The Beginning of an Icelandic Settlement in Nebraska
Written by Jon Halldorsson (1912 Almanak)
Translated by Inga Maja Stefánsdóttir 02 Nov 1992
On June 4th, 1873, schoolmaster (principal) Torfi BJARNASON from Olafsdalur in Dalasysla, arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At that time, there were quite few Icelanders in Milwaukee. Torfi had in mind to start a settlement of Icelanders in the United States. His stay was short in Milwaukee. Two of his travel companions found permanent homes in Milwaukee. Those two were Gudmundur GUNDMUNDSSON from Kjalarnes and William W. THOMSON from Vestmannaeyjar. He had been a storekeeper in a store now known as Wium.
This THOMSON fellow came to Nebraska and stayed there for few years but did not “take land” (homestead.) About Gudmundur and his whereabouts is not certain but rumor has it that he is near the Pacific Coast. Torfi, himself, brought his brother Larus who was then in his twenties, I believe, to Nebraska. The two of them explored the land along the Burlington and Missouri Railroad which owned huge parcels of land. It was advertised as 10 year mortgage with interest only payments for the first 5 years. At this time most of the land in Eastern Nebraska had been settled but plenty was still available in the Western part of the state. Evidently, Torfi carefully scrutinized the parcels that where free of charge, because Torfi told me that they had seen a huge herd of bison (buffalo) which had fled Eastern Nebraska.
Torfi must not have been impressed by Western Nebraska even though plenty of good land was available 20-50 miles from the train route (railroad.) He must have felt that it was too isolated from closest populated areas. Eventually, Torfi bought land near the small town of Salt Hills. That town is 8 miles south from Lincoln-which is the capital of Nebraska–but 60 miles west of the river Missouri, which marks the state line between Iowa and Nebraska.
Torfi stayed the rest of the summer at his homestead and plowed up 10-12 acres of his land and he is believed to be the first Icelander to begin farming in Nebraska. Late in September that same year, Torfi arrived in Milwaukee, on his way home to Iceland; he did not “go west” again.
While Torfi stayed in Milwaukee, quite a few Icelanders gathered together and asked Torfi in detail about Western Nebraska. He spoke well of the land but discouraged moves to isolated areas and recommended staying close to the railroad path. Larus BJARNASON stayed behind and worked on a farm not far from Torfi’s homestead.
In Iceland, during the winter 1873 to ’74 work was difficult to find for those who had recently come back from America or from the Canadian forests, where some had worked. At that time there was much shortage of money. And much talked about was the migration “to the west” and homesteading there.
In the spring of 1874, several Icelanders joined an organization which had the goal to pioneer a colony in the ‘new country”. Its leader, Olafur OLAFSSON from Espiholl in Eyjarfjordur. Sigfus MAGNUSSON, Jonsson from Grenjadarstadur was chosen to examine land in Iowa and Nebraska along the Burlington and Missouri railway. Torfi had described this land before. Sigfus chose a man, Jon HALLDORSSON from Storuvellir in Bardardalur (relations to Myvatn area).
The pair left Milwaukee in May 5th, 1874. They started out in Iowa but didn’t find enough unsettled land for their friends in order that they all could live near each other, which was the goal too. In Nebraska they found plenty of prime farmland available which the railroad (Burlington and Missouri) offered for #3 to $12 per acre–with some mortgage as I mentioned before. Every other section of this land was settled of locals (Nebraskans) so this would not be “pure” Icelandic settlement. It was not the intent to be secluded by themselves rather not far from one another where the Icelanders could learn the new language and work habits from their neighbors and find employment while settling down.
Partners, Sigfus and Jon purchased farmland 20 miles south from Lincoln near a town called Firth; got a job with farmers in the area and both plowed 10 acres on each farm. They wrote to their friends in Milwaukee, describing the area and many were prepared to move the following spring with their families.
Olafur OLAFSSON was among those friends; he was the only one who was affluent. That summer, grasshoppers destroyed most of the corn harvest but left other crop alone. The newspapers described this as disaster and of course it was devastating for especially those who were newly arrived and had few of their acres planted; grasshoppers wiped them out. Those who were already established fared better.
This certainly discouraged the Milwaukee people. As it turned out that year, 1874 to ’75, John OLAFSSON asked Olafur, the leader of the colony, to go with him to Alaska. Sigfus MAGNUSSON went home that winter to fetch his fiancé but resolved to stay in Iceland and did not come back to America until 10 or 12 years later. That winter there were 3 Icelanders in Nebraska, two of them worked on the railroad.
The summer of 1875 Olafur OLAFSSON returned (to Iceland) from Alaska. He was still determined to move to Nebraska, but while he rested from his trip, the migration to Winnipeg and New Iceland started. Olafur believed it to be the right time to “follow the mainstream”, and indeed, many of the “Milwaukee men” believed this to be the right time also. They wanted the 3 men in Nebraska to go with them (to Winnipeg and New Iceland) but two of them were getting tired of the friendship, which frequently took different directions. As it turned out, that summer (1875) two additional brothers and the parents of the HALLDORSSON brothers arrived in Milwaukee. These folks had spent a whole winter in an immigration camp in eastern Canada with lot of other Icelanders as well; all of whom were migrating to New Iceland, I believe. This summer Jon HALLDORSSON yielded 80 bushels of wheat off of his land and Sigfus MAGNUSSON’S fields. That was all that the grasshoppers left behind, and will it be mentioned that this was the official harvest that Icelanders reaped in the new land (Nebraska).
Icelanders did not “take more land” for a while, as the grasshoppers lasted 3 more years, on and off. Did that scare many a man, even those who were well prepared for the settlement. The influx to the East (leaving Nebraska) was almost as great as it had been to the West (coming from Iceland) in the spring. It got so bad that some saw it as bad omen to discuss a settlement in Nebraska.
Torfi and Sigfus allowed the railroad company to repossess their land and so did many others. It was possible to rent acreage (fields) that had been tilled and with good buildings on it for next to nothing. This didn’t last very long; often those who rented these lands reaped enough harvest to pay for the fields in one year.
The first Icelander who got married in Nebraska was Jon HALLDORSSON. He married Thorvor SVEINSDOTTIR from Gardur in Adalreykjadal in Sudur (South) Thingeyjarsysla. That wedding took place on December 19, 1875. The first Iceland to die was Halldor JONSSON. That was September 8, 1876. He was father of Jon K. HALLDORSSON, but step-father of Jon (the older) HALLDORSSON.
Icelanders did not seriously start buying land until about the year 1879. Those who bought land were: Larus BJARNASON (who we told about before), Jon K., Pall and Sigurdur HALLDOSSONS. Larus still (now, in 1913) occupies his land. Pall and Sigurdur died from typhoid fever that same year (1879). In 1880 all farmland in Eastern Nebraska had been sold. That prevented a totally Icelandic settlement. Land rose in price so much that no one believed it would fetch a higher price. Since then it has risen even more; over $100.00 per acre.
Nothing much happened until 1883 when Jon C. HALLDORSSON sold his land for $3200.00. At this time the neighbors of these few Icelanders were already so rich that there were no hoped to be their equal. As it was there was plenty of domesticated (tillable) land to had 200 miles to the west in Nebraska. There, settlements were on the increase and still the opportunity to compete equally with others.
During the spring of 1884, John Kr. and Jon HALLDORSSONS (that we have mentioned before) moved west to Brown County, Nebraska. Also settled, Halldor JONSSON from Muli in Rangarthingi, his wife, Ingibjorg GUNDMUNDSDOTTIR from Keldur in same sysla (county) .Gudmundur Haller SIGURDSSON and his wife Sesselja from Eyrarbakki, also Kristin HALLDORSDOTTIR sister of Jon and Jon Kr. arrived as well. All these folks “took land” near a town called Long Pine.
In the year 1886, the aforementioned Sigfus MAGNUSSON arrived with his wife, Gudrun Emilia BENEDIKTSDOTTIR Her father Benedikt KRISTJANSSON was a (cabinet) member of the parliament and a minister in Muli in Thingeyjarsysla. In 1891 Olafur Isfeld HALLGRIMSSON (HOLMKELSSON) farm Holi in Kelduhverfi in Thingeyjarsysla; his wife is Skulina SKULADOTTIR, (SEVEINSSON, JONSSON) from Gardur in Adaldalur. In addition this ame year, arrived Sigurdur RUNOLFSSON from Hofi in Rangarvellir. His wife is Gudrun GUNNARSDOTTIR from Kidafell in Kjos. All these people settled in Nebraska. Since then, 5 to 8 Icelanders who are born here (in America) have settled (taken land), among them Albert brother of Torfi in Olafsdalur.
My sister, Halldora, is married to a German man, named WHITTSTRUCK. They have a large farm 10 miles from Lincoln with considerable life stock. He settled there before the land was given to the Union Pacific Railway and he has since bought additional land. The BJARNASON brothers, Larus and Albert now carry the last name ARNASON. They both still live in Eastern Nebraska and have both married American women. Albert bought land there.
My sister, Kristin, lives in the town of Long Pine in the West Nebraska County of Brown. She had an exchange of estate from her land and house to a home in town. Jon TOMASSON, HALLDORSSON and Sigurdur, my nephew live there and own their homes. Their brother, Kristjan lives in a town by the name of Chadron, farther west and owns his home and lot. All of them are born in Iceland and can be counted among the first settlers in Nebraska. Also near Long Pine, lives Sigurdur RUNOLFSON. All his children, Bjarni, Runolfur and Kristin, have “taken” domesticated (tillable) land where they currently live.
Each one of them is married to Americans but all three were born in Iceland, and can with certainty be counted as Icelanders.
G. S. HALLER lives in Rock County. He has six children, all of whom are born here. None of them has taken land but it is understood that their father has enough to give to each of them. Olafur Isfeld HALLGRIMSSON has 12 children, six boys and six girls, all born here in this country (America) and he is considered a wealthy land owner.
Sveinn, my oldest son lives in the town of Bassett in Rick County. There he operates a hardware store, and owns a beautiful home and many town lots. There, he and I own a ranch together, approximately 18 miles from Bassett. Sveinn is married to an American woman and together they have four sons. Unfortunately, none of them know a word in Icelandic. I have three other sons and one daughter, all of whom live here with me in Chicago, where we have lived since we moved from Nebraska. My daughter is our housekeeper and her name is Soffia. Tomas and Pall are both learning photography. Tomas has invented a lamp used in photography and has received a patent for it and it sells well.
The youngest one, Hrolfur (Ralph) works in a store. Last fall I travelled around Canada and came to Duluth and Winnipeg with my daughter. We only spent 4 days in Winnipeg. I nowhere near managed to visit all those that I wanted to due to the severe cold temperatures there. We had our longest stay near Wynyard, where my brother, Jon C. HALLDORSSON, lives, along with my brother-in-law, Sigurjon SVEINSSON.
I want to mention here that Halldor JONSSON from Mula in Rangarthingi lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where owns a grand home and lives there with his sister and daughter. The most important events of my life since I left Storuvellir I want to write about later. I believe it should be written separate from this.