Updated: Dec 28, 2019
Here we are at the end of March with snow on the ground and bitter cold in the forecast. 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.
Guðrún is buried in the historic Vikur Cemetery in Mountain, ND.
To learn more about the people in this true story:
Guðrún Einarsdóttir is #I37593 in the Icelandic Roots Database. She 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. You can see much more information in the IR Database about the family.
Sigmundur Matthíasson Long is IR #I37587 had eight children with five women including Guðrún. She was his third relationship with children. He was not married to Guðrún Einarsdóttir. Their two children were born in 1872 and 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