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Arvid Nelson papers

Identifier: IHRC1668


The Arvid Nelson collection consists of a substantial amount of personal correspondence, a large collection of newspaper clippings (both those he wrote and those he found of interest), along with various minutes for Finnish American and Socialist organizations, pamphlets, and event programs. What makes this collection unique is the quantity and two-way nature of the “Correspondence” series. Not only did Arvid Nelson keep a large number of the letters he received throughout his life, he also had the foresight to make carbon copies of many of his responses. A noteworthy part of the correspondence is the sub-series of letters between Arvid and his younger brother Enoch. This set of letters has been kept separate from the other folders of correspondence because of its unique nature. The Arvid Nelson collection is the basis of Allan Nelson’s Master of Arts thesis on Arvid Nelson, his self-published chronology of Arvid and Enoch Nelson’s correspondence, as well as the most recent book on the two brothers, "The Nelson Brothers", currently being prepared for publication.


  • 1889-1967


Language of Materials

Finnish and English


Open for use in the Elmer L. Andersen Library reading room.


This collection may be protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright ownership and to obtain all necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials. Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law.

For further information regarding the copyright, please contact the IHRCA.


Arvid Nelson was a product of his time and the communities he inhabited throughout his life. In order to better contextualize his life and life experiences, a brief understanding of the Finnish immigrants that arrived in America and the communities which they formed, becomes important. Finding it harder to survive in rural Finland, the mid-1800s presented a choice to Finland’s peasant population of city life or emigration to America. In the latter part of the 19th century, the political situation within Finland began to impact emigration as well, and efforts to avoid compulsory military service further increased the number of people leaving the country. By the end of the century, over 350,000 out of a population of only three million had left Finland for the United States. Due to differing reasons for emigration, two distinct Finnish communities formed within the United States. The earlier generations were more inclined to be politically conservative and are referred to as church Finns or white Finns, while later politically motivated Finnish immigrants were much more politically radical and are often referred to as red Finns. This divide among the Finnish immigrant groups was mostly propelled by the efforts of church Finns to separate themselves from the red Finns. The act did little but help “otherize” Finnish immigrants as a whole from mainstream American society, which appeared to understand all Finns as Socialist threats and labor radicals. While Finnish Americans can be found throughout the United States, one half to two thirds of the immigrant groups tended to center themselves around the Great Lakes with strong Finnish communities forming in Minnesota and Michigan. There were, however, active and tight Finnish American communities on both coasts as well. While the number of emigrants in Finland composed a notable percentage of the Finnish population, the reality is that the total number of Finnish immigrants to the United States made up only one percent of the total immigrant population coming to America during the mid-1800s through to the first decades of the 20th century. Regardless, or perhaps because of the small number of Finns within the population of their new homeland, Finnish immigrants and second generation Finnish Americans remained in close-knit communities in which their Finnish culture was kept alive and active. It was into one of these early Finnish immigrant communities in the United States that a twenty-one year old Jaakko Poukkula (quickly Americanized to Jacob Nelson) came in 1883. Jacob Nelson was most likely aware of the labor movements and socialist ideals that were taking root within the Finnish immigrant communities, but there is no evidence that he was involved with any such organizations. Within a few years, he had met, married, and begun to form a family with a fellow Finnish immigrant Kristiina Tervo. The first of his children (eventually to total four boys and four girls) was born on May 19, 1890 in northern California. Baptized Jacob Arvid Nelson, he was called simply Arvid for the entirety of his life. Arvid grew up in a relatively poor working class life. Leaving school at the age of fourteen after completing half of the eighth grade, he went to work with his father in the lumber industry. He continued to work after his father’s premature death in 1907, which left Arvid as head of the household. However, despite being forced into the working world at an early age, he continued to read, write, and educate himself (eventually mastering both the English and Finnish languages) and took at least a few correspondence classes throughout his life. Also evident beginning in the early years of his childhood and youth is Arvid’s interest in art and journalism. Various personal sketches, as well as published illustrations, and newspaper clippings are found throughout his collection. While he would eventually take his interest in journalism and turn it into one of various careers, at the time of his father’s death and for quite a few years to come, Arvid continued to work a variety of jobs in the lumber industry on the west coast, in northern California and Oregon. While he was busy leading a Finnish American working class life, he also become involved in an assortment of societies and organizations prevalent in the Finnish American communities he inhabited. Around the start of the second decade of the 1900s Arvid became secretary of the local Finnish branch of the Socialist Party, marking the start of his lifetime involvement in Socialist causes and the movement, both throughout the United States and more specifically concentrated within the Finnish American communities. Having continually submitted articles and opinions to a range of Finnish language publications, in 1913 Arvid was encouraged to apply for a position with Toveri (a Finnish language newspaper) and became manager of the new branch in Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, he continued his involvement with the Socialist movement along with his new job and soon became secretary-treasurer of the Finnish Socialist federation in Washington State. That same year, Arvid met his future wife, Finnish immigrant Helmi Manninen. Within the year they were married, July 15, 1914 marking their anniversary. The two moved around a little at first, trying to survive on Arvid’s minimal salary. They attempted life in Fort Bragg, California where their first child was born on November 22, 1916, but by September of 1917 they had moved to Superior, Wisconsin where Arvid found work as an editor for the Finnish language Socialist newspaper Tyomies During the ten years that the Nelson’s lived in Superior, Arvid established himself not only as newspaper editor, but also in helping people with legal issues as a notary public. He also began to teach Finnish immigrants English, as well as continuing to be involved in Socialist organizations that dominated much of life in Finnish American communities. His strong Socialist beliefs are evident in the regular personal correspondence he kept with his brother Enoch to whom he introduced the idea of emigration to Soviet Karelia. Enoch eventually made good of this idea and left the United States permanently in 1921 with dreams of establishing a utopian Socialist community in the scarcely inhabited region of Karelia, which borders Finland. Correspondence with Enoch ended in 1933 with no explanation to Arvid (in the 1990s it was discovered that Enoch had been arrested in 1938 and soon after executed). In 1926, Arvid ended his employment with Tyomies, but remained in Superior until the following summer when the Nelsons left to return to California to the Berkeley area. For the next eight or nine years, Arvid found himself without constant employment and earned money through various temporary odd jobs. By 1935 his reputation as a painter and wallpaperer had grown enough to no longer have to seek business out for himself. He had, however, throughout his time of job seeking, remained involved in numerous organizations and continued to contribute the occasional article for publication. With the United State’s involvement in World War II, Arvid was offered the unique opportunity of going to New York in the fall of 1942 to work as a translator in the Office of War Information, sending news from the United States government to the citizens of Finland. He spent only four months in the city, taking instead a job as assistant editor of Raivaaja (yet another prominent Finnish language publication) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After a year in Fitchburg, he returned via Superior to California. He was offered positions as a permanent member of editorial boards of various paper, but declined. He did, however, continue to submit articles and was periodically published in one or more newspapers, including publications in Finland. By 1957, Arvid was tired of working and in January of 1958 he began to collect Social Security checks. However, he remained active and still helped with odd painting jobs for friends and sat on the boards of various Finnish organizations. Additionally, he continued to be involved in publications of Veljeysviesti until 1958. In the spring of 1963 he was forced to end most of his work as a result of developing pronounced palsy. The following year Arvid celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary with his wife Helmi. Briefly moving to Ukiah, California, the couple returned to Berkeley in 1967. Three months later, on Memorial Day, Arvid Nelson died due to the illness he had developed over four years earlier. By Riikka Morrill, 2004 *This Historical Sketch is based in part on Allan Nelson’s thesis Arvid Nelson: A Rare Kind of Finn.


4 Linear Feet


The collection is organized in the following way: Series I: Biographical Series II: Correspondencea. Arvid Generalb. Arvid and EnochSeries III: OrganizationsSeries IV: Newspaper Clippings


Collection donated to the IHRC by Arvid Nelson's son, Allan Nelson, in 1983 and 1998. Preliminary inventory compiled by Susan Steinwall in 1984, final processing was done in 2004 by Riikka Morrill who also created a new finding aid under the direction of Joel Wurl. Selected items were digitized in 2004 and included in the IHRC's digital image database by Erik Moore. Present finding aid prepared by Daniel Necas.

Inventory of the Arvid Nelson papers.
IHRC Archives
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding Aid in English

Collecting Area Details

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