Jónas at Tjörn and Common Struggles of Our Ancestors

Updated: Apr 27

This is a story about a man who lived in Iceland. His life story is similar in many ways to others that lived there at the time. They were living within the same economic, spiritual, and social atmosphere. When you read his story, you can think about where your ancestors lived. What is their story?

Here is the story about Jónas at Tjörn and the common struggles of our ancestors during this time period of 1850-1900.

On April 2, 1900, a father, a husband, and a friend named Jónas Jónasson, died in the village of Sauðárkrókur in northwest Iceland. He was a farmer, fisherman, ferry man, actor, musician, and a poet. At 48 years old, he and his wife had been married for only 16 years.

It was very common in Iceland during these years that people did not (could not) marry until they were older because of a very strict law. Couples were required to get permission for marriage based on their financial situation. The law required proof that you could take care of your family or you could not get married. About 25% of the population, especially young people, were actually in bondage as indentured servants and they had no property. Without the means to support a family, marriage was denied to many until they were older and had accumulated some property and money. Jónas was 33 and Anna Elín was 21 years of age at the time of their marriage in the summer of 1884. Their first baby was born two months later.

There was a ”Vistarband” or ”Residency Law” that forced all farm workers to register each year. If you did not own or lease a farm, you were legally forced into working at another farm, many times splitting up families to do so. The law was enforced to prohibit vagrancy and was actually in place until 1894.

When studying the lives of our Icelandic ancestors, you will find that many of them lived on several farms. Most likely they leased the farm and the lease was usually for one year at a time. The farmers and farm workers all moved around frequently from farm to farm. There was even a specific time of the year called ”Moving Days” (Fardagar). This is the time period where those who worked or leased a farm could move to another farm. These days were the long weekend (Thurs-Sun) during the seventh week of the summer (considered from 31 May – 06 June). Sometimes they could get a better farm if times were good and sometimes they had to move to a farm that was not as productive when times were tough. Many women lived their entire lives in servitude.

In November of 1851, Jónas was born as the thirteenth child in his family at Auðunarstaði í Víðidalur (shown on the map below on the very bottom of the map in the center). As in many families, only six children were still alive at the time. His father also had one child earlier with another woman who was not his wife — also not unusual.

When Jónas was just a toddler, his father died of a common ailment in Iceland at the time called Hydatid Disease. The information here is quoted from this link. “Echinococcosis was one of the most frequent diseases among the human population and was also commonly observed in sheep and cattle. Autopsies and questionaries indicate that 20-25% of the inhabitants might have been infested by hydatidosis in 1850.”

Jónas the elder died of this horrible disease in 1854.

“The nature of the disease was still unknown at that time… The sheep, cattle, dogs and humans lived in close contact. The dogs often shared a room and even the bed with the family, and were the best playmate for the children. The people lived mostly in primitive houses at that time and under primitive hygienic conditions. It is therefore not wonder that the hydatid disease flourished as long as the nature of the disease was still obscure.”

”In 1849 … one out of every six Icelanders suffered from hydatid disease…. If the patient has cysts in the lungs and is symptomatic, they will have a cough, shortness of breath and/or pain in the chest. On the other hand, if the patient has cysts in the liver and is symptomatic, they will suffer from abdominal pain, abnormal abdominal tenderness, hepatomegaly with an abdominal mass, jaundice, fever and/or anaphylactic reaction. In addition, if the cysts were to rupture while in the body, whether during surgical extraction of the cysts or by some kind of trauma to the body, the patient would most likely go into anaphylactic shock and suffer from high fever, pruritus (itching), edema (swelling) of the lips and eyelids, dyspnea, stridor and rhinorrhea.”