Updated: Oct 5, 2019
When we think of receiving mail today barely a thought goes into the effort it has taken to get delivered to us. Today, mail is delivered in the space of a day in some places and up to two weeks economy class between countries as far across the globe as Iceland and Australia where I live, a feat that would have taken over three months back in the early 20th Century.
The story of the Icelandic postman is closely connected with the development of Iceland as a nation and its cultural evolution. As the country developed its written language, its newspapers, books, correspondence, reports, documents and money, there was the postman to deliver it from the sea ports across the land to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west of the country.
The delivery of correspondence in Iceland dates almost back to Settlement, where merchants and men of importance sent mail and correspondence at their own expense, but it wasn't until about 1776 that the sovereign of Iceland, King Christian VII of Denmark, issued a decree that a postal system should be established in Iceland. This was to be a system where the government paid the wages of the “runner” who delivered the mail brought out by ships from Denmark and delivered these across the land to the important trading centres of Iceland and to the Icelandic parliament. Two years after this decree, regular postal sailings began between Iceland and Denmark; one trip a year that increased to twice a year, spring and autumn and three trips by the middle of the 19th Century. In 1873 the first Icelandic stamps were issued and the postal system placed under local administration along with the first post offices being established.
Post Train making a start to the journey. Source: Söguþættir Landpóstanna V.1 by Helgi Valtýsson
The postman of 18th and 19th Century Iceland was considered a hero by the people. He was a man of the land, adept at travel over a rugged landscape and he knew the mountain trails like the back of his hand. He was a bringer of news with the gossip he shared and the important letters he carried whether by horse or in a pack on his back. He was a hardened man of great character, strength, endurance and courage above all and the people of Iceland welcomed him wherever he went. He was nothing like the postman we know today. He came from a time in history when complaining of life and its constant battle was not part of his makeup. It was said that the postman feared neither danger nor death and took no pity from others as one postman of old was quoted saying, “Sooner would I die than be afraid.”
Can you imagine an Iceland with no roads, no bridges over fast flowing rivers, having to hack safe paths for his train of horses that were carrying heavy mail boxes over glaciers and rugged snow blanketed terrain? It was he who suffered many cold days and nights exposed to the biting mountain air, battling the snow storms, the wind and the rain in clothing not nearly as insulated as the brands we wear today. How did he see through the dark of night on that barren heathland, or the rocky mountain ledges he traversed? Did he carry a torch or a lantern to light his path on the dark nights or did he make his way by the brightness of the stars or trail of the moon light? It is important for us, their descendants, to remember their stories, their courage and their sacrifice. Without them there was no communication between the farms, between the villages and the merchant towns of Iceland. His horses were his treasured assets as they carried the mail in boxes over the unbeaten paths, his dog a trusted companion over the long silent distances.
It was only a few years ago that I discovered a postman of old in my own Icelandic family tree. My three times great grandfather Sigurður Bjarnason was for a long time a postman on the northern route from Reykjavik to Akureyri and later from Reykjavik to the south and the east of the country. Imagine the distances he had to walk. What today would be flown in planes or driven in postal delivery trucks and delivered in the space of a few hours or a few days was known to have taken him on average about two to three weeks on foot. He was described thus in the book Saga Íslendinga í Norður Dakota:
“Sigurður the postman was a strong man of impressive stature, tall and broad shouldered, one of those people that never raises his temper regardless of what the circumstances are, always happy, chatty and an enjoyable person to speak to until the end of his life regardless of having been blind in his last years and liked by all that got to know him…”
Sigurður Póstur as he was called was born in Iceland on the 19th of November 1823 at Brautarholtssókn, Kjósasýslu, Iceland. While Sigurður undertook the northern route from 1863 to 1866 he lived at Barð near Akureyri, a turf croft situated near what is today the Menntaskóli (Highschool) in Akureyri by the road Eyrarlandsvegur. He had the misfortune of losing his first wife shortly after the birth of their second child. His eldest daughter Kristjana Margrét was my great great grandmother. Not much is known of Sigurður’s life as a postman. His stories were never recorded, however local newspapers reported his comings and goings. As was mentioned earlier an average trip from Akureyri to the capital city Reykjavík took him about two weeks by foot and on some trips up to three weeks, depending on the weather. Norðanfari newspaper dated 1st of December 1863, pg. 103, recorded his comings and goings:
“Northpost Sigurður Bjarnason arrived from his trip to the south of the country on the 17th of November; where he had fallen ill on his way to the south (to Reykjavik) and lay bedridden for two weeks at Sveinstaðir in Húnavatnssýsla and had to get a man to continue the delivery of the mail to the south.“
Sigurður undertook three trips a year around April, August and December in tune with the arrival of postal ships to the merchant towns.
Crossing deep waters. Source: Söguþættir Landpóstanna II by Helgi Valtýsson
In 1868 Sigurður moved his family south as he had taken the position of Eastern Postal Route, which he held until 1870. He was forty seven years old when he stopped making these trips. They were no light task. The trips needed to be planned out from beginning to end. His horses had to be carefully chosen, the healthiest and the steadiest of temperament. Many times the postman was accompanied by travellers and he would take them under his care as their guide across the precarious landscape and through unpredictable weather. He had to be mindful of the conditions at river crossings and be able to read the weather conditions as well as the lay of the land to find his way across barren uninhabited heathlands. This knowledge of the land and ability to read the weather was deeply ingrained into many Icelanders, the knowledge passed down from postman to postman and generation to generation.
In the early days of the Icelandic Postal Service the Postman would carry the mail in a locked leather bag as he walked between the merchant towns. He would carry the bag under his left arm and place the strap across his right shoulder. In this bag he would carry twenty to forty letters and up to one hundred letters at a time. As time passed longer trips required him to carry two leather bags of mail under both arms. Postal bags were used for a while with some postmen carrying fifty to sixty pounds (22 kg to 27 kg) of weight over long distances. Slowly the amount of mail increased and the use of a Skrín (box/case) was common, carried on foot but more commonly on the back of a horse. For a long time, it was common for a postman to use one horse to carry the mail and ride another horse. This was a practice that lasted well into the 19th century, however as the mail increased dramatically from about 1874 and again after 1880 with an increase in the use of school books and newspapers being published and with the sending of newspapers, reports and parcels the number or horses used on a postal trip steadily increased. Around 1900 the average number of horses on a postal train was between six to twelve for long trips. The mail carried to the parliament - Alþingistíðindin quickly became the largest baggage train. It was said that nineteen horses were used to carry the mail by the Postman Hans Karel Hannesson on the Southern Postal route. The boxes that carried the mail were not large but were made strong and weighed about ten kilograms with a mail carriage of twenty kilos per box, making a total of thirty kilos that the horses could carry. They were made from wood, well made, water proofed with an overlapping lid and covered with canvas to hold it together. It was known that Sigurður carried one skrín to begin with but by September/October of 1870 he was carrying two Skrínur.
In 1877, seven years after he stopped his postal deliveries, Sigurður’s eldest child Kristjana was in her mid-twenties, settled in her life in Iceland, had long since left home when her father and stepmother decided to leave the poverty and hardships of Iceland in the hopes of prospering like many before them in what was called “Vesturheimur” - the Western World (North America). Sigurður and his second wife Sigríður Bjarnadóttir had lost five of their eight children in the years prior. They were living at Skrautarhólar in Kjósasýsla and from there they emigrated to New Iceland in Canada and later to Akrabyggð in North Dakota and then to Pembina where he lived to his dying day. Records show that Sigurður continued the profession he had left in Iceland and according to the US Census was employed as a Postal Clerk in Pembina, North Dakota in 1900. He died in Pembina, North Dakota on the 28th of December in 1912.
The glacier returns what it has taken
Many Icelandic postmen suffered constant hardship and the risk of accident or death on their travels. In fact records show that between 1792 and 1939, Iceland lost a total of nineteen people during postal trips across the country. Of those, fourteen were postmen, many of them drowning during river crossings, dying from exposure during snowstorms, or on rarer occasions falling to their deaths down crevices of ice or rocky mountain ledges. It is with this in mind that I wanted to share a story I stumbled across in the postman biographies put together by Helgi Valtýsson in the book Söguþættir Landpóstanna Volume I. This accident was known as póstslysið mikla (the Great Postal Accident). It is a reminder of the constant risk our postal ancestors took in service of Iceland in their duty of delivering the country´s correspondence. This accident occurred in the autumn of 1927, on the 7th of September. Þorlákur Þorláksson was the postman. He worked the Suðurlands (Southland) postal route from 1923 to 1933 which covered the area from Prestbakka at Síðu to Hornafjörður. On this fateful day Þorlákur lost four horses and a man that was travelling with him while they were crossing the glacier at Breiðamerkursandi which is the glacier known for its runoff into the ocean as the famous tourist spot Jökulsarlón.
It was usual for Þorlákur to cross this glacier on his postal route and it had taken him only three hours the day before to cross it. Care had to be taken when crossing this area as the conditions up there could change daily with the melting ice and movement in the glacier. On this particular journey it so happened that the travellers had gone a distance of about twenty fathoms up the glacier when they (including the postman) had to stop and work to clear a safe path for the horses. Jón Pálsson, the teacher travelling with Þorlákur had decided to wait with the horses and with him were also two female travellers. It got quite cold standing there waiting, so one of the women decided to help clear the path and the other one followed to try and get some warmth into her limbs with the movement. This was a move that saved their lives, for no sooner had they moved to the area where Þorlákur was clearing a path that the Glacier cracked directly beneath the horses feet. All the horses fell with the cracked ice, seven in total, along with Jón Pálsson who had been guarding them. Devastatingly, they all fell into the crevice but six horses could be seen, some stuck between the ice in the crevice. They were able to rescue three of the horses after much effort. In some areas where Jón and the horses fell there was running water. They searched into the night but fruitlessly. Þorlákur had to continue his journey to Prestbakka with news of the accident and report the missing traveller and mail boxes. The search for Jón Pálsson and the missing mail continued to no avail. The following spring Björn Pálsson, the brother of the deceased school teacher, was searching the area of the glacier in hopes of finding something when he saw the head of one of the horses that carried the mail, stuck in the ice. He went home and sent for men and tools to dig up the horses. At last, the glacier had returned what it had stolen and the body of Jón Pálsson was found along with six small post boxes, wet and half crushed from the glacier.
Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier field
Photo by Andreas Tille-Own work, CC BY-SA 4,0,
Please honour our Icelandic Postmen, by visiting their pages on the Icelandic Roots Database where we are working on recording their stories. Perha