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Brief course in the history of Mikkeli

May 30, 2024

From the Stone Age to Christianity

The first inhabitants arrived in the Mikkeli region after the last Ice Age. The old Lake Saimaa basin was formed around 8500 years ago and people found their way to its shores. There are traces of Stone Age inhabitants in the region, especially in Ristiina and Haukivuori in Mikkeli. By far the most important Stone Age site are the rock paintings of Astuvansalmi, the largest rock art site in the Nordic countries. The paintings date back 6000-4000 years and include more than 80 paintings on the rock wall of Astuvansami.

At Astuvansalmi you can see rock paintings painted by ancient hunter-gatherers. 

Stone Age people had a mobile way of living. Permanent settlement in Mikkeli can be traced to the Iron Age, and in the 1000s, Mikkeli became the centre of eastern Finland. The burial sites of Kyyhkylä, Tuukkala and Visulahti tell of a diverse culture and trade connections across Europe.

Christianity is thought to have arrived in Mikkeli in the early 1300s. By the time of the Peace of Pähkinäsaari in 1323, the region already had an established administration. The centre of the Savilahti parish was located on the site of present-day Mikkeli, and Savilahti – Savilax – gave its name to the entire province of Savo. The parish church was dedicated to the Archangel Michael, whose name St. Michel was adopted for the whole parish in the 17th century.

Mikkeli Cathedral built in 1897 is a prominent landmark in the city's streetscape. 

Traditions of military administration

At the end of the 16th century, Mikkeli suffered the ravages of the so-called Long Wrath and in 1597 the battle of the Cudgel  War was fought in the courtyard of the Kenkävero parsonage. The parish of Mikkeli began to develop into the centre of military life in Savo. The Treaty of Turku, signed in 1743, moved the eastern border close to Mikkeli. The position as a border town strengthened Mikkeli's military administration – Mikkeli had more military and other officials' residences and gentry manors than any other parish in Savo. Mikkeli was also granted market rights at the time, and the market tradition lives on strong still. 

The 1789 Battle of Porrassalmi, fought in Mikkeli in the Russo-Swedish War, is probably one of the most famous battles fought in Finland before the Second World War.

In the early 1880s, the first garrison of the Finnish conscription army was established in Mikkeli. Russian troops served as its garrison between 1902 and 1917, and the garrison was significantly expanded at that time. After Finland's independence, the Finnish army operated in the old barracks area of the city until the 1970s. A new barracks area was built outside the town from the late 1950s. Until 2006, conscripts were trained at Karkialampi. The Army Command keeps its headquarters in Mikkeli today continuing the military administration tradition in Mikkeli.

Several old wooden garrison buildings as well as the Infantry Museum are located in the old barracks area near the city centre. 

Life of the slash-and-burn farmers

For centuries, the common people outside the manor houses and the village centres lived in their chimneyless huts, cultivated the land by ploughing, hunted and fished. Their livelihood came from nature in one form or another. 

Sauna was an important place. It was not only a place for washing, but also for giving birth, treating illness and sometimes it served even as accommodation. Luck played an important role in people's outlook on life. Luck was a constant in the world, and people tried to obtain it through spells and magic. More spells have been recorded in Savo than anywhere else. 

The town of Mikkeli is founded

Mikkeli was granted town rights in 1838 as the capital and administrative centre of the province. C.L. Engel designed the town plan and the buildings of the provincial government as well as the hospital. Since its foundation, the town has served as an administrative, educational and commercial centre. The area has grown from a few blocks to over 3,200 square kilometres through municipal annexations. A lively cultural and sporting life has been part of the daily life of Mikkeli's inhabitants since the late 19th century.

Headquarters city

The history of Mikkeli as the headquarters city began in 1918 when the Finnish Whites' Commander-in-Chief Mannerheim moved his headquarters to Mikkeli in April 1918. When the Winter War broke out in 1939, the headquarters was again located in Mikkeli. Good transport and communications connections, the location and size of the city and the possibility of excavating shelters in the Naisvuori rock were the deciding factors. Eventually, the Lokki communications centre was placed in the cavern of the Naisvuori rock. The headquarters was located in the nearby central school, and the various units and staff of the headquarters were spread throughout the city. The last units of HQ left Mikkeli in 1945.

The Headquarters Museum and Muisti Center of War and Peace are located in the old headquarters building in the city centre. 

Traditional, modern Mikkeli

History is very much present and alive in Mikkeli and the life of its inhabitants. Our everyday lives are still linked to nature. We enjoy sauna baths and berry picking, feasting on fresh fried vendace at the Engel-designed marketplace as well as cultural events. The environment bears the marks of the past: the rock paintings of Astuvansalmi, the Stone Sacristy and churches, the old barracks area and many other cultural sites invite you to explore them.  Manor houses and former military residences, have opened their doors to tourists, and Muisti Centre of War and Peace, the Headquarters Museum and the Infantry Museum bear witness to military history. Today, Mikkkeli is a headquarters of well-being offering plenty of services, experiences, flavours and activities for everyone.


Leena Hangasmaa
Ethnologist, Ph.L
Muisti Centre of War and Peace