Finding the Legacy of a Pioneer Mother

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

In 1936, a pioneer mother of seven children and with eleven siblings died as the last surviving member of her family. Guðrún Ólafsdóttir was 93 years old and had seen a lot of changes in her 67 years in North America. She had lived a life of struggles and heartaches yet family stories tell of her being patient, kind, loving, and a diligent worker.

Guðrún was born 20 Jun 1843 at the farm Hvammur just south of Akureyri to Ólafur Guðmundsson and Sigríður Jósepsdóttir. She was their third child and the third daughter. Two years later, a baby boy was born but he died at the age of 21 months. Over a span of twenty years, twelve babies were born to Ólafur and Sigríður. Five of them did not reach their second birthday.

Guðrún married her father’s farmhand, Jón Jónsson, on 10 Oct 1872 in Akureyri. He had little chance of ever owning his own farm. Guðrún had four living brothers that were all in line to take over managing the Hvammur farm. In 1873, her first sibling, Jósef Ólafsson, left Iceland for Canada. Three years later, Guðrún and Jón left Iceland on the ship Verona. Her parents were still alive. They died 4 years after Guðrún left for North America at the ages of 73 and 63.

Akureyri 1885

According to a newspaper in Iceland, ”Fréttir fá Íslandi” almost 800 people left on the Verona from Akureyri on 02 Jul 1876. On this Sunday, the famous Father of New Iceland, Sigtryggur Jónasson, was also on this ship. He had been in Canada and had come back to Iceland encouraging others to come to this promised land. They were on the “First Group” or the “Large Group” of 1876.

In 1876, three groups of people left Iceland for North America. Guðrún and Jón left in the first group of 752. The second group of 399 left from the eastern port of Seyðisfjördur on the l2th of July. The third group was from the south and had about 20 people on board.

Jónas Þór writes about the adventures of the large group of 1876. Some excerpts are copied below. This is a great book and well worth purchasing for your library. According to Jónas Þór, ”Icelanders in North America,”

… from Granton (Scotland), they went to Glasgow and had to wait a few days for the Allan Line steamer, ”Austria”. They departed 11 July and arrived safely at Quebec on the 22nd. The next morning the group was on a west-bound train arriving in Toronto on 24 July…. reached Winnipeg in the evening of Tuesday, August 8th.

Most of the travellers left Winnipeg on 13 August, voyaging the Red towards Gimli…. reach Gimli until Sunday, 20 August. It had taken them exactly seven weeks to cover the distance from Iceland to Gimli. The new settlers spent the remainder of August in transporting their belongings from the mouth of the Red River to Gimli.

Jón from Mæri reported that once they were in Gimli, little assistance was available because there were few men in the colony. The women and children appeared extremely tired and hungry. Little or no improvements had been made to the log cabins and the newcomers were forced to spend the night outdoors using bedcovers for tents.

From page 100 continuing on: ”The summer of 1876 was very unfavourable for the settlers in New Iceland. Making hay was difficult because of heavy rain and because most able men were away. Those settlers left behind in the colony had animals who needed hay. The number of cows was far from sufficient, and each animal had to be shared by four or five families. The cows were a great disappointment during the summer, bugs in the woods constantly harassed them, which resulted in less milk than the settlers needed.

Traveling on land was impossible because roads or paths had yet to be made. Instead, settlers took the scows apart and used the lumber to build smaller vessels on which they travelled along the coast. Clearly, the colony was far from ready for the large group and, understandably, most newcomers were disappointed, not only with the reception they received from their compatriots but also with the general state of the settlement. Sigtryggur Jónasson, who was responsible for bringing the people of 1876, had painted a bright picture of the area that, he claimed, was ideal for an exclusive Icelandic settlement. But Jónasson may have expected too much from the 1875 group. Construction of houses was not yet underway in August of 1876, when he led his group to the site. Little land had been cleared and haymaking was minimal.

The large group had arrived, but not without casualties. Many of the settlers were ill during most of the journey and some did not survive. Numerous factors contributed: the different climate, the blazing heat, the lack of adequate cleanliness during the voyage, and the unfamiliar food. Digestive problems were most common. It is estimated that between thirty and forty children died during and shortly after the journey. Eleven had died in the first group before reaching Gimli. Jón from Mæri wrote that ‘quite a few people remained behind in Gimli during the winter as they did not have the strength to continue. Some have estimated that close to sixty people passed away in New Iceland.”’

Jónas continues: Haymaking was adequate on some farms. The site had long and cold winters, marshy lands, and vicious bugs. One newcomer wrote, ”Most of the people are exhausted and sick following the journey and at this stage about sixty people have died, most of whom were infants and around one year of age.”

In September, small pox broke out in the Icelandic River area and spread to Gimli by November. On the 27th of November, the whole area was placed into quarantine. This meant that no supplies could come in and no one could leave to replenish their supplies.Sources say about one-third of the settlers got small pox and 102 died – mostly children.

There is many more details and information in the book by Jónas Þór. Many details and more information can be found HERE with information by Víðar Hreinsson.

After surviving all of this adventure, strife, and hard work, in the spring of 1879, Jón and Guðrún followed the advice of their pastor and leader, Páll Þórlaksson (Pall Thorlaksson). He became known as ‘The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota.” The family settled on new land near Akra in Pembina County, North Dakota, USA. Later, they moved to the Gardar area. Jón was known as Jón Smíður (Jon Smith) because if his work as a carpenter.

Guðrún and Jón had seven children. Four were born in Iceland but only one of them survived to adulthood. One child was born in Canada and she lived to adulthood. Two children were born in North Dakota and one lived to adulthood. However, non