Hofsos Hunts West

this one

Pictures on display at today’s coffee reception. These pictures provide evidence that families like those of Wayne Johnson still exist locally and have the materials that will  help create a permanent history of Icelanders on the West Coast.

Just like the pioneers who started off in Iceland, traveled to North America, settled for a time, at least in New Iceland, then began the long, slow process of moving West looking for good land, Valgeir of Hofsos has come west. His friend Bob Fridriksson is with him. They aren’t looking for land but for stories, family histories, letters, artifacts, evidence of those who, like Árni Mýrdal, as a child, survived the small pox in New Iceland. The land in New Iceland was swampy and provided only marginal farming. Not until a drainage system was developed was some of the best land available for farming. As well, most of the land was covered in dense bush. His parents, like many other Icelandic settlers, moved again, this time south to Pembina. From there they went to Victoria. This might have been a final stop but like many people, he moved to Point Roberts. Victoria drew immigrants and a good sized community developed but then a small pox epidemic and a recession caused people to leave. The railway and government brochures promised the best land imaginable. For many immigrants, finding that land took years and endless moves.
‘Arni did not travel alone. His wife, Sigríður, traveled with him.

Or they might try to find the descendants Pétur Ó. Hansen. Pétur emigrated in 1876 to Nova Scotia. Sive years later he moved to Winnipeg. From Wnnipeg to Hallson, North Dakota. He lived north of Hallson for 20 to 30 years. He then live din Mountain, North Dakota. In 1913 he moved to Blaine. His wife was Guðlaug Guðmundsdóttir. She came from Rangárvallarsýsla. They might find some descendants but it will be difficult because Guðlaug had three daughters so tracing their names may be impossible.

Valgeir and Bob say that they are not going to tackle the job from the past to the present but from the present to the past. They´re going to track down the living and work backward toward the dead. It sounds like a good plan. That´s what Valgeir´s presentation was about today.

The Icelanders of Victoria had a coffee reception for Valgeir Thorvaldsson and Thorhildur Bjarnadóttir today at the Tally Ho. Our president, Fred Bjarnason, is a chef at the Tally Ho and we get to use their banquet room. Having a chef for president has many advantages. Fred even made gluten free asta bollur for me. I ate four. What a great president! Twenty-two people turned up. Many of them I had not seen before. People like Susanna Helgason and Sian Hoff. They´ll be a great addition to our club.

Valgeir showed slides about Hofsos and told us its history. It was his dream to have an immigration museum. This harbor that was very busy at one time had fallen into disuse. He showed us pictures of the houses. Many were wrecks. He began by salvaging a house that was historically important. It was built in 1772. That alone should get him a mention in the history books and a public service award for rescuing an important part of Iceland’s history. It has obviously been a struggle to get people to accept the importance of the project and to provide the necessary funding but Valgeir has prevailed. There were pictures of more restored buildings and new buildings. There were pictures of Valgeir with Vigdis. Someone in the audience pointed out that he was thinner then but so were we all.

One difficulty that Valgeir will face is that many of us in the clubs have no family history on the West Coast. I, for example, grew up in Gimli. My family history there goes back to 1876. It is in the Gimli Saga. The other problem, as I mentioned, is the North American system of naming. Women who marry disappear. My son is Valgardson. My daughter is Hayman. How would anyone know about her Icelandic background? The other problem that I’ve noticed in my own research is that there are many references to Icelandic settlers or their immediate family leaving the Pacific North West and moving to California. It is obvious from the biography of Halldor Laxness, The Islander, by Halldór Guðmundsson, that a lot of Icelanders were drawn to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother, Blanche was a playwright and harbored dreams of writing movies. Although she lived in Gimli, she corresponded with an Icelander who had made a bit of a name for himself in the movies. Also, I know of an Icelandic actor in Winnipeg who moved on to Hollywood. It wasn´t just Laxness who hoped to make it big in Hollywood. There was an Icelander in Hollywood who was making a fortune in construction and provided Laxness with an apartment.

The good side is that there are people whose families have been in Victoria for generations. They not only can provide their family histories but information about other families. Also, there are at least three important books. Icelanders of the Pacific West Coast from which I’ve taken my information about the early settlers. Ben Sizertz’s three volume tome on his father, mother and himself. The third book is Memories of Osland about the amazing but now forgotten Icelandic settlement on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

There are, of course, families with a long history on the West Coast. It is these people who may provide photographs, diaries, letters, anecdotes of life back through the generations.
I wish Valgeir the best in this new search to find the forgotten Icelanders, those who moved West and West and West until they could move no further and settled to fish for salmon, or work in canning factories, or in the lumber industry, or raise sheep. It is the life of those of whom I sometimes write, those who left New Iceland for better land, greater opportunities, the same things that had caused them to leave Iceland, those who make up what I call the Icelandic Diaspora.

Who Were The West Coast Icelanders?

log_crew

Some of the Icelanders who came to the West Coast went logging. They came from a country where trees were scrub birch a few feet high. What do you think they thought and felt when they saw scenes like this?

princerupertarea2

From a country with no trees to a country covered in vast forests. This forest is outside Prince Rupert.

Who are these BC Icelanders and where did they come from?

“Gisli and Jonina Jonsson and their baby daughter, Kristjana, came to Canada from Iceland in 1902 to settle in Selkirk, Manitoba. While there Gisli worked as a carpenter and in the fish cold storage plant. In 1914 he came to British Columbia on an exploratory trip. He was looking for a place to settle where weather conditions were more temperate and working conditions more to his liking.”

Gudmundur “George” Snidal,  his wife Ingunn “Inga” and their three children came to Olsand in the early spring of 1919. They came from Graham Island, B.C. George Snidal was born in Iceland in 1879 and came to Canada at an early age. Inga Sigurddottir was also born in Ielandin 18886. She came to Canaa in the spring of 1910. Bhey were married in Winnipeg in late 1911.

Olafur ‘Oly’ Olafson was born in Iceland in February 1904 to Halvardur and Sigridur. In 1910 the Olafson family – three children, Oly (six), Hilda (three), and Swana (two), and Halvardur, who was 38 and Sigridur, 35, emigrated fro mt heir home country to Canada. They speont one winter in Winnpeg, then headed west to the Queen Charlotte Islands wehre othe rIcleandic famileis had gone to live.

In 1918 Benecikt Steffan Hohnson, with his wife Sigurlina Valgerthur Johanesdottir, moved from Manitoba to the northwest coast of British Columbia. Ben and Sigurlina were both born in Iceland – he in 1864, and she in 1862 – and were married in that country before immigrating to Canada in 1888 on the ship  “Cirdasia”. The had four children. Lutehr, their son, was born in Winnipeg April 26, 1894. He was married, before the family moved to B.C, to Thurihur (Thura) Oddson, the daughter of Gudni and Gudrithur Jonsdottir. Thura was born in Reykjavik, Iceland December 121, 1900 and came to Canada in 1901 with her parents and Grandparents.

And how did these Icelanders, braving the trip to England or Scotland, from there to Canada, across the country to Winnipeg, picking up and moving still further west, creating for themselves a small Icelandic colony on Smith Island, live?

According to Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher in Memories of Osland “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. Then 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. Durnig 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. As child I remember my mother baking sugar cookies with half an almond or a raisin on top. She also baked jelly rolls to have on hand for company. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinatarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter.”

How Icelandic is that?  There they are, probably about seventy people, living on an island on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forest, trees beyond imagining, in a community connected by a wooden sidewalk that wound its way through the forest and at Christmas and Easter the mothers and grandmothers make vinatarta. And I remember my mother in Gimli making those sugar cookies with half an almond on top and jelly rolls. To me, sugar cookies and jelly rolls are childhood, Gimli, Icelandic, Lutheran, but they’re obviously also Osland, BC, Icelandic, childhood, there over the vast prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, beyond the mainland, there’s vinatarta on a plate with a mug of strong coffee, and jelly roll and sugar cookies. There in the fog and rain, in the vast forests, on the edge of the world. Icelandic.

A World Beyond Imagining

haida

Masset Haida village

There are a lot of people coming to the INL conference in Seattle. So many, in fact, that it is sold out. Because the conference is being held in Seattle, the focus, of course, will be on the Icelandic American community. However, in the late 1800s, people moved quite freely between Canada and the USA, sometimes moving from Victoria to Seattle, then moving back. A lot of people of Icelandic descent in Washington State are from families that travelled across Canada by train, stayed in BC for a while, particularly in Vancouver and Victoria, then moved to Point Roberts and Boundary Bay. The historic ties are strong.

skeena

Skeena

In the book Memories of Osland there are numerous stories of that emigration from Iceland to Winnipeg, from Winnipeg to the West Coast of Canada and then from there to points south. All you have to do is read a few biographies to realize just how Icelandic a small community like Osland was.

Johan Phillipson in Excerpts from “Grandfather’s Story of the Philippson Family” says, “My parents were living in a small and isolated Canadian-Icelandic community called OSLAND which was located on Smith Island at the mouth of the Skeena River. I was born at the nearest hospital in Prince Rupert on April 2, 1916.”

In the article, “The Family of Kristjan & Sigridur Einarsson”, the author says “Kristjan Einarsson was born in 1873 in Iceland. In 1910 he came to Canada and followed the carpentry trade in Winnipeg until he moved west to Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands around 1912. There he married Sigridur Olafson, widow of Hallvardur Olafson.

“Sigridur was born in 1875 in Iceland. She married Hallvardur Olafson in 1902. In 1910 Hallvardur went to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada with their children – Olafur, Thorhildur, and Swanhvit. The family moved to Masset in 1912. Hallvardur had been in failing health for a year and in 1914 he passed away.

Kristjan and Sigridur moved to Osland in 1915. Land there was promoted by Thorsteinn Davidson, and Einarssons, and other Icelandic families bought land and built their homes there. Kristjan worked as a carpenter during the winter and fished for salmon in the summer months. He was a very good carpenter and made the windows and doors for almost every house in the settlement. He loved good books and over his long lifetime accumulated a large library of Icelandic books.”

How could any story be more Icelandic than that?

Born in Iceland, immigrating to Canada, stopping in Winnipeg, suffering a death in the family, remarrying inside the Icelandic community. Amazing that there was enough Icelandic community that Icelanders were able to marry Icelanders. And, they stayed within an Icelandic community on an island in the mouth of the Skeena river.

This was a world beyond imagining.

Had you ever heard of these people, these Icelandic individuals who had travelled across Canada and founded a community on a small island where they adapted to life in British Columbia? They raised goats and gardens, fished for salmon, worked in canneries, found jobs in Prince Rupert, endured the rain (at least it was West Coast rain on a green world and not driving horizontal rain that kept crops from growing), learned to log, built houses from wood and brought up families.

What a heroic journey this was. What strong people. What determination was required. What costs they paid. Graves attest to that.

And there, in the green world, in the world of towering trees, it says of Kristjan “He loved good books and over his long lifetime accumulated a large library of Icelandic books.”

 

West Coast Icelanders: Osland

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Skeena Valley

I have wonderful books in my library. These wonderful books aren’t necessarily what you might imagine them to be—the great works of literature bound in leather. My great books are somewhat different. They are books like Memories of Osland compiled by Frances Hanson. Books like these, first person accounts of life in the various scattered Icelandic communities of North America are treasures. They hold within their covers, the hearts and lives of those people who made the difficult decision to leave Iceland and risk everything by coming to Canada.

Some groups settled in communities that survive to this day. Gimli, Riverton, Arborg, Lundar, spring to mind. Foam Lake, Markerville. But others, like Osland, appeared and disappeared. Many of those that disappeared didn’t disappear completely but with the urbanization of Canada and the building of railroads, highways and airports travel became easier, less expensive and necessary. Opportunities in the cities were greater for more people than in rural communities. Farms, instead of being divided and re-divided with each generation, grew in size, required fewer individuals to plant and harvest grain.

With the depopulation of rural Canada a way of life disappeared. In some cases, like Osland, there was the real danger that its existence as a functioning Icelandic community would be forgotten. Thank goodness for people like Frances Hanson. It takes someone to decide that memories must be recorded so we and future generations know who we are. And we are, not just us, not just New Iceland, not just Winnipeg, not just Vancouver. Our story is much broader than that, more complex than that, more interesting than that.

In introducing Osland, I will shamelessly take extensive quotes from it. The first biography in the book is about Arni Thorarinsson Long. It was written by Thura Johnson in 1966.

Arni Thorarinson, Thura tells us, was just one of a group of “Icelandic people who came to the Pacific coast with the intention of settling on Graham Island. Finding that place not to be what they had expected and hearing of the boxful salmon fishery on the Skeena River, also a strip of arable land, virtually in the mouth of the Skeena, all this was more than a little tempting. Arni was born in Iceland, December 29th, 1857. His father was Thorarinn Richardsson Long, his mother Lisabet Jonsdottir. Arni’s grandfather was an Englishman, who in part, had been brought up in Denmark. A short story appeared in the “Logberg” (an Icelandic newspaper) several years ago telling of Arni’s grandfather, Richard Long, how as a lad of twelve years had shipped as a cabin boy on a merchantman out of an English port. The ship had been overtaken by pirates, they killed the Captain and crew, all except young Richard, intending to train him in piracy. However, that was not to be. Through some mischance the pirate ship was seized by Danes and the pirates brought into Copenhagen, tried and found guilty of piracy on the high seas. All were hanged, but Richard’s life again was spared because of his tender age. A merchant in Copenhagen took the young lad into his home and treated him as a son. The Danish merchant who had business interests in Iceland, trained Richard in the art of commerce, and when he reached the age of twenty Richard was sent to another town in Iceland to become the manager of a general store, and well as handling export and import from that point, for his foster father.”

“Richard Long married an Icelandic woman and they became the parents of seven children—five sons and two daughters. One of these sons was Thorarinn who became Arni’s father. Arni Long came to Canada a young man and lived in Winnipeg at the time of the Riel Rebelling. …In February 1897 he married Margaret Sigridi Bjarnadottir Julius.”

Arni moved to Osland and lived there “until he was seventy years old”.

Imagine if Frances hadn’t compiled this book, if Thura hadn’t written Arni’s profile. What a family story! If it were mine, I’d insist on it being told once a year to the assembled family.

The biography is short but what a few words hold. The ship had been “overtaken by pirates”. Imagine what that was like. “They killed the captain and crew.” The implied scenes are horrendous. Imagine being a twelve year old boy experiencing this. And then the Danes seizing the pirate ship, bringing the pirates and twelve year old boy as prisoners to Copenhagen, transported to prison, tried, sentenced to death, the entire pirate crew being marched off to the gallows.

I thought I was traumatized because my grandmother lost me in Eatons.

Then being pardoned and miraculously, a kind hearted Dane takes him as a son, trains him, ships him to Iceland. And two generations later, his great grandson arrives on an island in the mouth of the Skeena because there’s good hay for sheep and lots of salmon.

Unbelievable. Except it’s all true and it is all there for us to read and marvel over because Icelanders love to read and write and are obsessed with preserving family histories. Thank goodness!

So, there you have it, the story of one of those West Coast Icelanders.