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.”
Thankfully, this disease was eradicated in Iceland and the reason for the suffering from this disease was discovered. However, the treatment was not discovered before the death of my 3rd great-grandfather and the father of the little boy, Jónas Jónasson.
Most people were subsistence farmers and they lived in miserable poverty with very little hope of advancement in the severe economic times. There were times of horribly harsh winters that caused more illnesses and death from the lack of proper food and care. In 1875, Mount Askja erupted and covered much of northeastern Iceland with ash and caused the death of their animals and family. Many of our ancestors suffered, living a bleak and heartbreaking life.
Despite the tough times, the traditions of learning to read at home with visits from clergy helped our ancestors to achieve amazing literacy. During the period from 1780-1800, a study found that in 1,000 Icelandic homes, only 7 of them were without a library and most contained many religious books. More than 900 owned Jón Vidalin’s Postilla book of sermons and the Passion Hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson. This was in contrast to the rest of Europe where studies have found that less than 50% were able to read.
Visitors that wrote about our Icelandic ancestors gave glowing reports about how intelligent and magnificent they were while living in poor conditions. They reported how the families would gather together each evening to read and discuss the evening sermon or a saga. Children were taught lessons from religious books to enlighten their thoughts and improve their morals.
When he was older, Jónas, like many others, worked as a farm laborer for various people around northwestern Iceland. When he had saved enough money and had the opportunity to get married, the service was held at the local church called Ríp in Hegranesi, Skagafjörður.
Photo owned by Hjalti Pálsson og Byggðasaga Skagafjarðar.
The church shown is the timber church built in about 1837. It stood until 1920 and the new church was completed in 1924 according to the Byggðasaga Skagafjarðar Volume V by Hjalti Pálsson frá Hofi. His bride was living at a different farm from her birth. The family had moved seven times in the past 20 years, her father and mother had divorced, and her father at age 50 and then again at age 53 had two children with the housemaid. She was 20 years younger. The family was living at a farm near the Ríp church called Ketu.
Unnar from the Safnahúsíð in Sauðárkrókur says that Anna Elín’s father, Kristján Guðlaugsson, probably always rented his farms and was considered a tenant farmer. This conclusion comes because he moved so often between the various farms. These small farmers (as most Icelanders were during this time), were moving around a lot trying to get closer to family, trying to find better land, trying to find lower rent or if they could get a place that was larger but yet had higher rent. The rent for farms was very high and the price of the farm was almost completely paid in the cost of the rent each year.
The farmers did not raise any crops as we know them — but they had grass that would be cut for feeding the animals in the winter. The weather was not warm enough in the short summers to even grow wheat. They did not have wood to build their houses and sheds. They had turf and rock. Some people did get some wood from Denmark … but that would not have been Kristján. If he was really lucky, he might have had whale bones for rafters, but that was very unlikely.
With only 1% of the land in Iceland suitable for farming, it was hard to find land for the increasing population. This was made even worse by the Danish King imposing so much tax and trade restrictions on the people of Iceland. Their entire lives were merely subsistence living.
After their marriage, Jónas and Anna Elín lived a difficult life — just like most of the people in Iceland at that time. During their first ten years of marriage, they have five children together. They moved around to get better farms and get better work. The records show that they were trying the best that they could.
For two years between 1887-1889, Jónas and the family lived at Breiðstöðum west of Sauðárkrókur. This property was owned by many different people over the years and was usually taken by people who were quite poor and of little means because it has lots of gravel and marshes.
In 1889, Jónas becomes the ferry man (because he was the strongest and biggest man in the area) and the family lives at a farm called Tjörn. Even though he has been hired by the local government, they are still struggling and Jónas has another job in the village of Sauðárkrókur, too.
Just three years later, Anna Elín is pregnant with their fourth child and Jónas was before the local government to ask if the family could be given a cow so the family could be saved. The local government agreed that a cow would be of help but they wondered how Jónas would be able to feed the cow. They decided that Jónas and Anna should give away one of their children … for example the youngest.
The following year, in 1895, the government decides to cancel the ferry at Tjörn and now Jónas does not have that job any longer. The ferry continued to run down the stream. Now when people visit Sauðárkrókur there is a magnificent statue and storyboard panel about Jón Magnússon Ósmann (1862-1914), the Ferryman. He was the man who continued the ferry.
Three more years goes by and Jónas is working in town every day but they remain on the farm at Tjörn. On the 14th of December, Jónas was again at a meeting with the local government. He had a cow at this time but had no hay to feed the cow. He is given some rye for the cow.
The very next winter, at the end of November, the local government appoints two men to meet the family at Tjörn and ask them to give their children away to others that could get food and clothing and education for them. They wanted the family to move into town.
Theodór Friðriksson wrote a book about his life as a poor man. In the book, he talks about Tjörn because he lived there for a few years. At Tjörn, they all slept in a 6.5 foot (2 meter) x 6.5 foot square room with a dirt floor. The walls and roof were made with turf.
But throughout all these struggles, there is a letter in the archives that Unnar shared with me that said, ”Jónas was in some plays with the Goodtemplars in Sauðárkrókur, but Jósef (Jósef Schram, a good friend of the family) was considered to be a very good actor. Jónas was a well-known poet, a good rhymer, and a quiet man. Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson wrote this about Jónas in America: ”Jónas was a good man, hard-working, fun, and gave the home warmth. He brought sunshine to others while he was alive. His poems are well-known all over Iceland.”
Eventually, Jónas became very ill and could not work at all. The family was moved into town after a decision was made 02 Feb 1898. The children were sent away to live with others in the community. The youngest were able to stay with the parents at their home in Sauðárkrókur.
When their father died, they were ages 15, 12, 10, 8, and almost 5. This photo below was taken after the death of their father in 1900 and before Anna Elín immigrated to North Dakota in 1903.
Before his death, Jónas Jónasson from Tjörn wrote the following poems. Manitoba’s renowned ”farmer poet”, David Gislason, has kindly translated these verses and poems for me. He states, ”This is good poetry, and uses some very old words, such as ‘Sverðameiður,’ which is hard to translate. It is a very old ‘kenning’ which denotes ‘a man’. ‘Work-worn’ may actually be an apt translation though, as a ferry man he would have often worked very hard and for small reward.”
Fölna liljur fjallarans Frost og biljir vaka, Allar hyljast æðar lands Undir þiljum klaka
Lilies of the mountains fade Frost and storms awaken Country’s heart has shelter made And ‘neath the snow’s crust taken.
Jónas eyðir æfi á Tjörn Oft hjá sneiðir málum Sverðameiður sá á börn Sípur neyð úr skálum.
Jónas at Tjörn his life does spend Oft in poor conditions A working man with babes to tend Suffers poor nutrition.
Stjönufróðir, frægir menn Fyrir þjóðum lýsa Að í flóði farist senn Foldin góða ísa.
Astrologists and others think And make this bleak prediction That Iceland’s doomed, and soon will sink A flooded, bleak condition.
Þó minn sé ekki mikil sjón Mega þar rekkar heyra Áður enn sekkur ísa frón Eitthvað sekkur fleira.
Though I may not be very bright I’ll say to those who’ll hear me Ere Iceland sinks beneath the bight Others will founder, clearly.
Jónas, in his poems, talks about being work-worn and suffering with poor nutrition. He also talks about Iceland’s bleak condition. During the days of the Danish trade monopoly, Hofsós was the only harbor allowed to be a trading post in all of Skagafjörður. Only in 1856, were the ships and their merchants allowed to trade at the area now known as Sauðárkrókur. People in the area were mostly farmers and fishermen. They did not live in communities but were scattered on area farms. In 1871, a blacksmith and his family first moved into the area now known as the city of Sauðárkrókur. He also opened up a place for people to stay overnight. In 1873, the first shopkeeper came to town and built the second house in the forming village.
Jónas and Anna Elín came to town about 1889 when he became the ferry man. In 1895, Anna Elín was one of the founding members of the Ladies Aide – the same year that Jónas stopped working on the ferry. By the year that Jónas died in 1900, there were 400 people living in this village. They had a church, hospital, and school.
I wonder if my ancestors went to the church service in Sauðárkrókur on December 18, 1892? That is the day that the church was consecrated.
From Hálfdan Helgason, “1422 emigrants left Skagafjarðarsýsla between 1870 and 1914. Most of them left through Sauðárkrókur. Since these towns usually did not have a dock that could accommodate large ships, passengers had to row out in small boats.”
According to the Hofsós Emigration Center, “It is generally estimated that somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 Icelanders emigrated; 20 – 25% of the total population of Iceland at the time.”
Another story for another day: Anna Elín could not keep her family together and thought she had a chance to make a better life for her children in America. She and her four daughters leave Sauðárkrókur in 1903 and they left her only son, Guðmundur behind. She could not get any more money than what she had already borrowed and worked for. He remained at Sjávarborg with the farmer, Pálmi Pétursson. Of course, Guðmundur had no property and no money. He was an indentured servant. A few years later (along with a very interesting story for another day), Guðmundur immigrated to America. It was 1905 and he was almost 18 years old. Even though he was very ill when he arrived in North Dakota, he lived to be almost 95 years of age. Guðmundur was a father, son, husband, farmer, a poet, a musician, a community leader, a volunteer, and my great-grandfather.