Olli Matinan Kiukkonen (often misspelled as “Kinkonnen”) was born in the village of Mikkli located in Jaakkima Parish, Finland, on either June 10 or June 16, 1880, according to conflicting birth records. Jaakkima is a rural area that is part of a region between the White Sea and Gulf of Finland ceded to the Russians after World War II and is now called Yakkima. The area was first settled in 1647 and is still a quiet countryside dotted with quaint farms surrounded by picturesque lakes and forests.
Olli was the son of a farmer, Matti Kiukkonen. His mother, Katri, was thirty-nine years old when Olli was born. She died in January 1885. There were other children in the Kiukkonen family: Antti was born in 1866, Heikki in 1869, Pekka in 1871, Juho in 1874, Matti in 1877, and Simo in 1883. Olli was average height and slender build with blue eyes and brown hair. He had at least some ability to read and write English, although the extent of his formal education is unknown. He had just turned twenty-seven when he left Finland for life in America.
Why he left Finland is not known, but the Tsar’s Russification of Finland and tough economic times in Europe made life in America appealing to Finns, especially young men who faced the possibility of a forced service in the Russian military. The Russian military had suffered a demoralizing and costly defeat in a war with Japan between February 1904 and September 1905. The Russian fleet was devastated in the battle of Tsushima Straits in May 1905 resulting in the loss of five thousand sailors, eight battleships, and much of its task force, forcing the Russians to negotiate a peace treaty with Japan.
The war with Japan cost the lives of over fifty thousand Russian soldiers and sailors. It also cost Russia its naval base at Port Arthur, Manchuria, half of the Sakhalin Island, and the Korean Peninsula. This loss to an Asian power was shocking and humiliating for the Russian Empire and caused severe damage to its prestige in Europe while sowing the seeds of revolution at home.
The potential for unwelcome conscription in the Russian army and poverty in Europe were not the only concerns among those seeking a life in America. The Immigration Act of 1907, signed into federal law on February 20, 1907, made it harder to get into the country and there were fears this was just the beginning of tighter restrictions for immigrants seeking entrance to the United States.
Finns living in America wrote home describing the opportunities they found, and for their discouraged kinfolk trying to make a living in Finland the letters and stories sparked the imagination and stroked the desire for a better life in the new world. The Finns were not alone in this desire for a better life in America. Over 1,280,000 immigrants from all over the world came to the US in 1907, making it the all-time peak year for arrivals through Ellis Island, and Olli Kiukkonen from Mikkli, Finland, was one of them.
Passage to America
Olli Kiukkonen arrived in the United States on July 5,1907, on board the White Star liner Baltic, the same ship that would bring General Pershing to Europe ten years later. There was nothing close to that kind of excitement during Baltic’s 1907 crossing, although Henry Huttleston Rogers, the vice president of Standard Oil, was on board and generated a small bit of notoriety for the voyage.
Henry Huttleston Rogers was one of those businessmen who made a fortune during the Gilded Age of American history. His fortune was estimated to be $100 million, and that is calculated in 1907 dollars. In today’s dollars his fortune would be around $3.2 billion. Rogers had the reputation as a tough businessman. Wall Street insiders dubbed him “Hell Hound Rogers,” yet he was generous in donations to public endeavors and was friends with both Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. He was also a great admirer of Helen Keller, and Rogers paid for Helen to attend Radcliffe College. In Helen Keller’s book The World I Live In, she dedicated it “To Henry H. Rogers, my dear friend of many years.”
Reporters were waiting dockside for Rogers, and he told them it had been an enjoyable trip. Perhaps third-class passenger Olli Kiukkonen had gotten a glimpse of the flamboyant multi-millionaire as he walked about the ship, or maybe when Rogers disembarked the Baltic to board his private yacht, Kanawha, to head from New York City to Fairhaven, his summer home in Massachusetts. Regardless of whether their paths crossed on that voyage, their lives from that point on would be as different as night and day.
First and second-class passengers coming into the United States through New York City and Ellis Island received a cursory immigration check that was suitably convenient and unobtrusive for the traveling gentry. They were allowed easy entrance to the US at dock side with no further interruption.
Third-class and steerage passengers were another matter. They were transported by ferry to Ellis Island for a medical examination and immigration evaluation. By 1907 the processing of immigrants coming into the United States through Ellis Island was well established and consisted of a cursory medical inspection as they stood in line. If the medical examiners suspected disease or disability the individual was taken out of line for further testing.
Those not singled out for medical evaluation moved to a registry room where immigration officers interviewed them to confirm their identity, ensure they had enough funds to be financially self-sufficient for a time, and did not have undesirable characteristics. An interviewing inspector determined whether admission would be granted, and the entire process usually took a few hours, barring complications. Immigrants who cleared inspection were sent on their way: “Welcome to America!”
Olli’s brother Simo had arrived in the United States on February 20, 1907, and he was already settled in the Ashtabula, Ohio, area when Olli reached New York. In the Baltic passenger records Olli reported his intention to join a brother in Ohio, and it is likely he did just that. Olli is listed on the Baltic passenger manifest, but he is not found in the Ellis Island records. More than likely this was due to a clerical error of some sort. With over a million immigrants processed through Ellis Island in 1907, mistakes were made, and paperwork lost. Nevertheless, Olli Kiukkonen made it into the United States.