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Ferry Cabin News - The Seal Skin Trunk From Iceland

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

News from Washington Island and the Surrounding Islands

Richard Purinton Washington Island, Wisconsin


This story first appeared in The Washington Island Observer.


Nearly 150 years ago, in 1872, a young man named Hans Baagöe Thorgrimsen (also referred to as Hans B.) departed Eyrarbakki, Iceland at age 19, along with 14 others. Among his co-travelers was a cousin, Séra (pastor) Páll Þorláksson, and in this same group were Olafur Hanneson and Arni Gudmundsen, familiar names to many current Islanders.


After a stay in Milwaukee for one year, many of this initial group made their way north to Washington Island, Hans B. included. Most earned a living initially as laborers by cutting timber, clearing land, and learning to fish with nets. But not all of the original group elected to stay here. Hans B. was one who left within a year’s time, for Decorah, Iowa, where he enrolled in school to study theology.


We are required to use our imagination to help complete the trunk story. When Hans B. arrived on Washington Island, he would have had few possessions, all of them contained within a heavy, wooden travel trunk covered with sealskin. Typical of many Icelandic immigrants, he would have brought not only articles of clothing, but also books. When he decided to move on from Washington Island, Hans B. likely chose to leave behind his heavy, bulky trunk. With whom he left his trunk is uncertain, but in the ensuing decades, it was in the possession of members of the Sigurdsson / Gunnerson family. From Martha Sigurdsson, it was passed along to her sister, Anna, great aunt of Ruth Gunnerson.


Hans B Thorgrimsen Seal Skin Emigration Trunk in the Ruth Gunnerson Kaupstadur shop. (Purinton photo)

With great pride in her Icelandic heritage, Ruth established a small museum in one portion of her Kaupstadur gift shop, located near the ferry dock. The sealskin-covered trunk was one of several pioneer immigrant artifacts displayed there.


In 2020, Ruth decided to close down her gift shop after decades of seasonal operation. She called me regarding the Thorgrimsen trunk, and we discussed its history and the possibility of returning it to a descendant of the Thorgrimsen family. I had been in correspondence with Elin Hansen, a great-granddaughter of Hans B. (Elin, as well as Ruth, had hoped to travel to Iceland with an Island group to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Icelanders to emigrate to Washington Island.)


Ruth assisted me in moving the heavy trunk, filled with books and periodicals, from her shop into the bed of my pickup. I temporarily stored the trunk in our basement on a table covered with a sheet, and there it remained until the afternoon of Saturday, September 11, 2021, when Elin and her cousin, Laura Schmidt, from Minneapolis and LaCrosse, respectively, came to receive the trunk.


Hans B. Thorgrimsen great-granddaughters Laura Schmidt, LaCrosse, and Elin Hansen, Minneapolis, came to Washington Island to receive the trunk. (Purinton Photo)

The sealskin outer covering was presumably designed to keep trunk contents dry during the many legs of the journey from Iceland. It was fastened with upholstery tacks over rough pine boards. Over the years the sealskin had separated from the wood and was torn along the bottom edges of the trunk. Leather straps that at one time used to secure the lid were likely lost years ago, but the wear marks remained. Leather handles for lifting the loaded box, formerly attached to the trunk ends, lay loosely inside the trunk. But, overall, it is the trunk ownership, and its contents, the notion of to whom it once belonged, that adds greater significance to this artifact.


Some 70 books and periodicals, many of them signed by Hans B. Thorgrimsen, and all but one published in Icelandic, had been stored inside the trunk. The majority of books and periodicals contained within the trunk can with some degree of certainty be tracked to Hans B. His name is written on the inside cover of many volumes. In several examples, the subject matter can be attributed to him, such as theology, which would not have been light reading for others.

Signs of age show on this sealskin-covered trunk of approximately 150 years. Detached leather handles are alongside. (Purinton Photo)

This trunk, despite its condition, will certainly hold greater significance for the Hans B. family members, and to those who study Icelandic immigration in North America. There remains high regard for Hans B. as a leader and minister to Icelandic immigrants in the upper Midwest. In fact, the trunk could prove to be an artifact worthy of restoration, when examined by experts in the field, or perhaps placement within a representative collection of early immigrant items might be fitting. But, that is my conjecture. Ultimately, such possibilities will rest with Hans B.'s descendants to consider.


Elin Hansen indicated that she has several acquaintances within the greater Midwest Icelandic community. One is the retired Icelandic Counsel who now resides in the Minneapolis area.


Trunk restoration and eventual value as a museum artifact, along with certain examples of his books, are possibilities that may be best posed by experts in this field.


Perhaps readers might be able to complete the story, including whether trunks covered with sealskin in those days were rare, or commonplace? More knowledgeable people in such matters might be able to say when and where such a trunk might have been obtained and give us more insight. To respond to this question, send An Email.


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The following excerpts of Hans B. Thorgrimsen’s influence were taken from the Icelandic

Roots website. The story was researched and written by Sunna Furstenau and appeared

August 21, 2021, a date that coincided with his 1853 birthdate.


In America, Hans Thorgrimsen became a well-loved and respected pastor who served the North Dakota Icelandic people for many years. He helped the ladies to form a Ladies Aid in 1883. It was the first one in America. He helped the community start Sunday Schools and Young People Societies. He believed that his countrymen would not feel as if they had roots in the new land until they had a church building to call their own.


Séra (Pastor) Hans suggested in 1884 that the Icelandic congregations in Canada and the

The United States become united in an Icelandic Lutheran Synod. An organizational meeting was held on January 23, 1885, in Mountain, North Dakota. The synod was founded in June 1885 at a constitutional convention in Winnipeg, Manitoba by Icelanders from Manitoba and North Dakota.


Séra Hans was responsible for seeing many churches built and attended to the congregations in Northeast North Dakota. In 1925, the Icelandic Synod had 4 pastors, 16 churches, and 1,485 members.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Additional information from Icelandic Roots:


You can find much more information on Séra Hans including photos, emigration, stories, newspaper articles, passenger lists, links, awards and honors, obituary, burial, and more within the IR Database. He is IR# I207404.


IR Team Member, Willie Engelson, gave a wonderful presentation about the Icelanders on Washington Island. You can watch it online.


Richard Purinton has a website where you can learn more about Washington Island and the people who lived there. Thanks to Richard for this guest blog post.

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