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.