Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Here we are at the end of March with snow on the ground and a blizzard forecast for tomorrow. The following is a true story about a pioneer Icelandic mother named Guðrún and her two children in March of 1880 - 1883. They set out on foot to visit with friends. However, Guðrún ends up dying. Her children survive. Guðrún did not have the Weather Channel, the news, an app on her cell phone, or other such modern alert systems. Such a tragic story -- one of many in the sagas of the Icelandic Pioneers to North America.
NO GREATER LOVE (4) By Lauga Geir
The following story was submitted to me by the late J. J. Erlendson of Cavalier. He has sought all available sources to verify his statements including an interview with Jon Olason, nephew of Mrs. Long. Miss Kristbjörg Kristjanson of Mountain, N. D., also contributed information from the Thorgeirson Almanac for the year 1929, pages 58-59. This is the most authentic record now available of this incident which happened in March, 1881 or 1882.
The day dawned mild and calm. A blanket of snow shrouded the Village of Mountain, N. Dak., and covered the roofs of pioneer cabins, little houses, yet so big that there was always room for the homeless.
Such a place was that of Hallgrímur Jónsson and his wife, Nybjörg, living on what is now the Johannes Anderson farm, half mile west of Mountain. Sharing their home was a comely woman in her early thirties, Guðrún Long, with her two children, Borghildur, age 9 and Vilhjálmur, age 7. She had been in this country only a few years, having come to America in 1878. She was born in Norður Múlasýsla, Iceland, in 1850. At the age of 20, she was married to Sigmundur Long. For some time her husband was an innkeeper at Seyðísfjördur, but in a comparatively short time, they were separated, and Guðrún with her two children sailed for America, going directly to New Iceland near Gimli, Manitoba, where her half-brother, Metúsalem Olason was located. Later he and his brother, Guðni, became homesteaders near Akra, N. Dak. After the first winter in Canada Guðrún brought her children to Mountain, N. Dak., finding refuge with Hallgrímur and Nybjörg Jónsson.
On this particular day Guðrún seemed somewhat depressed. This mood probably prompted a desire to see her intimate friends. Looking through the window she announced, “This being such a mild day I have a mind to go visiting. I plan to walk with the children to Gardar. I want to see my good friend, Ásta, wife of Benedikt Jóhannesson.” (Many photos, stories, and documents are about this family are in the member database - see tab at top right)
“I hate to see you go that distance of foot,” replied Nýbjörg. “Why not wait til later?”
“No, this is a good day,” insisted Guðrún. “I shall first stop awhile in Mountain at Þorlákur Jónsson’s place.” Among the notable homes in the community was that of Þorlákur Jónsson and his wife, Lovísa Níelsdóttir. (The parents of Pastor Þáll Þorláksson.) Guðrún Long with her children made a short visit there but soon prepared to leave for Gardar.
Lovísa Jónsson protested. “Walk to Gardar? My dear, do you realize that it is six miles to Gardar and the snow still on the ground.”
“I agree,” echoed her husband, Þorlákur. “The weather is uncertain and traveling on foot with children this time of year isn't good. Why not wait til later?”
“Yes, Gudrún, why not wait? Perhaps you can catch a ride with someone later,” suggested Lovísa.
Guðrún’s reply was positive. “No, Lovísa, I am used to walking and the children are healthy, the weather mild. Don't worry about us; we will get there.“
So it was; no persuasion could stop her. Late that afternoon Guðrún Long and her children trudged the road south, bound for Gardar.
Not long after they left the wind began to howl. Threatening clouds overcast the sky, and snowflakes were falling fast. A North Dakota blizzard in all its fury was sweeping the prairies. Soon it was pitch dark. No one knew whether Guðrún and the children had reached Gardar. One hope remained, that she might have reached some home not too far from the road.
That night Nybjörg Jónsson woke up with a start calling her husband. “Hallgrímur, wake up. Guðrún Long is dead. She is dead I say.”
“What are you saying, woman? Dead? How do you know she is dead?”
“She is. I know it. I had a dream. I saw her coming in through the doorway, snow clinging to her garments. She stood at the foot of our bed, but said nothing. Then she put her hand under the bedcovers and touched my foot. It was an icy hand, so cold it sent shivers through me. Just now I saw her fade through the doorway.”
“There is nothing we can do now,” replied Hallgrímur. “It is still dark; we must wait for daylight.”
At daybreak Hallgrímur was out summoning Þorlákur Jónsson and other neighbors to search the road to Gardar. The storm had then abated. They followed the road south, stopping at the home of Kristján Backman, which is now the Arni V. Johnson’s residence. No one there had seen the wayfarers. The men continued their search southward, seeing nothing till they came to Sigmundur Laxdal’s quarter section, about three miles north of Gardar. There they noticed a stick with a handkerchief tied to it emerging from a snowdrift. On investigation they found the children buried in the snow but unharmed. A short distance away, by a boulder, was the scantily-clad body of the mother, frozen to death.
The bereaved children told how their mother had removed her own coat and other wraps to bundle them up in and then buried them in the snow, admonishing them not to stir until she returned. She was going to find her bearing before going farther.
“It was such a long night,” wailed the tearful children. “We were so scared we couldn't sleep and we prayed constantly as Mother told us to do.”
Now the long night was over, but there was no living mother to cling to.
Thorlákur Jónsson assured the nine-year-old Borghildur that she could be a member of his household. She remained there until she married at the age of 18.
The seven-year-old Vilhjálmur was adopted by Björn Thórlaksson.
Guðrún Long’s story remains a symbol of the purest motherly devotion. The curtain separating the living from the dead, so seldom penetrated, was opened by a mother's love -- a love stronger than death.
To learn more about the people in this true story:
Guðrún Einarsdóttir was born, as the fourth child, 7 Apr 1841 at Höfða to Einar Skúlason (1799-1843) and Salný Guðmundsdóttir (1814-1866). Unfortunately, the little girl was just two-years-old when her father died. Ten months later, her mother, 30-year-old Salný, married 37-year-old Óli Ísleifsson and they had more children together.
Sigmundur Matthíasson Long had eight children with five women including Guðrún. He was not married to Guðrún Einarsdóttir. Their two children were born in 1872 and about 1874.
In 1878, Guðrún, age 37, and her two children, Borghildur - age 5 and Vilhjálmur - age 3, emigrated from the port of Seyðisfjarðarhreppur. Their last residence is listed as the farm, Fjarðaralda, Seyðisfjarðarhreppur in Nórður Múlasýsla. Their destination is Quebec. (2)
Here is the fishing village of Seyðisfjörður in 1885.
They immigrated to New Iceland. On 3. January 1880, she wrote a letter to Sigmundur and told him that she was going to North Dakota where many Icelanders had settled. (5) She was staying the winter with her half-brother, Metúsalem Olason (1850-1935). Metúsalem and his family immigrated in 1876 with the large group. They lived in New Iceland until March of 1881 when they moved to North Dakota between Hensel and Hallson.
There are some discrepancies in when exactly Guðrún Einarsdóttir and her two children went to North Dakota. The letter comes in January 1880 to Sigmundur that she is moving to North Dakota that same winter. This is about 18 months after leaving Iceland. She states in the letter that she is staying with her half-brother ''for the winter.'' (5)
Metúselem Olason (her half-brother) moves to North Dakota in March of 1881. Is it before or after the death of Guðrún? The story by Lauga Geir says, ''After the first winter in Canada, Guðrún brought her children to Mountain, N. Dak.'' However, Guðrún came to Canada in 1878. Earlier in the article, Lauga writes, ''This is the most authentic record now available of this incident which happened in March, 1881 or 1882.'' (4) I have not found a death notice in the old Icelandic newspapers located online. So, did Guðrún Long come to ND in 1880 as the diary of Sigmundur says? (5) Was it that same winter of 1880, when she was staying with the Jónsson family that she set off for Gardar or was it the following March in 1881? If anyone has any evidence of the exact death date, please let me know.
Guðrún's daughter, Borghildur Sigmundsdóttir Long was born 28 Oct 1872 in Hamragerði. She is the daughter of Sigmundur Matthíasson Long (1841 - 1924) and Guðrún Einarsdóttir (1841 - 1881) - the mother that died in this story when Borghildur was nine years old. Borghildur married Metúselem Vigfússon.
Metúsalem Vigfússon was born 20 Jun 1855 at Háreksstöðum in Norður Múlasýsla. His parents were, Vigfús Pétursson (1830-1872) of the Hákonarstaðarætt and Anna Sigríður Jónsdóttir (1832-1865). Nine days after his 10th birthday, Metúsalem lost his mother. He moved with his father to Klausturseli á Kökuldal and they lived there for two years with his half-sister, Pálina (1851-1915). She was married to Einar Hinríksson (1832-1910) and they lived at Miðhúsum í Suður Múlasýsla. Soon afterwards, Metúsalem went to Seydisfjördur, and after that he did not see his father. His father, Vigfús, died about six weeks before Metúsalem turned 17-years-old. (1)
Metúsalem Vigfússon lived and worked in various places until he was twenty years old with the last place of residence at Grófargerði in Vallnahreppur, Suður Múlasýsla(2). He left for America in 1876 traveling along with the family of Einar Bjarnason age 37 and his 53-year-old wife, Ólöf Einarsdóttir, and her four children from a previous marriage to Þorkell Árnason Scheving (1820-1866). They left from the port of Seyðisfjörður on the ship Verona with the destination as Quebec.
In America, Metúsalem Vigfússon was called Charles Peterson. For a while, Metúsalem (Charles) lived in a small village then named Stone Fort. We now know this area as Lower Fort Garry, Manitoba. He worked there for eight months for $8.00 a month. He paid his debt to Arni Scheving for his travel to North America. Arni and some family members are buried in the Vidalin Cemetery near Hensel. Many of his descendants went to Seattle and Blaine, Washington. Metúsalem (Charles) worked at various locations in Manitoba but mostly in Winnipeg.
Metúsalem Vigfússon (Charles Peterson) and Borghildur Long married and bought and 80 acre farm southeast of Mountain. They spent $2,200.00 for the farm. They lived there for seven years, but then gave it all up and moved to Roseau, Minnesota to start over. "During those years, Metúsalem worked at being a judge, was on the school board, was a road manager, and worked with the mail service. He had those jobs for many years. He also was a census taker. For all those jobs, he made about $6.00 per day.
After 11 years of being in Roseau, Metúsalem again sold his land and homestead. He moved with his family to Blaine, Washington. They were there for the next 10 years. In 1917, he moved to Yakima, Washington. Metúsalem and Borghildur had seven children and they lived in Saskatchewan (Anna Sigrun (Peterson) Fosse; Lovisa Vilborg (Peterson) Womack lived in San Fernando, California; and Peter Vigfus and Gudmundur Kristin lived in Yakima.
A very long article about Sigmundur Matthíasson Long - including photos of him, his family, and his diary is found HERE. (5)
(1) Icelandic Roots Genealogy Database (Previously Hálfdan Helgason Database) (2) Vesturfaraskrá (3) Almanak Ólafs S. Thorgeirsson, volume 1, 1929. Pages 58-59. (4) Lögberg-Heimskringla. Föstudagur 11, desember 1992. Page 2. Story by Lauga Geir, Mountain, ND. www.timarit.is (5) Ritmennt, 6. árgangur 2001. 1. tölublað. www.timarit.is
L-H article used with permission from Joan Eyjolfson-Cadham, Editor (3. 30. 2014).