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Dr. Ólafur Björnsson, Askja Volcano, Unitarian Church, and The Tricking of Freya

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

What does a doctor, a volcano, a church, and a fiction book have in common? Today we remember the birthday of Dr. Ólafur Björnsson, a well-known and much-loved obstetrician in Manitoba and North Dakota. Ólafur was born 28 Dec 1869 to Björn Pétursson and Ólavía Ólafsdóttir at a farm in eastern Iceland called Gíslastaðir í Fljótsdalshérað, Norður Múlasýsla. His family immigrated to North America after the 1875 Askja volcanic eruption and Björn founded the Unitarian Church in Winnipeg. The granddaughter of Dr. Ólafur is the author, Christina Sunley who wrote the fabulous book, The Tricking of Freya.

Photo of Gíslastaðir by Christina Sunley

The birth place of Ólafur is located just south of Egilsstaðir along the Lagarfljót River

In 1876, Ólafur and his family left the farm of Hallfreðarstaðir, which is 25.4 km north of Egilsstaðir and on the other side of the river.

They traveled south and east to leave from the port of Seyðisfjörður.

Seyðisfjörður in 1885

Many others left Iceland following this major 1875 eruption of the Askja volcano. Many other eruptions were also documented in the following months. Volcanic ash was spewed over much of eastern Iceland and beyond to Norway and Sweden. Many farms were destroyed. Animals and plants died causing widespread hardship and famine. Askja continues to have eruptions from time to time. The Vatnajökull National Park warns visitors that Askja is still active and Iceland is still in a state of formation. There were many reasons our ancestors left Iceland and each had their own story. Askja is just one of the factors.

Christina Sunley, granddaughter of Dr. Ólafur Björnsson and author of the acclaimed book, The Tricking of Freya, blogged about her visit to the birthplace of her grandfather and to the port of Seyðisfjörður. If you have not read this book, I encourage you to get a copy. It is a fabulous book about a modern-day young woman living in America. She is obsessed with Iceland but dealing with family secrets, the history of Iceland, deep emotions, mental illness of family members, and the drama of family relationships. Christina tells the story magically and draws in the reader with the rich characters and how family tragedies, including immigration, change the lives of generations and generations of those who are born many years after these important life events.

After arriving in Manitoba, Ólafur and his family lived on a farm at Sandy Bar on Lake Winnipeg. His parents then moved the family to Mountain, North Dakota with the wave of Icelanders who left New Iceland to settle in the new land of Pembina County. Here, Ólavía died on the 06 Dec 1884 and she is buried in the Vikur Cemetery.

Björn Pétursson is an important person in our history. In this post …. very briefly, he was a member of parliament in Iceland, brought his family to North America in 1876, went to college, led the Icelanders in Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba in the teachings of Unitarianism and became the first Unitarian Minister in Canada. He married his second wife, Jennie Elizabeth McCaine, in 1890. She was born in New Hampshire and is considered the co-founder with Björn of the Unitarian Society in Canada in 1891. There is a service award named after her and given annually for exemplary volunteer service. Jennie died in 1918 in Massachusetts.

Björn Pétursson died in Winnipeg 25 sep 1893 and he is buried beside his first wife at the Vikur Cemetery – see the photo on right

Björn and Ólavía´s son, Dr. Ólafur, became the first Icelander in Canada to graduate from medical school in 1897. He married Sigridur Brandson 01 Jun 1911. She was born 07 apr 1889 in Gardar, ND. Her parents are both buried in Gardar.

Gardar Pioneer Church and Cemetery

The brother of Sigridur was Dr. B. J. Brandson and he shared a medical practice with Dr. Olafur. The idea for Borg Home in Mountain started with Dr. B. J. Brandson who suggested a need for elderly individuals that were unable to live on their own. In 1944, Dr Brandson submitted the idea to Rev. Harald Sigmar, the community pastor. A board of directors was established with a representative from each of the following congregations: Vikur, Gardar, Hallson, Eyford, Vidalin, Fjalla, Peters, and Upham. My great-grandfather, Guðmundur Júlíus Jónasson from Skagafjörður was the representative from the Eyford congregation.

Working mostly as an Ob/Gyn doctor, Dr. Ólafur was highly regarded. One of the babies he saved in North Dakota has a story HERE.

The word “obstetrician“ was formed from Latin and means “to stand before.“ Doctors and midwives were able to improve their care of women and babies with the invention of the electric light bulb in 1879 by Thomas Edison and when the discoveries of strep by Louis Pasteur were taught. Automobiles, roads, and hospitals were built. Medical education and thus care of the women and babies improved.

In Icelandic the midwife is called ljósmóðir (Ljós – light) and (móðir – mother) or mother of light. The word for doctor is Læknir. We are so fortunate to have these lifesavers who help to deliver babies and have been trained to provide care for those who need it.

146 years ago today a child was born who saved many women and babies. He died 03 Oct 1937 in Winnipeg and is buried at the Brookside Cemetery. A photo and obituary for him is at this link in the Lögberg newspaper.

We remember you and give you thanks, Dr. Ólafur!

Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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