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

Updated: 4 days ago

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.