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Destitute Icelanders in 1879

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

The life of the Icelandic pioneers to North America was daunting. Each article or book about their life contains gut-wrenching stories about the brave pioneers that struggled to survive hardships and sorrow. Intertwined in the story, we learn they also experienced success and joy. The poverty, illnesses, and obstacles they overcame are incomprehensible to most of us alive today.

Thank you to Jim Benjaminson from Walhalla, ND for sharing this 1879 news article:

The Rev. P. Thorlakson (Reverend Páll Þorláksson) arrived yesterday with a colony of thirty Icelanders, from New Iceland, at Lake Winnipeg. He found them in the streets of Winnipeg, destitute of money, and by borrowing funds, until collections expected from the Norwegian Senate (Norwegian Synod) should arrive, he enabled them to proceed to this place.

Mr. Thorlakson has applied, this summer, to the Norwegian Lutheran Senate (Synod) for relief and they have resolved to assist the Icelanders to leave their colony, where they were almost destitute of everything. Mr. Thorlakson has persistently and fearlessly, against much opposition and without other means than support from the Icelanders in this country, drawn sufferers away from that swamp.

The soil in the vicinity of the lake is too swampy for produce of almost any kind. Potatoes are raised by making large hills, while water stands between them, the people are kept busy keeping these hills in shape, the potatoes are becoming diseased and according to the report of the last party, they become hard by boiling and unfit for food. The Rev. Mr. Bjarnarson, formerly opposed to Mr. Thorlakson’s actions, now confirms that the scheme to popularize the vicinity of Lake Winnipeg is a complete failure. There are now about eighty families scattered on the lands of the Tongue River (Pembina County, ND) and a still further increase of immigration may be expected from Lake Winnipeg as well as from old Iceland.

Pembina Pioneer (Pembina, Dakota Territory) 06 September 1879 Volume 1, Number 6, Page 2 Retrieved by Jim Benjaminson, Walhalla, North Dakota, 15 Apr 2014

The first Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg in October of 1875 from the Kinmount, Ontario settlement. A few stayed in Winnipeg but most continued north to their destination in New Iceland. The next year, the "large group" arrived bringing 1200 more of their kinsmen. map from Archives of Manitoba. Map showing Icelandic Settlement area near Lake Winnipeg. circa 1877. map from Archives of Manitoba.

Map showing Icelandic Settlement area near Lake Winnipeg. circa 1877.

In those early years, living near Lake Winnipeg was very difficult for the Icelanders. There were floods, mosquitoes, forest fires, disease, poverty, harsh climate, and many other disasters. Some pioneers traveled to Winnipeg to work. Other immigrants also came to Winnipeg in these years making housing and employment scarce. At the Fork of the Red River and the Assiniboine River was an area known as the Hudson's Bay Flats. New immigrants such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, and the Icelanders set up housing here. First Nations people also stayed on the Flats when they were in town for trading. The "Shanty Town" had little shacks and tents spread out along this area. Newspapers called this area of Winnipeg "The Icelandic Camping Grounds" in several articles.

Reverend Páll Þorláksson had heard of new land opening up for homesteads in Dakota. He brought many Icelanders down to Dakota beginning in the spring of 1878. The Dakota settlement also had hardship, disease, poverty, harsh climate, and mosquitoes. The Norwegians in America helped the Icelanders succeed by teaching farming practices, borrowing them equipment, supplies, and much more.

In the fall of 1880, Rev. Páll writes,

‘‘At last there appeared to be good reason to believe our settlement would survive the coming winter for several farmers had a fair crop that autumn and our community had been augmented moreover, by the arrival of a number of self-supporting individuals and even men of some means from Lyon County, Minnesota, and Shawano County, Wisconsin. Quite a few of the settlers who had hired out as harvest hands returned to their homes with appreciable sums of money, and we were also joined by people with means of their own who came from Winnipeg and other places in Manitoba.’’

Mountain early

The story of the Icelanders is so remarkable and awe-inspiring. Whether they stayed in Iceland, immigrated to North America with the very first group to Utah, they came later to Canada and the USA, they disappeared into unknown areas, or even the newest immigrants alive today, ours is a fascinating story to tell.

Some people say we should live for today and for the future – that we should forget about the past. I agree with the first part - - live for today and the future but I disagree with the statement that we should forget about our past.

We need to remember the past. We can gain so much wisdom from learning about our history. Our family ties are important and help children (and ourselves) become more grounded in our heritage. Just because we are doing great, we should not forget the past. We gain wisdom, strength, respect, and pride in knowing that we, just like our ancestors, can withstand struggles and thrive in this world by being brave, working hard, and figuring it out.

We honor our Icelandic ancestors by keeping their stories alive. Write down your family stories and share them. Send stories here to Icelandic Roots. We will publish them for everyone interested in our shared story – here in North America, back in Iceland, or around the world.

Thanks for connecting here at Icelandic Roots. You are helping to keep our Saga alive!

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