Estonians in North America
The Colonial and Frontier Era
The first era of Estonian migration to North America is the period of time that lasted
from the establishment of New Sweden until almost the start of the twentieth century.
Despite its lengthy time span, relatively few people made the journey during this
In the early seventeenth century, most of Estonia was under Swedish rule. In 1627,
Sweden planted its first American colony, New Sweden, in the valley of the Delaware
river. To clear this area and provide new settlement, many people from the Karelia
region of Finland were brought to the colony. Given the similarity in language, culture
and names, it is possible that there was an Estonian presence among them. Whether
this is true or not is impossible to know.
The first known Estonian in North America was a man named Johan Schalbrick. He arrived
in New Sweden in 1654. He was a drummer and official records list his home town as
the city of Reval, the old German-Swedish name for Tallinn.
Another Tallinn native to arrive in the early history of colonial North America was
Martin Hoffman. Hoffman arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1657. He
lived a colorful life and left a distinguished legacy. He began his career as a saddle
maker and later ventured up the Hudson River fighting in wars against Native Americans.
After the wars he began a boat trade between Albany and New Amsterdam. Eventually
he married and was awarded significant land grants by the Dutch crown. His great
granddaughter, Cornelia Hoffman, married Issac Roosevelt. Their great, great, great grandson
was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty second president of the United States.
The next known Estonian presence in North America came on the west coast of the continent,
in Alaska. By this time both Estonia and Alaska were Czarist Russian possessions.
The Imperial Navy was very active in exploring the Pacific Northwest. In 1803, Admiral Adam von Krusenstern led a three year expedition from St. Petersburg. He was followed
in 1815 and 1823 by Count Otto von Kotzebue and Dr. Karl Espenberg. These early Estonian
explorers functioned as geographers, cartographers and catalogers for the Russian crown. They did much to increase outside knowledge of this remote region. In Alaska today there are sounds, capes, and cities that carry their names.
Following these early pioneers in the middle nineteenth century came the typical western
assortment of characters. Those who came were largely individuals rather than families.
Many Estonians sailors serving on Russian vessels abandoned ship in American ports. Some ventured to the frontier and made a name for themselves, others simply assimilated
into mainstream culture and disappeared.
What is most significant at this point in time is the measures to which immigrants
took to become Americanized. Names were changed and little, if anything, was done to preserve their native culture or language. This, added to the fact that the immigrants coming to North America at this time were categorized as Russians rather than Estonians, makes it difficult,
if not impossible, to gain an accurate understanding as to the true picture of Estonian
immigration in the nineteenth century.
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© May 2, 1997
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