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.

Ben Sivertz: West Coast Icelander

 

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The Victoria of 1897.

Bob Asgeirson once told me that he was working in Winnipeg when he took the train to Vancouver for a holiday. He left in a blizzard and when he got to Vancouver, a gentle rain was falling and everything was green. He immediately booked a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to the West Coast.

When I first arrived  here (I was living in Missouri,  and the phone rang and an English voice said, “Would  you like to come back to Canada and teach at the University of Victoria?”), it was because a job was proffered and accepted.

Richard Beck had retired here. One of the great promoters of everything Icelandic,  he had taught at the University of North Dakota until his retirement and then moved to Victoria. His wife had relatives here. When he died, he left his house to the University of Victoria to create the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust.

We all came to the West Coast at different times for different reasons, drawn here by weather, by jobs, by family.

When I came to Victoria, I had no idea that it contained an Icelandic history, that, at one time, an Icelandic community with a store and a church existed in Fernwood.  All of this would be revealed by Ben Sivertz, the quintessential Icelandic Canadian.

I met Ben at the University of Victoria at a Richard and Margaret Beck lecture. Ben was short, slightly built, had a white goatee and was one of the most accomplished and modest individuals I have ever met. A lot of people respect, even worship money, and if someone is lucky enough or smart enough to accumulate a lot of money, a lot of people worship them. Ben wanted none of that. He took no credit for his wealth. He once said to me, “I don’t know how it happened but everything I touched, turned to money.” He was the only person I’ve ever known who owned an original Van Gogh. That kind of money.

However, it wasn’t his money that made Ben impressive. It was his Icelandic-ness.

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William Irving, sidewheeler, Victoria, 1880

His parents were Christian Sivertz and Elinborg Samuelsdottir. They emigrated, separately, from Iceland to Manitoba in the late 1880s. They met in Victoria in 1890. Christian and Elinborg married in 1893 and eventually had six sons.

Ben says in his autobiography “The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz A Seaman, A Teacher and a Worker in the Canadian Arctic” “The Icelandic families of Victoria were not numerous, perhaps twenty in all, settled mostly around Spring Ridge, the district now called Fernwood. This group of about 100 people spoke the language of their birth and were lively, friendly, and immensely helpful to each other as they sought social, economic, and intellectual orientation in the new land. There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”

Ben’s father, Christian, had spent four summers as a fireman and second engineer on Lake Winnipeg. He also spent twenty-seven months working at the Winnipeg Gas and Electric plant, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for $1.50 a day. The CPR had started carrying passengers to the Pacific Coast in 1886 and in 1890, Christian took the train west. His parents, three brothers and a sister followed him to Victoria from Winnipeg.

There were other Icelanders, of course, settling not just in Victoria but in various parts of British Columbia and, even if the distances were large and the travel not easy, blood bound people together. The Thorlakssons, for example, were operating a cattle ranch eight miles south of Vernon. They wanted to send their daughters to Victoria for further education and appealed to Elinborg to give them room and board.

One fine summer day some years ago, Ben took Mattie Gislason and me on a walk-about through Spring Ridge. He showed us all the houses in which Icelanders had lived, named the occupants, told us their history and showed us the house where he and his brothers were born.

He didn’t brag about how much money he had, or how he had served in the Royal Canadian Navy, had run a school for navigation, retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and been awarded the Order of the British Empire. He never mentioned that he’d had a career as a foreign service officer in the department of External affairs and chief of the Arctic division in the department of Northern Affairs or was the Commissioner of the NWT. It was only with a bit of prompting from Mattie that he mentioned that the Hay River arena is named after him.

Christian’s parents and Elinborg’s parents left Iceland, not to have a great adventure, but because conditions in Iceland were dire. Political oppression, life threatening weather,  hunger, lack of opportunity for a better life, caused them to move to Canada. Once in Canada, they played an important role within the Icelandic community on the West Coast. One of their sons gave his life in the war.

The Icelandic community does not end at the boundaries of New Iceland. Many came there first because, as with all immigrant groups, individuals need a place where a transformation can take place: where English can be learned, where new skills can be mastered, where a new system can be assimilated. New Iceland and Winnipeg provided that resting place, that place of learning for many of the immigrants.

However, opportunity in New Iceland was severely limited. The Interlake of Manitoba was, when I was growing up, the second poorest part of Canada, after Newfoundland. The journey could not be over for many of those seeking a better life. They moved out, to Winnipeg, to the Argyle area, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, to British Columbia, Washington State, down to California.

As the community fanned out seeking opportunity, each part became smaller, more a part of the larger, multi-ethnic community of North America. However, some traditions still exist, even if they only occur from time to time. When Viðar Hreinson was in Victoria, I held a reception for him in my home. He gave a reading from his biography of Stephan G. Stephanson, Wakeful Nights. He also read poetry. I remembered what Ben had written about those early Sundays that ‘the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems—always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.” And I invited them back, those who had come before us, to join us for an evening, to listen, once again, to poetry being read in Icelandic. I made them welcome and I know they accepted the invitation for the house felt full, not just from those of us who live In the present but also with those who created both us and our past.

(Information for this article came from two of Ben’s books: The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz (available on Amazon) and  The Sivertz Family Book 1 Christian Sivertz)