movement in BC” is a gold mine of information about the early days of Sointula and Allan Salo has translated many of the original documents into English. This is the description of that first boat trip to Malcolm Island written by Teodor Tanner in the Sointula paper the “Aika” and quoted in the Salo translation of Matti Halminen’s book “Sointula: Kalevan Kansan ja Kanadan Suomalaisten Historia”

Having reached the decision to go to Malcolm Island there was all sorts of hurry and one or another kind of activity to be done in preparation for the trip. Eventually, these matters having been straightened out, we came in the evening to spend the night in the shelter of our “Aino.” With the conditions permitting in the light of the early morning of the first day we pulled the white sail-cloths up and we five men and one “lily” began to speed toward the promised land. It was the sixth of December. The first part of the morning was completely calm during which time we adhered to our oars and thought amongst ourselves that even by rowing we will reach our destination. However, in the afternoon there appeared a swift tailwind which hurried us some forty miles ahead. We settled to spend the darkness of the night near the shores of an island where a strong wind rocked the boat. This place robbed us of our anchor. It deadened our excitement for travel to such a degree that having tied a line to a tree we did not wish to go out into the wide-open sea in the strengthening wind. We remained there the rest of the day and the following night. During this time we fashioned from wood, etc. such an anchor that upon completing it we were thinking about obtaining a patent for our invention. It has thereafter been found to be so trustworthy in use that we have slept the nights in complete confidence. Towards the evening of the third day a strong tailwind hurries us over the most open waters. Upon reaching the restricted waterways our travel was rather slow. Ocean currents and headwinds made effective obstacles to the progress of the trip. Having reached the much feared Seymour Narrows; we waited for six hours at which time it was peaceful for us to pass through. Shortly after, having passed through the aforementioned channel, our companion Mikkelson suffered a tragic and fear arousing accident. Somehow a shotgun had been left on the cabin roof and when he proceeded to take it indoors it discharged and ripped the veins and sinew of his right wrist. Having dressed it as best we could, we continued our journey onward in the hope of obtaining medical assistance somewhere. We did not find any until Alert Bay. When we reached Alert Bay we sensed an unusual warmth toward the injured party and toward us as well. It seemed as though people were competing to see who would treat him. Having obtained good lodging the patient remained at the aforementioned place and we proceeded toward the end of our journey of which there remained about three to four miles. On Sunday the 15th of December we arrived at the sought for Malcolm Island where we anchored our “Aino” at the bottom of Kotilahti. We spent this last night in our boat. In the dim light of the next morning we briskly walked along the shores trying to find the building which the prior settlers had left behind. At last we found a building amidst a thicket of bushes. It was missing its doors and windows. After a day’s hustle the building was by nightfall in a livable condition. By overlooking its immediate dampness we, with satisfaction and frustration free aspirations, looked toward the future.

Halminen continues the story,

This was the first trip by members of the Kalevan Kansa to Malcolm Island. That unfortunate event in which Mikkelson came so near to losing his whole arm affected us all deeply. Mikkelson was sent from Alert Bay to Nanaimo hospital on board the next ship. A well-known and progressive surgeon at first thought that Mikkelson’s hand would need to be amputated. We attempted to explain that we should first try all other methods to heal the hand. So it was done, and with some success , since only the thumb needed to be amputated. It was a sad occurrence for the young man who had at first given to the Kalevan Kansa his material possessions and now a portion of his physical self. However, as soon as Mikkelson’s hand had healed as well as it could he moved to Malcolm Island where he worked as a skilled fisherman, a lead hand for the fishing crew and the captain of our steamship “Vineta”.

The first annual report of the Kalevan Kansa contains the following quote, again from Allan Salo’s translation,

Our affairs appeared incomplete at the end of last year when our soul mates Tanner and Maikson came to Nanaimo from the Fraser River with their supplies and their offer to go to Malcolm Island on their own boat. Although it was a wet autumn and the company’s assets were small, the enthusiasm of the above mentioned companions cast off all doubts.

So here we have the first mention of Maikson and it would appear that he changed his name some time between his arrival at Sointula and the publishing of it’s first annual report. A few years later there was a devastating fire at Sointula that killed 11 of the members including many of the women and children and not long after that the utopian community fell apart when it went bankrupt. That did not end the Finn community at Sointula and you can read more of its history in Paula Wild’s book. John Maikson moved back to the community at Finn Slough, married, and then moved to California.

I would like to know more about him. Why did he leave Malcolm Island? Why did he move his family to California? The Finn community here was not rich but they were secure and healthy and were able to mostly live into old age unlike their countrymen in the mines at Nanaimo. What kind of man was he? Was he cultured? Did he stop speaking Finn? How did he do the hard physical labour of being a fisherman and working on the dykes in Richmond if he was missing a thumb? What kind of work did he do in California? To me these are the kind of questions that put flesh on the bones of what is otherwise only an intellectual game of seeing how far back one can go in the mathematical game of linking up names in a genealogy tree. I cannot raise him like Lazarus from the dead but I could at least help to make sure he is remembered as more than just a name. I want to stop him from becoming one more shadow in the vast pile of old discarded photos. There are too many images of people with no names and no stories to tell. We should honour our ancestors better. We would not even be here now if they had not struggled through their lives to create a world into which we could be born.

I also have another purpose in pursuing this man. He is involved in the history of the beginning of not only Sointula but also of the older community at Finn Slough. I am not a Finn and I am not related to John Maikson but I live in what was his community and I want to save it from the destructive attack that has been launched on it by the Fraser Port and I want to save it from the neglect of the City of Richmond. To me this humble collection of fishing shacks represents a way of life and thought that is about to disappear and it is worth saving not as a museum collection of old and picturesque bits of wood but as a sort of three dimensional text that says there was life here before automobiles, before television, before cell phones and even if life might have been rough and sometimes short, these people got through it with that whole assortment of feelings that we all share. If they could step out of their photographs would they tell us that we are doing a good job with this world? Or would they tell us that they preferred the world they lived in and that it felt good to be alive and feel the sun shining on them a hundred years ago.

David Dorrington



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