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The Icelandic Communities in America: Cultural Backgrounds and Early Settlements
    By Thorstina Jackson (Volume III: Page 101)

Very few countries have the good fortune to possess such detailed accounts of the dawn of their history as Iceland. Its discovery and settlement belong to the Viking Age, the golden age of the Norse countries. During that age the Norseman awoke to life, life that was energetic as well as stimulating, with two main issues, wealth and renown on the one side and death on the other. Individualism, adventure, and liberty, the watchwords of the Norse Vikings, led to a social system singularly well-organized and fundamentally democratic. The clarion call of the Vikings sounded in the Scandinavian countries, the British Isles, particularly Ireland, far-away Russia, and even along the distant shores of the Mediterranean. By the middle of the ninth century, many Norsemen had settled in Ireland, and had intermarried with the natives, though at the same time they kept up a close connection with the homeland. In time, the individualistic social order established by the Vikings lost ground in Norway. During the reign of King Harald Fairhair (860-933) autocracy was placed on a permanent basis, but many of the leading chieftains of his realm chose exile rather than to give up their cherished rights, and thus Norway lost many of its noblest and most enterprising families.

The path of these exiles can be traced through various parts of Europe. It was Iceland, however, the island on the rim of the Arctic circle, that chiefly attracted these wanderers; there they took root in virgin soil and formed social organizations of their own that culminated in the establishment of the first republic north of the Alps and the organization of the first of the world's parliaments in 930.


According to Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, King Harald Fairhair demanded an oath of allegiance from his nobles, and those who refused to give it were forced into exile. The wealthy freemen were the ones who resisted the autocrat and so many from that class left the country that it appeared for awhile as if some of the districts of Norway would be depopulated. The main stream of Norwegian emigration was not to Iceland to begin with, but rather to Ireland, Scotland, and the near-by islands. There the emigrants were near enough to Norway to attack Harald's territory from time to time, but finally, as he grew too strong for these attacks, the exiles were forced to seek a permanent home. Their choice fell on Iceland, the "fair lady of the mountains." Many of the Norse settlers had dwelt for years in Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere, and had intermarried with the natives, thus coming considerably under Celtic influence. Furthermore, the colonizers of Iceland brought with them numerous slaves, mostly victims of war and frequently as well born as their masters. These slaves were principally of Celtic origin. The Icelanders, therefore, are a fusion of the Norseman and the Celt, with a predominance of the former strain.

The Landnamabok (Book of Settlements) by Ari the Learned, recorded in the eleventh century, is unique in the world's literature. It contains names of over five thousand settlers and along with their genealogies are given numerous family traits and tendencies. Many Icelanders can still trace their descent back to the original settlers. The families in the Landnamabok are chiefly of noble lineage. No doubt the names of chieftains and nobles were more faithfully retained in stories; nevertheless it is certain that it was above all the chieftains who attempted to escape the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. The ancient Icelandic sagas contain a number of Irish names such as Kormakur, the Irish Cormick, Kalman, the Irish Coleman, and Njal, the Irish Neal. It has been estimated that the Icelanders are possibly from fifteen to thirty-three per cent Celtic. The Icelandic sagas give many excellent descriptions of the settlers and their descendants. On the whole, they agree with the descriptions of the Nordic race. Descriptions occur, however, of men with other features, dark or black hair, and low stature, indicating thus that the settlers of Iceland were by no means of unmixed race.

The ancient Icelanders were great worshipers of strength and feats of endurance and they seem to have recognized the value of cleanliness. In fact, they took pride in their appearance, as is customary with self-respecting men. As to manly vigor, the following description from Njalssaga of Gunnar of Lythend is a good example:

He can cut, or thrust, or shoot, if he choose, as well with his left, as with his right hand; and when he smites with his sword he smites so swiftly that three swords seem to flash through the air at the same instant. Of all men he is the best bows-man; he never missed a shot. He can leap more than his own height, dressed in all his war gear, and as far backwards as forwards. He can swim like a seal.

The Norseman's philosophy was stern, but singularly just according to the code of the times. It taught a man not to give way before an enemy, to fight to the death, and to die like a man when the hour of death had struck. It was good to live if one fought bravely, and equally good to die if one fell on the field of battle fighting like a hero. To break one's pledged word was the lowest infamy; troth-breakers were the scum of the earth.

The Icelandic nation was founded on a revolt and a desire to break all former ties. When the Norwegian chieftain left the home that had been in his family for generations, he took with him the High Seat posts from his ancestral hall as a sign that he severed all bonds with his native land. These High Seat posts, richly carved, bearing symbolic pictures of the favorite deities of the family, were sacred to the Norseman. When the exiled Norwegian sighted the land of his choice, he threw the High Seat posts overboard and their drifting ashore determined the location of his home. Then the chieftain built anew his ancestral hall and raised a High Seat with the posts on either side. Icelandic pioneering had in it all the elements of daring and difficulty that characterize such a movement elsewhere. It is significant that in spite of the fact that many of the colonizers were titled lords of noble birth, yet Iceland had only one class; the noble lord became a simple farmer or bondi. Naturally, there was a great deal of difference in wealth, and the leading chieftains lived in much the same royal state to which they had been accustomed in Norway.


The Icelandic republic was a noble experiment in democracy. While mighty races such as the French, German, and Italian were still disunited and England lay bleeding under foreign invasions, not as yet comprehending the term national patriotism, all Iceland met with similar interests under a representative government functioning through the Althing (parliament). There the spirit of the Vikings was enchained by law. There, as in ancient Greece, each freeborn citizen was versed in the law of the land in order directly to participate in the business of government. The high-water mark of this period was from 930 to 1030, for then internal well-being and progress were at their height and the Icelanders gained a reputation for themselves as discoverers of Greenland and Vinland and won renown in the service of the earls and kings of Scandinavia and England, even penetrating as far as Russia and Constantinople.

The most important political achievement of the Icelandic commonwealth was the organization of the Althing, composed of Logretta, which consisted of five courts, one from each of the four divisions of Iceland and one Supreme Court. In addition there was the folk meeting to which all the taxpayers might come, and the Speaker of the Law, whose duties were to announce and interpret to the people the legislation of the Logretta.

Ulfljotur, the Solon of Iceland, based his laws on the ancient laws of the Norsemen, also receiving a strong influence from the laws and customs of the Anglo-Saxons. Ulfljotur spent three years in Norway perfecting the laws, and while he was there his brother Grim scoured the whole country in order to select a suitable place for the Assembly. He finally chose one where the elements and characteristics of Icelandic nature seemed to meet and form a fitting combination. The spot of his choice was named Thingvellir (Parliament-plains).

The Althing was not only an important government function, but had its social importance as well. It convened on any day between the eighteenth and twenty-fourth of June and was in session two weeks. The Speaker of the Law and the priests had to be there, and every ninth farmer was obliged to accompany his priest to the Althing. In general every freeborn citizen preferred to ride to the Althing; this was natural, because every freeman might be called upon to take part in public affairs and besides, many matters came up that concerned whole districts. Thus attendance at the Althing took the place of the modern newspapers, telephone, and telegraph.

At the Althing the national life expressed itself in its most complete form; on one side the serious business of life through legislation, trials of cases, and verdicts; on the other, unbounded vitality and pure joy of living that manifested itself in sports, courtship, narration of adventures, singing of the skalds, and the like. There gathered the flower of the Icelandic republic.

Internal strife and dissension were responsible for the loss of Icelandic independence and the country became a dependency, first of Norway in 1262, and then of Denmark in 1377. Then followed centuries of retrogression; devastating pestilences ravaged the country. The population, which at the time of settlement was approximately seventy thousand, fell at one time as low as fifty thousand. Instead of sailing the seas in their own ships, the Icelanders were reduced to great suffering through a foreign trade monopoly. Volcanic eruptions and polar ice added to the general misery. The nation suffered intensely through isolation, though this very isolation saved it from the abuses of King and Church that sapped the vitality of many of the other countries of Europe.

The beginning of the nineteenth century brought the romantic movement to Iceland; a spirit of intense patriotism was aroused and the leaders in the movement exhorted the people to recreate the days of their heroic past. The liberal movement found a leader in Jon Sigurdson, the George Washington of the Icelanders. Largely through his efforts and those of another gifted leader, Benidikt Sveinsson, Iceland in 1874 received from Denmark a new constitution which insured home rule and free trade. The beginning of the twentieth century broke the barrier of isolation by connecting the country with the rest of the world by a cable and establishing a network of telegraph and telephone lines throughout the island. Almost simultaneously, the Icelanders acquired their own steamship line, something that saved them from dire straits during the World War. All these advances convinced the nation that it could manage its own affairs, and on December 1, 1918, Iceland received its autonomy from Denmark and it is now an independent kingdom, with the governmental powers vested in the Althing, which is presided over by a premier. Iceland maintains a fraternal union with Denmark through the person of the Danish king, who is also king of Iceland.


Viewed from the standpoint of numbers, never exceeding a hundred thousand, the Icelanders may be considered as a well endowed family that owes its existence to the intermingling of two strong races. In spite of great disadvantages, they have endured for a thousand years, without markedly losing that strong stamina to which the race owes its origin. The underlying reason for the endurance of the nation lies in the fact that the people have never ceased to be creative; when times have been the darkest, creative work has been their chief solace and relief. This creative faculty has expressed itself particularly in literature.

The political achievements connected with the establishment of the republic were followed by a literary epoch that has earned for Iceland the title of the "Greece of the North." While not masters of the technique of writing during their heroic age, the ancient Icelanders, like the Hebrew prophets and the Greeks of Homer's time, had a mastery of oral composition. This composition was reduced to writing in the sagas and eddas before 1300, thus preserving for the world the mythology and heroic exploits of the North and giving permanent form to the ancient Norse language. The influence of the Celt upon the Norseman is felt in this literature; indeed, the poetic imagination of the Celt and the perseverance and balance of the Norseman blended well together and produced the Icelandic historian.

No nation has so persistently worshiped its classics as the Icelanders; the scholar deciphering a mouldy manuscript, the farmer at his homely tasks, the shepherd boy with his long-fleeced flock, and the dairymaid with her cumbersome churn, all alike have made the literature of their country a part of their being and conversed in the language of the eddas, pure and free from dialect.

This unique devotion to the ancient Icelandic literature, combined with the fact that the Icelanders have never ceased to produce, has preserved for a thousand years the unity of Icelandic literature; thus a child in present day Iceland can read the classic Njala or the poems of Egil Skallagrimsson composed in the early tenth century, with practically the same ease as the daily papers. From the days of the Icelandic republic a thousand years ago to the present, Iceland has an unbroken chain of literature that has stood the test of time. The chief reason why Icelandic literature since 1400 has not received a renown, equal to that of the classics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries arises from the fact that the eddas and sagas stood alone as masterly productions in a native tongue in North Europe, but after the beginning of the modern age, the neighboring countries acquired literatures of their own and attention was diverted from that of Iceland.

The writers of the sagas, such as Ari Thorgilsson and Snorri Sturluson, were learned men of cultivated minds, but apart from the classical literature of Iceland, ancient and modern, there is a mass of folklore, colored by the imagination of a poetically inclined race, mirroring each period of Iceland's thousand years, supersensitive to all movements in the country. From this folklore sprang the tales of trolls, ells, ghosts, goblins, and monsters, told during the dusky winter days and evenings in the badstofas of the Icelandic homes.

The centuries following the ancient literature were rich in religious works. The translation of the Bible in 1584 by Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson ushered in a series of literary productions such as passion hymns of Hallgrimur Petursson, which place him in the front rank of the world's hymn writers, and the sermons of Bishop Jon Vidalin (1666-1720). These two books made their entry into every Icelandic home and their style and content lived on the lips of the people. The year books of Jon Espolin (1769-1836) published in twelve volumes, covering the period from 1262 to 1832, are a storehouse of historical data and also show exceptional ability in collating facts.

During the nineteenth century some twenty Icelandic authors have had their works translated into various European languages. Probably the only reason why poets such as Matthias Jochumsson and Einar Benidktsson are not world-renowned is that they have written in the language of Thor and Odin, the native tongue of less than a hundred thousand people. Modern Icelandic poets are cosmopolitans, who, while fully appreciative of their racial inheritance and the scenic grandeur of their country, do not overlook the literary gems of other nations, which they translate into their own language, not infrequently in a masterly way.

In the thousand years of Iceland's existence the nation has given unsparingly of its strength and devotion to literature. The authors of Iceland have never been confined to the academically trained class; thus the Icelandic bondi has contributed much that is best in Icelandic literature. In fact, the best Icelandic prose is that which is closest to the everyday diction of the farmers. With increased facilities for publication, many from the humblest circumstances are coming to the foreground with literary works of recognized merit.

The greatest factor in the spread of Icelandic culture has been the badstofa or living room in the country home. There one finds the pulse of the life of the people. In it during the gloomy winter afternoons and evenings the family assembles. Each person has a certain appointed task; the women spin, knit, sew, and weave, while the men card wool, make and mend tools, and so forth. One person has a seat of honor underneath the light. He is the reader of the household; he reads the eddas and sagas aloud, as well as a great variety of modern books, both native and foreign. He frequently has a reading knowledge of one or more foreign languages, for the nature of the Icelandic language is such that it is easy for the Icelanders to acquire certain other languages. Thus the reader often translates at sight from some Scandinavian language, English, or German. Sometimes the entertainer sings one of the numerous ballads of the country and the audience joins in the refrain, the women working their spinning wheels in time to the tune. Now and then the reader drops his book and simultaneously there arises a discussion of its subject matter and many and varied are the opinions expressed in this oral analysis. The Icelander dearly loves an argument; he is Irish enough for that. It is in the badstofa that Icelandic children receive their most effective instruction in the classics of their country and it is rare to find a farmer boy who has not read the sagas and eddas by the age of twelve. The many hours of reading in the home have their effect on the language of the children, which is singularly free from slang.


Art has not been a medium of expression among the Icelanders to such a marked extent as literature. Ever since the carved High Seat posts determined the Norseman's choice of a home, wood carving has been an element in Icelandic life, however. Sometimes this art has been in danger of dying out, but then something has revived it, and to-day wood and bone carving is increasingly expressive of the creative impulse of the people. The paternal ancestors of the great sculptor Albert Thorwaldsen were natives of the North of Iceland; and to-day, Einar Jonsson, the poet-sculptor, has made a unique place for himself in the world of art. The art of painting is as yet in its infancy in Iceland, but it is receiving increasing attention.


The third quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of unrest in Iceland; national consciousness that had been dormant for such a long time began to assert itself and leaders like Jon Sigurdson were striving to attain increased political liberties. While the liberal movement was slowly advancing, many became impatient with the slow progress, and that feeling was intensified by hardships caused by the polar ice that lay off the northern coast year after year. Reports of a land beyond the seas, the Vinland of the Icelandic sagas, began to penetrate to different parts of the country, and the possibilities of improving one's position through emigration were discussed.

The first direct emigration was to far-away Utah in 1855; some Icelanders in Copenhagen were converted by Mormon missionaries and induced a few relatives and friends to emigrate. These formed a small community near Spanish Fork. This emigration made, however, not a general but merely a local appeal. Icelandic emigration proper dates from 1870, in which year a small community was organized on Washington Island at the northwestern extremity of Lake Michigan. The small group of settlers came to America at the instigation of Danish friends, who encouraged them to try their fortune in the new land. The following extract from a letter dated Washington Island, March 8, 1872, gives an idea of conditions: {1}

I have been four days out on the ice fishing and have caught fifty fish, so far, and have sold them for nearly seven dollars; people come here to buy the fish and take it to nearby places; it sells at four cents a pound. There are many fishermen here from the communities around; they live in small cabins during the fishing season, and leave when the ice shows signs of breaking. When several days pass without anyone coming to buy, they put their fish side by side; no one takes from another a single fish; some days one catches thirty, others none.

Another under the same date describes his bill of fare thus:

One is unaccustomed to live on pancakes, syrup, pork and beans, as well as wheat bread and from twelve to fourteen cups of coffee each day, because here in America it is customary to fill the cup each time it becomes empty, during the course of a meal, and those who have a tendency to be thirsty can drink a goodly number of cups. Some have five meals a day; particularly Germans and Norwegians.

This locality is very suitable to those who are entirely dependent on their own earnings; there is plenty to be had by cultivation of the soil and fish from the lake.

Numerous letters received from Washington Island caused a great deal of interest in Icelandic emigration. Gudmundur Thorgrimson, a merchant at Eyrarbakka on the south coast, had much faith in America and felt that it was the land of opportunity for enterprising young men. He persuaded two of his nephews, Haraldur and Pall Thorlaksson, to try their fortune in America and they in turn persuaded others. Thirteen Icelandic emigrants left in 1872 and their first abode was Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of the group, Jon Halldorsson, describes their initial American experiences thus in a letter written at Milwaukee on September 8, 1872: {2}

We landed on the twenty-second of July in Castle Garden, New York, and found ourselves in a huge building, accommodating thousands of people. We spent the night there. We had to buy our food, but room on the floor and on benches in the building was free . . . We arrived in Milwaukee at nine in the evening; the city was in darkness, because the street lamps had not been lit . . . I am never lonesome, have plenty to do in my spare time. Ten hours' work a day does not seem much to one who is accustomed to work sixteen. This is the country for unmarried men, who have no special ties, or young married ones with one child . . . Six of us Icelanders have started a cošperative household, now a week old. The rent for three rooms is five dollars a month. We each contributed seven dollars and bought a stove, beds, chairs, table, and dishes. It is surprising how much we could buy for that amount of money. We bought our things and moved in after five o'clock last Saturday.

Pall Thorlaksson, while a student at Concordia University, St. Louis, wrote the following on January 27, 1873: {3}

No one lives here in idleness. If some think this country condones laziness, they had better not come hither . . . In all probability it is best for Icelanders not to begin at once to be in business of their own, but learn from those who have experience first . . . It does not seem unlikely that, if we Icelanders form a settlement here, we may in time gain goods and renown . . . I hope that the Icelanders who come here will be able to preserve their language through contacts with the motherland and newspapers and church organizations, such as are to be found among the Norwegians. Thus Icelandic authors may find a broader field for their endeavors.

These letters were not without their effect in Iceland; the numerous ones sent by Pall

Thorlaksson show a balanced judgment, an eye for the opportunities of the new land, as well as a realization of the difficulties and trials that surround the adjustment to a strange environment. Iceland at the time was undeveloped compared with other countries, but withal there were no extremes of poverty or wealth. On the whole, the Icelanders were poor when emigration began, but thrifty, industrious, and free from the abject poverty of industrial centers. The nation was on a high level educationally and illiteracy was practically unknown. In the early seventies young people in Iceland began to dream of untold possibilities in a new land of opportunity and the emigration movement gained force with great rapidity. Hundreds left the homeland yearly, and it seemed for a while as if certain districts on the northern and eastern coasts would become deserted. However, increased material prosperity in Iceland checked the emigration movement in the late nineties.

The year 1875 is a significant one in Icelandic-American immigration, for then were established two of the important settlements, the Minnesota settlement in Lyon and Lincoln counties and "New Iceland" on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.


Most of the pioneers in the Minnesota settlement had come to America in 1873 or 1874, and had "hired out" with farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin. The first settler was Gunnlaugur Petursson, who set out with his family from Iowa County, Wisconsin, to find a suitable homestead in the West. In a lumber wagon drawn by a team of oxen, he covered a distance of five hundred miles until he came to a halt on the banks of the Yellow Medicine River near the present town of Minneota. There, on July 4, 1875, he pitched his tent and decided to settle. At present there are a thousand people of Icelandic extraction in the Minneota community. The colonists were fortunate in their choice of locality; the rich soil has yielded excellent returns in wheat and other kinds of grain.

Since early pioneers in Minneota were too poor to buy lumber for their homes and there were no trees available for erecting log cabins, they were obliged to live in cellars, dug deep into the ground and crudely thatched.


In August, 1873, 165 Icelanders landed in Quebec. These immigrants divided into two groups, one going to Milwaukee and the other to Kinmount, Ontario, where the settlers had been promised work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The following summer three hundred more joined their countrymen at Kinmount. A number of these immigrants went to Nova Scotia and took up homesteads in a very barren, hilly region, but no permanent settlement was formed there.

In the spring of 1875, the Canadian government, through the mediation of a young Icelander, Sigtriggur Jonasson, and a Canadian, John Taylor, offered the colonists the means of sending two men to investigate the possibilities of a permanent settlement in Manitoba. The two chosen, Sigtriggur Jonasson and Einar Jonasson, joined by three others, setting out from Ontario, traveled by rail to Moorhead, Minnesota, and thence by a Red River boat to the little town of Winnipeg, where they arrived on July 18, 1875. They found Winnipeg a little village without railroads, although work was being done on the Canadian Pacific east of the Great Lakes. The outlook in Manitoba was not pleasant at the time owing to a grasshopper plague.

There was no land available near Winnipeg for a separate Icelandic colony; and, as the immigrants were too poor to buy implements, horses, and oxen, it was not deemed wise to depend upon cultivation of the soil at first, but rather to choose a locality where there was some fishing to help out. Everything considered, the Lake Winnipeg region, some sixty miles from Winnipeg, seemed the most suitable. The settlers could get fish from the lake and an abundance of timber for building purposes.

The first Icelandic colonists, 250 men, women, and children, came to Winnipeg in October of 1875. The immigrants had an abundance of hope, but were absolutely without funds. The Canadian government issued them a loan to buy food. After a few days sojourn in Winnipeg, the settlers started for the Land of Promise in six flat-bottomed boats, tied together in groups of three. These they floated down the Red River and they had reason to consider the "links of its long red chain" anything but a smooth road. When the flotilla arrived at Lake Winnipeg, it was met by a Hudson's Bay Company boat that towed it to its destination. The day of arrival was what is known in the Icelandic calendar as the last day of summer. No time was lost in putting up shelters, for the winter was near. In the whole colony there was only one domestic animal, a mongrel pup given to one of the children in Winnipeg. In a short time a group of cabins had been built and the pioneers elected five town councilors and named the village Gimli, or Paradise.

The first winter in the settlement was a terrible chapter in the history of Icelandic colonization in America. There was no milk to be had; there was no fishing because the lake froze, and food hauled so far was expensive: ninety-six pounds of flour cost $3.75; potatoes were ninety cents a bushel; pork sixteen to eighteen cents a pound; and coal oil cost sixty cents a gallon. Owing to inadequate food several of the settlers contracted scurvy and other diseases. It is estimated that almost one-third of the settlers died. The coming of spring awakened hope in the hearts of the colonists. The difficulty of getting food was eased, and the acquisition of a herd of twenty cows furnished the settlers with milk. The outlook was brightened by the arrival of twelve hundred colonists from Iceland, who took up homesteads and built a highway from one end of the settlement to the other.

In the fall of 1876, however, the colony received a tragic setback. A smallpox epidemic, carried to the colony from a near-by Indian reservation, broke out. The character of the disease was not at first recognized, and the plague had ample chance to spread. It had gained the upper hand when doctors arrived from Winnipeg. The whole settlement was placed under a quarantine, which was not lifted until July first of the following year. More than a hundred settlers died of the disease and a much larger number were taken ill; all advancement was at a standstill; and the immigrants would have perished if the Canadian government had not generously continued to lend money for foodstuffs.

The young Icelandic minister, the Reverend Jon Bjarnason, for many years president of the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, came to the settlement from the United States in 1877 and became the minister of the colonists.

The Canadian Gimli had the honor of entertaining the Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Dufferin, on September 14, 1877. Ever since Dufferin's visit to Iceland in 1856 he had been a staunch admirer of the Icelandic people and of their language and literature. It was through his recommendation that the Canadian government was so generous in lending money to the immigrants. The settlers entertained their honored guest to the best of their ability; he visited every house in the little village of Gimli and went to three of the neighboring farms. He is reported to have remarked that although the pioneer homes were lowly and scantily furnished, every house had a considerable library, including religious books and the eddas and sagas brought from Iceland.

Gimli is now a favorite lake resort and during the summer months the Canadian Pacific trains thunder in many times a day. Very few of the earliest settlers remained permanently in the colony; in fact, the Gimli settlement is the mother colony of several other Icelandic communities, notably in North Dakota and southern Manitoba around Glenbero. Up to the beginning of the century, however, there was a steady flow of immigrants from Iceland to the Gimli district.

It is fitting that the Icelanders have erected an Old Folks' Home at Gimli, well equipped in every way and supported by the various Icelandic communities.


The first Icelander to consider the part of Dakota bordering on the Red River as a feasible place for settlement was the Reverend Pall Thorlaksson. He had come from Iceland in 1872, and while studying in St. Louis and elsewhere had done field work in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and had profited by the opportunity to observe the progressive farmers in these states. In 1877 he went to "New Iceland" and became pastor in the Manitoba colony. The more he saw of the struggle of his countrymen in "New Iceland" the more convinced he became that the colonists would fare better elsewhere, particularly in the United States. His views gained popularity; and in April, 1878, he and two others set out to choose a suitable locality. They finally selected Pembina County, North Dakota; the abundance of timber in the district could furnish the settlers with material for building houses and also provide cord-wood and enable the colonists to gain a livelihood until the soil should yield its crops.

In the summer of 1878 immigrants began to arrive from "New Iceland"; the first log cabin in the settlement was ready for occupancy on June 23, 1878. The colonists from "New Iceland" were joined by groups of Icelanders from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The daily life of the settlers during the first years was one of continuous hard work, for which they felt amply repaid if they got bare necessities in return. Potatoes formed the chief food during the first winter, and there was a limited amount of wheat bread and milk. The people had scarcely any meat save that which they managed to get from the Indians.

The Reverend F. J. Bergman, who has written some masterly sketches about Icelandic pioneer life, describes the first homes thus: {4}

There were no handsome pieces of furniture in the pioneer's home. Four walls of logs, something put into the crevices between the logs to keep out the draft . . . Two windows, one at the end opposite the door and the other on the side . . . In one corner was the bed, in front of it the table, generally under the side window; those who had the wherewithal covered the table with oil cloth and the housewife tried usually to get new oil cloth before Christmas, then everything took on such a festive air that she felt as if she were in a new house. The cabin boasted one chair, as a rule, but in general it was somewhat shaky, thus those who sat on it had to exercise the greatest care to avoid disaster. The painted wooden boxes from Iceland were much safer resting places and they stood in array against the walls. In them had been transported the articles that were the cherished personal possessions of the immigrants; there they were, gaily gleaming in bright red or green. Sometimes the owner's initials were on them in contrasting colors. They were the favorite seats, but even they showed signs of weakness, not so much because of the long journey from Iceland -- they stood it pretty well -- but rather because of the daily motion to the table and back again to the wall, both at meal time and on the frequent occasions when coffee was served . . . The stove was placed against the windowless wall, but drawn out on the floor in the winter time, for then it had to fulfill a twofold purpose, cook the food and keep the family warm . . . Sometimes on the wall was a place for the clock, that is to say in the homes that had a clock; a good many did not possess one and they had to study the course of the heavenly bodies as had been the custom of their ancestors when they sailed the seas. It was remarked that in many cases those who did not have a clock rose earlier; thus it was a gain rather than otherwise not to have a timepiece.

North Dakota is now the chief Icelandic settlement in the United States and the mother colony of five other Icelandic communities in the United States and Canada. At first, every homestead was occupied, but as time went on the farmers wanted more land, and those who were able bought out their neighbors, who in turn migrated to other districts.


There are about two thousand Icelanders on the Pacific coast, chiefly in Seattle, Blaine, Bellingham, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Diego. A few isolated settlers came to the Pacific coast in the seventies and eighties but the majority came between 1900 and 1905.

The Icelandic colonies in America have now passed the half-century mark; there has been no recent immigration from Iceland. It is not possible to estimate the exact number of Icelanders in America, but counting all those of Icelandic extraction, it is safe to say that there are between thirty and forty thousand.


During the fifty odd years that the Icelanders have been in America there have come into being among them many and varied organizations both religious and secular. Though the settlements are far apart they are united by the common bond of language and religion. The Icelandic Lutheran Synod, organized in 1884, is the most influential social agency among the Icelanders. It has congregations in all the settlements and has published many books on various subjects. The Synod supports an Icelandic Lutheran Junior College in Winnipeg and maintains the Old Folks' Home at Gimli. The Unitarian Church drew a number of adherents from among the Icelanders and lately they have united with the modernist faction among the Lutherans and are known as the Icelandic Confederated Church. Circulating libraries were organized in the early years of the settlements and have proved to be an important educational factor. Debating societies and community clubs are also quite common. There are two secular newspapers published in Winnipeg, Logberg and Heimskringla, and also a monthly publication, Sameiningin, maintained by the Icelandic Lutheran Synod. In 1917 the Icelanders organized a Patriotic League, to preserve the best in the Icelandic inheritance, such as the language and literature, and to gain a wider recognition of its importance in the world of culture. This league has branches in the principal Icelandic communities and publishes annually a very creditable magazine.

These organizations have tended to isolate the people, a thing perhaps not desirable on the surface, but beneficial in the long run. The immigrant children brought up under strong home influences, enjoying a varied community life, have sought higher education in greater numbers and are now holding more responsible positions than those who were reared in communities where the Icelanders were too few to have effective organizations of their own. Observation of the various colonies leads to the belief that the strong Icelandic community life has been the greatest blessing for the settlers themselves, and also a means of inculcating in their children the best precepts of the motherland. Individuals and organizations are gradually losing their distinctive Icelandic identity but that does not mean that the efforts that the pioneers made to preserve their religion, language, and culture, have failed, but merely that the Icelandic inheritance is being gradually woven into the multi-colored fabric of American life.


In proportion to their number, the Icelanders have taken an active part in public affairs. In both the United States and Canada they are pretty equally divided among the various political parties. In Manitoba Thomas H. Johnson was minister of public works for the Province and later Attorney General. In the late nineties and first decade of this century Magnus Brynjolfsson and Daniel Laxdal filled important public offices. Brynjolfsson was state attorney for Pembina County from 1898 to 1910 and Laxdal in addition to practising law was state superintendent of public lands. Gudmundur S. Grimson won national attention by his handling of the Martin Tabert case in Florida and is now a district judge in North Dakota. Sveinbjorn Johnson was for several years associate judge of the North Dakota supreme court and is now legal adviser for the University of Illinois. Hjalmar Bergman is a distinguished Canadian lawyer and has been appointed King's Counsel. Gunnar Bjornson has been a member of the Minnesota legislature and for many years has taken an active part in public affairs. In 1924 he was a Republican candidate for Congress and although not elected, he had a very creditable following. He is the owner and editor of the Minneota Mascot, a prominent Republican paper. At present he is a member of the Minnesota Tax Commission. Arni B. Gislason has been a district judge in Minnesota and his brother Jon Gislason has been active in state politics for a long time. A third brother, Haldor, follows an academic career and is a professor at the University of Minnesota. Dr. B. J. Brandson is chief surgeon of the Winnipeg General Hospital; and his former partner, Dr. O. B. Bjornson, is a well-known authority on obstetrics. Dr. G. J. Gislason of Grand Forks is president of the medical association of his district and is a noted specialist in eye, ear, nose, and throat diseases.

A number of Icelanders in America have received signal academic honors. Among these are Skull Johnson and Joseph Thorson, who were given Rhodes scholarships in 1909. The former is now Professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba, and the latter, a lawyer by profession, is a member of the Dominion Parliament.

Stephan G. Stephansson, a pioneer in three Icelandic settlements, has published four large volumes of poetry, in which he describes Iceland and American pioneer life in vigorous Icelandic. He also delves deep into sociological and moral problems. He has been characterized as the Icelandic-American Browning.

The Icelandic community in North Dakota has had its annals enriched for half a century by the impish, satirical humor of Kristjan Julius, who writes under the pseudonym of K.N. Like Mark Twain, K. N. frequently points a moral and displays real philosophy and human understanding through his raillery. Sometimes his light touches and freaks of fancy resemble those of Heine.

Thorleifur Joakimsson, or Jackson, a pioneer of 1876, gathered material on the Icelandic communities in America for about fifty years. He had those qualities of patience and carefulness of detail that are essential to a good research worker, as well as an unusual ability in collating facts.

The Reverend Rognvaldur Petursson has written much that is valuable on both Iceland and the Icelandic communities in America. He has made several trips to the land of his ancestors and thus has kept in close touch with culture in Iceland and through that he has given contributions of great value to the western Icelanders.

Dr. Jon Bjarnason, for twenty-four years president of the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, wrote a very powerful Icelandic style, in the manner of the classical writers of ancient Iceland. His books were chiefly sermons and other contributions of a religious nature. His contemporary, the Reverend F. J. Bergman, was also a distinguished writer, whose graceful style and graphic descriptions immediately captivate the reader.

Mrs. Jakobina Johnson has translated many beautiful lyrics into English and her poetic muse seems to be equally adept in English and Icelandic.

Mrs. Laura Goodman Salverson brought out in 1923 a novel, The Viking Heart, based on Icelandic pioneer life in Canada. It is considered by many authorities to be one of the best novels on pioneer life that have appeared in Canada.

C. H. Thordarson of Chicago, an electrical inventor, came with his parents to America when a very small boy in the early seventies. He has taken out more than a hundred American patents for his inventions and many more in other countries. He invented the first million-volt transformer of electricity. Twice he has received United States government medals for his inventions. His hobby is collecting books and he is considered to have one of the finest private collections in America in English literature and natural science.

In the field of exploration, science, lecturing, and literature Vilhjalmur Stefansson is the most distinguished member of the Icelandic race in America, if not in the world. He has been characterized by Gilbert Grosvenor as one of the greatest explorers of all times. He seems to embody the characteristics of the Vikings, so that in him strength, perseverance, and courage blend with an idealism and imagination that are tempered with good judgment.

In fine art Emile Walters, born in Winnipeg and brought up there and in North Dakota, is putting the lyric quality of Icelandic poetry into paintings that are hung in many well-known museums, including those of Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, and the National Gallery at Washington. Mr. Walters devotes himself especially to landscapes, and certain authorities find qualities in his canvases that are similar to those revealed in the work of Twachtman, the master artist among American landscape painters.

When compiling her book Saga Islendinga i Nordur-Dakota, the writer received as a contribution to it a valuable economic survey of the North Dakota settlement covering the period from 1880 to 1924, written by four farmers who had been in the community from the first. These pioneers close their essay thus: {5}

As one looks back over the fifty years of Icelandic pioneering in North Dakota, one cannot fail to admit that much has been accomplished, for now there are smiling fields and attractive homes where formerly there were only a wilderness, uncultivated prairie, and heavy forests. The trials that Icelandic pioneers have had to endure have often been bitter, but they have been granted the redeeming quality of profiting by their struggles in the end in one way or another. We four elderly farmers, who have compiled this survey, cannot wish our descendants anything better than that they too might gain the reputation that the Icelandic pioneers had in former times, -- that they were men of their word and dependable in all their manner of conduct.

<1> This and the following letter are found in Thorleifur Joakimsson Jackson, Fra Austri til Vesturs, 7-8 (Winnipeg, 1921).

<2> Jackson, Fra Austri til Vesturs, 13.

<3> Jackson, Fra Austri til Vesturs, 19.

<4> Thorstina Jackson, Saga Islendinga i Nordur-Dakota, 139-140, (Winnipeg, 1926).

<5> Jackson, Saga Islendinga i Nordur-Dakota, 53.

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