Finding the Legacy of a Pioneer Mother

Updated: Jul 11


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, none of the three that made it to adulthood lived past 34 years of age. Here is a photo of them taken in Edinburg, North Dakota.


Jón died in February of 1922 at the age of 82. All of their children had already died. Guðrún moved in with the family of her youngest brother, Ólafur Ólafsson. He and his wife, Friðrika, had ten chidren but only three were still alive when Guðrún moved into their home. The next February, her brother’s wife, Friðrika, died at the age of 68. Only three years later, in January of 1926, her youngest brother, Ólafur, died at the age of 65.

Here was the situation of Guðrún at the age of 83. Her parents had died in Iceland. All 7 of her children had died – 1 in Iceland, 2 in Canada, and 4 in North Dakota. Her husband had died. All of her siblings had died – 8 in Iceland, 3 in Canada, and now her youngest brother in North Dakota.

It is 1926. During a time that our history books tell us were “The Roaring Twenties.” However, this time in North Dakota was not roaring and it was not very prosperous. World War I pushed the state into an economic downturn especially on the family farms. Businesses that sold cars and electrical appliances were starting to come into the market. North Dakota farms were barely surviving and about 20 percent of the state’s farmers quit farming. The 80% who stayed on the land were just over subsistent living. However, the pioneers in North Dakota sent almost one-fourth of their children to college. Although the 1920s were tough on the North Dakota farms, the stock market crash of 1929 and the even more devastating time that we know as “The Dirty Thirties” and the “Great Depression” were yet to come.

Guðrún continued to live at the home of her deceased brother with her nephew, Valdimar, his sister, Cornelia, and Mundi Olafson who was working on the farm as a laborer. During the depression, Cornelia started a band called, “The Rhythm Kids.” This band in later years was called the Stony Hermann Band. It included about eight young people including Stony Hermann, and Freddy Olafson who played the saxophone. They traveled from town to town playing for dances. They each were paid $5 per night.

Guðrún lived with Valdi (my Afi) until he married the neighbor girl (my Amma) in 1933. They were 35 and 19 years of age at the time of their marriage. In the next few years, Valdi and Lovisa had two young sons (one of them my father) and a new baby was on the way. Guðrún died 17 Jul 1936 at the home of Valdi and Lovisa. Four months later, another baby boy was born into the family.

When I started working on this family story, I realized that Guðrún did not have a gravestone. I noticed her death date and learned more about her story. It bothered me that Guðrún did not have a gravestone. I felt that she needed to have one and tried to find any family members that would help get her one. Of her seven children, two of the daughters had children who were alive before their deaths. I searched for them but did not find anyone.

Her oldest daughter, Jónína Sigríður ‘Sarah,’ who was the one child born in Iceland that had survived. She married a man named Richard Shannon. Sarah was born 29 Jul 1873 at the farm Hvammur and died 07 Jun 1908 in North Dakota after having two children. They are living in Olga in Cavalier Township, North Dakota. In the 1910 Census, the little girl, Katy Shannon is a lodger living with her aunt and unce, Rosa and Daniel O’Connor and their new baby Mary aged 8 months.

Her obituary is as follows:

19 Jun 1908 Edinburg Tribune Mrs Shannon Dean

On Tuesday morning, the 9th, occured the death of Mrs. Richard Shannon of McLean after a protracted illness from consumption. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Smith, formerly of Akra, and was widely known. She enjoyed a large circle of friends and acquaintances, who, together with an aged father, a husband, and two children mourn her demise.

She was married a few years ago to Richard Shannon and they lived happily together until the dread disease laid its hold upon the wife, finally separating them. Funeral services were held at the Tongue River Church (This is the name of the old Hallsson Church – Tungár Söfnudur) by Rev. Bjorn and the remains then conveyed to Gardar, where interment took place, Rev. K.K. Olafson conducting the services.

Consumption is the name for Tuberculosis because the people were consumed and wasted away before they died. It was untreatable at the time and truly an epidemic for years.

Sarah’s sister and the youngest daughter of Jón and Guðrún was named Rosa Adalheidur (30 Sep 1886 – before 1920). Rosa married Daniel Henry O’Connor (11 Aug 1886 – 28 Nov 1940). I have tried to find more information on the grandchildren of Guðrún and Jón named Catherine Shannon and Mary O’Connor. However, I have not had much luck. Part of the problem is that I am always working on everyone else´s genealogy and not that of my family.

Family stories say that once the two daughters named Sarah and Rosa died, the husbands moved on and the children became workers for other families. So, no one was left in North Dakota in 1936 but her nephew, Valdi, and his new wife, Louise.

Valdi and Louise had those two tiny boys, Dean and Bob (my dad). They also knew that another baby was on the way. Guðrún had been living with them on the family farm. It was the ”Dirty Thirties.” I am sure that money was tight for this barely married young couple trying to make it on the farm and starting out their life together. Louise was 22 years old at this time. Valdi was 38 years old in 1936.


Guðrún died and was buried in the Gardar Cemetery. Maybe she had a wooden cross or similar marker but over the years, her grave became unmarked.

Because of the intensive cemetery research that I have been involved with, I knew exactly where they were buried. In 2012, I purchased new headstones for Guðrún and Jón. A few people in the family gave some money to help. Thank you, Mom and Dad and to Darren and Nichole. Your contributions helped and I am appreciative.

So, now the life of this pioneer woman is coming to the forefront again. Here it is 77 years after the death of Guðrún, I have FINALLY found the little daughter that Jónína Sigríður ‘Sarah’ left behind when she died!

Mary Catherine Shannon was born 2 Oct 1899 in Olga, Cavalier County, North Dakota to Richard Shannon and Jónína Sigríður Jónsdóttir. Her mother died when she was just 8 years old.

Here is the message that I received from one of the grandchildren:

“None of us knew much about the North Dakota connection since she died when Grandma was so young. I do know that Grandma (she went by Catherine) lived for a few years with an Aunt & Uncle in Fargo,North Dakota after her Mother died because her Dad couldn’t work and take care of her as a single father. Grandma had an amazing life with 11 kids (9 boys ,2 girls) 60 grandchildren and over 140 great-grandchildren and counting! She loved God & her family and was the most wonderful person you could ever meet.”

It is wonderful to find the legacy of this pioneer Icelandic mother. I am sure that our ancestors would be very happy that so many years later we have found each other. I am getting messages from this family, connecting with long-lost cousins. I am sure that they want to know the North Dakota and the Iceland story. They are lucky. I know that story.

What a joy and a blessing to have found them and I am sure that there will be many emails, photos, and stories going back and forth in the next days and even years. I had seen this photo below before but did not know this young couple. Now I know! It is Jónína Sigríður Jónsdóttir and Richard Shannon on their wedding day. Thank you so very much, Zenderville Family.



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