Updated: Jul 17, 2021
By Natalie Guttormsson
As many of you know, instead of one jolly old St. Nick with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses or Jólasveinar. What many of you might not know, is that Iceland did have a man named Nikulás who came to Iceland with a whole herd of reindeer in 1777.
Nikulás (or Nikolaj) Arent Peter Buch (I59245) was born in 1755 in Hammerfest, Norway. He was the son of Peter Christian Buch (I59243) and his wife Marie Elisabet Kraft Buch (I59244). The Patriarch of the Buch family was Mogens Buch (b. ABT 1500) (ID: I453757), a Duke in Holstein, Germany, who became a farmer in Denmark. The newspaper “Dagur” claimed that although the Buch family is very large, with descendants in Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and North America, very little information was accessible about the family outside of Norway and Denmark until they wrote their biographical article in their 7 Jan. 1983 issue, “Fyrsti Skíðaskóli Heims Á Húsavík- Árið 1777?” (First Ski School in the World in Húsavík - in 1777?).
I first heard of Nikulás Buch when I participated in the Snorri Program in 2014. Each participant was given a package with our ancestral charts and excerpts about each person, all in Icelandic of course, so I had my cousin Helgi read the most interesting and amusing ones to me. He told me about a guy name Nikulás who came to Iceland with a reindeer. I laughed, imagining this one man sailing in a small fishing boat to Iceland with his pet reindeer, not unlike the character in the movie “Frozen”. After that initial thought, I forgot about Nikulás. He lived in the 1700’s and I was just learning about my ancestors who emigrated and lived in the late 1800’s and that was more than enough information for me at the time.
Thanks to Icelandic Roots, I was reminded of Nikulás this summer when I connected with a cousin from Iceland who was also descended from the Buch family line. That little fact that Nikulás had brought a reindeer stuck in my mind and I wanted to know more about his story, and what better timing to write about a man named Nikulás than Christmas time? As a genealogist with Icelandic Roots I felt it was my duty to flesh out the page of Nikulás Buch in our database so other descendants (and all members) would know his incredible story.
Contrary to my initial imagining, Nikulás did not travel with a single reindeer, but a whole herd of 30 animals, gifted to Iceland by his father, Peter Christian Buch. These reindeer were prime stock from the Söröya herds in Norway. They were sent to replace the herd that had been brought over in 1771 that had fallen sick. After delivering the animals, Nikulás stayed in Húsavík, Iceland, befriending the merchant Björn Thorlacíus (I33460), and working for him in his shop and also getting a job in the sulfur plant. He was noted as being kind, generous, and an excellent skier. He began teaching people how to ski, beginning what might have been the first ski school in the world. He was so talented at teaching people to ski that he was awarded a medal of honour from the King. Nikulás went back to Denmark for a brief time, but found himself missing Iceland so much that he moved back as soon as he could, regaining his position at the store and gaining a higher position at the sulfur plant.
He was also in love with, Karen (I59246), the daughter of Björn Thorlacíus, the merchant in Húsavík. He married her in 1783, a few months before the disastrous Laki eruption, southwest of Vatnajökull, that spewed ash and poisonous gas killing much of the cattle, sheep, and reindeer herds in Iceland as well as devastating crops. Despite the hardships they faced, Nikulás and Karen persevered in Iceland, even though they could easily have relocated to Denmark with their wealth. In 1791 Nikulás left his jobs and became a farmer, perhaps knowing that the Danish monopoly on trade would soon lift and his work at the store might be soon ending.
Nikulás and Karen had ten children together, and after the birth of the tenth child, Karen died from complications at the age of 34. Nikulás was so heartbroken, he refused to remarry and fostered seven of his children out to family and relatives, spending most of his fortune on paying for their care. He died at the age of 50 in 1805 due to a failing mind. Nikulás was remembered as a very kind, generous man, with a great wealth of knowledge of plants, nature, and mineral resources. He was also a healer and noted for helping many friends and neighbours with their ailments.
Although he was born in Norway, Nikulás embodied some of the traits that Icelanders are so proud of: perseverance and love of the land. Some may think his choices were foolish, but I believe he was brave, romantic, and of strong Icelandic spirit. These traits are visible amongst my relatives here in North America too, six and seven generations later. His story may end rather sadly, but the inspiring parts are worth telling.
The portrait attached is of Jón Kristján Kristjánsson/Reykdal (I234637) my great-great-grandfather and the great-grandson of Nikolás Buch.
Are you descended from Nikulás Buch, the ski instructor, healer and transporter of reindeer? Use the “Relationship Calculator” to find out! Nikulás (or Nikolaj) Arent Peter Buch (I59245)