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Finding the Bearded Pioneer

By: Tess Hallgrimson

The Snorri program is for people of Icelandic descent living in North America to visit Iceland for a number of weeks. They experience Iceland’s culture, language, and connect with relatives. Each Snorri member has a unique story and connection to Iceland through their family history. We all have our own reasons for taking part in the Snorri program and what we hope to discover throughout our time in Iceland. I was part of the Snorri program in 2017. I was a recipient of an Icelandic Roots Scholarship which went towards my Snorri trip and for that I am grateful.

To learn more about the Snorri Program and the Icelandic Roots Scholarship click here

I had 8 great-great-grandparents leave Iceland and make their way to North America, eventually ending up in Manitoba. This meant that I had a lot of things I hoped to explore and learn about while I was in Iceland. I had grown up listening to stories shared by my Amma and Afi, about some of the difficult journeys our relatives faced when emigrating.

While at the Hofsós Emigration Center with the Snorri group, I knew that I had one relative who was pictured in the Silent Flashes exhibit. The Silent Flashes exhibit, created by Nelson Gerrard a historian and genealogist of Icelandic descent from Manitoba, includes around 400 photographs of Icelandic emigrants. The portrait photographs capture individuals and families new to North America.

Growing up I had seen a photo or two of Thorsteinn amongst other photos we have of our ancestors, but I didn’t know which photo I would find in the exhibit; I just knew I was looking for Thorsteinn Hallgrimsson (IR#335161), my great-great-grandfather.

I found Thorsteinn’s photo in the ‘Bearded Pioneers’ section. Finding his photo that I recognized, while I was standing in Iceland was neat. It was also interesting to see what other individuals and families looked like during the same time period as when Thorsteinn’s photo was taken. I can’t help but wonder what was going on during this part of his life when this photo was taken. There are so many untold stories behind the photos in this exhibit.

Tess Hallgrimson poses beside the photo of Thorsteinn featured in the Silent Flashes Exhibit. Thorsteinn's photo was taken in 1895 in North Dakota.

Thorsteinn Hallgrimsson left Iceland in 1873 at the age of 28 and once in North America, his journey did not end in one location, but was carried across 4 different homesteads over 45+ years. Thorsteinn lived until he was 91 and his surname, Hallgrimson, is the name my family carried down through generations. While Thorsteinn’s story may be similar to other Icelanders, it was his own journey that led my family to where we are today.

Thorsteinn was born at a farm called Vík on Flateyjardalur in the north of Iceland in 1844. He was the oldest of six children. At age 11 his mother died, the family split, and he went on to work at Túnga. There Thorsteinn met Arnfridur Jónsdóttir and they married in 1872 at Illugastaðir Church.

The photo above is Illugastaðir Church in Iceland, taken when I was there in 2019.

Thorsteinn was the first of his siblings to emigrate to Canada in 1873. Boarding the Queen, he and Arnfridur had a 27-day journey from Iceland to Canada which required three ships, two trains, a steamboat, and a horse and wagon. The first homestead was in northern Ontario which was not a great place to farm. Unfortunately, Arnfridur died in 1873.

Thorsteinn married his second wife Ingunn in 1876 at Cardwell Township in 1876. Ingunn is from the Midhopi farm and left Iceland in 1873, on the same boat as Thorsteinn. They had 2 sons together, born in Ontario. Their oldest son is my great-grandfather Jonatan Ásgeir. They sold their land in Ontario for $350 and moved to North Dakota in 1881. This would be the second homestead that Thorsteinn would start in Canada. They had 2 more sons together, born in Gardar, North Dakota. Ingunn died in 1892.

Thorsteinn married his third wife Elísabet in 1894 in Gardar, ND. They had 2 children together in Gardar, before moving to Canada, first renting a farm east of Arborg in 1900. Then in 1901 Thorsteinn and his sons received land at Framnes and began homesteading. Thorsteinn and Elísabet had a daughter born and then in 1919 they moved to the RM of Argyle and live in the Bru area. Then in 1925, when Thorsteinn was 81 years old, they moved to the Grund area. In 1933, he and Elísabet moved in with their youngest daughter and her husband. At the age of 91 years old, Thorsteinn passed away. He is buried at Bru cemetery.

One story that we know about Thorsteinn is that he left with his son, Ásgeir, to buy a team of horses and came back with an organ instead. That organ moved to Arborg, Manitoba with the family via train and barge. The organ remained in the family for many years beyond Thorsteinn’s time. This is an organ that my dad, his sisters, and cousins played when they were little kids.

Thorsteinn is just one piece of our family’s 8 relative-journey that got us to Manitoba. Strength and courage are words that come to mind when thinking about Icelanders boarding a ship to start their life over in North America. The long journey that they took across the Atlantic, selling all of their possessions before departing, leaving loved ones behind to start an unknown journey in a foreign place. Some were the first to arrive to North America, paving the way for the ones that were to come the following years.

During the Snorri program, I remember driving around the western region with my host family, we found the different farms where my ancestors are from. I had a map that my dad made to help find the different farm locations. Unfortunately getting to visit the farm where Thorsteinn was born and spent his early years was not possible due to its northern location, so it was neat to have a different ‘connection’ to him through a photo in Hofsós.

In 2019 I had the chance to return to Iceland with my parents where we spent two weeks driving the ring road. We visited our relatives that I stayed with during my Snorri trip, explored more family farms and churches, as well as general sightseeing to see all Iceland has to offer. We revisited the Hofsós museum to see Thorsteinn as a bearded pioneer, visited the church where he and his first wife married before they left Iceland, and some of the other farms of our other relatives who emigrated.

Snorri provided a great opportunity to be immersed in day-to-day life in Iceland, and a jumping-off point for future visits. We all have different ways we connected with our roots during our Snorri experience or during a visit to Iceland. Finding a photo of Thorsteinn in a museum exhibit was one of them.

Thanks again to the Icelandic Roots team for each year making scholarships available to Snorri participants.


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