Egill’s Icelandic tour group, guests of the Icelanders of Victoria.
I have the greatest admiration for the settlers who came from Iceland during the 1870s into the early 1900s. These people risked everything. Many paid with their lives. They came because they wanted better lives, more opportunity and, above all, land. The Icelanders were not the only ones leaving behind an old life to risk a new one. People were coming from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, England, Scotland. Later, in the 1890s, the East Europeans would begin to flood into Western Canada.
When Horace Greeley, the 1871 editor of the New York Times, was asked by a young man working at the paper what he should do, he said that anyone who had to earn a living should go where workers are needed and wanted, where they will be hired because they’re needed, not because someone was doing them a favour. His advice was to go West but before anyone went West, he should have learned how to chop, plough and mow.
The Icelandic immigrants were at a great disadvantage when they arrived in Canada. They had only mastered mowing because in Iceland their only crop was hay. How could they have learned to chop? They’d come from a treeless land to a land of endless forests. How could they have learned to plough? They were used to being herdsmen, not grain farmers. They sowed no crops so they had no need to plough. How could they have known how to clear the land, to plough it, to seed it, to grow grain?
In Iceland, grazing land was at a premium. Good land for raising hay was owned by the church, the crown and private farmers. The figures from a survey in 1695 show there were 4059 farms. The Crown owned 718, the church owned 1494 and farmers owned 1847. The majority of the population were indentured servants, laborers, or crofters residing on marginal land. Two hundred years later not much had changed. New grazing land couldn’t be conjured out of the lava deserts.
The other skill that the Icelanders brought with them was that of deep sea fishing. To their sorrow, the immigrants discovered that the equipment and skills of deep sea fishing did not apply well to fishing on fresh water lakes that froze over in winter.
Yet, driven by lack of opportunity because of the shortage of land, the oppression of the ruling class (by both Danish and Icelandic) and volcanic eruptions that destroyed precious grazing land, some Icelanders made the decision to emigrate tp Amerika. They first settled in Nova Scotia and Ontario but good lands in Nova Scotia and Ontario were already taken.
They searched for more suitable land where they could apply the skills and knowledge they had in raising sheep, milk cows and in fishing. They ended up at Willow Point on Lake Winnipeg.
The stopped for a time in Winnipeg but decided to continue on to the area they called New Iceland. The decision to leave Winnipeg even though it was late in the season proved disastrous. In spite of its name, Iceland, Iceland’s weather is not like Manitoba’s.
They had learned something of chopping in Nova Scotia and Ontario but they were not skilled woodsmen. In Iceland, they built of lava rock and turf. At Willow Point they had to build houses from trees.
Unprepared for one of the coldest winters on record, the settlers were faced with conditions so unbearable that many of the stronger adults, and the older children capable of seeking work, walked to Selkirk and Winnipeg. According to Dr. Thompson in his history of Riverton, “the men found work at 10 to 20 dollars a month on the farms. Women and children were hired as domestics in Winnipeg homes. Only about one hundred were left in the original settlement when scurvy broke out. Thirty-four of the remaining one hundred died from the disease.”
The second group arrived and New Iceland was repopulated for a time. But good land was hard to find among the swamps and there was no way of draining off the water. Having made the long journey from Iceland, many now continued moving west, always looking for good land and opportunity. Some went to North Dakota where they found good land that was easier to prepare for crops.
Canada is vast. The distances a person has to travel is great. To travel by car from Gimli, Manitoba to Victoira, BC takes three ten hour days.
Canadian distances are unimaginable for many people who have not lived here. Three days of steady driving in a modern car at speeds of 100 to 120 k an hour. To get some idea of how much slower travel was a hundred years ago, I will cite a biography written by a woman who left Edmonton, Alberta in a wagon pulled by horses during the winter of 1913. This was 38 years after the settlers arrived at Gimli. This winter journey to Slave Lake took a month In brutally cold weather.
Dr. Thompson in his history of Riverton says that Stefan Eyolfson left the Icelandic River settlement for North Dakota. He carried all he owned on his back, and walked the entire 320 kms, driving ahead of him two cows.
Nowadays, people sometimes say, it would have made sense for the first groups of Icelandic immigrants to have settled on the West Coast. There are greater similarities between between the West Coast of Canada and the coasts of Iceland. There was deep sea fishing for halibut and cod, there was a salmon fishery. The ocean didn’t freeze over. The climate was closer to Iceland’s than the climate of New Iceland.
What they leave out is that until the railways reached the West Coast of Canada, the prairies and then the mountains formed an insurmountable barrier.
Until the railway reached the Coast, a traveler in the East had to take a ship around the Horn. Such a trip was long and dangerous. The ocean around Cape Horn is known for storms, large waves, powerful currents and even icebergs. So many ships foundered in the waters off Cape Horn that it was regarded as a sailor’s graveyard.
Faced with the difficulties in New Iceland, many of the settlers began moving West—like Stefan Eyolfson often walking, or on wagons pulled by oxen and horses but the distances that could be traveled were small. They went west of Winnipeg to Brandon, to Argyle. When the railroad reached Swift Current, Sask., settlers took wagons, cattle, equipment in boxcars, then unloaded and drove away onto the vast prairie.
In 1886, the first train went to Port Moody, B.C. In 1887, the first CPR passenger train arrived in Vancouver. Some Icelanders were on those first trains to BC. We have been coming to BC ever since. There is evidence of this migration everywhere you look. Some of it is in graveyards but some of it is right here, right now. Fred Bjarnason from Golden, BC, came to Victoria to work as a chef. Janis Olof Magnusson, from Winnipeg’s west end moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, then to BC to work as an agricultural economist. I moved to Victoria to be a professor at the University of Victoria.
Richard Beck moved from North Dakota to Victoria when he retired. He brought with him his passion for all things Icelandic and he and his wife, Margaret, created the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust at the U. of Victoria. With the income from that money, the trust has brought over a hundred experts on many aspects of Icelandic history, society and culture to give lectures. The Beck Trust has sponsored summer school courses, including courses in Icelandic film.
Bob Aesgeirson who you will have seen on Vesturfarar and may have met in Vancouver, told me that he was working as a radio announcer in Winnipeg. He left Winnipeg in a raging blizzard to have a holiday in Vancouver. When he got off the train in Vancouver, there was a light, warm rain. He bought a return ticket to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved to Vancouver. On Salt Spring Island Ian Sigvaldason has come from Arborg to create a beautiful art gallery.
There are endless stories of this journey West, both historic and current. But one of the most fascinating is that of Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. Although Christian’s last name was Sivertz, he was a hundred percent Icelandic. His family took that name Sivertsen to honour a Dane who helped the family and then when Christian was crossing the Canadian border, he decided to drop the sen and the border guard added a z. This is one of the perils of immigration.
Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir both came separately from Iceland. They knew no English. Christian arrived in Winnipeg in 1883. Christian worked long, hard hours in Winnipeg for little pay. He traveled West to Victoria in 1890. He was 25 years old.
After he arrived he met Elinborg Samuelsdottir who had left Iceland in 1888 with two brothers and two sisters. They had spent two years in Winnipeg. At the time they arrived in Victoria there were about 20 Icelandic families.
I mention the Sivertz family because I got to know Ben Sivertz, the youngest son, quite well. On many a Sunday in good weather, although he was in his 80s, he would leave his retirement home and walk a mile uphill to my house with a bottle of expensive gin. He’d arrive looking as neat and tidy as the naval officer he once was. He’d have a drink of gin and coffee and a visit and then I’d drive him back to his retirement home where we’d have lunch. He was typically Icelandic in that he did not brag. We all know that bragging is at the top of Icelandic Canadian sins. He was so modest that I knew Ben for a long time before I discovered that he’d been awarded a medal, the Order of the British Empire, for his work during the war. It also took quite a while before I discovered that he was rich. He is the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. His parent’s trip West had given him an exceptional life. Opportunity existed and he made the most of it.
I also mention the Sivertz family because their story is so typical in many ways. They came to Canada because there was a lack of opportunity in Iceland in the 1880s. They didn’t know English. They first settled in Winnipeg.. They came to Victoria and joined a small community of Icelanders who had arrived before them. Ben says about his father, Christian, that he was proud of being Icelandic, but also, of being a British citizen. That was typical of the Icelanders.
The Victoria that the Icelanders came to was very British. It was a place of coal barons who could afford to build places like Craigdarroch Castle. It was a city with aboriginal people who had a highly developed culture evident in their totem poles and art work. Victoria was a city of street cars and four story stone and brick buildings. Many of the buildings that were here when Christian and Elinborg arrived still exist. There were newspapers and aboriginal canoe races on the Gorge. There was high tea, formal dress, outdoor picnics, and cricket.
Like many Icelandic families, when their children went to public school, the Sivertz were faced with a problem. Their first son was used to speaking Icelandic at home but the school was in English. They decided that they should speak English to their children. That was a decision that many of our parents made. To get ahead in an English dominated society, one had to look and speak English.
But there is something else the Icelandic settlers brought with them and that was a desire for their children to be educated.
Think about the situation of those first settlers in New Iceland. They landed on a sand bar as winter was beginning. They had ratty second hand Hudson Bay tents for shelter. Their first task was to build as many log cabins as there were stoves.
Yet, nine days after their landing at Willow Point, John Taylor, their leader, sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba saying
“The Icelanders in the colony are desirous of having a school for their children as soon as they can put up a schoolhouse They have a teacher with them and wish to be connected to the regular educational system of Canada.”
Nine days after landing. Wanting a schoolhouse. That, to me, is amazing. They had traveled all this distance with great difficulty, had undergone severe hardships, and now were in the midst of the wilderness in a completely foreign land and what they wanted was a school house. It was 1875.
The settlers could only build as many cabins as there were stoves. The result was crowded, inadequate shelter. Some of the food the Icelanders were sold in Winnipeg was of poor quality. Once the lake froze over, to keep from starving, they had to learn how to fish under the ice. Yet, before Christmas, Caroline Taylor, the niece of John Taylor, opened a school in English. Thirty people enrolled. Imagine the situation. Winter, snow drifts, blizzards, no roads, isolation, inadequate food, illness because they didn’t have the cows they were promised. In Iceland, milk had been a major part of their diet. Yet, they had a school. And people struggled through the snow and cold to get there.
The next year when the smallpox started, the school was disbanded. Temporarily disbanded. One hundred and three people died from the smallpox. The settlement was devastated. Yet, once the smallpox was over, Jane Taylor restarted the school, this time with sixty-three students.
In the following years, Rev. Pall Thorlakson held classes. In 1885 Gudni Thiorsteinsson organized and taught classes. There was Sigrdur G. Thorarensen and Johann P. Solmundsson and Bjorn B. Olson. All of them and many others were determined to see that children would get an education.
Most of these classes were of short duration. Classes would be held for weeks or months. In 1878-79, For example, Kristjan Jonsson conducted elementary classes on Sundays and Wednesdays. Classes were held in whatever space was available.
Finally, in 1890, fifteen years after the settlers arrived, the same year Christian Sivertz left Winnipeg for Victoria, the school district bought a building from the Lutheran church. It was a large log cabin. Enough people wanted an education that this building had to be enlarged and the first high school section added.
In 1915, the brick school was built. It had six rooms. A dream that had begun in 1875, 40 years before was finally realized. The school cost 20,000 dollars. It seems like a small amount of money but it was actually a large amount.
In 1915 the average yearly salary was 687.00 a year for a man; 343.00 for a woman. Eggs, 34 cents a dozen. A pound of steak, 26 cents. A lb. of bacon, 27 cents. A loaf of bread, 7 cents. Gasoline was 15 cents a gallon.
The desire for their children to be educated was carried by the westward traveling Icelanders all the way to the coast.
Ben Sivertz says at the beginning of the book he wrote about his father that his father was a laborer and his mother did housekeeping. His father, Christian, finally got a job as a postman delivering mail. Being a mailman paid enough that they had their own house and they could afford to educate their six sons. Their sons did not need to become indentured servants with no future.
Henry, the eldest, took teacher training and taught school before joining the army. He was killed in the war. Gus, the second son, became an optometrist and then a reporter with the Vancouver Sun. Chris earned a Phd and became a prof of Chem at U. of Western On. Vic earned a Phd and became a Prof chem. at U. of Washington Sam was a bank officer in Shanghai until WWII He then joined the armed forces and after the war became an office manager. Ben, the youngest son, became a Navy officer. Then he joined the Department of External Affairs setting up consulates. He became the last Commissionaire of the North West Territories.
There were many others who came west. Some stopped in Brandon, Manitoba, in Regina, Saskatchwan, in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. In the interior of British Columbia. Others came to the coast and created Icelandic communities in Vancouver, Port Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, and Seattle, etc.
There was Gisli Gudmundsson from the Western Fjords and his wife Sigurbjorg. The lived in Wpg for several years, then went to Victoria. From there to Point Roberts.
Jonas Saemundsson from Grafarkot. He came to Amerika in 1889. He lived in Wpg, then went to Victoria and finally to Point Roberts in 1904.
Arni Myrdal emigrated with his parents and lived with them through the misery in New Iceland, the notorious small pox, scarlet fever and many illnesses that followed. His two sisters died there that winter. He went to Pembina and from there to Victoria. He went to Point Roberts. He was the first man in Point Roberts to have electric lights in his house.
There was another Icelandic settlementcalled Osland on Smith Island. It is in the mouth of the Skeena River. This is seven hunded kilometres north and was the site of a large salmon fishery. Small as the settlement was it included Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philipsons, Freemans, Odddsons, Grimsons, Kristmansons, Snidals and many others. It was settled by a mix of bachelors and families between the early 1900s and 1940s.
These people had made the great trek West. They had created an Icelandic colony on an island. They fished, raised animals, worked in the cannery in Prince Rupert. Elin Einarsson’s memories are in the Osland history. This is what she says “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies—sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. The men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. During the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinartarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter. “
“The Eyolfson family had a green gage plum tree that produced the best plums on the island.”
G. Olafson says “One year Pop said if he caught over2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that Fall. One morning, later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house so I took pop’s 30 30 and nailed it. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”
“Lots of wild berries,–blueberries, huckleberries, salmon berries and salal and crabapples. Mom grew gooseberries and currant and once in a while we’d have a few plums and apples off the trees.”
The metamorphosis has begun. There are no deer in Iceland. No plum and apple trees. They still speak Icelandic.They still make vinarterta, an Icelandic seven layer cake. But one only has to read this description of daily life to know that this is a Canadian talking about Canadian experience.
These people came West, as far West as it was possible to go, and made a life for themselves at Osland. They made a living boat building, running a shingle mill, logging, pile driving, sheep raising, goat raising, working in fish canneries. Icelanders spread along the West coast all the way to California. Some went to Hollywood to pursue the dream of becoming a successful actor. They were make the journey from being Icelandic to becoming Canadians and American of Icelandic descent.
Their children and grandchildren got educated and became doctors and lawyers and nurses and started their own businesses. They found good jobs and had their own families. The original settlers made a heroic journey from Iceland, to Scotland, to Quebec City, to New Iceland, always west, across the prairies where headstones in lonely graveyards testify to their journey but they reached the West Coast and they found, I believe, what they were seeking: a good life for them and their families.