Will You Remember Them?

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Many came to Amerika because they were desperate. Desperate to leave behind hunger, insecurity, ill treatment, poor living conditions. They risked going to Amerika because they thought there’d be food, security, better treatment, and better living conditions. A man (and a woman) could claim land, his land, her land, their land. The land wasn’t taken, wasn’t in the hands of the few wealthy farmers who hired indentured servants, daily and seasonal workers, who rented to crofters, farmers who were as one of them said, like Napoleon on their own land. The settlers risked everything for opportunity, for the future.

They went to Nova Scotia, they went to Kinmount, they went to the United States, they began a journey that, for many, seemed to have no end. The settlement in Nova Scotia failed. Kinmount failed disasterously. New Iceland, begun with high hopes, was virtually abandoned within three years. These were not frivolous people. They were desperate for good land, land that could be broken with a plough, that could, within a year or two, provide crops that would feed the settlers, clothe them, house them.

Many kept moving Westward. Winnipeg, Brandon, Vatnbygg, Swift Current, Markerville, Calgary, Edmonton, the Peace River, over the mountains to Vancouver, to Victoria, to Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Boundary Bay (Seattle).

With each move the Icelandic immigrant community fragmented.
Communities were formed and then dissipated. Some, like the one on Smith Island, persevered for decades. In some cases, individuals disappeared, became rumours, memories. One book says that there is a rumour of an Icelandic family in the Interior.

Many were your lang afi and amma’s neighbours. Sigurdur Sigurdsson Myrdal was one of those. He was born in Gil in Myrdalur in West Skaftafellssysla in 1844. He married Valgerdur Jonsdottir and left for America in 1876. They went to New Iceland.

“They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it. They lost two of their young daughters to that disease. In 1880 they went to Pembina where they lived for seven years. Sigurdur worked there in a store, and participated considerably in the Icelandic community, particularly in church matters.”

“From there the couple went to Victoria B.C., and then to Point Roberts in 1894. Sigurdur is a good carpenter and built for himself and family a quite nice single-storey wood house. Because of his wife’s poor health, he moved again to Victoria, where it was possible to get better medical help, but let his son Arni take care of his home. Sigurdur lost his wife in 1912 and was after that variously in Victoria or Point Roberts, until 1914 when he married…Jonina Solveig Brynjolfsdottir, widow of Amundur Gislason.”

I wish that someone had written down Sigurdur and Valgerdur’s story. They arrived in New Iceland in 1876. They buried two daughters in New Iceland. The writer, Margret J. Benedictson, says “They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it.” They lived a tragedy. How many of us have buried two daughters? They are, I assume, in the old graveyard in Gimli. If not, then they might be in the graveyard at Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Hecla. There are lots of graveyards.

Margret doesn’t expand upon “the other miseries”. I wish she had because then we would know what Sigurdur and Valgerdur overcame. They moved Westward to Pembina in 1880. Four years had passed in Gimli with its death and other miseries. What did they find in Pembina? What did they not find in Pembina?

According to Margret’s description, they moved to Victoria, then Point Roberts in 1894. This would mean they’d spent 14 years in Pembina before moving Westward to the very edge of the continent where there was deep sea fishing, mountains, good land for raising sheep and a community of other Icelanders.

Valgerdur died in 1912. She had been ill a long time. Eighteen years had passed since they’d settled on the West Coast. Moving, moving, always westward until they came to the edge of the continent, finally completing a journey that had begun in Iceland in 1876.

The Icelandic community in New Iceland lost them as neighbours, relatives, friends but it also lost their story, their stories that would have fleshed out what it meant to make that critical journey with the big group, what it meant to try to prepare for winter, to survive the small pox but to bury two daughters.

One could say, of course, but there were other people who stayed, whose stories remained, but Sigurdur and Valgerdur were just two of many who left and history is like a jigsaw puzzle, the more missing pieces, the less complete the picture. Everyone may be in the same place but no two people’s experiences are the same.

And distance and time dim memories. People forget, never learn and the lines of the journey, the lives of the journey, are lost and we are less because of it. I’ve been a part of one of those communities ever since 1974. My path was a crooked one, Iowa, Winnipeg, Missouri, Victoria. There are many others here, in Blaine, Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, Naniamo. I’m a newcomer compared to many whose families like those of Sigurdur and Valgerdur trace their roots back to 1894.

When I was editor of LH, I tried to include as much news of our far flung communities as possible. Without them, we are lessened. Without Chicago and Minneapolis and Markerville and Calgary and Edmonton and Vatnbygg and Minneota and and and, we are less, not just in numbers but in the story of our community. Without the stories of Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, Kinmount, we are incomplete. Our history, who were are, isn’t just New Iceland or Manitoba, although they are, without doubt the vortex to which we are all connected.

The INL has been doing everything it can to bring those pieces together, to reconnect forgotten connections, to make us aware of all of our story.

I met David Johnson at the INL conference in Seattle. He very kindly sent me a copy of Icelanders of the Pacific Coast: Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Marietta. I’m going to write about some of the people in this book, about our great grandparents friends, relatives, neighbours who kept traveling west until they couldn’t go any further. Unfortunately, I got one of the last three copies. There may or may not be two lef. I’ll do my best to tell you about some of the people who were written about in the Almanac by Margret J. Benedictson. Some of the people who appear in these pages. They are all a part of your history and mine.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 1

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After weeks of beautiful, sunny weather, it rained today just as the INL convention in Seattle was getting started with a bus tour. It turned out that it didn’t matter.

Jonas Thor was our tour guide and since he does tour guiding for a living, how could the job he did be anything but good. He lived in Winnipeg for ten years and since his return to Iceland he has bought thousands of people on Heritage tours. If you don’t think that is a big accomplishment, Iceland only has approximately 320,000 people. When you’ve brought thousands of people, you’ve brought a good percentage of the population.

His lecture, as we drove from Seattle to Blaine was chock a block with facts, as one would expect from a historian. However, he peppered his talk with humorous anecdotes from his years as a tour guide. People really do say the funniest things, especially when they’re trying to speak Icelandic. One woman knew some Icelandic but not all the latest words. When she was at a hotel, she called to the desk to say that she needed a wakeup call at seven. The Icelandic came out, though that she needed a man in her bed at seven.

Immigration to Washington State, Bellingham, Blaine, Seattle, was not like immigration to New Iceland. People didn’t come in groups. They came as families and as individuals. As usually happens, letters to friends and relatives encouraged others to follow.

Victoria drew a lot of settlers, but because of a depression and a smallpox outbreak, a number of people moved to Point Roberts. Because there was no group settlement, there was no attempt to create separate Icelandic communities on the West Coast – except for Osland on Smith Island in BC.

Jonas packed a tremendous summary of the history of the Icelandic settlers who came to the West Coast, everything from the early canneries that provided well paid employment to a history of how Point Roberts managed to capture the interest of a United States President.  President Roosevelt signed the document for the land at Point Roberts to be made available to the Icelandic settlers after they had been there for eighteen years.  In appreciation, they sent him a rug made from a sheepskin.

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We stopped at the Unitarian Free Church where displays were set up for us. There was some excitement when people from Gimli saw a picture of Albert Kristjansson. Past and present connected since he was a brother of Hannes Kristjansson of Gimli. One of those special moments I’ve come to expect on these tours happened when Heather Ireland noticed that one of her grandfather’s  (G. Guttormson) poems was set to music in the hymnal and she sat down a played a few  bars.

We went to the Blaine cemetery where ten percent of the graves are of people of Icelandic background.

Lunch was served by The Icelandic Club of Blaine. Rob Olason gave a slide show about the Blaine Icelanders. The Bellingham Damekor serenaded us and Joan Thorstonson gave a talk on Point Roberts.

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Food and music soothes the savage beasts.

Fed, kaffied, our heads aswirl with all we had heard, we raced away to the Nordic Heritage Museum. If I did nothing else on this trip except go to the NHM, the money and time spent would have been worthwhile.    The Exhibition The Dream of America, The Immigrant Experience, 1840-1920 is an exhibition in cooperation with the National Museum of Denmark and the Moesgard Museum, Arhus, Denmark. Comprehensive, detailed, beautifully constructed, it could easily occupy an entire day. It is the most complete description and illustration of the immigrant experience that I have seen.

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Many Icelanders became involved in logging. This was completely foreign to them. In a very short time, they had to learn how to do dangerous jobs with dangerous equipment such as this saw and these axes on display at the museum.

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Proving that rain, a long day, a lot of facts, an avalanche of conversation can’t keep a bunch of Icelanders down, there was a meet and greet in the evening. No one needed to know the address of the room. They just needed to follow their ears to the roar of the conversation.