Steamship poster

We’ve all heard of the ships of the emigration but how many of us have actually seen a travel schedule for those ships? 
These were real ships, real crews, with fares to be collected, schedules to be met. These are the ships that took you to your destination in Iceland or, if you were leaving Iceland, took you away to the distant shores of your dreams. Here is one of the posters your ancestors would have seen and studied closely.
Think how intently they would have read the information, the dates, the cost, the accommodation. 
If they were thinking of leaving Iceland, taking young children, how important would be the length of the voyage to Scotland? If they had carefully saved their rigs dollars, had them hoarded in a sock under their pillow, they would have memorized the cost of the fares and, at night, counted their coins once again to see if there were enough silver there to buy a passage and, if there weren’t, they’d have lain in the dark, thinking about how they might get the rest. 
These posters held people’s futures. Ameríka. Ameríka. The land of dreams and opportunity. In Independent People Laxness has the fare of the youngest of Bjartur’s sons paid for by a relative already in Amerika. That youngest son later sends money so that one of his brothers can follow him to Amerika but the brother squanders the money on a horse because he has become infatuated with a girl who is above his social station. There will be no Amerika for him. 
In Paradise Reclaimed, the main character, Steinar of Hliðar, does go to Amerika where he eats turkey and porridge but only at the ruination of his family. He eventually sends money so that they may join him in Utah.
Amerika was on everyone´s mind. Many left. Many more would have left if they could have raised the cost of the fare. 
The well-to-do farm owners were opposed to emigration and the loss of cheap labour and tried to keep information about Amerika from reaching their workers. In one instance, an agent who was to give a talk in Reykjavik about the opportunities in Amerika was unable to do so because a group was organized to make so much noise that he could not be heard. In spite of the actions of the farmers, word did spread, small-holders who had sheep and land to sell, often could raise the necessary money. However, many were unable to take their entire family so some children were left behind, sometimes wives were left behind, but with a promise that when there was money to pay for their passage, the family members would be brought to Amerika.
Some families sold everything, travelled to the ports to meet the ships that would take them to England or Scotland for the first leg of their journey only to have the ships come so late that the potential emigrants, having had to spend their money for room and board, could no longer could pay for a ticket. There are many stories of individuals borrowing money from friends and family and, when they arrived in Amerika, making their first priority paying off their debt.
In Paradise Reclaimed, when the unscrupulous purchasing agent who works for the Scots’ buyers of cattle wants to stop Steina from taking their son to Amerika, he goes to his friend the sheriff and says, “I demand that the Hliðar folk be restrained from leaving while the case is being investigated.” He’s objecting to Steina, the young girl he’s got pregnant, taking their son to Amerika. That’s in spite of the fact that he’s denied being the father and driven the family to ruin with the result that they all have become paupers. 
The sheriff replies, “Have you considered what sort of a favour you are doing the taxpayers by interdicting parish paupers from emigraitng?” “I know of parish councils that thank God for the chance of being allowed to pay t hem their fares to America.” 
So it was not just those who could pay for their fare who went to Amerika but, sometimes, it was the indigent, the paupers, the poorest of the poor, those who were paid for with a special tax that was then given to the farmer who would keep them for the least amount of money. However, they, too, would have been intensely interested in what the posters had to tell them about the coming trip to a distant wilderness.
The emigrants seldom had large dreams. The poverty in which they lived was such that they often just hoped that life would be improved. In Amerika,  a woman could get a job at five dollars a month with board and room. Five dollars, for some farm workers, was the equivalent of two year’s wages. Ameríka, where the letters said, there was lots of food and it was good. Where a man didn’t have to be worth four hundreds (the equivalent of the value of four cows) before he could legally marry. Ameríka. Where your employer didn’t have the right to beat you with a rod or a tree root. And the first giant step to having your own land was a voyage to Scotland.
Allthough many North Americans of Icelandic descent can say in what year their lang afi or amma came to Amerika, it’s important for us to understand what this voyage was like. This original poster will provide a lot of information about conditions on the voyage. 
Think of them standing before this poster and how it must have affected them.
(image from The Home of the Eddas, Charles G.
Warnford Lock, 1872. A somewhat shorter version of this article originally appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Consider subscribing.)

Thanksgiving blessings

No destination is as important to North Americans of Icelandic descent as that of the farm on which their ancestors lived. In article after article, people write about the rush of emotion that occurred when they stood on that hallowed ground. They can, with no difficulty, see their grandparents or great-grandparents making hay, bringing in the sheep or cows. The sound of the waves on the shore is the same sound their ancestors heard. Many people refer to this land as “My grandparents’ farm.” But in fact the people who left for North America seldom owned land.

All Icelanders were not equal – socially or politically or financially. Nearly everyone had to be attached to a farm, and workers were allowed only one time during the year when they could move to another farm. There were six classes of people on these farms.

1. There were the Bændr, the land owners, at the top of the heap. The big shots. They were the farmers for whom everyone else worked. They had political muscle, and fought hard against the emigration of their workers who were providing cheap labour. Newspapers were filled with stories about the disputes between those who would emigrate and those who saw their power eroded.

2. There were the Húsmenn. These were people who had property on the Bændr ´s land but were not allowed to make hay or to use the pastures.

3. The Kaupamenn were labourers who were hired to work for the farmer.

4. There were Hjáleigumenn – the equivalent of crofters renting a small farm (hjáleiga) from the Bændr.

5. Then there were the Vinnumenn, the servants.

6. And, finally, there were the paupers. There were many paupers. The heaviest tax on the Bænder was the tax (fátækra útsvar) to support the paupers .

If your ancestors were not No. 1, and didn´t actually own a farm, they had good reason to leave Iceland. If they did own a farm and emigrated, there must be a story there? They had a legal and political system that made everything in their favour.

There was little actual cash. The peasants – yes, they were peasants – paid their rent and the money they owed in June and July with wool. In September and October, they paid with smoked and cured mutton, grease and tallow, and sheep skins and lamb skins with the wool still attached. Fat of any kind was always in short supply, and butter and cheese were usually kept for personal use or for bartering. Sometimes butter was used to pay taxes.

If your people worked on a farm, they were, essentially, indentured servants. Some farmers treated their people well. Others treated them badly. The landscape was beautiful, but nothing is beautiful when you are hungry. Emigration did not happen easily. People were driven to leave Iceland out of desperation. The trip was long. The way was hard. Many died.

But, in spite of all this, the beauty of Iceland stayed with many of the emigrants. You can read it in their poems, in their prose. You see it at Icelandic Celebration and August the Deuce, at Thorrablot and in the Icelandic clubs, in the Snorri program, and at the Icelandic summer camp. You see it in the frequent visits of Icelandic North Americans to Iceland.

You see it in those emotional visits to the places our ancestors left. The descendants of paupers, servants, crofters, labourers, tenants, still hold a place in their hearts for Iceland. When you visit this special destination, the farm of your great-grandmother or great-grandfather, or great-great-grandparent, take the time to reflect on what their life was like in the 1870s, and how desperate and brave they must have been when they walked away from both house and homefield for the last time to create a new life for children not yet born.

When you are setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner take out pictures of your ancestors who left Iceland for Canada, set them on the buffet or even on the dining table. Before you begin to eat, tell your family and guests something about them and, when you say grace, include these people from your past in your thanks. It is because of them that you sit down to a feast today. After the meal, when you’ve eaten your turkey, potatoes, gravy, your pumpkin pie, and are enjoying your coffee reflect upon the empty dishes, your full stomach, the photos and silently give thanks to Jon and Jonina, Gunnur and Gusta, or whatever their names were. Bless, bless.

(This article appeared in a slightly different form in Logberg-Heimskringla. This year is LH’s 125th birthday. Consider giving someone a gift of a subscription to celebrate.)