In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”
Today is World book day. It is organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It was first celebrated in 1995. It’s nice to see that the world is catching up to Iceland.
If your ancestors lived in Reykjavik or, more likely, visited there to trade, who would they have dealt with? Who were the people who decided what they’d be paid for their precious trade goods and what they’d paid for the supplies they needed to survive for a year?
Richard Burton, 1874, gives a good picture of who made up the business establishment.
Since the trading season was the summer when the weather was at its best, the traders would all be in Reykjavik but, not surprisingly, most of them left for Copenhagen as the trading season ended. From RB’s description, it sounds like the traders kept a good deal to themselves, making the best of this hardship post by having picnics at the Laxá River and by going riding in the countryside. The country folk, and since Reykjavik was little more than a small town, virtually everyone was country folk, might be working long days getting in the hay, taking care of animals, pounding dried fish, knitting, doing everything possible to see that there would be enough food to last through the coming winter, but the traders, as they picnicked, had no such concerns. Come the end of the season, they were heading back to Denmark and civilization.
The storekeepers were called merchants (kaupmaðr). They were the big shots. They called the shots. Their establishments had no signs or names on them but had prime positions facing the sea. The people who worked in these stores were mostly hired help working for Copenhagen firms. They received fixed salaries rather than being on commissions.
According to RB, these are the people your ancestors would have had to deal with:
Only two of the traders are Icelandic, Egill Egillsson and Hannes Jónsson; however, Hannes is only an agent working for Jonsen of Copenhagen, a company large enough to not only have a trading post in Reykjavik but stores at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.
The Icelanders weren’t bringing money. There was very little silver (rigs dollars or the occasional shilling).
When they rode into Reykjavik with their pack train of horses, they were bringing “salt meat, beef, and mutton; tallow; butter, close packed; wool in the grease; skins of sheep, foxes, and seals; feathers, especially eider down; oil of whales, sharks and seals; fine and coarse jackets of Wadmal, woolen stockings, and mitts; stock-fish and sulfur. The major items they wanted in return for their goods were timber, mostly pine and fir, salt, coal, grain, coffee, spices, tobacco and liquor. They could get beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one inch boards for side-lining of houses, three-inch planks, and finer woods” for the cabinet maker.
They had to pay $2 for a 44 gallon barrel of salt. They had to have salt for the fishing season.
The coal that was available came from Britain. There was a chronic lack of fuel but coal was both expensive and difficult to transport on horseback. Split birch stove wood was imported but it wasn’t available to the ordinary Icelander.
The wheat and rye came as grain, flour and made into biscuits. Baking ovens, RB says, only exist in Reykjavik. Grain being taken into the countryside would be made as loaves cooked in the ground or as flat bread. An oven would take too much fuel.
Rice had become a staple commodity and was used for making rice-milk. A number of travelers from around this time mention being served rice milk.
There were luxuries. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were available. Coffee was available but tea was very rare. A little chocolate, RB says, was brought from Copenhagen.
Large amounts of snuff were imported and sold at $3 a lb.
The trading shops sell port, sherry, claret, champagne, rum and cognac. They are expensive and of poor quality. The beer is used for commercial establishments. Brennivín, Korn-schnapps, or rye spirits are so cheap that there is no need to water them down unless you’re selling them to the peasants and adding a little water is a way the merchant can make a few extra cents. Apparently country merchants can sell 600 gallons of liquor a year.
So, there you have it. You ride into Reykjavik with your trade goods to get a year’s supply of everything you need to survive the coming winter and you ride out with salt, lots of salt, enough grain, probably rye, to last the year, some wood planks if you’ve had a good year and can afford it, some bags of Rangoon rice and, if you’ve had a really good year, some spices to add to your daily diet of fish, skyr, rye bread and porridge.
You probably have a bottle of brandy in your pocket and sway a little in the saddle as you take some fresh snuff out of your horn.
There were more goods than that available, of course, but it will have to wait for tomorrow for a more detailed list of the items your great great grandmother hoped to buy when she arrived in Reykjavik.
(Material from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875.)
Photograph provided by Ken Kristjanson
Lake Winnipeg is big. People who haven’t travelled on it don’t realize just how big. There 9,465 sq miles of water. It’s 300 miles long and, in places, 50 miles wide. It’s a lake of ferocious storms with winds from Hudson Bay combining with shallow water, creating dangerous waves. It’s a lake made for drowning. In winter, it’s a great plain of ice, driving winds, drifting snow, booming cracks.
It’s a lake filled with fish. The native population fed themselves on the fish. In 1875, the Icelandic settlers arrived. Flummoxed by fish that weren’t cod, by water that froze six feet thick, by having nets meant for the ocean but useless in fresh water, the best they could do was catch enough fish to stay alive. However, it didn’t take long for them to learn the skills that were needed, to build boats for the open water, to make nets that would catch whitefish, pickerel, sauger, jackfish, sunfish, goldeye, fish that could be eaten fresh, wind dried or smoked. Fish that could be transported to Winnipeg to be sold or traded.
The Icelandic settlers were mostly sheep farmers but, in Iceland, once the hay harvest was in, hired men and even the farm owners walked or rode to the coast to fish during the winter. Iceland’s was a survival economy. Each year it was a struggle to get through the winter. Many did not. For the unlucky, mutton, butter, milk, skyr, dried fish, lichen, ran out. The summers were spent taking care of the dairy cows and sheep, in harvesting the hay, in cutting turf, in collecting lichen and seaweed, the winters, in fishing. The ocean fishing skills were largely irrelevant to survival on Lake Winnipeg, but the attitude was not.
What, at first, was subsistence fishing, providing enough for a full belly, soon turned into an opportunity to trade for necessary goods or even to be paid in cash. It didn’t take long for an Icelandic fishery to be established and among the Icelanders some families began to create fishing stations, build boats, set up commercial enterprises and become what was known as fishing families.
Among these were the Kristjansons. Sigurdur T. Kristjansson was born in Skagafjordur, in 1879. He came to Canada with his foster parents in 1885. He became a fisherman and lake station operator. Two of his sons, Hannes and Ted, in turn, became fishermen. Although, of Ted’s two sons, it is Robert who continues the tradition of fishing, it is Ken who has been writing reminiscences of fishing on Lake Winnipeg.
The lake was a dangerous place. It was a world mostly of men who worked hard, faced danger on a daily basis, lived in isolation for long periods of time. Those who worked on the lake created a culture, shared a life, and when a boy first entered this world, there were initiations. But, it’s Ken’s story, and I’ll let him tell it.