West Coast Icelanders: Osland


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.



Book review: The Rockey Mountain Poet

Viðar Hreinsson. Wakeful Nights. Benson Ranch, Inc., 2012, 607 pages.

In the 1870’s Icelanders began to emigrate. In Iceland times were difficult. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was so poor that massive numbers of Europeans were on the move. They were immigrating to places such as Brazil but the greatest number had as their destination, Amerika. Amerika was not a specific geographic place but a direction, a place of rumour, myths, and letters.

In Iceland, society was still medieval. Although the Icelanders like to point out to everyone that they had the first parliament in history, they conveniently leave out that this annual representation of the chieftains where real power was distributed and enforced lasted a short time. Internal conflict led to Iceland being ruled by the Norwegian king and, when Norway was taken over by Denmark, Iceland was, too. For hundreds of years Iceland was a vassal state, its resources and people sold off to commercial interests.

Although some English travelers in the 1800s made the mistake of declaring that because on Icelandic farms everyone slept in one room, ate in one room, worked in the fields or fished from the same boat, that everyone was equal. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

What they did not take into account was who had the key to the food storehouse, who decided what and how much each person got to eat, what work they did, how many hours they worked, whether they would be employed or, if they were a tenant farmer (share cropper), whether their lease would be renewed. Only one percent of Iceland’s land is usable (not arable, for that assumes that it can be cultivated) and that was for pasture. Wealth was in sheep and milk cows and, for the larger farmers who had land on the sea shore, boats.

Stephan G Stephansson grew up in that society. He was “born in 1853, the population…roughly 60,000)”. It’s capital city was a village. There were no cities. People lived in little isolated worlds on farms in houses made of turf and rock and some wood from Denmark or driftwood. Wood was so precious that some houses used whale bones for rafters.

There were no crops except hay for no grain would ripen.

Stephan’s family was too poor to send him for a formal academic education. In 1873, he came to North America with some people for whom he had been working. His life was different from many of the immigrants right from the beginning because they did not go to Nova Scotia or Kinmount, Ont., or to New Iceland in what was to become Manitoba. He went to Wisconsin and began life as a farmer. He moved a number of times, settling, finally, in Alberta in the Markerville area.

His story is no different from many others except for one thing. In spite of his lack of formal education, he became a poet of great renown. He became known as the poet of the Rocky Mountains. His work was published in Canada, the United States and Iceland. However, he wrote in Icelandic and so, even though he took his material from daily life in North America, his audience was restricted to those who could read Icelandic. Today, as the Icelandic North American population continues to intermarry and disperse, there is the danger that Stephan G will be forgotten.

That is why Viðar Hreinsson´s new book, Wakeful Nights, published by Benson Ranch Inc., is particularly important.

Stephan G Stephansson was not just a poet, not just an excellent poet, but a man with a clear vision of what was right and wrong in society.  He was the conscience of society. He wrote about social issues, spared no one´s vanity or self-importance. His unwavering beliefs about social justice and religious matters brought him accolades but also enemies. His opposition to WWI resulted in a Manitoba MLA who also was of Icelandic background, trying to have him charged with treason.

The book begins with 65 pages of description of life in Iceland. I, personally, would have liked this section to be longer, more detailed, but that is because I’ve done a great deal of research into the 1800s in Iceland. For most readers this first part of the book provides a good historical perspective and solid base from which to understand the impetus for Stephan’s beliefs and actions.

The journey west which follows is well described. It has enough detail to keep the reader focused on what the trip was like rather than on some romanticized version.

The remainder of the book centres on the conflicts in which Stephan found himself embroiled. We are taken into the division of the community between Unitarianism and Lutheranism. Today, the remains of that battle can be seen in the capital of New Iceland, Gimli, Manitoba, with the Lutheran church on Third Avenue and the Unitarian church on Second Avenue and the gap between them like a vast crevasse on an Icelandic glacier.

“Over the years, Winnipeg had become the home of an increasing number of Icelanders in North America. They established newspapers, first Leifur, that lasted only a few years, then Heimskringla (1886) and finally Lögberg (1888).  The latter two papers became a spiritual and worldly battlefield between various groups of Icelanders. Lögberg was liberal in politics but conservative in religious matters, while Heimskringla was conservative in politics but liberal in religion.”

“Stephan examined social issues closely and developed a fascination with Felix Adler’s ethical movement. Adler, a German Jew whose family immigrated to America in 1857, had studied on both sides of the Atlantic and had read the works of Emerson and Kant. In 1876 he established an ethical movement, the Society for Ethical Culture, among radical intellectuals.” “Stephan with a group of farmers, established a society of liberal Icelanders who could accept neither the doctrines of the church nor the church’s declaration that religion was the fortress of culture and progress.”

Translations of Stephan´s poems appear throughout the book. The author does his best to provide the reader with translations of Stephan’s poetry but given the intricate forms that simply won’t work in English, settles for prosy translations that give the reader the meaning of what is being said. Creating translations of Icelandic poetry that capture the quality of Stephan´s work seems like an insurmountable problem. It is a problem that has already and will continue to keep English speaking readers from appreciating the genius that is declared in Iceland for Stephan’s work.

The book plays close attention to Stephan’s family life, the tragic death of one of his sons, the struggle to prosper at farming, his relationship with his wife and children. This helps to make him real, not a caricature of the embattled and battling poet. When he is honoured by being asked to visit Iceland and he tours the country to widespread adulation, Viðar describes Stephan as being worn and small, not the physical giant that some expected. The contrast between Stephan´s struggle to succeed as a farmer in difficult times and his success as a poet brings the reader close to the man whose search for truth in a world constrained by religious and secular dogmatism, makes him human.

I have found nothing to criticize about Wakeful Nights. There are a few typos in the text but nothing to distract the reader. I’m only grateful that the book has been written and published. For me, it has revealed and explained many things about my own ethnic community that I have not understood.

For many in the Icelandic North American community, the simple mention of the conflicts Stephan had with ministers, editors, members of the Winnipeg elite, will be enough for they will already know the background to the struggle. For readers outside the Icelandic North American culture, though, such references may hold no meaning, particularly those to do with the church. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary that explained each of those references but it would have made a large book even larger. One of the joys of Viðar’s writing is that it is easy to read. To have included more background detail in the text would have bogged down the story, taken away attention from the poet. Perhaps Wakeful Nights will inspire others to extract references and expound on them.

It would be wonderful if Wakeful Nights would help to establish a permanent place in Canadian literature for Stephan’s poetry. At the very least, this biography has brought us closer to knowing a remarkable man whose work bridged three countries.

(Wakeful Nights can be purchased from Tergesen’s bookstore in Gimli, from Jim Anderson http://www.abebooks.com/home/jimandersonbooks, directly from Benson Ranch Inc, 251018 Tower Ridge Estates, Calgary, AB, T3Z 2M2 or from Amazon. Local bookstores will order it. Copies will be available at the next INL convention in Seattle.)