A Firsthand Account of a Child’s Journey to Vesterheim
By Rob Olason (IR#I49004)
(Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to exploring the Special Collections areas of the Icelandic Roots Database which the author refers to as the Icelandic Roots Treasure Chest. A special thanks to Christina Sunley, author of The Tricking of Freya, for this donation to the collection of her grandfather Olaf’s account of his childhood journey. This narrative was first published in The Cavalier Chronicle on 9 April 1937.)
Today’s look into the IR Treasure Chest reveals a story that is quite personal and unique but at the same time universal in portraying the emigration of our collective ancestors.
This story is in the Special Collections-Emigration Info-Stories of the Crossing.
With the following words, Olafur (Olaf) Bjornsson (IR#I104246) begins his account of the journey from Iceland to North America as a young boy:
“On a sunny evening when I was six early in July 1876, we left our farm, Hallfreðarstaðir, in Iceland and began our journey to America. We were mounted on ponies, for which the island is noted, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to ride horseback alone…”
In the land of the midnight sun, young Olaf becomes so sleepy on this overnight journey that his father moves him to his own saddle to help keep the sleepy child from falling to the ground.
More challenges and confusions await as he recounts the severe seasickness of the passengers below deck on the Verona which journeyed to Granton, Scotland via the Faroe Islands.
The passengers then board a train for the trip to Glasgow. Olaf found the train a puzzling machine, unable to deduce what propelled the transport. He eventually settled on the most obvious possibility for a six-year-old: a group of men must be pushing the train along the track.
In Glasgow he witnesses a rare sight. For the first time in fifteen years, since the death of her husband Prince Albert, England’s Queen Victoria made her first public appearance, riding in state through the streets of Glasgow. Young Olaf is mesmerized by the men on horseback in the entourage in their “brilliant uniforms, mounted on prancing chargers.”
From Glasgow the journey progressed with an ocean crossing aboard the steamship Phoenician to land in Quebec harbor. A train ride followed through Montreal, Toronto and ended at Kingston, Ontario, where a fight over the tab for the Icelandic group’s meal erupted. The proprietor discovered the diners weren’t paying. No doubt, the language barrier added to the dispute, which was finally settled when he learned the Dominion government intended to cover the meal’s cost.
The journey continued with another train ride to a boat crossing of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, landing in Duluth, Minnesota. From there another train followed by another riverboat ride to reach Winnipeg.
Eventually the family stayed in Gimli while Olaf’s father built their new home in Sandy Bar, New Iceland. When the family was brought to the new home Olaf wryly observed that the home was “complete in every respect except that it lacked a roof, a floor, doors and windows.”
Settling into their new life in this strange land offered real and imagined difficulties. The settlers had to build their new world out of the wilderness, using the unfamiliar raw materials of the forest, nurture plants and animals for food from the poor soil, and conquer fears of their indigenous neighbors when news of the recent deadly battle known as Custer’s Last Stand reached the struggling colony.
Eclipsing all these concerns would be the devastating Smallpox epidemic that would sweep through the community. Olaf watched as over a hundred fifty of his fellow settlers and several of his new childhood friends from the indigenous community were felled by the disease.
Olaf’s childhood account of the settler’s journey to the new land provides the reader with an intimate look into an epic act that forever changed his life. His story is filled with the emotions and confusions that any child would experience—anticipating the adventure ahead, fascination with new worlds and global travel, the trepidation in imagining what mysteries lie ahead in the next leg of this journey of a lifetime.
Olafur Bjornsson as a young man
In his remembrance of his childhood adventure, the elderly Olaf, contemplating himself as a young child, brings that child and his journey vividly alive in the reader’s imagination.
This is no small thing, this gift of Olaf’s to we readers. This is especially true for those of us who also possess ancestors who have made similar journeys, but who never found the time to record that experience with pen and paper.
For the descendants of “Far Travelers” whose journeys are now long lost in the fog of time, there is a lesson we can take in our own longing to read the words that were never written, the stories never shared.
Many of us come to Icelandic Roots because we are searching for clues about our families’ past. We may have only a vague story or two handed down verbally or in letters that are as close as we can get to the world our ancestors inhabited.
I have two sets of great grandparents who made the journey to North America, one set departed married with children, the other set boarded the trans-Atlantic steamship as single individuals. From these four far travelers, I have only one thin story as a legacy from those journeys. It is about a young fisherman who did not get seasick crossing the Atlantic but lost his heart to a very seasick young woman and devoted his time during the crossing in befriending her in the hopes that she would become his life’s companion.
We all are traveling on our own unique journeys through life in a time called the “present.” Decades and decades from now in a new present, our children’s children’s children will be living in a very different present than our own. They will not know what life was like in our time. They will find general details in history books, but not likely the specific details of our individual lives, no matter how many facts are noted about us in the Icelandic Roots database. These descendants will need to stretch their imaginations to hear our voices, to glean any hoped-for detail visible through the fog that encompasses the past.
To be like Olaf.
To take the time to tell the story of a lifetime puts a priceless gem in the family treasure chest that will be of incalculable value for generations to come.
Have you found an intriguing discovery in the Icelandic Roots Special Collections? Tell us about it! Send your gems to rob@Icelandicroots.com and we will publish your findings in a future column.