Estonians in North America
The Early Twentieth Century
It is not until around the turn of the twentieth century that the state of the Estonian expatriate community becomes clear. By this time there was a very small but stable presence in North America. The primary centers were Toronto, New York, San Fransisco and Portland/Astoria, Oregon. Small settlements were begun in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota and Gleason, Wisconsin. These small villages quickly lost their Estonian flavor through assimilation but are significant for their impact on the religious community. Ft. Pierre is the site of the first Estonian Lutheran Church congregation in America, founded in 1897. The first Estonian church building was built in Gleason in 1914.
Despite the growing village settlements, it was in the cities that the primary activity of Estonian society in North America took place. In March 1897, Rev. Hans Rebane, minister to the Estonian and Latvian Lutheran communities in the United States, began the first Estonian language newspaper, Eesti Amerika Postimees (Estonian American Postman). The paper appeared bimonthly until Rebane¹s death in 1911. Rebane also started the New York congregation of the Estonian Lutheran church, in 1898, which to this day remains the largest congregation in the United States.
Another significant milestone was passed in 1898 with the printing of the first Estonian language book in the United States. Dollarite maalt (From the Land of Dollars), was published in Astoria, Oregon by Mihkel Sau under the English name Mike Anderson. Following these two publications came a steady stream of original literature published in the Estonian language. These new publications ranged from English textbooks and fiction to Bibles and various periodicals.
At this time, the Estonian population tended to follow the Finnish population which was a by far larger group. Drawing on their linguistic and historical ties, many Estonians eventually blended into the Finnish group almost completely. There were a few incidences, however, when Estonian-Americans distinguished themselves as something unique. The most significant occasion occurred during the American military involvement in the Boxer Rebellion in China. An American army unit was cooperating with a Russian army unit. One Estonian (who was considered by his passport to be Russian) was called upon to translate. He, of course, could not communicate with ethnic Russians. Fortunately, however, an Estonian serving with the Russian military was found and the two nations were ultimately able to communicate using the Estonian language as a lingua franca.
The failed Russian revolution of 1905 brought about a major schism in the Estonian community in North America that would not be fully healed until World War II. As a result of the chaos in their homeland, Estonian-Americans became divided into socialist and anti-socialist camps. Each group had separate social and political organizations, leadership and newspapers. The socialist newspaper, Uus Ilm (New World), founded in June 1909 by Peeter Speek, is especially significant because it eventually became the longest continuously published Estonian language periodical in the United States.
The most significant event in Estonian life during the first half of the twentieth century, both in North America and in Estonia itself, was the independence of the nation from the Russian Empire following the aftermath of the First World War and the creation of the Soviet Union. Independence was formally declared on February 24, 1918 and following a bitter two year war Estonia joined the nations of Finland, Latvia and Lithuania in successfully breaking away from the Soviet Union.
The Estonian community was very active in both promoting international recognition of the new nation and in supporting the fledgling government. The League of Esthonians, Letts, Lithuanians and Ukrainians of America held an independence rally in Carnegie Hall in May 1919 and the American-Esthonian League was responsible for raising two million dollars in aide for the Red Cross in Estonia. Their efforts paid off and on July 28, 1922 the United States government granted official recognition to the three Baltic nations.
Perhaps the most significant influence of national independence on the North American community was its psychological impact. For the first time people were able to look to their homeland with a pride that was simply impossible in the days of foreign domination. Now instead of being from a part of Russia they were able to truly be Estonian. In September 1939, Herbert Haljaspõld, a reporter for the Tallinn based newspaper Baltic Times put it this way,
The majority of the immigrants lacked patriotic feelings. Of their former homeland, oppressed under a foreign yoke, they remembered only poverty...The victorious conclusion of the war and the establishment of the Estonian Republic helped to cure this inferiority complex and raise their national pride. Estonia was no longer the country of poor emigrants but of victorious soldiers. Estonians in America suddenly discovered with a certain pride that they were Estonians.
During this period the Estonian community grew both in size and organization. New foundations or clubs were begun in New York (1922), Detroit (1926), southern California (1928), Boston (1936) and Chicago and San Fransisco in 1930. The existence of these organizations proved to invaluable during the trials, chaos and turmoil of the next ten years brought about by World War II and its aftermath.