Gypsy Clothes

In Iceland, turf houses
This story probably has a thousand variants. It has been told by many people over a long period of time.
Like many folk tales it is about good and bad, about reward and punishment. It very definitely does not adhere to the belief that was current a while ago that “greed is good”.  Folk tales often have about them an element of teaching the listener or reader correct behaviour. This story does not end with a stated moral. In that way, it is not a fable. Rather, it is more like an episode out of the sagas. Perhaps, its theme could be found in Havamal. 
Conditions in Iceland, with the beginning of the Little Ice Age in 1350, began to deteriorate. It only takes a difference of a few degrees to keep grain from ripening. Icelanders had been able to grow hardy crops and some records appear to show, even grow a surplus that could be exported. That changed with the drop in temperature. What had been a multi-crop economy became a one crop economy, hay. Although hay could grow and be harvested, a further drop in temperature created by unusually cold weather or by ice filling the fjords, meant that hay would not grow that particular summer.
The weather, the volcanic eruptions, the earthquakes, were so unpredictable that every effort had to be made to accumulate food for people and fodder for the animals during the growing months. Every bit as serious was the lack of fuel. Brown coal was used wherever it could be found, peat cut and dried, sheep manure pressed and dried, dwarf birch sticks. Icelandic farms didn’t have stoves. Stoves require wood or coal and lots of it.
The turf and rock houses of most of the people are described as wretched. There was nothing romantic about living in a house made of lava rock and turf.
Is it any wonder that people fantasized about better lives, about people like themselves except better dressed, better fed, better housed, with gold and jewels and warm fires? Why wouldn’t they? Dreams give us solace when life disappoints us. 
 The dream in Canada. Free land and houses like this.
In this version of “Gypsy Clothes” what has changed is the location. The setting is still a farm but the farm is now in New Iceland. The time is, as always, Christmas. The virtue of the main character, Kristin, is that she is generous and kind to people who look like beggars. The sin of the evil mother is her lack of generosity to people she considers inferior to herself.
A reader can easily see how daughter and mother would be judged in Iceland where hunger always threatened and was often present. Not just hunger but starvation. People, through no fault of their own, bad weather, natural disasters, were driven onto the mountain paths seeking food. Their lives depended on the generosity of others.
In New Iceland on Gisli’s farm, there is no threat of hunger. The mother acts out of selfishness and self-importance. The revenge is swift and brutal. The good are rewarded and the bad punished.
However, the story goes beyond the simple retelling of the tale to raise questions about the transference of the folk figures from Iceland to New Iceland. The local people in the story speculate that the farm visitors must have been foreigners. One woman says it was the huldfolk but she is hushed. Instead, the actions of the visitors are transferred onto other possible immigrant groups. Other immigrant groups are exotic, strange, mysterious, capable, in our fantasies, of anything.

Selkirk settlers, 1817.

This is a story with new possibilities, with not just the joining of an invisible person (which is also told in Icelandic folk tales) and a visible person but of choices, of new places. This is why people shouldn’t refer to the huldafolk as elves. Not that there are not elvish names for them in Icelandic but because the term has been taken over by Disney, Hollywood, etc. The huldafolk are God’s childen just as we are. They are not gnomes or dwarves or monsters. This is why it is a travesty to see, in Iceland, people making small elve’s houses for the tourists, as if the huldafolk were Irish gnomes. Remember, the huldafolk are Eve’s children, made invisible not because they had sinned but because Eve lied to God. Because they are human, just as we are, is why, from time to time, those who are invisible marry with the visible. As our ancestors lives became better, became more like the imagined world of the huldafolk why shouldn’t they join together? 
Is it not because our ancestors were able to imagine, through their beliefs in the huldafolk, a better life, that your ancestors and mine risked their lives to come to this new world? If they could not imagine the possibility of a better life, a life like that of the huldafolk, why risk the ocean voyage, why die and be buried in a lonely cemetery at Quebec City or Gimli or Grund or a thousand other places. It was their desire, their dream, to live like the huldafolk.
This story is about more than just folk beliefs. It is about our reaction to “others”, those people different from us, it is about kindness and self-importance, about dreams of a possible better life. Today, the food we eat, the houses we live in, the luxury that surrounds us, is the life envisioned for the huldfolk. Food everywhere, vast amounts of it. Warm, dry houses. Good clothes. Medicine to treat our diseases. Jobs, no matter how much we grouse about them, that are beyond compare better than being an indentured servant.
Some people, having read WTBS, have told me that there was never any mention of ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, magical creatures in their families, just as some have told me that there was no religion in their families. Their parents often said, “We are in a new country. We don’t need any of that anymore.”
 However, others have told me about all sorts of “others” who came with their families: trolls, ghosts, fylgjas, huldafolk, the devil himself. As for my family, we had a troll who lived in the basement cistern. I was terrified of him. I have known people who took and take fylgjas for granted.
Perhaps these others have faded away in this scientific age or, perhaps, when nothing works, when the internet becomes a mystery, when people behave in untypical ways, when accidents happen, we might have reason to believe that “others” are still around.
Sometimes, no matter what one does, everything goes wrong but, equally, I have often felt that when I’ve been in difficult and dangerous conditions that it’s more than just me who got me out of them.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

Embrace your heritage

 Photograph taken by Kristin Johnson (Valgardson), their daughter.
These are my great grandparents, Ketill Valgarðsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardóttir.
Ketill did not come to Canada to steal, rob, pillage, burn down buildings, kidnap people and sell slaves. He worked in Iceland, like his father, as a laborer. He came to Canada to work.
He did not wear a Viking helmet with or without horns.
In Iceland, he took care of dairy cattle and sheep. He cut hay. He fished. He had no future. He had no opportunity to advance beyond being a hired man. He worked for his room and board, a small amount of money and some cloth with which to have clothes made.
He was the son of Valgardur Jonsson and Kristin Brynjolfsdottir. His mother died in Iceland and his father, who was seriously ill when he came to Canada, died in New Iceland and was buried at Sandy Bar outside of Riverton in an unmarked grave.
Ketill came to Canada in 1878 on the SSWaldensian. He and his father traveled from Quebec City to New Iceland. Ketill worked on the railway and as a fisherman.  He moved to Winnipeg, married Soffia, and worked for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman.
In 1894, 16 years after his arrival in Canada, he was able to start a dairy business and to buy land at the northwest corner of Simcoe Street and Ellice Avenue. He had a business there until 1903. He then moved to Gimli and set up a flour and feed business that lasted until 1909. He bought a farm outside of Gimli which he called Adabol. He lived there until 1920. He moved back to Gimli, built a house there, a house in which I lived for the first year of my life.
He was not a pagan. He was a Christian. He didn´t worship Thor or Odin or any other gods. He was one of the founders of the Tjaldbud congregation in Winnipeg in 1893. When he moved to Gimli he became a member of the Lutheran church council.
He was active politically in that he was a member of the first council of the Village of Gimli in 1908.
He wasn´t a goði or a bishop or even a rich farm owner. He was a farm laborer. He came from a hard life to a hard life. It was no fun being a laborer on the railway. I expect it was no fun being a laborer for the city of Winnipeg.However, his work and his thrift meant that he could save money and buy land and start a business.
He and Soffia had three children. In Iceland those children would have become farm laborers, if not paupers. Raised in Gimli, one son, Sveinbjorn, became a master carpenter; the other son, Valentinus earned a gold medal in Mathematics at the University of Manitoba and a Master´s degree and became a high school Mathematics teacher in Moosejaw; Kristin, his daughter, became a bookkeeper and an accomplished artist.
In his retirement, he was financially independent. He’d raised and educated his children so that they did not have to be indentured servants. He owned his own house. He’d owned businesses. He could afford to keep a fine coffin in his basement for when he died. He wanted no pauper’s grave.
He and Soffia are my heritage. I’m proud of them. They’re the heritage I embrace. Ketill never killed anyone, stole from anyone, burned down any houses or monasteries. Soffia never scared off a bunch of angry aboriginals by beating her bare breasts with a sword.
They came with little or nothing. They made a good life for themselves. Their descendants have prospered.
Ketill’s story is not unique. I expect it is the story of many, if not all, of the people who came with him on the SSWaldensian. This is our real heritage. Laborers, farmers, domestics, paupers. Seeking opportunity. Building a life, a shovel full of earth at a time, adapting to a new society, learning a new language, adjusting to foreign neighbours, finding hope and solace in their church. Being brave.
My last memories of Ketill are the taste of peppermint and his woodpile. The peppermint because he always gave me a peppermint when I went with my father to visit him and the woodpile because it was while he was chopping wood at 84 that he had a heart attack and died.   

Living in the home of the gods (part 2)

Like the Icelanders before them, the Ukrainians were attracted to Brazil. There was free passage, lots of land but conditions, it turned out, were very bad. In Reflections and Reminiscences, Michael Ewanchuk reports that in 1895, Indians attacked Ukrainian settlers. A woman and four children were killed. Dr. Oleskow says “People die there like flies. As it appears, the climate for our people is deadly.” A priest reports that also in 1895 more settlers are killed by the local natives.”
It is reports like these that turn some Ukrainians away from Brazil and toward Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers who decided to come to Canada were fortunate for they had emigration agents to advise them about what they would need. They were told to take tools for building wooden houses. They only brought the metal parts of the tools. There was lots of wood and the wooden parts could be made. The women were advised to bring vegetable seeds. When they arrived on their isolated sections of land, they could clear a plot, till it and plant right away.
In Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers, by Peter Humeniuk, there is a list of what went into a settler’s trunk.
“In the very bottom of the trunk they placed their winter clothes, bed sheets and blankets. On top of the trunk went carpentry tools: an axe, hatchet, draw knife, spade, hammers, planes, framed handsaws, bits, chisels, 2 sickles, grass-scythe, hoes, sieve, garden rake and other tools without handles, including the shorter stick and leathers of a flail….on top about twenty-five little cloth bundles of various garden seeds, onions, garlic, horse-radish and dried corn cobs…. four books were placed near the top. They were: a prayer book, History of Ukraine, a school primer, and Short Bible Stories….Mother tied some utensils and food in a cloth bundle.”
Once in Canada, the Ukrainians go through the same emotional and mental struggles as the Icelanders have gone through before them. A priest comes to see the settlers in the Dauphin area and he “wanted the people to assimilate” but “he exhorted them to maintain their culture, language and traditions. But, he encouraged them to learn English.” Already, assimilation has begun. The Icelanders had gone through this twenty years before with some wanting to assimilate and become part of the larger society while others wanted to create an exclusive Icelandic community. That argument, in spite of five generations in Canada, in spite of all the assimilation, still goes on.
The Ukrainians, too, wanted to live in a home of the gods. They wanted good land, good crops, good opportunities for themselves and their children. Their disillusionment, like that of the Icelanders, comes quickly.
Harvey, the immigration agent came to the Immigration Hall in East Selkirk. To the people who want to go to Gimli, he said “There is no future there: neither you nor your children will eat bread from that soil. That is poor land, wet and mosquito infested.” When people insist, he adds, “All right, go! You will break your necks there.”
They go to Gimli on Kristjanson’s boat and with that they have their first experience with Icelanders. The interaction has begun. Two different languages, two different cultures, two different religions, two different histories but the Kristianson brothers end up marrying two sisters from among the new immigrants. The dreams of a New Iceland, a new Ukraine, and separate cultures, have already begun to crumble around the edges.
The seeds that are carried in the immigrants’ trunks serve the people well. One settler says, ‘There were beets, carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, dill, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and corn…She (mother) had planted enough to last the family until the following spring.”
However, it is not just the knowledge and skill of growing vegetables that the Ukrainian settlers bring with them. First, like the Icelandic settlers before them, they have to feed themselves. The Icelanders fished to feed themselves but once they became expert enough to create a surplus, they then sold what they didn’t need. The same was to become true for the Ukrainians but it was their garden produce they sold.
Even though many of the Ukrainian settlers had been peasants, they owned a few morgans of land in Urkaine and, like the share croppers in Iceland, were able to sell both land and animals. The Icelanders had come from the poorest country in Europe. One report says they had an average of seven dollars a person and had so few resources that they had to get financial assistance from the federal government to relocate within Canada to New Iceland. Many of the Ukrainians, on the other  hand, brought money with them into the Gimli district. Nicholas Marcina took up a farm eight miles south of Gimli in 1897. He bought a cow for $20.00, a plough for $15.00, $3.75 for a harrow, a wagon for $36.00. Nicholas Krysansky says his father paid $55.00 for a yoke of young oxen and $35.00 for a cow, $12.00 for a plow and $30.00 for a sleigh. That was cash going into a local area that was constantly short of money.
The Icelanders got their land for ten dollars. Many of the Ukrainians had to purchase land and some paid as high as $`1200.00.
Once the Ukrainians had shelter, the problem was to start to make money to pay off debts (many borrowed money to pay the high fare from Ukraine to Gimli. One family paid $700.00 for their fare. There was no subsidy.)  They needed, as quickly as possible, to buy one or two oxen and a sleigh. This was important because New Iceland became a cordwood economy. The first major way of making money was to cut and sell cordwood. Houses were heated with wood so the demand for wood was high.
Stefan Yendyk says, “we started to haul cordwood to Winnipeg Beach. One had to get up during the night and feed the oxen, then start out early in the morning so that by sunrise one would be by the Ewanchuk farm….My early Canadian winters saw me in the bush, cutting cordwood or hauling the wood 22 miles to Winnipeg Beach.”
Later, when the railway tracks were extended, the farmers delivered wood to Gimli. In 1907, 95,000 cords of wood were sold in Winnipeg. The demand seemed insatiable. Even in summer, wood was needed for wood stoves.
However, cordwood alone wouldn’t pay for a farm. The men went away to work, often on the railway, or, to farms that were already established. Everyone had to work. Single women, young girls, usually, often walked to Winnipeg to find jobs.
On the farms, the wives dug Seneca root because it could be traded for goods at the local stores in Gimli. They also took eggs and vegetables to town in season.
Prices were low for farm goods but then, with the beginning of WWI,  there was a demand for everything the farmers could produce. Eggs sold for 60c a dozen, butter for 60c a pound. Once the railway came as far as Gimli, campers (summer cottagers drawn to the village of Gimli because of its beaches) created a demand for fresh produce and wild berries. The Ukrainian farm families also sold cream, milk and poultry. The Icelandic fishermen, in the meantime, were selling the same people, fresh fish, particularly pickerel fillets.
In 1902 Gimli was still exclusively Icelandic, or close to it. I know that there were other nationalities represented because my Icelandic grandmother Fredrikka Gostskalksdottir and her English husband from Fort Garry had moved to Gimli and he had become a fisherman. However, it is not until 1904 that Wasyl Ewanchuk built the first Ukrainian house in the village.
The Ukrainians build houses, clear land, plant crops, use all the knowledge and skills they have, but drainage is a serious problem, getting goods to market , whether to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach or Winnipeg, is an arduous task.
Harvey, the immigration agent, turned out to be right. There was better soil elsewhere. Gradually, families began to leave, abandoning the farms they’d worked so hard to establish, or, if they were lucky, selling them to newcomers.
Some of the Ukrainian farmers who left for other areas were able to sell their farms that they had created out of the bush. After 12 years of clearing land, pulling stumps, collecting rock, building houses and barns, making fences, the farmers got from $561.00 to $900.00. Others took over with dreams of making the land profitable.
The dreams of the two immigrant groups, to live in the home of the gods, a place where they would propser, where the land would provide plenty, instead, were defeated by marginal and sub-marginal and, by problems with drainage, with a lack of roads. Those who hung on had a hard struggle ahead of them. When George Johnson (later Minister of Health in the provincial government, then Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba) came to Gimli to practice medicine, he discovered, in the Interlake, the second  poorest area of Canada. Only Newfoundland was poorer. Conditions were such that he went into politics to try to find a remedy for the poverty.
However, both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians managed to create a life for themselves better than that which they left. The Icelanders, often little more than indentured servants, the Ukrainians, serfs, became their own masters. Their children and their grandchildren went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, businessmen. Most of these children left both the fishing and farming to seek success in urban areas. The opportunities that the original settlers from both groups had sought for their children did exist. No one said it would be easy.
The land in the Gimli area, Michael Ewanchuk describes as spruce, swamp and stone. For those who have lived in and around Gimli, the rock piles at the sides of farm fields have been a familiar sight. The stone boat was a vehicle of pain as every year, farmers and their families followed it over the fields, collecting the rocks that had surfaced during the spring. Although there were good strips of land, much of it was marginal, some of it good for nothing but pasture.
Lake Winnipeg provided bounty to the fishermen, most of whom were Icelandic but there were good seasons and bad seasons. The lake also took many lives. There is a cost to everything.
Today, a Gimli banquet is not complete without perogis and hollopchi, ham, kubysa. It often ends with vinarterta, skyr with strawberries, and ponnokokur. They say we are what we eat and from the smorgasbord table, it would appear we’re a little bit of both, if not in blood, then in dreams, history and experience.
(Facts, figures and quotes from the books of Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone; Pioneer Profiles; Reflections and Reminiscences; Peter Humeniuk’s, Hardships&Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers. For anyone interested in the Ukrainian emigration to Western Canada, these are good places to start. For the Icelandic experience, W. Kristjanson’s, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; W. Lindal’s, The Saskatchewan Icelanders. There is a lot of material on-line. Most of it is personal reminiscence and carries with it the expected biases but is still valuable.)

The Failed Brazilian Emigration

 Picking coffee beans in Brazil. (Wickipedia)
 It wasn’t just Icelanders who were enticed to Brazil.
Michael Ewanchuk, in his book, Pioneer Profiles, says this “In time immigration agents appeared in the villages and began to conduct a very intensive campaign to interest the people to settle in Brazil. These agents offered free transportation to Brazil and told the people that no medical examinations were needed.”
“In Brazil the European settlers had to adjust to the harsh tropical climate and life in the jungle .Those that were settling in the Parana area soon found out that the cost of transportation inland and the cost of land, food and supplies, was excessive. What they saved on fares crossing the ocean was soon spent on food and clothing – employment was hard to find. Soon letters reached the Ukrainian villages which showed that life in Brazil was untenable. They wrote back complaining: “All that we have been able to harvest is black beans and corn, and some vegetables. There is no wheat or rye grown here. We cannot get milled flour. All we are able to do is to grind the corn on a quern and bake corn bread. “
Prof. Joseph Oleskow wrote to the High Commissioner for Canada in 1896. In the letter he says, “In the meantime (settlers) leave the seaports of Hamburg, Bremen and Geneva (Italy) in every week several hundred families from “Western Ukraine” for Brazil.
“This very movement I have predicted, and I have in vain challenged the Canadian Government to help me in turning this flow from Brazil to Canada…the Brazilian interests are supported here with    considerable capital, nevertheless, I say once more, the little sum of say 800 pounds in my hands would suffice to lay the foundation for regular monthly expeditions of some 100 famiilies, agriculturists with necessary means to make a start on a homestead in Canada.”
Oleskow joined with the Hon. Clifford Sifton and federal immigration officials to begin the movement of thousands of Ukrainian settlers away from Brazil and to Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers, although it was now more than two decades after the first immigrants arrived in New Iceland, find themselves starting for one destination but changing for another. With the Icelanders it was Nova Scotia and the United States. For the Ukrainians, it was starting for Brazil and ending up in Canada.
In Michael Stashyn’s account, “Our neighbour drove us to Chorkiv, our nearest station, and from there we left by train for the German port of Hamburg.
“It was the first time that my parents rode on a train, and for the first time they saw an ocean liner….In Hamburg we met many Ukrainians who were not going to Brazil as we were, but to some kind of Canada. They started to convince my parents that we should come with them. “
Michael’s parents do change course. They board the ocean liner for Canada. Like the Icelanders before them, they head across the ocean, into the unknown. “On the fourteenth day, we disembarked and found ourselves in the port of Quebec City. There we boarded a train and headed west.”
Will Kristjanson says in his book , The Icelandic People in Manitoba, “About forty persons left for Brazil, 1863-1873. The precipitating factor was the disaster to the sheep industry, 1856-1860, and the hard winter of 1858-59, the second hardest in the century.”
“Einar Asmundsson, of Thingeyjarsysla, in the North, was a person widely read and well-informed. He had been reading much about Brazil and considered that country the most promising for Icelandic emigration…In 1860, Asmundsson promoted the founding of the Brazilian Emigration Association. Thirty-five persons reached Brazil and several  hundreds were prepared to go. However, transportation difficulties blocked this movement.”
The plans to move to Brazil were opposed by local officials and wealthy farmers. Even so, four men left for Brazil in 1863. Their job was to evaluate the possibility of Brazil as a home for Icelanders. By the beginning of 1865, about a 150 people had agreed to go. However, the plan fell through.  In 1873, a group of 500 had agreed to emigrate to Brazil. The Brazilian government, just as with the Ukrainians later, promised to pay the fare but that fare would be from Hamburg to Brazil. The Icelanders had to get from Iceland to Hamburg and were unable to do so. The Brazilian government, at one point, tried to rent a ship to sail to Iceland to collect the prospective immigrants but was unable to do so. Again the plan fell through. Eventually, only 34 people actually emigrated.
Even though the Ukrainian settlers who go to Brazil do so around fifteen years after the Icelanders, we can see from their experience the difficulties that the Icelandic emigrants must have faced.
Two countries distant from Canada, Iceland and Ukraine, where the lot of the common people is one of such hardship that people are willing to risk their lives venturing into the unknown. In both countries, the people are both caught up in medieval systems. There is hunger, injustice and lack of opportunity. They respond the same way: emigrate. Circumstance, randomness, misunderstanding, possibility, all result in these two disparate groups settling in the same area.
Their choice of settlement area, without any intention of doing so, makes them part of each others’ Canadian heritage, and gradually, through necessity, doing business, then some social events and, finally, intermarriage, their stories become inextricably entwined. Today, all across Canada, there are Ukrainian-Icelandic marriages. Yet, the two written histories have remained separate for no one has attempted to show how the two groups came to settle on the same land (not just nearby land but the same to such an extent that Ukrainians took up land abandoned by the early Icelandic settlers) and how the two communities learned to function together.

If the Brazilian immigrations had been successful, they may very well have ended up neighbours in Brazil. Instead, with the failure of the Brazilian ventures, they became neighbours in the wilderness of Manitoba.
(Sources: two books worth reading, if you can find copies. Michael Ewanchuk, Pioneer Profiles Ukrainian Settlers in Manitoba; W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People in Manitoba A Manitoba Saga)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Icelandic Bibles

I used to find boxes of Icelandic books and magazines on my doorstep. When it happened, I’d know that someone’s amma or afi had gone into a nursing home or died and the sons and daughters didn’t know what to do with her treasured books, probably didn’t read Icelandic, and because of my work with the Beck Trust, assumed that I’d know what to do. I also was given Icelandic books when I was in Gimli. Gradually, the books filled forty-five boxes–if I remember correctly.

There were, unfortunately, no unknown copies of the sagas. Most of the books were religious in nature. First, there were copies of the Bible. Boxes of them. Well worn from use. Black covers, different sizes; at some time, they’d sat in the trunk of a person emigrating from Iceland. Their owners often had few belongings, little money, the trip was long, the wooden trunks heavy, but the Bibles couldn’t be left behind. They’d provided solace in Iceland, where times were hard, death was frequent, hunger was always threatening, where individuals were helpless in the face of cold weather, avalanches, volcanic eruptions. The trip to Granton, from there to Quebec City, from there to Nova Scotia or Ontario and, finally, to New Iceland, was marked by graves. The Bibles got plenty of use.

Many of these Bibles may have started their journey in England. Ebenezer Henderson, went to Iceland in 1814, stayed over the winter, and left Iceland in the fall of 1815. His purpose was to find out if the Icelanders needed Bibles and, if they did, to distribute Bibles provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society. He wanted to establish an organization that’s purpose would be the distribution of Bibles.

Henderson was an amazing individual. Although Scottish, he lived in Denmark, and became pastor at Elsinore. From about 1806, he spent his time arranging the distribution of Bibles in Scandinavia. He visited Sweden, Lapland, Iceland and part of Germany.

He was a highly accomplished linguist. According to his biography in Wickipedia, “He made himself more or less acquainted, not only with the ordinary languages of scholarly accomplishment and the various members of the Scandinavian group, but also with Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, Russian, Arabic, Tatar, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Manchu, Mongolian and Coptic.”

Therefore, when he says things like the Icelanders have a high degree of religious knowledge, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s surprised at this knowledge, because few people actually have a Bible. However, “almost every family is in possession of a volume of excellent sermons, written by Biship Vidalin of Skalholt.”

He also says that the poverty of the Icelanders is such that a new edition of the Bible could not be printed locally.

He makes two extensive trips around Iceland. He lives in a tent. He faces unknown dangers but nothing is going to stop him from selling and giving away Bibles. At Tiörnabæ he sold a Bible and New Testament to the farmer. Then, as he was going back to his tent, “two servant girls came running with money in their hands, and wished to have each a New Testament.” He was short of copies and suggests that they read the farmer’s copies. He then sends for the two poorest people in the district and gave each of them a Testament. An old man and a young man come to see him. “He (the old man) thanked me with tears in his eyes, and rode home quite overjoyed with the gift he had received.”

A number of people had gathered outside his tent. Henderson then asked the poor young man to whom he had given a New Testament to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John. “He had hardly begun, when they all sat down, or knelt on the grass, and listened with the most devout attention. As he proceeded, the tears began to trickle down their cheeks, and they were all seemingly much affected.”

Later, Henderson arrives at Hals and finds the minister, Sira Sigurdr, the clergyman making hay. They retire to the house and the minister says that his three parishes could use a large number of Bibles and New Testaments. The next day Henderson goes to church and Sira Sigurdr gives the service. The service begins around two o’clock because “the Icelanders have their sheep to collect and milk, the horses on which they are to ride to seek and drive home, and themselves to dress”.

“The parish of Fliotshverfi, of which Sira Jon is the minister, contains only a population of about seventy souls; the tract having been much injured by the volcanic eruptions…yet, among that number of people, there only existed one Bible, besides the copy belonging to the church…they had ultimately given up all hopes of ever seeing them more.”

On Sunday, May 21st, Henderson is at Stadarhraun. There is no public service as nearly everyone is away fishing. However, the clergyman, his wife and children assemble around the altar of the church. Psalms were sung, a prayer was said, the women placed their hands flat on their faces so as to cover their eyes. A sermon was read from Vidalin’s collection, then there was singing and a prayer.

Many distinguished, notable visitors came to Iceland in the 1800s but Henderson is one of the few who risked staying over the winter. His passion for the distribution of Bibles overcomes everything, including the Icelandic darkness. If you have an old Icelandic Bible in the family, take it out, hold it, open it, look at it, wonder about where it has been. It is a far traveller. We now are mostly a secular society but that does not diminish the journeys your Bible has taken nor the meaning it held for your ancestors.