They came with a dream. They would leave Iceland and their lives of poverty and privation. They would have land. They would be able to marry. They would have wooden houses like the Danes. There would be opportunities to be something other than a farm laborer or a share cropper eking out a living on marginal land. But most of all, they would be able to eat. There would be food. The hunger would end.
They would have come earlier but ships came seldom and only in the summer months when weather would allow. Then the English started to come. They wanted sheep and horses. The Danes didn’t pay in cash. They only traded goods. The English paid in silver. The silver could pay for passage on the cattle ships.
The ships took the emigrants from Iceland to England and Scotland. From there they went to Quebec City. Canada wanted settlers. It wanted to fill up all the empty spaces. It wanted enough people to produce and buy goods that a railway running from coast to coast would be profitable. It wanted the empty lands filled up so the Americans didn’t invade them. The government wanted immigrants badly enough that they allocated funds to help them emigrate and get settled.
The Icelanders were late comers to the massive European emigration. They’d been held back by the lack ships, the lack of money, the resistance of the land owners who didn’t want to lose all that cheap labour.
The Icelanders made some false starts. Kinmount. Nova Scotia. But then they decided to go west, to Gimli, the home of the gods, the home where they’d live like gods with good houses, good food, where their children would have an opportunity to become something other than an indentured servant, working on an isolated farm for board and room and a few Danish dollars a year that was usually paid in butter or wadmal, not silver.
They came late in the season. Even after Nova Scotia and Kinmount, Toronto, they didn’t understand how bad a Manitoba winter could be.
The first Icelandic settlers arrived at Gimli in 1875. They had no cows. Poor provisions. Even poorer accommodation. They had few stoves, poor quality tents, no cows for milk which was a substantial part of their normal diet. They were not woodsmen, yet all building had to be done with wood. Sheer grit and determination helped them survive. They were plagued by smallpox and then by flooding. The large group arrived in 1876.
They’d come to Gimli in New Iceland. New Iceland. It was going to be just like Old Iceland except better because there’d be land, and freedom and opportunity and food.
The home of the gods was swamp and bush and rock. It was so swampy that 65 years later when I was a child, much of Gimli was still swamp. Every spring Gimli flooded. Our basement often had two feet of water. The sump pump ran all day and all night.
W. Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People In Manitoba, says
“On account of the low-lying land and poor drainage, the ground was covered with two or three inches of water for some time in the spring, but in May the weather turned warm, the thermometer frequently rising to eighty and ninety degrees in the shade, and the settlers were able to turn to their fields and gardens.
“The settlers, on the average, cleared 2-3 acres of ground, and planted wheat, peas, and root corps. This entailed much manual labor, for they had no horses or oxen and pick-axe and hoe were their only implements of cultivation, and in some cases at least, the ground was a mass of tangled roots.
“The meaning of the word cultivation was by no means clear to some of the settlers. One man planted several acres of wheat without proper preparation of the ground, with the result that he had no crop.”
The meaning of the word cultivation wasn’t clear to the settlers. How could it be? They’d never worked the land. They’d never ploughed, harrowed, seeded. No grain would ripen in Iceland. They put sheep manure on the home field to help the grass grow. Vegetable gardens were seldom planted and those were usually planted by Danes. Visitors often reported on how poor vegetables grew because of the wind and the summer temperatures. Seeds were expensive and produced poor crops.
There were no forests so there was no opportunity to learn how to cut down trees, to build houses from logs or lumber. There were few opportunities to learn to make wooden utensils, tools, furniture. There was driftwood but it was owned by whoever owned the foreshore rights.
In New Iceland, the land was heavily wooded. Everything about cutting down trees, clearing land, cultivating it, sowing, harvesting, had to be learned.
And, in spite of being the home of the gods, much of the land, when cleared by hand with axe and mattock, turned out to be marginal farm land. Much of it was good for nothing but pasture.
Is it any wonder that within three years of arriving, the mortals who now lived there started to leave? They’d heard of land that wasn’t heavily wooded, was dryer, more fertile, not covered in stones.
Some settlers had begun to leave in 1878. By 1880 and 1881, there was a general exodus. There remained only 250 in all of New Iceland. However, in 1883, new settlers from Iceland started to arrive. By 1891 there were about forty homes in Gimli. However, the settlers, having been fishermen in Iceland, and seeing the potential of fishing in Lake Winnipeg, turned their attention there rather than to the land.
In 1896 the government decided that not enough settlers were coming from Iceland and opened up New Iceland to whoever wanted to live there. With this act, the end of a dream of a New Iceland, a place exclusively for Icelanders where they could remain Icelandic, was ended. The colony had been established in 1875. It had lasted for twenty-two years. New Iceland and a home good enough for gods was not realized but Gimli and New Iceland had served their purpose. They had provided a focus, a place with an Icelandic identity where new immigrants could come and, even if they did not stay long, had an opportunity to adjust to life in Western Canada. The existence of New Iceland must have been a great encouragement for people half a world away. They knew that at the end of their journey there would be relatives, friends, countrymen who would welcome them and help them.
As fate would have it, the land that had not been settled plus the land that had been abandoned, would become available to a group of people very different from the Icelanders. These were the Ukrainians, the men in sheepskin coats.
The Ukrainians came from Europe’s breadbasket. They were Greek and Roman Catholic, financially better off, many had little formal education, they were used to living in villages and working collectively, they were both herdsmen and farmers, used to clearing land, cultivating it, seeding it, harvesting it. They were used to a much wider variety of domesticated animals including chickens, geese, ducks, swine, goats. They were woodsmen. They were gardeners and came to Canada with seeds in their trunks.
Sydor Zelenitsky, in Spruce, Swamp and Stone, by Michael Ewanchuk, says, “On the higher land we planted potatoes and the cabbages on the lower slope”. His cabbages grow so well that he takes a wagonload of cabbages to Gimli where the Icelanders “paid me a five or ten cent piece each and I sold all my vegetables. I guess this was the first business transaction between the Ukrainians and the Icelanders in this part of the country.”
The Ukrainians experience better suited them for the land. In the Gimli area, they were quickly able to build houses like those they had left. Logs chinked with clay, then clayed over outside and in, the walls whitewashed, the roofs thatched. They were used to stoves and even though they did not have indoor ovens, they were quickly able to build the outdoor clay ovens in which they could bake a week’s bread.
The had the tremendous advantage of being woodsmen, used to building houses with the same materials that existed in the Gimli area. Ewanchuk says, “They brought with them utensils required for working with wood.” They brought different types of axes that allowed them to splitting logs or rails, to smooth out log walls, they had “spirit levels, a plumb line, a carpenter’s saw and a rip saw, various sizes of hand augers and drills, gimlets, chisels and hand-planes.”
They were used to thatched roofs and quickly cut dry hay or reeds. The tied these with bands of hay. They dampened them and placed the thatch close together on the roof so that when the thatch dried, it swole and tightened to form a weather proof roof. None of this was new. Where the Icelanders had been used to building with turf and rock and faced with the need to learn everything that needed to be done in a new climate, the Ukrainians were working with familiar materials. Wood, straw, clay, limestone were at hand.
(Quotes and information from W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; Michael Ewanchuik, Spruce, Swamp and Stone)