Constitution of New Iceland Gimlunga Sample Chapter Sayreville, New Jersey
Icelandic Heritage Signs Sigtryggur Jónasson Biography Sigtryggur Jónasson & Framfari
Thingvalla Historic Site, Sask Icelanders in the Yukon Pioneers and Placenames
'A Matter of Honour'
The Constitution of New Iceland:
Then and Now
Nelson Gerrard -
'Building a New Relationship' Conference
I like to think that it was something more than circumstance alone that - just a few weeks ago - brought the original, hand-written 1878 'Constitution of New Iceland' into my keeping. Having over the years survived two separate brushes with the burning barrels of overly zealous, second-generation pioneer daughters, this historically priceless and highly symbolic document had become "lost" at some point, and its whereabouts were unknown until two months ago when it literally showed up on my doorstep. Just weeks before, I had come across a notice of this conference via the internet and had volunteered some input on this very important subject. What an odd turn of events and what a privilege, to read in the original Icelandic the very words penned 122 years ago by the founders of New Iceland.
What mindset do the words of this remarkable document and other extant records from the first years of New Iceland reveal? What was the thinking of our 19th Century 'Founding Fathers' as they forged this plan for local government and drafted this 'constitution'? What, in particular, were the perceptions and intentions of leading figures such as Sigtryggur Jónasson and Fri>jón Fri>riksson, who guided this venture from conception to realization, dealing directly with Ottawa and putting their reputations on the line to make the dream of New Iceland a reality?
Furthermore, what relevance, if any, does all this have for us in the year 2000 - for us as Canadians of Icelandic descent, for Icelanders from Iceland, or for Canadians in general? How does the 'Constitution of New Iceland' relate to who we are today and how we perceive ourselves and our relationship with both our own country and Iceland?
My personal perspective on this subject is that of a descendant of the early pioneers who were active participants in the great adventure of New Iceland's creation, but my views are also those of one who is proud of another birthright, inherited from my father's Scottish forebears. Mine is the view of one who has run the entire gamut in 'things Icelandic' - from knowing little more than six words of Icelandic and thinking my grandmother's name was 'Amma' - to being able to decipher cryptic references in a language that was ancient even when my great-great-grandparents came to Canada 124 years ago. It is the outlook of one who has lived in Iceland and gained a clearer perspective of Canada through that experience. Not least, my perspective of that of a fifth generation Canadian who grew up with the soil of this country under my fingernails.
My historical perspective on this issue is based on an invaluable gift I received almost 30 years ago - the opportunity to learn the Icelandic language - first here at the University of Manitoba, and later in more depth at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Over years of building on these studies through continued research, reading, and involvement with our history and community, I have acquired the key of language that unlocks many little-known sources and provides insight into aspects of our history preserved only in nuances of the Icelandic language. My point of view is also that of historian for the Icelandic National League, one of the fundamental principles of which is to promote good citizenship among people of Icelandic descent here in Canada, and while myth and folklore are fascinating and enjoyable phenomena, I believe that historical fact is something that must be respected. As the Icelandic Canadian community embarks on a new phase of cultural renewal, activity, and strengthened bonds with Iceland, historical integrity takes on increasing importance in much of what we do - whether in the writing of books, the creation of museums and historic markers, or the manner in which our community presents itself to our fellow Canadians and our cousins in Iceland.
The crucial importance of historical integrity with regard to this and related matters, and the dangers of dealing in half-truths and inaccuracies, is perhaps best illustrated by an example from almost 45 years ago. In 1946, in a piece of journalism published in The Interlake News , a well-intentioned but woefully-misguided writer dubbed New Iceland 'The Twelve Year Republic' and made highly inappropriate and unfounded claims that our Icelandic forbears "...found themselves beyond the reach of any constituted authority" and "...turned their community into a sovereign state..." This journalist furthermore attributed a political ignorance to the founders of New Iceland by stating that "The colonists were not conscious of violating or undermining in any way the sovereignty of the country." Tremendous damage has been done by this one piece of inaccurate journalism, evidently clipped and kept by several local people, read and reread over the years, and subsequently consulted and cited as "history". Through this article, a very unfortunate and misguided notion took root, and the highly inappropriate use of the word 'republic' in reference to New Iceland has persisted ever since - making its way over the years into government publications and plaque inscriptions, advertising, media pieces, and speeches for every occasion. Until recently, the 'Twelve Year Republic' was even slated to become the dominant theme of the New Iceland Heritage Museum.
Why is this significant? What possible harm could there be in a trivial detail, even if it is not historically accurate or appropriate?
To fully appreciate the significance of this point, it is necessary to probe not only the historical context, but also the mindset of the founders of New Iceland when they drafted this constitution 122 years ago. The document itself is the most reliable reflection their values and aspirations. Clearly, these were intelligent individuals, who though unschooled in the formal sense, were well versed in the principles of organization and the democratic process - based partially on an age-old respect for law in their homeland, and to some extent on the model of local government they had witnessed during their years in Ontario. These founders had also entered into a direct relationship with representatives of the federal government of Canada, and through these dealings they had become well informed in matters of Canadian governance. Their determination to create a new and better society, inspired by the long struggle for improved conditions in Iceland, shines through in the attention to detail evident in this document, and their clear vision for self-administration on a district level is illustrated by their well-conceived plans for a local assembly or council - the Vatnsþing (Lake Assembly) - to be comprised of elected representatives from each of four administrative districts. There is no doubt that their dream of a New Iceland included the desire to maintain the Icelandic language and the best aspects of Icelandic culture, for these founding fathers shared a love and respect for their heritage, but both the constitution and numerous related articles published in the newspaper Framfari bear witness to the fact that the leaders of New Iceland were also very progressive thinkers who embraced the new opportunities, rights, and responsibilities of their new land.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of the mindset of New Iceland's leaders, however, was their strong sense of honour. According to the age-old Icelandic code of honour, the spoken word was as binding as a written contract. This deeply rooted sense of integrity made New Icelan's leaders keenly aware of their debt - both moral and financial - to the Canadian Government and to statesmen such as Lord Dufferin, who had been most generous in accommodating the Icelandic immigrants in their quest for a settlement site. Not only were the leaders of New Iceland fully cognizant of their financial indebtedness to Canada, they were very conscious of their obligiations as men of honour - for the reputation of their people and their homeland in general. They understood their new rights as British subjects and the accompanying obligations they had accepted in becoming members of Canadian society.
One need only read Friðjón Friðriksson's address on the occasion of Lord Dufferin's visit to Gimli in 1877 to fully appreciate the honourable and progressive mindset of New Iceland's leading men and the level of sophistication they had achieved in their relationship with the Government of Canada:
"We have gathered under the flag of our new land, and as British subjects, and it is our honour and pleasure to receive your Excellency as the representative of the British Queen... We accept gladly our new way of life as British subjects with the opportunity to acquire all the freedom and rights which pertain thereto. As British subjects, we desire that these rights be granted to us, and we are firmly resolved to preserve them. We are prepared to do our share in the maintenance of public order, and in the defense of our country, to perform the duties which England expects of every citizen."
In responding, Lord Dufferin concluded: "Remember that in coming among us, you will find yourselves associated with a race both kindly-hearted and cognate to your own. Nor in becoming Englishmen and subjects of Queen Victoria need you forget your time-honoured customs or the picturesque annals of your forefathers. On the contrary, I trust you will continue to cherish for all time, the heart-stirring literature of your nation, and that from generation to generation your little ones will continue to learn in your ancient sagas that industry, energy, fortitude, perseverance, and stubborn endurance have ever been the characteristics of the noble Icelandic race. I have pledged my personal credit to my Canadian friends on the successful development of your settlement, and I have not the slightest misgiving but that in spite of your enterprise being conducted under... somewhat disadvantageous conditions, not only will your future prove bright and prosperous, but that it will be universally acknowledged that a more valuable accession to the intelligence, patriotism, loyalty, industry and strength of the country has never been introduced into the Dominion."
Clearly New Iceland's leaders were under no delusions about their status in Canada or the nature of their council and constitution as a form of local government under the direct jurisdiction of Canadian Federal and Territorial Law. At no time did these men have any notion or intention - whatsoever - of establishing a sovereign state, as both denoted and connoted by the word 'republic', nor was this ever the reality. Such an attempt would, in fact, have been tantamount to treason, and this intent was completely alien to the strict sense of honour these men demonstrated in word and deed throughout the founding of New Iceland and the difficult years that followed.
Wilhelm Kristjanson, in his work The Icelandic People in Manitoba , is very clear in pointing out that the council of New Iceland was under the direct jurisdiction of the North-West Territories Act of April 12, 1876, which in turn was administered by the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and the Governor General of Canada.
Judge Walter Lindal, in his assessment of this very constitution from 1878, furthermore points out that two changes evident in the original document's title, were made because "The drafters of the Laws and Regulations did not want to leave the impression that they desired to establish a colony of Iceland, or a new Iceland." The revised title uses the word 'Stjórnarlög' - literally 'Governing Laws' - which in Icelandic could just as readily apply to the 'Governing Laws' of a reading society, a religious congregation, or a ladies aid. Judge Lindal concludes, "Neither must one forget how careful the drafters were in making it clear that the settlers were a part of the people of Canada and that the Laws and Regulations were subject to the powers of the Parliament of Canada..."
The unacceptability of assigning New Iceland the status of 'republic' - suggesting in the public mind sovereign statehood comparable to that of Germany, China, the United States of America, or Iceland - lies not only in the fact that this is a gross misrepresentation of history and a complete violation of historical integrity. Such a claim also attributes to our Icelandic immigrant forebears and "founding fathers" a dishonorable mindset, which in turn detracts from the reputations and memory of those very men we should hold in the highest esteem.
This point brings us to the question of the 21st Century implications and modern relevance of this document and all that it represents.
Increasingly in the last few years, there have been individual 'demands' for details on the status of the New Iceland 'land grant', sometimes by people with an agenda that is clearly political. In 1999, for example, the museum at Gimli was contacted by a separatist organization in Quebec that wanted documentation of the creation of the 'Republic of New Iceland'. The apparent motivation was to use this as a legal and constitutional challenge to the Canadian Government, as a precedent for the existence of 'a state within a state' - to give validity to Quebec sovereignty. Obviously the use of the word republic in our community is misleading and inappropriate, and surely our founding fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew their honourable dealings with Ottawa were now being viewed and used in such a manner.
Troubling reports have even surfaced in recent years of breaches in protocol in our community's use of the Icelandic and Canadian flags. It is not uncommon, for example, to see the Icelandic flag flown without its Canadian counterpart, and not long ago there was strong negative backlash from the public when the Icelandic flag preceded the Canadian flag in the annual festival parade at Gimli. We may be sure the founders of New Iceland would not have taken such license with protocol (had their former homeland had a flag at the time), and in fact Friðjón Friðriksson's address at Gimli in 1877 is proof of the fact that the British flag alone was flown in New Iceland.
At least twice during last weekend's formalities here in Manitoba, protocol was also breached in our community when Canada's national anthem was relegated to second place at opening ceremonies, in the presence of federal officials from both Canada and Iceland. Not only protocol officials in Ottawa, but both instinct and common sense confirm that such a presumption is inappropriate on our part as Canadians - in the same way that the on-going proclamations of some in our community that we are 'Western Icelanders' is shamefully unfitting. It is not an overstatement, I believe, to say that this is not only an issue of historical and cultural integrity, it is a matter of our community's public honour in the context of 21st Century Canadian society.
Should our community view "the constitution of New Iceland" as the basis for a modern 'landclaim' by 'Western Icelanders' destined to re-establish our "independence" and the 'Twelve Year Republic'? Or is this document instead a monument to the intellect, vision, enterprise, sophistication, and honour of our Icelandic forebears and their relationship with their new homeland? Is it not a milestone on the road to progressive thinking by the government and people of the country we are proud to call Canada? Is it not tangible proof of Canada's largesse toward the Icelandic immigrants and our forebears' embrace of this land's magnanimous offer of the participatory democracy they had so long been denied in their homeland. Is it not, for us today, a tangible symbol of responsible Canadian citizenship intertwined with a love and respect for our Icelandic heritage, that should serve as a model for genuine and appropriate multiculturalism in Canada in the 21st Century?
The Constitution of New Iceland, together with the story of its creation and the example set by those who created it, can in fact serve as a lesson in honour for us today. It challenges us to be mindful of both our proud Icelandic heritage and our deep loyalty to Canada, and it should prompt us to take a hard look at how we view and present ourselves and our community - both to the people of Iceland and to our fellow Canadians.
Baldvin Jonsson & Jórunn Hallgrímsdóttir
Associated with the homestead of Ljósstaðir on Willow Creek during the early years were pioneers Baldvin Jónsson and Jórunn Hallgrímsdóttir, who arrived in Canada with three children in 1879 and occupied Ljósstaðir until shortly after Jórunn's death there in 1890. Baldvin was a half-brother to Thorsteinn Sigfússon at nearby Hvammur (see there).
A native of the Eyjafjordur region of Northern Iceland, Baldvin was born at Thóroddsstaðir in Ólafsfjörður in 1819, the son of Jón Guðmundsson, a prominent farmer and reeve, and his wife, Ásta Thórunn Daníelsdóttir - whose other children included Friðrik Jónsson, who succeeded to Thóroddsstaðir; Guðrún Jónsdóttir, who died in her third year when the kitchen at Thóroddsstaðir collapsed; Soffía Jónsdóttir; and Jóhann Jónsson.
Both Baldvin's parents were of prominent, gifted, and affluent families. His father, Reeve Jón Guðmundsson, was from Siglunes, a brother to Einar Guðmundsson at Hraun in the Fljot district of Skagafjörður - whose son was the Icelandic nationalist Baldvin Einarsson in Copenhagen, for whom young Baldvin was named. Jón and Einar Guðmundsson were from Bakki in Svarfarðardalur, the sons of Guðmundur Jónsson, a wealthy landowner and fishing captain, and his wife, Ólöf Einarsdóttir from Arnarnes (the daughter of Einar Hallgrimsson and Thuridur Snorradottir).
Baldvin Jónsson's mother, Ásta Thórunn, was of the well-known family at Skipalón in Hörgardalur near Akureyri. She was a sister to Thorsteinn Daníelsson of Skipalón, a wealthy carpenter, entrepreneur, and recipient of the Royal Order of Denmark; and to Thórður D. Lonstæd, a prominent carpenter at Akureyri. Ásta was also a half-sister to Helga Daníelsdóttir, the wife of Tómas Egilsson of Bægisá, whose children included Egill Tómasson at Bakki, father of Helga Egilsdóttir, mother of Sigtryggur Jónasson, 'Father of New Iceland', and his siblings (see Icelandic River Saga ). Born at Skipalón on Oc.6.1797, Ásta Thórunn was the daughter of Daníel Andrésson, a wealthy landowner from Garður in Ólafsfjörður, and his second wife, Guðrún Sigurðardóttir, the daughter of Sigurður Thóroddsson of Thóroddsstaðir (a brother to the agricultural scholar Thórður Thóroddsson Thoroddi , educated in Uppsala, Sweden; and Thóroddur Thóroddsson at Vatneyri, whose grandson was the famous Icelandic novelist Jon Thoroddsen.
When Baldvin Jónsson was just three, his father died of a sudden fever, and a year later his mother married Sigfús Bjarnason, who like her first husband was a prominent farmer and reeve at Thóroddsstaðir. From this marriage there were five sons: Jón, Thórður, Thórður Daníel, Thorsteinn, and Daníel Sigfússon. Four of these half-brothers reached adulthood and became successful farmers, and one of them, Thorsteinn Sigfusson, emigrated to New Iceland in 1876 and pioneered Hvammur ( Gimlunga I ).
In 1825, in his fifth year, Baldvin left his mother and stepfather's home at Thóroddsstaðir to live with his wealthy uncle Thorsteinn Daníelsson at Skipalón, and he was confirmed from this affluent but strict home with a good report nine years later, in 1834. Baldvin was afforded a good education and training at Skipalón, and a few years later he went to Copenhagen, later returning to Iceland to work as a storekeeper for O. Christensen at Eskifjörður in 1841. Over the next years Baldvin returned to Copenhagen twice, in 1845 and 1848. During this time he also sired a daughter, Soffia, with Adalbjorg Illugadottir, a maid at Eskifjörður.
After some years in the East Fjords, Baldvin returned to his native Eyjafjörður and worked for a time at Hvammur in Hörgardalur, where his mother and stepfather had farmed since leaving Ólafsfjörður in 1839. In 1861 Baldvin moved to Sörlastaðir in Fnjóskadalur, where his widowed mother and his daughter Soffía were living in the home of his half-brother Jón Sigfússon, and two years later he returned to Hvammur with his mother and daughter, to work for his half-brother Thorsteinn. Baldvin then took a position at nearby Stórabrekka, where he met a young woman named Jórunn Hallgrímsdóttir, and in June of 1866 he and Jórunn were married in the church at Glæsibær near Akureyri.
Jórunn, a native of Borgarfjörður in the West of Iceland, was born in the Leirársveit district in September of 1830, the daughter of Hallgrímur Guðmundsson, for many years a farmer at Eystri-Skorholt in the Melasveit district, and his wife, Halldóra Eyjólfsdóttir (the daughter of Eyjólfur Magnússon and Jórunn Erlendsdóttir at Lækur in Melasveit). Jórunn's father was the son of Guðmundur Hallgrímsson at Miðfossar in Hvanneyri Parish. Among Jórunn's siblings were Indridi Hallgrimsson (Henry Borgford), who emigrated in 1878 and settled in Northern Ontario; and Halldóra, the wife of Einar Snorrason.
Confirmed with an excellent testimonial from her parents' home at Eystri-Skorholt in 1845, Jórunn worked as a farm servant in her home district until 1859 when she moved north to Staðarbakki in Húnavatnssýsla in the service of Rev. Jakob Finnbogason. Jórunn worked in this household for four years, until 1863 when she moved still further north to Eyjafjörður, where she met and married Baldvin Jónsson.
Jórunn and Baldvin spent the first year of their marriage at Stórabrekka in Hörgardalur, then moved Ytri-Varðgjá near Akureyri where they farmed until relocating at Rangárvellir in the Lögmannshlíð district in 1871. They farmed this holding until 1879 when they emigrated from Akureyri aboard the SS Camoens with three children: Jón, Thorsteinn, and Ásta Thórunn.
Very little is known about Baldvin and Jórunn's life in Canada, but records show that they occupied Ljósstaðir (SE 31-18-4E) three miles south of Gimli some time prior to 1890. Ljósstaðir, the abandoned homestead of Páll Kjærnested, was adjacent to Efri-Hvammur, the home of Baldvin's half-brother Thorsteinn Sigfússon ( Gimlunga I ). Also nearby was Neðri-Hvammur, occupied for a time by Jóhann and Kristín Schaldemose, whose daughter Guðrún became the wife of Baldvin and Jórunn's son Jón.
Jórunn Hallgrímsdottir died at Ljósstaðir late in the summer of 1889, and in 1891 Baldvin was farming there with his son Thorsteinn, who had married not long before. Baldvin's daughter Ásta was also still in the home, and it was at this time that Baldvin sat on the local schoolboard as one of the founding members of the Kjarna School District.
Some time after 1891, Baldvin moved to Selkirk where his sons also took up residence, and he died in Selkirk on Oc.7.1900, aged 81. Undoubtedly an individual of much ability, Baldvin Jónsson seems to have lead an unsettled life for one provided with such exceptional advantages as a young man.
Four children were born to Baldvin and Jórunn of Ljósstaðir:
I. Jón Baldvinsson (John Baldwinson) , born at Stórabrekka in Hörgardalur on Ag.19.1866, emigrated with his parents in his 13th year and grew up in New Iceland. There he married Kristjana Guðrún Schaldemose, the daughter of Jóhann Schaldemose and Kristín Gunnlaugsdóttir at Neðri-Hvammur ( Gimlunga I ). By 1901, Jón and Guðrún had moved to Selkirk, where they lived next door to Gudrun's parents and Jón found employment as a stationary engineer. In 1902, however, the family moved to Tacoma, Washington, and there they eventually adopted the surname Baldwin . Jón and Guðrún Baldwinson's family:
A) Jóhanna Baldwinson (Baldwin), born on Nv.18.1891 and known as 'Josephine', 'Josie', or 'Joy', married Bill Goodman of Seattle. Ch: 1. Irene Goodman
B) Jón Ástvald Baldwinson (Walter J. Baldwin), Tacoma, born on Ma.4.1894, married Edna L. Ch: 1. Marford W. Baldwin, Tacoma, b.1914, m: Esther A. 2. Gertrude Baldwin, b. 1918 3. Betty Lou
C) Kristín Baldwinson (Chrissy Baldwin), born Fb.13.1899
D) Baldwin Baldwinson (Baldwin), born Sp.17.1900
F) Terry Baldwinson (Baldwin) married Ed
II. Thorsteinn Baldvinsson , born at Ytri-Varðgjá near Akureyri on Oc.12.1867, was 11 years old when the family emigrated. Raised in New Iceland and known as Steini or Stoney, he married Guðrun Ragnheiður Árnadóttir from Rúgsstaðir in Eyjafjörður. Born on Nv.17.1859, the daughter of Árni Kristjánsson from Öngulsstaðir and his first wife, Soffía María Jónsdóttir, She was confirmed from her father's home at Öxnafell in Eyjafjörður in 1874. By 1891 Thorsteinn and Guðrún had a son, Karl, and were farming at Ljósstaðir in New Iceland with Thorsteinn's father and sister. They then moved to Selkirk where two more children were born, and by 1897 the family was living in Winnipeg where Thorsteinn became known as an athlete and tightrope performer. There, in January of 1898, while working on the construction of the Winnipeg gasworks, Thorsteinn fell some 20-30 feet from scaffolding and was seriously injured. He recovered, however, and around the turn of the century left Winnipeg to join the Klondike Gold Rush. Guðrún remained in Winnipeg where she worked to support herself and the three children, and for a time she was obliged to board the children with others. The son, Karl, died of appendicitis, and in 1918 both Guðrún and her daughter Ásta died of the Spanish Flu. One surviving daughter, Día, had gone to stay with an aunt at Wynyard, Saskatchewan, and after her mother's death she remained there. Thorsteinn, who apparently fell seriously ill shortly after going west and had little luck in finding gold, nevertheless did manage to amass some wealth in California, where he eventually settled in Santa Monica. There he was known as Thomas 'Tom' Stone Baldwin. Reunited with his daughter Diana in later years, he died in Los Angeles at the age of 95. Thorsteinn and Guðrún Baldwinson (Baldwin's) children:
A) Karl Baldwinson, born 1890, died in his teens.
B) Diana 'Dia' Baldwinson was born in Selkirk in 1895. Following her father's departure when she was very young, she managed the home while her mother worked, and at age 12 she went to visit an aunt, Sigríður Árnadóttir Guðjónsson, who lived near Wynyard. Not long afterward, her sister and mother died in Winnipeg of the Spanish Flu, and Día remained at Wynyard where she worked as a seamstress and domestic servant. Contact with her father was re-established through her Aunt Ásta Goodman in Winnipeg after her mother's death in 1918, and at one time Día spent a year with her father in Los Angeles. She disliked California, however, and returned to Wynyard where she was closely associated with her Guðjónson relatives until her death in 1981.
C) Asta Baldwinson, known as Esther, died in Winnipeg of the Spanish Flu epidemic on Nv.13.1918 and is buried in Brookside Cemetery.
III. Ásta Thóra Baldvinsdóttir , born at Ytri-Varðgjá on Dc.13.1870 and named for Baldvin's mother, died a week later, on Dc.21.1870.
IV. Ásta Thórunn Baldvinsdottir , born at Rangárvellir in Lögmannshlíð on Jl.26.1872 and also named for her grandmother, emigrated with her parents in her seventh year and grew up in New Iceland, where by 1891 she was living with her widowed father at Ljósstaðir.
Ásta married Albert Júlíus Guðmundsson (Goodman) of Winnipeg, the son of Guðmundur Fr. Sigurðsson, at one time a ferryman at Tjörn in Skagafjörður (died in Winnipeg in 1911), and his wife, Helga Gísladóttir from Skinnthúfa in Skagafjörður (a sister to Andrés Gíslason at Vogar on Lake Manitoba).
Albert Goodman worked as a fish and game inspector for the Manitoba Government for 40 years prior to his retirement in 1953, and he and Ásta lived at Gimli for 12 years, their home being on the corner of Main Street, opposite Tergesens' Store. Albert was an avid reader, especially of history, and Ásta, also fond of books, was a very good seamstress. She was a reserved person, but enjoyed people and had many friends.
The family later moved back to Winnipeg, where Ásta died in 1943 and Albert at age 80 on Ap.11.1958.
Albert and Ásta Goodman had four children:
A) Helga Elizabeth Goodman, a twin born in Winnipeg on Oc.18.1906, married Wensel Toombs of Winnipeg and worked for Eaton's. The last surviving member of her immediate family, Helga died in Winnipeg in her 94th year on Mr.5.2000, leaving no family.
B) Björg Goodman, born on Oc.18.1906 (a twin to Helga), was known as Nona. She died in Winnipeg on Dc.2.1939.
C) Bergthora Rachel Goodman, known as 'Bonnie', was very musical and received a teacher's certificate in piano. She died at age 21 on Ap.20.1909.
D) Brynjolfur Baldwin Goodman, known as Binni or Benny , was born on Jn.14.1912. A graduate navigator, he served as an officer in the RCAF during WW II and was lost during a mission in the Bahamas, on Ap.9.1942.
Baldvin Jónsson also had a daughter with Aðalbjörg Illugadóttir:
V. Soffía Baldvinsdóttir , born at Eskifjordur on Sp.17.1848, moved north to Eyjafjörður from Seyðisfjörður in 1857 and grew up with her father's people at Hvammur and Sörlastaðir. Soffía was confirmed from Hvammur in Hörgárdalur in 1863. Her fate is otherwise unknown.
(Sources: Icelandic census & ministerial records; Census of Manitoba 1891, 1901, 1906, 1911; Foreldrar Minir, p. 29; Lögberg Ja.15.1890, Ap.17.1958; Veterans of Icelandic Descent 1939-1945 ; Reflections by the Quills , 188-189; Heimskringla Ja.20.1898; Baldur Schaldemose, Falcon Lake; Helga Toombs, Wpg.; Caroline Darragh, Wpg.; Ralph Scheving, Bremerton, Wash.; Esther Wellington, Oakville, Ont., etc.)
Where the Heck is Sayreville?
by Nelson Gerrard
Sayreville, New Jersey - not a name most people would associate with Icelandic settlement - but as early as the late 1880's it was home to numerous Icelandic families. Many of these Icelanders moved on after a few years, west to Duluth, North Dakota, or Manitoba where land was available for homesteading, and today descendants of the Sayreville Icelanders are scattered across North America.
It was by coincidence that I found myself staying in the city of New Brunswick, New Jersey, this August while on a short trip to New York - which is just a few miles away, across the New Jersey-New York border. A quick scan of the local map revealed the name 'Sayreville' immediately east of New Brunswick, and recalling research I had once done for Julius Stevenson of Toronto, I recognized that this was the same Sayreville that had once been home to a group of Icelanders.
Sayreville, just south across Raritan Bay from New York City, first became home to Icelandic immigrants in August of 1887, when shortly after disembarking at Castle Gardens on the tip of Manhattan, several families were sent here to work in Sayreville's bustling brick making industry. Without means to travel further or purchase land, virtually all the men worked in the clay pits and at the Sayre & Fisher Brickworks, while the women and youngsters found employment in the garment industry, box factories, and laundries at nearby Washington (now South River, New Jersey). Pay ranged from $1 to $1.25 per day, a decent wage, but working conditions were difficult and unhealthy - and far different from any work these Icelanders had been accustomed to in their homeland.
A series of letters written from Sayreville by Halldór Björnsson (Skagfjord) between 1888 and 1895 reveals a surprising range of facts about these early Icelandic industrial workers and their stay at Sayreville. At first, most planned to remain at Sayreville only a short time, until they accumulated enough money to move west and claim homesteads, and it seems that eventually most did follow this course of action - though not until after several years in many cases. A few returned to Iceland or moved to New York, and a considerable number moved north across the Raritan River to nearby Perth Amboy, where they worked at boat building. The Sayreville Icelanders formed a temperance society, 'Ísland', shortly after their arrival, and they participated fully in local school and church organizations. In 1889, six Icelandic couples were married at Sayreville, and despite steady departures, there were new arrivals as well, and by 1895 it was reported that some Icelanders had bought homes, while three had bought land and become farmers.
Halldór Björnsson Skagfjord, author of the Sayreville letters, apparently moved to Winnipeg in 1893, but he and his wife returned to Sayreville in the spring of 1895 with little positive to say about their sojourn in Manitoba. His last report, in 1902, stated, "All those few Icelanders who live here [at Sayreville] are doing rather well and have adequate employment here in the town."
A short trip to Sayreville on Sunday before catching the plane home revealed that despite its proximity to New York City and rapid growth in recent years, Sayreville still has a small town look to it. In the old section of town, numerous brick buildings recall the former importance of the brick industry - once the largest source of employment here - and one of these buildings houses the local historical society and museum - small but well worth the visit. The two ladies in attendance were excited to receive visitors from so far away, but neither had ever heard of Icelanders in Sayreville, and none of the items displayed in the museum gave any evidence of an Icelandic presence. A local war memorial, however, did include names that were clearly Icelandic.
After returning to Manitoba, I retrieved copies of the Sayreville letters I had translated for Julius Stevenson (whose father was born in Sayreville) and reviewed them with my impressions of Sayreville still fresh. Copies of these letters, together with a roster of Icelanders known to have lived at Sayreville around 1896, were sent to the Sayreville Historical Society with the request that any information that might come to light about descendants of the Sayreville Icelanders be sent in return.
As a result of this visit to Sayreville, a booklet on the Sayreville Icelanders is being compiled - including both the Sayreville letters and a list of all known Icelanders who lived there, along with any photos that can be located. Anyone who has family connections with Sayreville, knows more about this chapter of our history, or has photos relating to the Sayreville Icelanders, is asked to contact Nelson Gerrard, firstname.lastname@example.org - Box 925, Arborg, Manitoba R0C 0A0 or phone 1-204-378-2758.
Following are translations of letters written in Icelandic from Sayreville, New Jersey, and published in the Icelandic weekly newspaper Heimskringla of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (translated by Nelson S. Gerrard):
Sayreville, New Jersey, Fb.12.1888:
All is well here, and there is little in the way of news. We Icelanders here are about 70 in number, and most of us work in stores or factories with wages this past summer at $1.25 a day - down to $1 a day this winter. There has always been enough employment thus far, and there will be lots of work this spring with railway and house construction.
Heimskringla and the other Icelandic papers are welcome guests here, as few of us are very strong in English and there is no one here who understands Icelandic. Even the school teacher here understands only one language, English. It is amazing what our countrymen out west, dirt poor pioneers, have been able to accomplish, and sometimes those of us here long to be out west with the group.
The season has been good here - very little frost and calm weather - with only three days this winter when we have been unable to work.
Sayreville, New Jersey, Ap.24.1888:
Winter is now at an end here, and nothing in the way of news has occurred among us Icelanders. We have made out satisfactorily, when it is taken into account that the first of our number arrived here in August and the others in September - virtually all of us without means. In spite of this, few of us are in debt after the winter, so we are better prepared now for the coming of summer.
Work has now gotten underway, though house construction has been delayed so far by frost and rain. April has thus far been very unsettled. The homefields are turning green, but the wild meadows are still grey and without life due to the cold. We find this very strange when we get news from back home in Iceland. Has the cold from Iceland followed us here? If this is the case, we should say (as did Eiríkur Hákonarson after the Battle of the Jóms-Víkings), "Now every blade (of grass) is turned against us." The last three or four days have been different, however, with warm days and frost free nights.
It is uncertain how long we will remain here. There are very few who really like it here, though we have enough to eat and put on our backs. There always seems to be something pressuring us, and this indecision is not constructive. In this land of freedom, as it is called, we have become aware of a pervasive spirit of exploitation everywhere. One example is the situation those of us who are casual labourers found ourselves in late last summer: namely being forced to purchase meals from our employers at 50 cents a day, the alternative being not getting work.
Our temperance society 'Island' is still active, though we lost some members this winter, and it would seem certain that its influence reaches to more than those of us who are members. Our employer, *Mr. Fisher, has been supportive of our efforts in this regard, and he has provided us with a meeting place with light and heat, at no charge. For this we owe him a vote of thanks.
* Mr. Fisher was a partner with Mr. Sayre in Sayre & Fisher Brickworks, the main employer and manufacturer of bricks at Sayreville for many years.
Sayreville, New Jersey, Sp.2.l888:
Because I enjoy hearing about my countrymen, wherever they have settled in America, and learning how they are doing and what they have found in the way of work, and how many or few of them there are in each place, it occurred to me that others might have similar interests regarding those of us here.
There is little to report regarding our prospects for the future here, as we live a rather meaningless life of tiresome and ill paid labour, which is at least partially due to our proximity to the place of arrival of so many immigrants. There are consequently many more in search of employment than are able to find jobs, and men come here without money to work for a couple of months so that they can move on to some place they think is better. Most find the work and low pay here not to their liking - just over a dollar a day.
When we arrived in New York a year ago at the beginning of August, we Icelanders were separated and sent each in our respective direction, not unlike sheep dogs "sicced" on a flock of sheep, and our "agent" was among those foremost in barking out our orders. Those who fared worst, however, were the single women, who were driven alone and unable to speak the language to a factory in Baltimore which has a questionable reputation, and little communication was possible. To be sure, everyone knew of countrymen in New York and Sayreville, but it is easier said than done to get back to these places. Employers are generally unwilling to help their workers to get away.
We knew of some Icelandic homes in Sayreville and thus thought it best to come here and meet our countrymen. After considerable trouble in making the journey, all of our group who had been scattered made it here and found work - with the exception of one girl who has still not been heard from to this day. There is no employment for men here except in the brick factories, and this work is undoubtedly not healthy. Inside the buildings, where many of us must work, men must endure roasting heat, continuous sulfur fumes and coal smoke as these fill the air and must be breathed. Some Americans have also told me that the climate here is less agreeable than that of most other places, indeed many of us Icelanders have suffered illness here. The women and youngsters have work at a sewing factory in the village of *Washington, and there are various other types of employment there as well - among them box fabrication, laundry work, etc., and the pay varies a great deal, depending to some extent on experience and ability. The lowest pay for youngsters with experience is a dollar and a half a week, and the maximum for an adult is $16 a week. Washington is about a mile away, and the walk there and back again is a tiring one.
There are now about 94 Icelanders here, including the 46 who arrived on July 18th this summer - two children of this group having died. Two families left this spring, bound for Duluth, a total of 11 persons, and four men went inland this summer, three of whom have now gone home to Iceland. Though it must be said that all have made out better than expected here, most nevertheless have ideas of leaving, preferably to go west and join our countrymen and take a homestead. Most family men, however, will find themselves staying for a while, as they will find it difficult to save enough to make the move west.
It is unthinkable that any Icelander can acquire land here due to the high prices. A lot for a house costs at least $100, which works out to be about a dollar per square foot. The land hereabouts is owned by a few rich families. The majority of the people here are German, while there are about 50 Swedes and a few more Danes. There is one Catholic priest and one Lutheran minister, and there is a Sunday School which the Icelandic children attend. An outing was held for them and their parents this summer, at the cost of the school board. The party travelled aboard a steamboat some four miles to an entertainment park, and there was a 12-man brass band along to entertain them. There was also dancing and singing, as well as other diversions, especially for the children, which lasted until 4 P.M. There were several hundred present and all kinds of refreshments, with the exception of alcohol, and all enjoyed themselves thoroughly, making the return trip by the same boat.
I have now skipped over a great deal which would further discourage other Icelanders from settling here, but my opinion is that no Icelander should consider Sayreville as a future home as there are no prospects here for anything but the hard and unwholesome labour in the brickworks which I have described, which is beyond the tolerance of most.
- Halldór Bjarnarson
(Translated from Heimskringla, September 13th, 1888)
* Washington, a village just south of Sayreville, is now known as South River.
Sayreville, Middlesex County, Ap.25.l889
Since I last wrote Heimskringla on Sp.2.l888, very little has happened in the way of news. We have enjoyed rather good health, with the exception of one girl who is afflicted with an unidentified lung ailment.
The winter which is now over, according to local people, has been among the mildest on record. Snow fell on four occasions only and disappeared almost immediately, except for the snow in March that lasted a few days. During the latter part of the winter we have had numerous storms with mild frost, but the last frost we had was during the night a week before summer. The weather is now very pleasant and the ground is becoming green again, but little fieldwork has been done - indeed the land around here is not good for farming.
Six couples among our number have now been married, and three children have been born, one of which died. There are four churches here in the vicinity, and the Danes here are visited by a pastor from New Brunswick* once a month, for which each family pays a monthly contribution of 50 cents. Six children attend Sunday School here regularly and a few others also attend occasionally.
A large number of people here are employed with the local brickworks, and there was enough employment this winter so that no Icelander is now in debt to any extent - some having even saved a little.
Three families left here for Duluth on the 24th of this month, and others will be leaving shortly, in all likelihood because the work is not to the liking of many, as I have already explained in issue 37 of Heimskringla. I consider it a certainty that most Icelanders will leave here when their circumstances permit.
It is also worth mentioning the situation which arises when people disinclined to work for their keep at home are tricked into emigrating here by the local authorities, who have both paid passage west for such people and given them to understand that they will not have to exert themselves here. The likes of these find themselves in a predicament when they get here, and all Icelanders should be aware of the fact that loafers and those given to excesses are no better off here than they are at home. We here have had the experience of dealing with one such character, a young man who tagged along with us and mooched off us for a year before we sent him back home. This experience cost us $40.
H. B. Skagfjord
* New Brunswick is a town just west of Sayreville.
Sayreville, New Jersey, Fb.7.1891:
We Icelanders here have managed tolerably well since I last wrote on the 6th of January last winter, having had good health and steady work. Nine children have been born to Icelandic couples, five children have died, and one married man also died after prolonged poor health. We have been joined by two sisters and a brother from Reykjavik, my wife's children, who were made most welcome upon their arrival. One of the sisters is now married, so that all our young people are now paired off. There are 12 men with families here, and 8 more who have moved from here to Perth Amboy, 10 miles away. They are all doing well, and four of them work as boatbuilders in the large shipyards there. Many Danes and Norwegians live there, and there is employment almost all year round, including work at house construction, quarrying, etc.
Many houses have been built here this past year, including a large factory which gave employment to 100 men, and though the winter has been rather hard, it has not interfered with the work to any extent. Snow fell twice here before Christmas, melting almost as soon as the sun came out, but by New Years Day there were five inches of ice on the ponds and the rivers, which delayed some of the shipping. It snowed once in January, but this too disappeared after three days.
There is steady ship traffic in the inlet here, both summer and winter, as an enormous amount of bricks are produced here, this being the main source of employment and the source of income for thousands of people. In addition, a large number of single men work here during the summers, returning home with their savings at the end of the season. They come from Germany and further afield. Summer pay is about $150-200 with board. It would be fun to see young, energetic Icelanders come here to earn these wages, which are better than what those from Northern Iceland can make in a season of fishing off Southern Iceland. The fare is admittedly more expensive, but the money is also more certain, and there would be other advantages as well. This might help squelch some of the tall tales about how poorly off we Icelanders are here, and more people would get a more realistic picture of America than they now have. It might also happen that some American ambition and foresight might rub off and make its way back to old Fron (Iceland), which would in itself would be well worth the while.
None among us has undertaken any great venture this year, but this may well change with the increase of both experience and means, both of which are substantially on the increase. Many are also well on their way to understanding and speaking English, and this in itself is a major step in the right direction.
H. Björnsson Skagfjord
Sayreville, Middlesex County, Mr.6.1895
After just under two years in Winnipeg, I set off back here again with my wife at 1 P.M. on January 3lst. There was a northwest wind and freezing cold for two days, and our accommodations in the railway carriage were cold, as the passage between the cars was neither insulated nor covered over to keep out the snow and wind, as is the case with most cars these days. The journey was delayed by six hours en route to Hamilton, so that we arrived there at 12 midnight on the 2nd of February and had to wait there until 6 o'clock the next morning. A room cost us one dollar. The train then started off southeast, and we crossed the border without customs inspection. I was only asked what I had with me, and that was deemed sufficient. At 8 o'clock we reached Niagara Falls, and the train paused there for 5 minutes on a bridge over the river so the passengers could get a good look at this towering waterfall. A direct route southeast across New York and Pennsylvania was then taken to New Jersey, our destination, where we eventually left the train that evening at about 9, some 10 miles west of Perth Amboy. After a few minutes, the two of us, who were left alone in the dark - the only ones still left of the crowd we had been travelling with - were taken on to Perth Amboy where we arrived at 10 on Sunday evening. The distance travelled was about 2000 miles.
I cannot describe the warm welcome we received without exception from our friends and acquaintances - as if we had been brought back from the dead. The day after our arrival, however, was clouded by the funeral of our newly deceased friend, Magnús Oddsson. whom we, along with his wife, Guðrún Thórðardóttir, and many friends, accompanied to the grave. His death marked the loss of one of the most respected men among our number. A Danish pastor officiated at the funeral and held a brief service in the home, and later in the day we drank to Magnús' memory in the Icelandic fashion.
I am now free of the tiring and depressing city atmosphere that seemed to me to rest over Winnipeg, and we are now back with friends, lacking little that we need. The two years we spent in Winnipeg have been difficult for many of those here, as wages have been generally lower than usual and the great strike last year brought with it high inflation and hardships. Nevertheless, I cannot see that our countrymen have suffered too badly, as those who had houses when we left now have more in them. In addition, three who have become farmers have bought lots and built fine homes which they live in. Working hours have been shortened from 11 to 10 hours a day, and it appears as if there is considerable life in the place - docks and new factories under construction - so wages have improved somewhat.
The winter here has been rather poor, both cold and unstable. The snow has never accumulated to any extent, though, and it is now disappearing with the spring weather and thaws.
H. B. Skagfjord
Sayreville, New Jersey, Ja.19.1902
All those few Icelanders who live here are doing rather well and have adequate employment here in the town.
Listing of Icelanders at Sayreville/Perth Amboy, New Jersey
List of Sayreville area residents compiled from various sources, especially list of donors who contributed to relief efforts for earthquake victims in Southern Iceland in 1896:
Gudrun Bilgrav, Perth Amboy (1896) (H. Dc.24.1896)
Bjarni Vilhjalmsson, Perth Amboy (1896) (H. Dc.24.1896) [*emigrated from Stori-Holmur in Gullbringusysla, South Iceland, in 1886, aged 23, with parents, Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson, aged 60, and Sigridur Jonsdottir, aged 63]
Eggert Eggertsson, Perth Amboy (1896) (H. Dc.24.1896) [*emigrated in 1888 from Middalur in Arnessysla, South Iceland, aged 34, with wife, Gudridur Thordardottir, aged 30]
Eyjolfur Snjolfsson, Perth Amboy (1896) (H. Dc.24.1896) [*emigrated in 1887 from Busthus in Gullbringusysla, aged 19, with mother, Margret Thordardottir, aged 56, followed in 1888 by father, Snjolfur Eyjolfsson, aged 51, and sister, Anna Snjolfsdottir, aged 25]
Stefan Stefansson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*emigrated from Steinnes in Hunavatnssysla in 1887, moved in 1899 to Winnipeg and Lundar, Manitoba, married at Sayreville to Arndis Juliana Einarsdottir, sister to Jon Einarsson, below.]
Halldor B. Skagfjord, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*Halldor Bjornsson/Bjarnarson, author of the Sayreville letters, married to Olof Magnusdottir, emigrated from Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1887] (Note: Olof was the widow of Jon at Keflavik, whose daughter Valgerdur Jonsdottir married – 1891-92 at Sayreville -Vilhjalmur (Vilhelm) Thorsteinsson from Hunavatnssysla and moved to Dakota in 1893)
Sigurbjorn Skagfjord, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*son of Halldor Skagfjord, above]
Felix Thordarson, Sayreville (1896) (H.Dc.17.1896) [*emigrated from Moakot in Gullbringusysla in 1887, aged 38, with wife, Sigridur Loftsdottir, aged 28, and a daughter, Kristbjorg, aged 4]
Mrs. Sigridur Thordarson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*Sigridur Loftsdottir, wife of Felix Thordarson, above]
John Einarsson, Sayreville (1896) (H.Dc.17.1896) [*Jon Ingi Einarsson from Gil in Oxnadalur, brother to Arndis Juliana Einarsdottir, above, who married Stefan Stefansson, moved to The Narrows, Lake Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada]
Mrs. Ingigerdur Einarsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*Ingigerdur Hannesdottir from Myrdalur, South Iceland, wife of Jon Ingi Einarsson, above]
Thorsteinn Bjorgolfsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*from Helluvad in Rangarvallasysla, South Iceland, emigrated 1893 with Gudrun Jonsdottir]
Sigurdur Jonsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*See Alm. 1914, p. 96, moved from Sayreville to Lundar area in 1899.]
Mrs. Katrin Thorsteinsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*possibly Katrin Petursdottir, who emigrated in 1887, aged 30, from Steinar in Borgarfjordur with Hakon Thorsteinsson, aged 31]
Thomas Goodman, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*Tomas Gudnason from Stori-Holmur in Gullbringusysla, South Iceland, emigrated in 1887 with wife, Ingibjorg Vilhjalmsdottir, see below]
Mrs. Ingibjorg Goodman, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*Ingibjorg Vilhjalmsdottir, wife of Tomas Gudnason Goodman, above]
Vilhjalmur Goodman, Sayreville (1896) (Dc.17.1896)
Ingvar Goodman, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896)
Tomas Goodman, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896)
Gudmundur Steindorsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*emigrated from Helludalur in Arnessysla in 1888, aged 24]
Bjorn S. Jonsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*likely Bjorn Sig. Jonsson who emigrated in 1888, aged 22, from Vigdisarstadir in Hunavatnssysla, destined for New York. He married Ingibjorg Sesselja Bjornsdottir from Kringla in Hunavatnssysla, a sister to Sigurbjorg Bjornsdottir who married Sigvaldi Nordal in Selkirk. Sesselja died at Sayreville on Jl.9.1900.]
Johannes Einarsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896) [*possibly Johannes Einarsson who emigrated in 1887 from Hurdarbak in Borgarfjordur, aged 13, destined for New York, with? Helga Einarsdottir - sister? - from nearby Grimsstadir, aged 20]
Bjorgvin Jonsson, Sayreville (1896) (H. Dc.17.1896)
Magnus Oddsson, Sayreville (died there 1895) (H. 1895)
Mrs. Gudrun Thordardottir Oddsson (surviving widow 1895)
August Johannsson, Sayreville (1898) (L. Dc.27.1898)
J. Einarsson, Perth Amboy (1892) (L. Mr.9.1892)
Mrs. Holmfridur Gudnadottir, Sayreville (from Hagi in Grimsnes, daughter of Gudni Tomasson), (d. there 1896) (L. Ma.28/Jn.25/ Jl.16.1896)
Agust Johnson, Sayreville (1896) (L. Jl.16.1896) (same as August Johannsson?)
Goodman Standerson, Sayreville (1896) (L. Jl.16.1896) [*same? as Gudmundur Steindorsson??, above]
V. Thorsteinsson, Sayreville (1892) (L. Jl.9.1892) (This would be Vilhjalmur or Vilhelm Thorsteinsson, the son of Thorsteinn jonsson and Sigurbjorg Jonsdottir from Vatnsdalur. Vilhjalmur married Valgerdur Jonsdottir, the daughter of Olof Magnusdottir from Keflavik, and moved to Dakota in 1893.)
Margret Thorsteinsdottir from the Landeyjar (widow, became wife of Sigurdur Jonsson in 1899 and moved with him to Lundar area, Alm. 1914, p. 96)
Thorlakur Bjornsson, New Jersey 1915, (Alm. 1916, p. 87)
Gudbjorg Johannesdottir, died in New Jersey Ja.15.1915, wife of Thorlakur Bjornsson, aged 52, from Thistilfjordur (Alm. 1916, p. 87).
by Nelson Gerrard
(published in 1994)
Along the highways and byways of old 'New Iceland' in Manitoba's Interlake, signs are going up - new placename signs bearing the old Icelandic names of homesteads, roadways, and landmarks. On April 23 1994, at the Icelandic National League convention in Selkirk, Manitoba, the first batch of over 50 custom-made, heritage placename signs was unveiled and distributed, and in the days that follow, these eye-catching signs began to appear throughout the Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Geysir, and Arborg districts.
The concept of erecting historic placename signs, publicized only locally by word of mouth to date, has met with an overwhelmingly positive response in these areas, and it is anticipated that many more property owners will wish to participate when the signs are made public and the word is spread. Only one prototype of the sign, made of heavy gauge aluminum and measuring 15 x 24 inches, has been available as a sample so far... but the enthusiastic reception in northern 'New Iceland' will mean that as of next month, thousands of area residents and visitors will see these blue and white signs crowned by a falcon crest - a traditional symbol of our Icelandic heritage.
Manitoba's Interlake is just one of many areas in North America which has a rich heritage that needs to be enhanced - for tourists and area residents alike. For decades, many of those features that make our former Icelandic settlements unique have been in decline, and especially those things associated with the Icelandic language have come face to face with extinction. Nowhere is there a richer placename heritage than in 'New Iceland', but to date visitors from Iceland and all over North America - having read about this unique historical area - have been disappointed to find few visible vestiges of this colourful tradition. Only a few villages and rural districts have maintained an Icelandic profile, and until now dismayed tourists have had to settle for road signs proclaiming such unimaginative names as 'Distillery Road' and 'North 40 Road' - in place of colourful and historically rich names dating back to the clearing of the very first survey lines in 1876.
The Rural Municpality of Bifrost (named in 1907 for the 'rainbow bridge' to Asgard in ancient Norse mythology) has become one of the first public bodies to recognize its wealth of placenames as a valuable historical asset - a colourful attraction to both visitors and cottage owners, as well as an acknowledgement of the area's history. In response to a request from Bifrost's secretary treasurer, a file on local road names was compiled over three years ago by members of INL chapter 'Esjan', and all new proposals for road signage in the RM of Bifrost must be compared with the traditional names on record in the municipal office in Arborg. In this way, makeshift names suggested without consideration of original names can be screened, and the integrity of Bifrost's local history can be preserved. Bifrost council members have also approved a plan to erect appropriate signage for all their municipal roads intersecting Highways 8 and 9 along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, and the INL prototype served as their model at a meeting held this past winter. This signage, which will show fire road numbers beneath the suitable Icelandic road names, will fill a growing need for reference points created by increasing cottage and recreational traffic along beach areas.
Another area of special interest is Hecla Island, with its high profile as a tourist destination and an Icelandic heritage park. Unfortunately, few of the many homesteads that once lined the island's east shore remain today, and there is little visible evidence to show visitors that here was once a thriving Icelandic community for over a century. Houses have been cleared away and building sites have in many cases become overgrown - except in the 'village' itself. Present park administrators, however, are considering a proposal to erect placename signs for all the homesteads along the east shore drive, as far north as Gull Harbour. While this is cold comfort for islanders who recall the homes and farmsteads as they were years ago, it is a significant acknowledgement of the island's history and could serve in guiding the descendants of pioneer settlers to ancestral sites, as well as providing all future visitors with a 'taste' of Hecla's still unique historical flavour. Self-guiding tours and possibly even audio guides might also be produced in conjunction with this sign system.
Residents throughout the rest of 'New Iceland' and elsewhere are invited to join into this placename project, to create unique 'historic districts' that will not only honour our pioneers, but will pass on something of the area's heritage to the next generations - at the same time offering some local colour to all who visit our communities. In the past there has been some reticence on the part of local officials to preserve trraditional names, for fear of alienating those of other backgrounds, but more and more we are becoming comfortable with our identity as Canadians and appreciative of sharing the best of our traditions with our friends and neighbours, who in turn share the best of their culture with us. Often, in fact, it is those who move into our communities who most appreciate the uniqueness of our heritage - in the words of an old Icelandic proverb, 'Glögt er gestsins auga.'
Without question the single most important player in the great drama that began with the founding of New Iceland on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875, Sigtryggur Jónasson - visionary leader, entrepreneur, statesman, and ‘Father of New Iceland’ - deserves acknowledgment on the 125th anniversary of this first Icelandic settlement in the Canadian West.
Note: Among those who worked in close concert with Sigtryggur Jónasson to make the dream of ‘New Iceland’ a reality were John Taylor, a graduate of Oxford University; Frederick Temple, First Marquis of Dufferin and Governor General of Canada; and Friðjón Friðriksson, entrepreneur and Vice-Governor of New Iceland. Also involved in selecting the Lake Winnipeg site for ‘New Iceland’ were Einar Jónasson, Skafti Arason, Sigurður Kristófersson, and Kristján Jónsson, members of the exploratory party of 1875 and thus the first Icelanders to arrive in the Canadian West. The chief spiritual leader in the settlement was Rev. Jón Bjarnason, who ministered to five congregations in New Iceland.
Sigtryggur Jónasson: Founder of Framfari
Yesterday marked the 131st anniversary of the arrival of the first Icelandic settlers at Willow Island near Gimli. Instead of a “walk to the rock” to mark this occasion, however, I took a walk in the woods near my home at Eyrarbakki, and among the graves in the old pioneer cemetery at Hnausa. The day had turned cold, the sky and lake were a leaden grey, and it began to snow. I thought back to those intrepid pioneers of 1875, and to those who followed in 1876 - including my own great-great-grandparents - and I considered their remarkable achievement in launching the newspaper Framfari, in a log printshop here in Riverton - 129 years ago - when they were still struggling to get established in what was then virtual wilderness.
I also thought about Sigtryggur Jónasson – and a remarkable fact occurred to me: that had it not been for the life and work of Sigtryggur Jónasson, not only would there have been no Framfari, there would have been no New Iceland… and in the great scheme of things, none of us would be here today. History would have taken a different course…
This event has been billed “a literary lunch”… and what, you might well ask, does literature have to do with the topic of Sigtryggur Jónasson and Framfari? While Sigtryggur was certainly a very literate man who had great appreciation for literature, he was no poet… Though he was a dreamer in the most positive sense, he was also a realist. Perhaps the answer to the question, ‘what does one have to do with the other’, lies in the word inspiration… Even realists find inspiration in literature, and there is little doubt that Sigtryggur’s life and career were strongly influenced by a background of both literacy and literature…
It has sometimes been suggested that Iceland’s literary heritage, its sagas and poetic tradition, is nothing short of a miracle, considering the centuries of dire hardship endured by our ancestors. How could they possibly have time for poetry and stories… when their very survival was so often at stake?
This “miracle” is more easily understood when we realize that literature in traditional Icelandic society was not a luxury, not a frill, not a nicety for an elite few. Nor was it simply a form of entertainment – to while away long winter nights...
Literature in Icelandic society was both an integral part of life and a staple for survival. Our forebears lived their literature… and lived by their literature. It brought them solace, understanding, awareness, empathy, and endurance. It taught both virtues and vices, admirable and dishonorable conduct. It shaped attitudes and influenced personal responses. It affected the course of daily life - and it had the power to inspire dreams and achievements.
It is against this backdrop of literature and literacy that we see young Sigtryggur Jónasson, a farm boy with no formal education, become a bold young entrepreneur in a foreign land, a visionary among his countrymen, a key figure in the establishment of New Iceland, and the driving force behind the founding of the newspaper Framfari – in the midst of the wilderness. There can be no doubt that he was inspired by ideas beyond his own years and experience - by literature and other writing - and in turn his story is certainly an inspiration for us today…
Born in Northern Iceland in 1852 – 154 years ago – Sigtryggur grew up in an isolated farm home that was materially poor, but wealthy in books, intellect, and spirit. His father, Jónas Sigurðsson, was a crofter in the valley of Öxnadalur, the son of a modest farmer-poet, closely related to poet laureate and naturalist Jónas Hallgrímsson. Literacy and literature were both of a relatively high order in this home, and there can be no doubt that young Sigtryggur’s outlook on the world was shaped by the exceptional home schooling provided by his parents, including studies in character from the pages of the sagas.
The confines of the valley where Sigtryggur grew up were narrow, but his upbringing was not. The family home was on a major thoroughfare – still the only road between Southern and Northern Iceland – and at the edge of the heath, so there were many visitors and overnight guests from all walks of life. As an indication of the atmosphere in the family home, a poem entitled “Jónas í Bakkaseli”, by Icelandic Canadian poet Jón Stefánsson, makes reference to the exceptional hospitality extended equally to all – bishop or pauper. The poem also alludes to the intelligent, sociable, and witty personality of Sigtryggur’s father.
Young Sigtryggur’s horizons began expanding rapidly when at 12 years of age he went to work on the estate of Möðruvellir, with the family of Governor Pétur Hafstein, first as the Governor’s groom, then as his clerk and assistant. At Möðruvellir, Sigtryggur acquired a wider education, including instruction in English from the Governor’s daughter, and as an indication of the cultural atmosphere in this home, Sigtryggur’s boyhood friends there included Jón Sveinsson, later the well-known children’s author “Nonni”, and Hannes Hafstein, the Governor’s son who became one of Iceland’s major poets and statesmen. In this home Sigtryggur also developed close personal ties with Tryggvi Gunnarsson, later one of Iceland’s leading entrepreneurs and statesmen, and members of the Briem family – including Rannveig Ólafsdóttir Briem, who would become his wife.
In his work with Governor Hafstein, Sigtryggur gained insight into a variety of new areas – including politics – but the narrow political climate in Iceland at that time did not limit the widening awareness and perspective of the young Sigtryggur, who not unlike the “young guns” of contemporary Iceland, saw beyond the confines of his home valley - and even beyond his homeland, to a world of infinite possibilities… Ultimately, however, it was disillusionment with Iceland’s root-bound political system of that time that prompted him to emigrate as a young man of 20 in 1872. He did so on his own.
That so many of Icelandic descent call Canada home today is undoubtedly a direct result of the conscious decision made by Sigtryggur en route to America in 1872. From knowledge he had already gained of both the British and American political systems, he had decided that he preferred British government and society, and a conversation with a fellow passenger, a Scottish settler from Ontario, clinched the matter. He chose Canada – Ontario at first…
His decision, of course, was a personal one, and he never foresaw or sought a position of leadership among his countrymen who would follow. His first task was to make his own way in his new surroundings, improving his knowledge of English and finding work. His first job was with the Ontario Car Company in London, a manufacturer of carriages and wagons, but his entrepreneurial skills soon became evident when he contracted with the New York Central Railway as a supplier of oak railway ties.
It was in part Sigtryggur’s knowledge of English and his experience in the new land that lead to his involvement in the search for an Icelandic settlement site, first in Ontario, following the arrival of groups of his countrymen there in 1873 and 1874. His charisma and natural leadership skills also won him the trust of his countrymen and others. An indication of the personal impression he made is found in a letter written by Björn Pétursson, later of Sandy Bar. “The longer I know Sigtryggur, the more impressed I am with him. He is an especially intelligent and cautious man.”
Neither was there anything narrow or parochial about Sigtryggur’s understanding of Canadian society - or his new obligations as an immigrant aspiring to the rights and privileges of a British subject in the Dominion of Canada. He demonstrated his worthiness and found himself welcomed in Canada - and he reciprocated with respect and loyalty. He was therefore a good candidate for leadership in his countrymen’s dealings with authorities in both the Ontario and Dominion governments.
Thus Sigtryggur found himself chosen by his countrymen at Kinmount in 1875, as one of the scouts appointed to choose a suitable site for Icelandic settlement in Manitoba. Through the goodwill and connections of John Taylor, the backing of the Dominion Government in Ottawa had been secured for this venture, and additional support was forthcoming once the Lake Winnipeg site had been selected - both in securing this tract of land as an Icelandic Reserve, and in the form of major financial assistance to transport the Icelanders west and get them established in the new settlement. Much of this initial support, which amounted to more than $65,000, was in the form of a loan from the Government of Canada.
Those staking their personal honour on the success of this venture included not only the kindly and good-willed John Taylor, but Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada. Also responsible for the venture and the repayment of the loan were those elected to positions of leadership in the settlement. Most prominent among these was Sigtryggur Jonasson, who became the settlement’s first head of council, or “governor”. In the fall of 1875, however, while the first group headed west from Ontario, he took on the responsibility of returning to Iceland to guide large numbers of his countrymen who had decided to emigrate following the eruption of the volcano Askja.
New Iceland was indeed a bold experiment within the framework of the Dominion of Canada, though a similar arrangement had previously been made with Mennonite settlers in Southern Manitoba. With the Riel Uprising of 1869 still fresh in the mind, however, certainly Canadian leaders in Ottawa never entertained any concept of a foreign political state within its bosom – as mistakenly implied by references to New Iceland as a “republic”. Neither were New Iceland’s leaders under any illusions in this regard. New Iceland was, instead, a cultural enclave in a virtual territory or Local Government District – within Canada from its inception - and though a constitution of local by-laws was drawn up, New Iceland was under the direct jurisdiction of Ottawa - duty bound and legally responsible to the Dominion Government.
The vision of Sigtryggur and other leaders such as Friðjón Friðriksson and John Taylor was clear in such matters, and remained clear and unwavering despite severe initial setbacks in New Iceland – including the terrible smallpox epidemic of the winter of 1876-77. The venture must succeed, and every effort was directed at bringing about progress so that the settlers could become self-sufficient. Regular communication within the settlement and with the outside world was vital, and for this a newspaper was needed… In January of 1877, as soon as the smallpox abated, a meeting to organize such a newspaper was held.
The publication of Framfari at Icelandic River (Riverton) from September 10. 1877 to April 10, 1880 stands as one of the crowning achievements of Icelandic immigrants in North America – and in particular of those who had the vision and resourcefulness to make it happen. All shareholders and subscribers contributed to this accomplishment, but the ledger of the Prentfélag Nýja Íslands – the Printing Company of New Iceland - reveals that most of the financial backing actually came from two men: Sigtryggur Jónasson and John Taylor, who bought 10 and 20 shares respectively, at $10 a share. Of 105 shares pledged, 78 were paid in full, including one in Iceland, one in Milwaukee, one in Chicago, and one in Lyon County, Minnesota – raising a total of $892.75. Through Rev. Jón Bjarnason, then still resident in Minneapolis, a printing press and miscellaneous equipment were purchased there at a cost of $313.81. Board members of the printing company were Sigtryggur Jónasson, Jóhann Briem, and Friðjón Friðriksson. The printer was Jónas Jónasson, Sigtryggur’s brother, and Sigtryggur edited the first eight issues, pending the arrival of editor Halldór Briem.
Subscriptions to Framfari cost $1.50 per year in New Iceland and $1.75 elsewhere. Subscribers included 39 in Iceland, 8 in England, 1 in France, 2 in Norway, as well as several in Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. Some 90 subscribers lived in New Iceland. Numbers varied from year to year, but at one time 589 copies of Framfari were being printed.
The year 1877 was a proud one for New Iceland. The smallpox quarantine was lifted, building and land clearing resumed, Lord Dufferin visited the settlement and praised the settlers for their progress, and Framfari made its debut. At Icelandic River, a school was established in Sigtryggur’s home at Möðruvellir, which also served as editorial office and a sort of Government House for New Iceland.
Unfortunately, New Iceland was dealt three severe blows when it could least withstand them: first, the smallpox epidemic devastated many families, brought suffering to all, and paralyzed progress in the settlement; second, religious dissension divided the settlement and created hostile factions; and third, abnormally wet weather crippled local agriculture in its infancy and brought out hordes of mosquitoes, finally swelling the lake’s waters to flood levels. None of these misfortunes was foreseeable. Their cumulative effects were crippling.
Throughout all of this, through the pages of Framfari the leadership of New Iceland strove to inform the readership, educate the settlers in agricultural methods, foster a progressive attitude, and inspire loyalty. Unfortunately Framfari also became a venue for dissension and a source of contention, first over religion, then over control, and subsequently over the issue of abandoning the settlement. Considerable numbers were planning to pull up stakes and cross the border to Dakota Territory, and among those were some who felt entitled to take with them the cattle, stoves, and equipment paid for by the Canadian Government. This not only undermined the future of New Iceland, in which so much had been invested on behalf of the settlers, it raised ethical issues that called into question the integrity and reliability of the Icelandic people. Needless to say, this defection was both disappointing and humiliating to those who had worked so hard to establish the settlement, and who had staked their honour on its success. Sigtryggur, frustrated by what he viewed as counterproductive insubordination, did not suffer fools gladly. Framfari now reminded defectors of their obligations.
It is ironic how short memory can be and how fickle the minds of men. In April of 1879, the same Björn Pétursson who had praised Sigtryggur for his intelligence and character not long before, wrote, “Now poor Sigtryggur is having a difficult time with the settlement. It looks as if it will disintegrate in his hands, and few are ready to rise to his defense …” As so often, when benefits were abundant, support was widespread. Now, that the time had come to stand independently, many were quick to find fault…
Despite valiant efforts, it seemed that New Iceland would indeed disintegrate. Between 1879 and 1881, large numbers defected to Dakota Territory and elsewhere, leaving most of North and South Árnes, and the area from Boundary to Willow Creek all but abandoned. Only at Icelandic River did a core population remain, with pockets of loyalists on Hecla Island, in Breiðavík (Hnausa), and near Gimli. The dream of New Iceland, it seemed, had ended, and with it, Framfari, the last regular issue of which was printed in January of 1880.
And there the story would have ended - had it not been for an initiative already in progress, in the form of economic activity that would ultimately save New Iceland. If Sigtryggur Jónasson had not already earned the honorary title “Father of New Iceland”, he did so now, together with his business partner Friðjón Friðriksson.
Just as the settlement was at the point of losing the critical mass it needed to survive, these partners established a major logging, sawmill, and shipping operation at Icelandic River. The employment and activity generated by this venture, including regular sailings to Selkirk and the construction of both a mill and two large barges, stabilized the population and warded off the total collapse of New Iceland. Within two years, new settlers began to arrive from Iceland, to occupy abandoned homesteads, and within 10 years there were 273 families in New Iceland.
Though Sigtryggur’s business ventures eventually took him elsewhere, he continued to work for the welfare of New Iceland – both as editor of Lögberg, and as the first Icelandic Member of the Manitoba Legislature. Using his influence and personal connections, he worked tirelessly to have the railway extended to Gimli in 1906, to Arborg in 1910, and to Riverton in 1914. As homestead inspector for many years, he gave individual assistance to many settlers in a variety of ways, and it was his greatest satisfaction to see New Iceland finally thrive – with successful farms, fields of golden grain, fishing and logging activity, roads, villages, schools, churches, and new generations of healthy and happy young people to take the place of the aging immigrants.
In 1928, Sigtryggur was invited to speak at an Icelandic Celebration held here in Riverton. The scene must have given him great satisfaction. As reported in the pages of Lögberg, “…A huge crowd was gathered from all directions – certainly no fewer than 1500 people – and wherever one looked, whether around the stage or across the playing field, the eye beheld a beautiful sight: happiness and courteous conduct; handsome people, young and old, bearing the characteristics of their forefathers; and the idyllic, productive countryside all around…”
Through his 70 years in Canada, Sigtryggur never forgot Iceland or the welfare of the Icelandic people – indeed his parents, a brother and two sisters, and numerous close relatives remained there. He made several trips to his homeland, and in 1894 he put before the Althing a major proposal for improving transportation both within Iceland and with Europe. Known as “Stóra Málið”, The Big Deal, this venture involved a major investment of foreign capital to build a railway in Southern Iceland, construct telegraph lines, initiate regular sailings around the country and shipping abroad, and even introduce refrigeration technology making it possible to transport fresh fish to Britain. This comprehensive plan even anticipated the Icelandic tourist industry.
Unfortunately this proposal was stymied by conservative opposition and a “catch 22” situation surrounding approval and investment - and the Icelandic nation would have to wait almost 20 more years before Eimskip, the Icelandic Steamship Company, was founded to achieve many of the same goals. Sigtryggur’s last visit to Iceland was in 1930, on the occasion of the Millenium of Iceland’s Althing, at which he represented the Canadian Government.
Having returned to New Iceland in 1910, Sigtryggur lived his later life in quiet but active retirement, both at Arborg and in Riverton, among other things editing the periodical Syrpa and reviewing material for a long-awaited history of New Iceland that he considered writing. He died in 1942, at the age of 90, and is interred in the Riverton Cemetery – in the heart of his beloved New Iceland. His dream, however, is still alive, and his life continues to influence our lives…
Framfari, like New Iceland, rose from the ashes… first in the form of the newspaper Leifur, printed in Winnipeg on the same press, then as Heimskringla and Lögberg, rival weeklies that eventually amalgamated in 1959 and continue the tradition today - 129 years later.
What meaning does all this have for us today? The true legacy of pioneers such as Sigtryggur Jonasson and achievements like Framfari is inspiration. Just as those weaned on the Icelandic sagas found - and continue to find - inspiration in that literature, there is much in the sagas of our Canadian pioneers – courage, imagination, initiative, endurance, honour, wisdom, diligence - to inspire us in our daily lives.
Along with this legacy come both the privilege of celebrating it and an obligation to preserve it. The activities of this “Weekend in New Iceland” are a good example of both celebration and commemoration, as are the Riverton Transportation Museum, the Heritage Village at Arborg, and the New Iceland Heritage Museum at Gimli – but there is more we can and must do…
Consider, for example, the need to recognize and preserve many of our local historic sites, such as the pioneer cemeteries at Sandy Bar and Nes. Just a few years ago, community initiative resulted in the construction of monuments at Arnheiðarstaðir in Geysir and Kirkjuból on Hecla Island. I can visualize beautiful parks and monuments at Sandy Bar and Nes as well, and annual ceremonies to commemorate the pioneers, similar to the one held each Oct. 21st on Willow Island. Imagine too - a life-size bronze statue of Sigtryggur Jónasson, looking out across the Icelandic River…
There is talk of forming an Icelandic River Chapter of the INL at Riverton – a step in the right direction – and today will mark the first meeting of an Icelandic River Historic Sites Committee, to begin working toward the recognition and preservation of historic sites in our area. Considering the obstacles our pioneers surmounted - in spite of limited means and technology - we should be able to accomplish whatever we decide to undertake.
This is the legacy of our pioneers. I think Sigtryggur would approve.
Yukonfarar – The Yukon Farers:
A Talk Presented in Conjunction with the Exhibit ‘Yukonfarar’
In August of 1896, George Washington Carmack, together with friends Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, struck gold on Bonanza Creek in the Yukon, launching the greatest “gold rush” of all time. Like wildfire, word spread across North America and around the world, galvanizing tens of thousands of adventurers into action... This historic event became known as the Klondike Gold Rush.
Among the gold seekers in Canada’s Yukon were no fewer than 40 Icelanders from as far afield as Manitoba, North Dakota, Utah, Washington State, and Iceland itself. The saga of these adventurers – known to their countrymen as ‘Yukonfarar’ – the Yukon Farers - is an all but forgotten chapter in our history.
Fragments of this story, however, are preserved in a series of letters written by Icelandic Yukon Farers – one of whom was Sölvi Sölvason from Winnipeg, who penned the following lines on May 18, 1898...
“As nearly as I could reckon, the distance up White Pass is about 14 miles. … The road soon worsened … the snow became very soft, and in front of our tent a person sometimes sank up to his armpits - not to mention inside the tent. It is almost impossible for a person who has not experienced this, to comprehend how hard it is to endure such conditions. With just one small tent for a cookhouse and sleeping quarters, a man lies, sits, walks, and crawls on his bed clothing, and everything - food and clothing - becomes mixed together. In the evening, a man arrives tired, cold, and wet, with his little tent, first setting it up and then gathering some firewood so it is possible to heat a little food. A man is freezing cold on the one side, and scorching hot on the other. He then drifts off to sleep in calm weather, and awakens to a howling blizzard, the wind having created snow drifts inside the tent, right over his bed. A man has to get up half-naked none-the-less... “
For those of us with Icelandic connections, the saga of the ‘Yukon Farers’ is a fascinating story for a variety of reasons. Beyond the obvious fascination this oddessy holds for us, however, this chapter in our community’s history serves to illustrate some interesting points about history in general - and the way we as individuals relate to and connect with history:
1. First, on a personal level, then on a broader level in the context of national or international events. For example, through the participation of Icelanders in the Gold Rush, those of us who share Icelandic ancestral roots or who identify with the Icelandic community find a personal link with this major historical event – especially if an ancestor or family member was directly involved. In other words, our pursuit of our own history can connect us on a personal level with broader historical events and awaken in us an interest in history on a much broader scale...
2. Second, the saga of the Icelandic Yukon Farers illustrates something else - the power of primary sources to bring history to life. First-person, eye-witness accounts by these Icelandic adventurers are filled with vivid details and first hand glimpses of people, events, and experiences that personalize history for us ...
3. Third, the letters and poetry written by the Yukon Farers include deeply personal expressions of their identity and vivid insights into their self concept. Through their personal responses to these events, which they took the time to record, we can delve into their minds and souls - gaining insight into their thoughts, their values, and their sense of their place in history and the greater scheme of things.
But first – back to the idea that a relatively narrow interest in family history can serve as a gateway to wider interests and understanding. Family history can serve as a conduit via which we connect on a personal level with broader world events... in this case the Klondike Gold Rush.
My own interest in the story of Icelanders in the Klondike is a classic example. It began some 15 years ago through family history research undertaken for Wyn Solvason, then resident at Husavik south of Gimli. Wyn was the mason who did the stonework on my home, and when I decided to add a stone gateway he and I agreed on an exchange of work – his masonry for my genealogical research. It turned out that Wyn’s grandfather, Sölvi Sölvason, had gone to the Klondike from Winnipeg in 1898 - and never come back. Then I discovered Sölvi’s Klondike letters... all in Icelandic... and so my own voyage of discovery about Icelanders in the Klondike began. Thus, through family history, I developed an abiding interest in this fascinating chapter of Canadian history. In a similar way, an individual might develop an interest in the events of World War I through the participation of a family member in that war - or a curiosity about the United Empire Loyalists and the American Revolution through a personal line of descent from a Loyalist ancestor.
Secondly, I suggested that a primary source – such as an eyewitness account - has the power to breathe life into the events of history... Through primary sources such as letters and documents, we glimpse vivid details of history as it was unfolding and gain fascinating insight into events otherwise known to us only in broad strokes through history books.
For example, a report from Winnipeg dated March 10, 1898 records history in the making:
“On Saturday next, three Icelanders from this city will be setting off for the goldfields of the Klondike. They are Sölvi Sölvason, Jón Jónsson Hördal, and Jón Valdimarsson. These men will be departing from Winnipeg with the C.P.R. for Vancouver, from whence they will travel north by sea, then inland over the so-called White Pass and down the Yukon River. With them they will have provisions for at least one year, and as they are all hard working men, hardy and in good health, it will take tough going indeed to discourage them. We wish them all the best of luck and success in seeking their fortunes in this great land of promise.”
Later, through the eyes and pen of Solvi Solvason, we catch an unexpected glimpse of the great diversity of people streaming to the Klondike…
“One sees people of every nationality here - the most noticeable of whom are the Frenchmen - and there are men from every walk of life, including ministers and doctors. These men are not here only to minister to spiritual and bodily ills; they too carry and pull, just like the rest of us who have been created to toil. There are also some couples here with children, and even a considerable number of girls. Some dress like men, in hairy leather trousers, while others are in short skirts up to their buttocks, with boots to the knee.”
Through Sölvi’s letters, we also witness first hand the hardships and dangers encountered by the Yukon Farers …
“On March 29th…, we began transporting our goods over the worst 2 1/2 miles, along a river which passes through a narrow gorge. In places we had to climb over huge boulders, and there was rain and sleet every day, so that we were up to our shins in muck and water. Everyone put his best effort forward, and those who didn't have the manhood to do it, had to buy it! It was amazing how men remained so calm, though the river was swallowing up the ice from under their feet, and they proceeded over a snow bridge only three inches thick. When the first man and horse fell through, a wooden bridge was quickly fashioned as a replacement…”
Later Sölvi describes a first hand brush with death and the perils of the rapids on the Yukon River…
“We set off from Lake Bennett on May 29th after having been there for a month. Nothing untoward happened until we arrived downstream at the gorge four miles above White Horse. Many were taken aback at the sight there, and some who had been ready to take on almost anything up to this point began to hesitate for the first time. I am not sure whether it is true, but it was rumoured that two men killed themselves the same day we arrived there. I do know for a fact, though, that many men lost their boats and everything aboard at this stage of the journey.”
As for the Icelanders in particular…
“…Jón Bíldfell, Hjörtur Jónsson, and Jón Valdimarsson hired an experienced man to guide their boats through the gorge - one of which half-filled with water that damaged their goods somewhat. … I took my own boat through, with the help of Jón Hördal. I am afraid that no one would have insured our lives or property, because at least three men are needed if things are to go as they should - two to row and one to steer. Just the same, we managed amazingly well and got through without a drop of water in our boat.”
Through Sölvi’s letters we also catch a glimpse of man’s propensity for cruelty and Sölvi’s own empathy for the helpless victims...
“The worst of it was to witness how the dog teams were abused. These poor beasts had no strength left to pull the heavy sleds over the clay and rocks, and if there was a pause they dropped down exhausted, only to awake to a nightmare as they were beaten with sticks until their cries echoed among the cliffs. There were also men who kicked and punched their dogs, threw them aside, shot them, cut their throats, or turned the sleds over on top of them, crushing them to death. Men can be unbelievably cruel when they are unchecked.”
Through Solvi’s accounts, we also become privy to the widespread corruption encountered by hapless and naive gold seekers as soon as they set foot in the North...
“We were obliged to wait in Skagway for one day, while our bill of lading passed inspection in the customs house there. First they demanded $87 from us - $50 for a 'Bond' and $37 for endorsing our papers, which was the work of a few minutes. This we considered a bit steep. They then checked their adding and gave us the figure of $66, but we weren't happy with that either and asked them to check again. Their last figure was $30.50. One can see from this that customs officials in Skagway and their assistants, the Custom Brokers, are in collusion to get as much as they can out of the prospectors….”
And later on, after arriving at Dawson City, Sölvi witnessed corruption on a higher level, involving government officials …
“Many knew that there was an area along Dominion Creek that was supposed to open up this month, but there was something strange about the whole affair. It was leaked that some special permit had to be obtained, but few knew exactly what kind of permit this was. An advertisement was then posted, notifying the public that this land would be opened up on Monday, the 11th of this month, but before that day arrived, another poster appeared on the 9th, cancelling the first notice and throwing these claims open two days before the public expected. Certain men, in the meantime, had already sent in their applications long in advance and were ready with their claims. The vultures, apparently able to see through office walls, knew all about this and set off in a stampede on Friday evening. Those who knew nothing saw the stampede, and realizing something was afoot, joined in, about 500 in all. They ran as hard as they could with their hats and caps in hand, dripping sweat, half-naked, blue in the face and bloody... A distance of 50 miles is a considerable trek, and when one takes into account that the road is so bad that horses … rip themselves open on all the sharp snags and sticks which are everywhere, then it is not surprising that these men had their clothes ripped off their backs and were in rough shape.
And what did they gain from their stampede? Most of them came back with bloodied limbs and burst lungs, only to discover - once they arrived at the Government office - that the claims they had staked had already been allotted long before, to a few favorites of the Government… So it goes here. Life is difficult, one big rat race….”
Included in Sölvi’s letters are also revealing glimpses of life in Dawson City - with equally revealing editorial comments added by the writer…
“It is uncanny how peaceful the town is. One almost never sees a fight or drunkenness; people are courteous with one another and mind their own business - unlike what one experiences in many other places. It would be an excellent idea for all gossips and slanderers to come here, because here no-one listens to such talk, and these busybodies would therefore have to find themselves other occupations…”
“There are, of course, some fools who hang around saloons and allow drunk women to lead them by the nose into the dance halls and then into a restaurant, but these are a small minority. There are, on the other hand, large numbers of men who work together and watch for every opportunity; they are like vultures who divide their prey among themselves, and as soon as they detect a victim, they swoop down one after another.”
And of course, Sölvi also provides glimpses of living conditions…
“I don't regret coming here in the least. Of course I am not overly fond of the various hardships, and the water - it is bad enough to kill an ox. There is a half teaspoon of clay left in the bottom of your coffee cup when you're finished, and this in spite of the fact that I make coffee with a 'coffee bag' (kaffi poki).”
Finally, Sölvi includes occasional updates on his countrymen... such as this one, written at Grand Forks, Yukon, on Dec.15.1898:
“…All the Icelanders here are in good health with the exception of one man, who calls himself Krist, from Utah. I am told that he is ill with scurvy and is in Dawson. Jón Jónsson from Winnipeg has recently earned himself $300, in addition to which he owns half a claim on Too-Much-Gold Creek. Jón Bíldfell has earned himself half-ownership of a lot downstream on Sulphur Creek. Thorkell Jónsson, the carpenter, is plying his trade in Dawson. Jóhannes Helgason was in Dawson for a time this summer, but he then left there and I have not seen him since. Jón Hördal owns a claim on Balder Creek. He is now working on Sulphur Creek and keeps half of whatever he finds. With him are Ólafur Jónsson from Utah and Jón Valdimarsson. They say they are finding - at the most - 5 cents worth of gold per pan (one pan is about two shovels of gravel), but the owner of the claim says this is not true, and that they have found as much as 30 cents of gold per pan. I won't presume to judge which account is true. Bjorn from Utah owns half a claim on a creek which empties into Hunker Creek. Hjörtur Jónsson, who arrived here this spring, stayed over the summer, then sold his possessions and set sail down the Yukon River. Eiríkur Runólfsson came here this fall. I have not yet seen him and do not know what he is doing. Jónas Bergmann has been in Dawson for some time now. We - Eiríkur Sumarliðason and I - are here in Grand Forks.
I also suggested earlier that the saga of the Yukon Farers offers us glimpses into the values, self concept, and philosophical outlook of these Icelanders. Their letters and poetry afford many such insights…
For example, through the poetry of Sigurður Jón Jóhannesson of Winnipeg, who together with 11 other Icelanders set off for the goldfields via Edmonton and the Athabaska River, it is evident that even in the late 19th Century, Icelandic immigrants in Canada associated themselves with the Vikings. In joining the great Klondike adventure, they saw themselves as modern heirs to a proud Viking heritage with heroic mythological overtones, and in this context they were inspired by heroic values - courage, daring, and adventure… In Sigurður’s own words, in his poem “Klondike”…
Nú í vestur víking halda
Röskir drengir rjúfið hauga,
In loose English translation...
Now westward in their vanguard fare
It is interesting that the poet sees a parallel between the adventures and feats of his countrymen in the Klondike, and the heroic ventures of mythological heroes of old, who battled the powers of darkness for gold and glory...
This heroic theme is echoed in the following three stanzas from a poem entitled “Gullneminn í Klondyke” (Gold Seekers in the Klondike”) by Sigurjón Bergvinsson, at one time of Brown, Manitoba…
3. “Klondyke mína hvessir sjón,
4. Heróp berst um heljarslóð,
11. Á eyðimörk er harðlæst hurð,
These lines defy translation, but suffice it to say that they depict the Klondike adventure as an epic battle to the death, inspiring the utmost strength (like that of a lion) and the battle spirit of a berserk. The final line alludes to the saga hero Grettir, known for his great feats of strength…
In another poem by Sigurður Jón Jóhannesson, entitled “Rödd úr Eyðimörkinni “ (“Voice from the Wilderness”), blended with hints of Viking bravado are expressions of the poet’s personal sense of mortality in a strange land, his desire to be given a Viking burial, and his belief in a spiritual voyage after death…
“Hér ef skyldi ég beinin bera
Skófrekt því ég ætla eigi
“If here my bones should find their rest,
Those… I don’t think I’ll need
And finally, we get a glimpse of Sigurður’s world view and cynicism – about power and money - in his philosophical verse entitled “Gold”…
“Gullið heimsins geymir völd,
“In Gold lies the world’s power,
I hope you enjoy the exhibit...
If readers should happen to know of additional names of Icelanders who participated in the Klondike Gold Rush, or of letters, artifacts, or photographs relating to this chapter of our history, please contact Nelson Gerrard by e-mail at email@example.com, by phone at 204-378-2758, or by mail at Box 925, Arborg, Manitoba, R0C 0A0. Your input is welcome.
Following are the names of the Icelandic Klondike Farers currently known (**indicates good photo known, *indicates image from printed source):
Albert Jónsson (Johnson), Winnipeg
Additional names are welcome…
The Thingvalla Endowment
An initiative to preserve and enhance
The historic Thingvalla Cemetery near Churchbridge, Saskatchewan,
With the passage of time, pioneer cemeteries across the Canadian Prairies have fallen prey to disuse, neglect, and even desecration. We owe our pioneer forebears a debt of gratitude, and it is fitting that we, their descendants, honour their memories and cherish our heritage. The Thingvalla Cemetery is a unique spot that has been preserved unspoiled to the present time. We must ensure the future of both the cemetery and the little Thingvalla Church for years to come, and now we have a chance to do this...
The Family & Friends Community Foundation Inc. is a charitable organization dedicated to preserving culture and heritage in the Churchbridge/Langenburg area. This foundation establishes and adminsters “cemetery endowments” for specific pioneer cemeteries, investing and managing capital funds to generate interest that is then designated for specific restoration and maintenance projects.
Just $5000 is needed to establish a permanent “Thingvalla Endowment”. About 10% of that amount has already been donated to get the ball rolling. Now we need the help of other descendants of the Thingvalla Pioneers. The larger the endowment, the more money can be generated and the more special projects can be undertaken – such as reshingling the historic Thingvalla Church (since completed in the year 2006!). Other prairie cemeteries have received donations well in excess of $25,000 in just a short period of time.
Please consider a tax deductible contribution to Family & Friends Community Foundation Inc. (Box 800, Langenburg, Sask. S0A 2A0) in memory of the Thingvalla pioneers. Be sure to designate your donation as being for the “Thingvalla Endowment”.
Burials in the Thingvalla Cemetery
(Note: This is a transcription from the original Icelandic list compiled by Gísli Egilsson in 1913 and later ammended slightly. To avoid inconsistencies, standardized Icelandic spellings are used for all christian names, though surnames remain as they appear on the original list. All names appear here in the nominiative case, as appropriate in the context of English translation. Throughout this list, “Th” has been substituted for the Icelandic letter thorn (“Þ”), which otherwise is almost always mistaken for a “P”. Additions of information or corrections to the names as they appear on the original are shown in italics.)
“Insofar as it has been possible to get information, the following is a list of persons interred in the Thingvallanýlenda Congregation Cemetery situated in Section 22-22-32 W from the year 1887 until 1914.”
Names Year of Death
“In total, 82 burials. As can be expected, this document is not done in such a way that it can be relied upon, except to a limited extent. It is correct to the extent that all these people are buried in the cemetery. This list is not reliable, however, with regard to the years of death, as it was impossible for me to get proof while I was compiling these names.
Furthermore (and I consider this likely), it may well be that the names of some persons buried here are not included. It would be most desirable if anyone happening to remember someone buried in this cemetery who is not on the list would provide me with this information. I consider it necessary that some document with this information should exist. To have no idea of this sort of thing reveals a sadly neglectful and thoughtless attitude, as no such documentation exists in the congregation’s records. I therefore urge that everything possible be done to make this list as correct and complete as circumstances allow, and that it be entrusted to the secretary of the Thingvallanýlenda Congregation to be kept with the congregatio’s other records.
If anyone is able to provide further information regarding those buried in the Thingvalla Cemetery, please contact Nelson Gerrard, firstname.lastname@example.org - Box 925, Arborg, Manitoba R0C 0A0, ph. 204-378-2758
PIONEERS AND PLACE NAMES OF NEW ICELAND