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Koljonen History

John Albert Koljonen

Päivitetty 30.11.2013

John Koljonen from Hong Kong in Kajaani 3.6.2012 
During my last two trips to Finland in late 2008, I was determined to learn more about my roots, starting with my father’s side of he family. Previously, in this regard, my father had tried for years, but was hampered by slow mail, missing records, language/dialect difficulties, and his inability to travel.  Now emerging is a plethora of data available from a wide variety of sources:  city and Lutheran Church records (the Church being the former de-facto practical authority of Finland), the internet, historical publications, and family friends. There are books  about the Koljonen name, and I’m getting some of them translated.  Also, there are more records from the churches and Swedish Crown in the church archives in the university archives in Mikkela, Finland.  I learned things from Herra Jouko Pennanen, historian, writer, and with the Iisalmi Chamber of Commerce. Kuopio should also hold a goldmine of information too. That which I’ve thus far learned makes for a fascinating view into our past, and I’m surely not yet through. The more I discover, the more that other questions surface. I plan to get into the DNA also.

Koljonvirta is one the oldest inhabited regions on the Iisalmi area

The Koljonen family was one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most prominent families in Finnish history, and did its share of shaping world history. In the 15th – 16th centuries, we had settled into Kuopionniemi, the now city of Kuopio and it is said that we owned all or most of it, and the land around it. My ancestors liked to hunt around an area north of there, by a beautiful and fast-moving river, appropriately named “The Koljonen River”, or Koljonvirta (in the Finnish language, “virta” means “river”). Finland was then, and for about 700 years, under the administration of the Swedish Crown that, in 1549 sent a certain Herra Mikael Agricola and an inspection party to central Finland with the goal of forming a new county, to be called “Northern Savo”. (Mikael Agricola is credited with having created the first written Finnish language). The Crown gave thousands of hectares of land around the Koljonen River to Lauri Laurinpoika Koljonen (Lauri’s son) of Kuopioniemi, who then built his house by Lake Porovesi on the family’s old hunting grounds, and the naming of “Koljonvirta” was official. Then, in order to form a village, law required that there be at least three farms, a church, and a house for the vicar. So, the first official owner/occupiers in what is now the city of Iisalmi were the Kuopio families of Koljonen, Partanen, and Kaarakainen. The Koljonens eventually shared half of their land with the Kauppinen family who, sometime later, invited the families Niskanen, Nissinen, and Tossavainen to farm in this very large area. Koljonen River would later, in October of 1808, be remembered forever in Finnish/Swedish history, and books, songs, and poems about events here are plentiful.

Koljonvirta Iisalmi. Ikki Kauppinen (left) and John Koljonen.

Suk Han Koljonen and Ikki Kauppinen

Last month, Ikki Kauppinen showed us around Iisalmi, and the old Koljonen/Kauppinen house, now a restaurant at Mansikkaniemi (Strawberry Hill), Koljonvirta– friends after 500 years, and the home -). We viewed videos of re-creations of the 1808 battle, which are celebrated twice a year there, with a big cast of faux fighters.  Now, there are bi-centennial events all year long, to celebrate this meaningful victory for the future of Finland.

On this great property also lived the Sami people, reindeer herders, who needed lots of land for their style of life and grazing reindeer.



As a consequence of the “new”order of things, they were basically forced out, and resettled in Finnish Lapland, above Rovaniemi (where I was last month).  This could have been my mother’s side of the family…One never knows what those Koljonen hunters did in the forests back in 1450…( Back to the DNA?).  There is one Koljonen family in the telephone book in Rovaniemi; about 16 in Iisalmi, and plenty in Kuopio). 

Now, an event which was to auger big time for the future of Finland:  In 1776, (America’s birthday?) King Gustaf the 3rd, wanted a road built from Kuopio to Iisalmi, and finally all the way to Oulu.  At that time, to get across the river, the original bridge of the Koljonen River was built, but destroyed in the Russian/Napolean 1808 battle, and was finally rebuilt in 1929. 

A mini-replica bridge on the site of Mansikkaniemi battle grounds

John Koljonen and the bridge of the Koljonen River

Koljonen River

This was at Strawberry Hill (Mansikkaniemi) where the Finns beat up the Russians.  It was said that the Swedes cut and ran, and the Finns finished it up – and, according to the Kauppinen family, with a second Koljonen/Kauppinen attack after a 36 hour cease-fire. Then, two weeks later, 900 Swedish soldiers tried to wipe out the remaining waiting but now wiser Russians, but got clobbered, and ran back to Sweden – or died trying.

Now, how did this really change Finland and Europe?  As a direct consequence of the Koljonen River battle, honoring the bravery and ferocity of the Finns and snubbing the Swedes, the Russian Emperor Alexander the 1st, took Finland away from the rule of the Swedish Crown, and proclaimed it a “Duchy” of his realm, and granted the new nation autonomy on Pori’s Parliamentary Day in 1809. Later, in 1917???, the Tzar granted full independence to the Nation of Finland. (Interesting to note: the Prince of Russia, The Duke Dolgoruki,  the then Tzar-to-be, was killed by the Koljonens  during the 1808 Batttle of Koljon-virta).

But, what happened in 1939?  Wow, the Russians came again but this time a hundred km. to the west, and were once again severely trounced (wiped out) in the Finnish/Russian Winter War of 1939-1941. Stalin was furious, but was pre-occupied by Hitler’s relentless invasion of Russia, and couldn’t afford to lose any more men. There were Koljonen family men fighting in this war and I, personally, have heard first-hand experiences of the fighting. The temperatures dropped to minus 50º-60º C.

In the battle on 27th October 1808, the bridge over the Koljonen River was the central stage for the military actions of the opposing armies.  The weak temporary bridge had been built to replace the one destroyed by the spring floods earlier that year.  It was easy for the Finns and Swedes to stop the Russians simply by breaking the wooden surface of the bridge.  During the battle, the main concern of the Russian army was to restore the access to the other side of the stream and, for hours, Russian engineers and soldiers worked on the site.  Their effort was greatly hampered by heavy gunfire from the opposition.  Later in the afternoon, however, the Russians finally succeeded on sending their first assault soldiers across the bridge.  Facing strong opposition from the Finns and Swedes, they had to retreat.

After the battle, the Swedish Colonel Sandels and the Russian General Alekseyev, standing on the bridge and viewing the terrible sight, made a truce for 36 hours, It was said that the water of the Koljonen River was turned into blood, and on the narrow bay by the vicarage alongside the church, the hats of the dead Russians had been built up in a swirl of a “hat jam”.

After the war, a new wooden bridge was built as an essential part of the road to the north.  In 1929 it was replaced by a concrete bridge, and the present one is from 1971.  Along with it, the landscape has changed into a quiet piece of countryside penetrated by a major road.

John Koljonen and the current Koljonvirta house

Suk Han Koljonen and the current Koljonvirta house

The current Koljonvirta house is the third the second having been burnt down by naughty children secretly smoking tobacco in 1894.  The first house was completely destroyed in the 1808 battle.  The only original structure of the Koljonens – or any at all - remaining is a small “aitta”, a warehouse/windmill storage house that is pock-marked with bullet holes.  Three Koljonen families lived in it for some time until re-building.  It was moved in 1940 to the other side of the river, to the museum of Juhani Aho (see my photo of it - with Eero Koljonen and myself in front).

Eero Koljonen and John Koljonen

Eero Koljonen and John Koljonen

After all the buildings were burned down by the Russians, the then owner of his half of Koljonvirta,  Herra Kauppinen, in 1809 dared to write a letter of complaint to the Russian emperor, documenting the loss of his silver and piano, a rare and expensive item at that time. What happened I don’t know, but it must have made some impact.

The first Iisalmi parish church, named after Adolf Gustaf of Sweden, was established on 15th February 1627.  It burned down in 1699, and was replaced by a temporary church.  (At that time, the church was the center of the country, civilized culture, and the seat of education. The churches told local people of the events in the world around them, and the priests were the high leaders of the villages.  Churches and their premises were also the stopping places for people of high office). The second church was built in 1779, and named after Adolf Gustav, the 4th.  He visited the church in 1802, with a party of 270 horses. During the Koljonen River battle, the opposite commanders, including Russian Prince Dolgoruki met in the church on 23rd October 1808.   From this churchyard, the last shots in the Koljonvirta battle were shot. It marked the line of cease-fire, and the battle took place north of the church.  I spoke with the Vicar there last month, and queried him about the old church records.  He pointed out that the soldiers left the church standing, but looted the old books and records, because they needed the paper to ramrod their bullets. The Russian emperor Alexander the 1st visited the church in 1819.

The Finnish war of 1808-1809 and the Koljonvirta battle to the first ongoing war of the first decade of the 19th century was instigated by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.  By attacking Finland, he and the Russian Emperor Alexander the 1st, aimed to cause a continental closure, thereby ostensibly forcing the Swedish Crown to separate England from the rest of Europe.  It appeared to Napoleon that the Swedes were getting a bit too cozy with the English, and he wanted to change this, but the Koljonen River event of 27th October 1808 stopped him in his tracks.  It also spelled the end for the Russian prince and heir, M. P. Dolgoruki because, on that day someone from the Koljonen side shot him dead as he paraded on his horse on the wrong side of the Koljonen River - at the battle site of Mansikkaniemi (Strawberry Hill) by the river. 


Legend has it that Emperor Napoleon and Prince Dolgoruki fancied the same Russian woman, and that the French Emperor was not at all saddened by his demise.

In the evening of 27th September 1808, the battle field was a devastating sight.  Burning buildings lit up the sky, the bridge was a ruin, and the ground was covered with blood. The soldiers fought each other on the fields on the western side of the bridge.   Swedish soldiers were recorded being killed, and 282 injured soldiers died shortly thereafter.  On the Russian side, the losses were great.  Here’s where the prince of Russia was killed; along with 470 others and more captured.  They were buried in Pahanotko, Kauppila – on the grounds of the former Koljonen estate. If you go there, you can see the monument at the Pajanotko burial ground, close to Strawberry Hill (Mansikkaniemi).

The monument at the Pajanotko burial ground

There is more…

John Albert Koljonen
11/2008  (Hong Kong)