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Icelandic Immigrants to Washington Island – 1870

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

By Willie Engelson

In 1870, four young Icelandic men arrived on Washington Island, Wisconsin. The following article appeared in the October 15-28, 2020 issue of the Washington Island Observer and is here slightly amended and includes additional photographs. You can find all these people, documents, photos, stories, and more in the Icelandic Roots Database. Their identification numbers are listed at the end of the article.

People with roots stemming from Washington Island’s Icelandic immigrants now perhaps run into the thousands in number. We older folks have heard the story before but may enjoy a retelling and updating while younger people might be stimulated to forge a deeper connection to their Icelandic heritage.

The main driving forces behind Iceland’s emigration of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people from 1870 to 1915 were the destabilization of Iceland’s economy due to population increases, climate change with longer winters and shorter summers, crop failures with insufficient fodder causing the death of livestock and volcanic eruptions destroying the already marginal arable lands.

However, the very first four Icelanders of those many thousands of other emigrants were exceptions to the norm. They had the resources, grit, and determination to continue living in Iceland, but they chose to leave and try their hand in the new world.

William Wickman, born in Denmark in 1834, was posted to a mercantile establishment in Reykjavík around 1855 and later moved 50 miles southeast to work in Guðmundur Thorgrimsen’s store in Eyrarbakki. Wickman was impressed with the Icelanders and made lasting friendships before leaving after ten years.

Wickman’s sister Marthina was married to Christian Møller, the Danish consul in Milwaukee, and in 1865 Wickman immigrated to America. He opened a store in Milwaukee, and for the next few years corresponded with his former boss extolling the benefits awaiting immigrants in Wisconsin. He described Lake Michigan as a gold coffer of fish, free for the taking, and said that opportunities for homesteading were still widely available. Wickman’s letters were widely read, discussed, and debated in Iceland.

Four Icelanders were particularly intrigued by the prospects in America and relished this correspondence: Jón Gíslason who’d been clerking for Guðmundur Thorgrimsen since 1864; Árni Guðmundsson, an accomplished carpenter who also worked for Thorgrimsen; Jón Einarsson, an assistant to Iceland’s chief physician who traveled throughout Iceland; and Guðmundur Guðmundsson, a successful Eyrarbakki fisherman.

Jón Gíslason, who’d been intrigued with and had contemplated emigration for some time, began planning his trip for the spring of 1870. He’d inherited some funds from his father who had died before Jón’s second birthday, and those funds had been set aside and not yet tapped. Gíslason fronted the expenses for Árni Guðmundsson and Jón Einarsson while Guðmundur Guðmundsson, having sufficient funds from his fishing enterprise, covered his own expenses.

Guðmundur Guðmundsson was intrigued by the letters and wanted to see if the fishing was as good as Wickman had written. Guðmundur was pledged to a young lady in Eyrarbakki: if things didn’t work out in the United States, he’d come back; otherwise, he’d send for her later.

The three young men left Eyrarbakki on May 12, 1870, and traveled to Reykjavík via the 50-mile road and were joined there by Einarsson. While spending a few days in the nation’s capital, the men endured many attempts to dissuade them from their journey: “You’ll be turned into slaves”; “You’ll be eaten by cannibals.”

William Wickman, Jón Gíslason, Guðmundur Guðmundsson, Jón Einarsson and Árni Guðmundsson

Remaining steadfast and undaunted, they departed Iceland on May 18 aboard the post ship Diana to Copenhagen with intermediate stops in the Faroe and Shetland Islands. The Diana was a 115-foot, three-masted sailing vessel with an 80-horsepower steam auxiliary engine built in Scotland in 1869, which was state of the art for the time.

After spending a few days sightseeing in Copenhagen, they took out passports on June 2 for an ultimate destination to Milwaukee and the next day boarded the coastal steamer Pacific and made their way across the North Sea to Hull, on the east coast of England. A seven-hour train trip across England brought them to Liverpool, where on June 8 they boarded the steamship Germany, commanded by John Graham. Germany, a 343-foot steamship of 3,244 gross tons, was built in 1866 at the Pearse & Lockwood shipyard in Stockton, England.

Their Atlantic crossing was trying, with many easterly storms building up mountainous seas. Luggage, possessions, and people were tossed around during the voyage, but the Icelandic young men braced themselves among the bolted-down deck tables and benches in the mess while playing whist to pass the time. They landed in Quebec on June 22 and took a tortured, halting, and lengthy series of train rides to Milwaukee, arriving there on June 27, 1870.

At some point after arriving in the US, the four “Americanized” their names to John Gislason, John Einarson, and Gudundur Gudmundson. Arni Gudmundson was often confused with the 1872 emigrant Arni Gudmundsen and usually went by Arni Legrove as a result.

Wickman had prepared for their arrival and had found berths on a fishing boat for Gudmundur Gudmundson, Arni Legrove, and John Einarson. However, local fishing methods were very different than in Iceland; their lack of English was an additional handicap; and they had to compete with experienced, English-speaking fishermen looking for work. It is likely that none of the four spoke English.

Wickman and Gislason spent part of the summer looking for interesting investment opportunities. In a chance conversation with a lakes captain, Wickman discussed the challenges facing his four young friends, and the skipper told him about Washington Island where fish were plentiful and some homestead opportunities were still available.

Wickman caught a Goodrich Line steamer and headed north toward Washington Island. A boat was lowered from the steamer off Pilot Island and Wickman went ashore, an overnight guest of Civil War veteran Victor Rohn, the lighthouse keeper. Rohn took Wickman on a trip through the East Channel between Detroit Island and Washington Island to show him the lay of the land along the east shore of Detroit Harbor.

Greatly impressed with this scouting trip, Wickman inquired about available investment possibilities and learned of a 61-acre parcel in the northeast corner of Detroit Harbor that might be for sale. Wickman was introduced to Corporal James Fuller, another Civil War veteran and Rock Island lighthouse keeper, who owned several cleared acres, a cabin, 1,500 feet of shoreline, a dock, boats, and fishing equipment and was asking $400 for the parcel.

Immediately making a decision, Wickman made a down payment, shook hands with Fuller and hurried back to Milwaukee, sold his business, and made plans to travel north.

Wickman and the four young Icelanders arrived via the Goodrich Line boat with bag, baggage, and provisions on Washington Island in the fall of 1870, the first of many Icelandic immigrants to make their way to the Island.

In 1870 Washington Island’s economy was based almost exclusively on fishing and logging. The federal census stated that the Island’s population totaled 385, down from the 1860 total of 631. There were some 70 dwellings, only a dozen of which were on farms.

The first real farming on the Island was done by Danish and Norwegian settlers from Milwaukee, but farming was a very difficult business involving clearing the land of timber and stumps and then picking the stones out of the thin topsoil. It took many of the earliest farmers nearly 20 years to make farming a profitable venture.

About 50 men fished out of perhaps 20 boats, and that market had recently collapsed; plenty of fish caught, but wholesale prices were below costs. As there were about 50 Danish immigrants on the Island in 1870, the four Icelandic lads, with Danish as a second language, were able to converse with them.

Less than two hundred acres had been cleared from the mostly wooded 15,000-acre Island, and the five new arrivals decided to go into the cordwood-cutting business as the 61 acres of land purchased by Wickman and Gislason soon after their arrival on the Island had substantial timber. Iceland was largely devoid of any trees so none of them had any experience in cutting wood, but a young Irish immigrant (likely a McDonald) showed them how it was done.

It was hard work, but they were determined to make a go of it and through the winter managed to bank up about 75 cords, but they had no way to get it to the Milwaukee market as large vessels had not yet ventured into Detroit Harbor, as it was believed to be too shallow. All the Island cordwood was shipped out of Washington Harbor at that time, and no road yet existed from Detroit Harbor to Washington Harbor.

Wickman sounded Detroit Harbor at 7 feet, so he went back to Milwaukee and successfully negotiated with the owner of a three-masted scow schooner to come up, load the cordwood and transport it to Milwaukee. The price per cord landed in Milwaukee was about $5, roughly twice what it was worth on the dock in Washington Harbor.

After loading all the wood on the schooner, they ventured out of Detroit Harbor but soon ran aground. They spent several days offloading the cordwood onto a raft and transporting the cargo back ashore until they could get the schooner refloated off the reef. They restowed everything back again and successfully navigated out of Detroit Harbor. Life was certainly a trial-and-error game for these young men, but their persistence paid off for them.

The new Islanders pursued various occupations, and after just a few years they had successfully assimilated into the Island community. Arni Legrove and Gudmundur Gudmundson fished together for many years. Later Legrove employed his considerable carpentry skills and built many homes and other buildings. Gudmundson tried his hand at farming and after two unsuccessful ventures returned to the fishing industry. Einarson fished for some time, married an Irish immigrant, and moved to Milwaukee in 1877. Gislason and Wickman operated a store together for several years and farmed. In about 1875, Gislason left the Island for a few years, perfected his English, married an Icelandic immigrant, and later returned to the Island. Gudmundson, Gislason, and Wickman spent most of their remaining years on Washington Island and all have a large number of descendants tied to Washington Island.

William Wickman

The industrious, self-starting, entrepreneurial William Wickman deserves substantial credit for the successful assimilation of the young Icelanders into the Washington Island community. Wickman also assisted other Icelandic immigrants into North America, with many of them coming to Washington Island.

Later Icelandic immigrants to Canada were not nearly as successful due to poor choices of settlement areas, religious controversy, and lack of pioneering skills resulting in settlement complications and even needless deaths before they gained traction in the New World.

Frits Villiam Wichmann was born in Copenhagen on April 14, 1834; he went by the name William Wickman for most of his life. He apparently was employed by a Danish mercantile enterprise and at age 21 was posted to an establishment in Reykjavík. He was very impressed by the Icelandic population, finding them to be intelligent and industrious people. Wickman immediately began learning Icelandic. He later worked in a mercantile establishment in Hafnarfjordur and lastly at Gudmundur Thorgrimsen’s store in Eyrarbakki, 50 miles southeast of Reykjavík.

In 1865, now 31, Wickman immigrated to Milwaukee where his sister Marthina, her husband Christian Møller, and their children lived and where Møller was the Danish consul. Upon arrival, Wickman opened a general store.

He began corresponding with his former employer in Iceland promoting the opportunities available to immigrants to America. Those letters played into the decision of the four immigrants arriving on Washington Island in 1870.

Wickman and John Gislason together purchased the 61-acre James Fuller property in the northeast corner of Detroit Harbor. They later divided the parcel, with Wickman retaining about 40 acres. This prime elevated property has a magnificent view to the southwest over Detroit Harbor and across Death’s Door to the county mainland in the far distance.

In 1930 the Wickman property was listed for sale, featuring a one-quarter mile of waterfront, a dock with 7 feet of water, an 11-room house, three cottages, a garage with room for 10 cars, a large barn, a shop, a chicken coop, and other buildings, all for $10,000, a tribute to Wickman’s success as a farmer along with his other entrepreneurial enterprises.

In December 1875 Wickman married the widowed Anna Bowman Carlstedt on Washington Island. Born in Norway in 1849, Anna Bommen, later Bowman, immigrated to America with her parents in 1863. The family first settled in Chicago and moved to Washington Island in 1870. Anna married Charles Carlstedt, a Swedish immigrant, in Chicago in 1872.

Carlstedt was a Civil War veteran who died in Michigan in 1874. Anna and her baby, Lydia, moved back to the Island to live with her parents. Anna was a very active Islander and co-founded the Detroit Harbor Ladies Aid Society and served as its president for 26 years. She was also associated with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union while in Chicago and, later, on the Island. She and Wickman had four children together.

William Wickman Family

Standing L to R: Arthur, Lydia, Arnold, Anna, and Willie.

Front: Anna and William.

Wickman was deeply engaged in Island civic affairs and served as town chairman, justice of the peace, constable, coroner, and school commissioner. There is mention in the Door County newspapers of a store he and John Gislason operated on the Island, presumably on their Detroit Harbor property.

In 1890 Wickman moved to Chicago to educate his children and while there operated a successful real estate enterprise. He ran for Chicago mayor as the Prohibition candidate but lost. He returned to Washington Island and lived out the remainder of his life there. He died on the Island in 1910 at the age of 76 and is buried in the Island cemetery. Anna lived on until dying on the Island in 1930 at age 80; she lies alongside her husband.

John Einarson

Little had been known about John Einarson until recently. Contemporary accounts of him had been sketchy, and even his birth date had been uncertain. We’re still not sure how he came to be known to and included with the three Eyrarbakki men as Einarson was in Reykjavík and joined the party there just before leaving Iceland. Most likely Einarson was traveling with Dr. Jón Hjaltalín who visited Eyrarbakki upon occasion. About all that was certain was that he did arrive on Washington Island in 1870 and fished for several years. He married an Irish woman, moved to Milwaukee, and died sometime later.

Recent research has turned up more about the mysterious John Einarson thanks to the now-digitized Iceland parish records along with the team efforts of Icelandic Roots volunteers and diligent members of Facebook’s Washington Island History site.

New information indicates that John Einarson was born in Reykjavík on October 29, 1844, the 10th child of Einar Árnason and Ingibjörg Kristjánsdóttir; only four or five of their children survived into adulthood. Ingibjörg died in 1859 and 15-year-old John was then listed as an errand boy living with Dr. Jon Hjaltalín and his wife. Einarson was a general helper and groom for Hjaltalín and traveled widely with him as the physician was the chief medical doctor of Iceland.

A birth record for Ástriður Jónsdóttir, born in Reykjavík on Jan. 3, 1864, was discovered naming the unmarried parents as Jón Einarsson and Sigríður Jónsdóttir. Hjaltalín is named as a godparent, so everything fits. Astrid (John Einarson’s daughter), her husband and year-old baby immigrated to New York in 1886 and lived in the New York–New Jersey area thereafter, going by the last name of Asmund. They went on to have nine more children.

In 1876, John Einarson married Mary Jane Guinan on the Island. John’s last name is corrupted from the hand-written marriage record and appeared in the Door County Advocate as both Ingwardsen and Enoser, greatly adding to the difficulty in tracking this gentleman. Mary was the daughter of Thomas Guinan Sr. and the brother of the colorful Tom Guinan Jr. who married into the McDonald family and lived on the Island for many years.

John and Mary show up in the 1880 Milwaukee census now using the family name of Anderson, apparently Anglicizing his father’s name of Arnason. Living with them are two daughters, Kate, 3, and Maggie, 2, along with Mary’s parents, Thomas and Kate Guinan. As John is listed as a laborer, it’s hard to say what he was engaged in. A third child, Francis Edward Anderson, was born in Milwaukee on July 30, 1884.

John reportedly died in Milwaukee of apoplexy (a stroke) and the date has to be after 1883. We are uncertain of the date and also of his burial location.

Arni Legrove

The Árni Guðmundsson who emigrated from Iceland in 1870 at the age of 25 later called himself Arni Legrove to avoid confusion with the Island’s other Arni Gudmundsen who emigrated in 1872.

Arni Legrove was born on October 19, 1844, the youngest of the four children of Gudmundur Erlendsson and Sigríður Þorleifsdóttir. Arni’s mother died before he was 2 years old. Two of his siblings died soon after being born and he had an older brother, Þorleifur, who remained in Iceland. When 18, Arni moved to Eyrarbakki and began working for the merchant Gudmundur Thorgrimsen. Four years later Arni went to Reykjavík as an apprentice carpenter for Jón Jónsson and then moved back to Eyrarbakki where he remained until leaving for America.

Upon arrival in the United States, Arni Legrove went into fishing with John Einarson and Gudmundur Gudmundson off Milwaukee, but that enterprise was soon abandoned, and the entire group went to Washington Island in the fall of 1870.

Gudmundur Gudmundson and Arni Legrove fished together for a few years. In 1875 Legrove along with two emigrants who arrived in 1873, Oddur Magnusson and Peter Gunnlaugsson, began building the Icelandic Castle on Oddur’s land at the southeast corner of Detroit Harbor. We know that Legrove built many other structures on the Island, but the only ones we are sure of are Evergreen Lodge on Detroit Harbor Road, which he built for the Detroit Harbor Ladies Aid Society; John Gislason’s store; Oscar Nichol’s home; and Carl Richter’s home. These last three were built by Legrove working with Louis Gunnlaugsson, son of Peter the co-builder of the Icelandic Castle.

The Icelandic Castle

Arni Legrove consistently reports his occupation as housebuilder, carpenter, or farmer. In the 1880 census, he is shown working at a sawmill, which would be the substantial Herman Freyberg operation at West Harbor. He is reported to have left the Island in 1880, so it was sometime after June 1 that he moved to Audubon County, Iowa, where he stayed for about two years. We are unsure as to why he went there and what he was doing while there. In 1882 he went to New Iceland, a large Icelandic settlement on Lake Winnipeg in Canada, to visit his many friends there. Later the same year he returned to Washington Island for the rest of his life.

Somewhere along the way, he picked up some memorable nicknames, with many referring to him as Little Autney (pronounced ought’ knee) which is a close approximation of the Icelandic pronunciation of the name Arni. This suggests he was smaller in stature compared to the other Arni (Arni Gudmundsen who emigrated later, in 1872). He was also called Yow Yow which is the Icelandic response of “yes, yes,” which Icelanders frequently use in their conversations.

Arni Legrove never married but most certainly was a longtime companion of Holmfridur Helgason. Holmfridur was the wife of Teitur Teitsson, an Eyrarbakki harbor pilot who emigrated in 1873 with his wife and two children, going directly to Washington Island where Teitur went by his father’s last name of Helgason. In the 1880 census, Arni Legrove is listed as a boarder with the Helgason family. Teitur left the Island, presumably divorced, in 1887, moved to Canada, and died there in 1912 at the age of 74. Arni and Holmfridur attempted to disguise their relationship, and in the 1900 census, she is listed as Arni’s aunt, which is not the case as the closest shared ancestor was eight generations back.

Arni Legrove & Holmfridur Helgason

Teitur had homesteaded 80 acres in Section 2; the southeast corner of his property was just west of the intersection of Main and Lake View Roads. In April 1887 Legrove bought that property for $1,000 from Teitur and Holmfridur; it’s shown on the 1899 plat map between Ole Hagen’s 68 acres to the north and Martin Andersen’s 80 acres to the south. By 1905 Legrove had sold the property to Dr. Gustav Boucsein, the Island’s physician for many years. (My father, Orin Engelson, was delivered by Dr. Boucsein in 1917 at the Island telephone office up the road.) After selling the farm, Arni Legrove and Holmfridur lived in a home on Detroit Harbor Road between Main and Airport Roads.

Arni Legrove and Holmfridur consistently show up in the same household in census documents up through 1920, and it’s a bit strange they never formalized their relationship into a marriage, but then as now, it would have been difficult to fool any of the Islanders. Toward the end of her life, Holmfridur suffered from rheumatism and also went blind, and we can assume Arni Legrove tenderly cared for her. She died in 1923 at the age of 85 and is buried on the Island.

Arni Legrove lived for another ten years and is listed in 1930 as boarding with my great grandparents, Kristofer and Groa Einarson. Then Arni claimed himself a widower having been married since he was 39 years old. Arni had also become blind. (As a child, I heard stories about him: A length of clothesline was strung from his bedroom window to the outhouse. Arni would spring through the window and follow the line to the outhouse and return: a very independent man.) Arni Legrove died in late 1933 at the age of 88 and is buried in the Island cemetery.

Gudmundur Gudmundson

Guðmundur Guðmundsson was born on July 8, 1840, on a farm just east of Eyrarbakki as the second child of Guðmundur Þorgilsson and Málfríður Kolbeinsdóttir; an older brother, not yet 2, died just before the birth of Gudmunður. Guðmundur lived with his parents for 15 years and then went to live with his wealthy maternal uncle, Þorleifur “ríki” Kolbeinsson, in Eyrarbakki. He worked for his uncle on one of his fishing boats for 10 years and then had a boat of his own. The Eyrarbakki fish boats were lapstrake double ender sailing boats of about 40 feet in length with 10 oarsmen and a helmsman.

Gudmunður Guðmundsson was a very successful skipper and was always able to find fish and have a good haul. In a 1922 interview, he said, “I was 30 years old, a fisherman and a net maker, and I had my own fishing boat. I heard the letter from Milwaukee read aloud, and I decided to see for myself if the fishing was as good as the letter said.”

Gudmunðson left Iceland just before his 30th birthday, emigrating from the farm Mundakot, leaving behind his fiancée, Guðrún Ingvarsdóttir of the same farm. He may not have known that Guðrún was pregnant at the time, and she gave birth to their son, Ingimundur, on Nov. 15, 1870, but unfortunately, the baby lived for only a week. By that time Gudmundur was most likely already on Washington Island and finding success in the fishing business.

Gudmundur also tried his hand at farming and started with two cows on land on Detroit Island. Both cows died after eating poisonous vegetation, so he sold his land and moved up to the east shore of Washington Harbor in a comfortable home looking west over the harbor. In the 1940s this property was purchased by Gunnar Rusing, a frequent Island vacationer from Chicago, and has remained in the Rusing family since then.

Gudmundur tried farming again, but drought and a grasshopper plague made up his mind for him and he went back into the fishing industry.

Gudrun Ingvarsdottir, his fiancée, immigrated to Washington Island with the large group from Eyrarbakki in 1872. They were married by K.O. Shellswick in 1874 and had five more children together, all reaching adulthood.

Gudmundur & Gudrun Gudmundson

In 1875 Gudmundur is mentioned as fishing with his partner Arni Legrove off Hog Island, catching 12 sturgeon on long lines, with the largest sturgeon weighing 98 pounds. Shortly thereafter he discovered that many of the fishermen wanted someone to string and mend nets, so he took that up as his chief occupation, with Gudrun assisting him at times during the next half-century.

Gudmundur wrote many articles for Heimskringla, an Icelandic-language newspaper in Winnipeg, sometimes under the pen name Gamli Gvendur. He wrote many warm and laudatory obituaries of his departed friends, leaving us with valuable insights into the character of many of our Icelandic Islander ancestors. His obituary of his old fishing partner Arni Legrove is a heartfelt and warm tribute to an old friend.

As there were other Gudmundsons now on the Island leading to confusion, this couple was referred to as Goodmanders. One of the sons, Albert, retained the surname Goodmander, but his brother Tom shortened his name to Goodman. Gudmundur Gudmundson lived to be 95 and Gudrun lived to be 98; when she died in 1940, she was thought to be Door County’s oldest resident. They are both buried in the Island cemetery.

From Gudmundur Gudmundson’s obituary: “His ready wit and keen sense of humor made him excellent company, which was enjoyed not only by his Island friends and acquaintances but by strangers as well. He had a remarkable memory and could recall with minute details the happenings of early Island days. He could compose with ease a poem of merit about any interesting event. He also wrote articles for publication which gave evidence of his scholarly mind.”

John Gislason

Jón Gíslason was the youngest of five children born to a prominent Lutheran pastor, Gísli Ísleifsson, who was educated at the Copenhagen Theological Seminary, and his wife, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir. Gísli died when Jón was less than 2 years old and left him an inheritance. Jón reportedly yearned to travel to America from an early age and left his inheritance untouched to finance that venture.

While not in school in Reykjavík, he clerked in Guðmundur Thorgrimsen’s store in Eyrarbakki along with William Wickman who emigrated in 1865 and settled in Milwaukee. Wickman’s subsequent letters to Thorgrimsen may have further stoked Jòn’s wanderlust, and in 1870 he began planning the trip in earnest, lent travel funds to Jòn Einarsson and Árni Guðmundsson and, along with Gudmunður Gudmunðsson, left Iceland for the United States.

Upon arrival in Milwaukee, Einarson along with Legrove and Gudmundson tried their luck at fishing while Gislason and Wickman evaluated investment opportunities, ultimately resulting in the joint purchase of the Fuller property at the northeast corner of Detroit Harbor on Washington Island. Gislason and the others cut cordwood that first winter and skidded it down the hill to the Detroit Harbor shoreline for later transport to Milwaukee. Gislason and Wickman operated a store out of their home, and at one point Gislason is reported working at A.A. Koyen’s store in Washington Harbor.

In 1875 Gislason decided to go to Madison to attend the university and perfect his English skills. In November 1877, he married Augusta Bjarnason (1855-1915) in Milwaukee and listed his occupation as a store clerk. Augusta’s father, Einar Bjarnason (1825-1895), a successful Reykjavík merchant, emigrated from Iceland in 1871 with two of his children and went to Washington Island. Einar Bjarnason’s wife and remaining 10 children, including Augusta, immigrated to Milwaukee in the summer of 1873. Einar and his two children left the Island, and the united Bjarnason family lived in Milwaukee until 1882 when they moved to Washington Island.

In 1880 James C. Corrigan, a prominent Milwaukee lumberman, bought out Johnson & Company, with substantial Island wooded acreage, including lengthy shore footage, a tramway to transport timber to the shore, a deep-water dock, and a store on Detroit Harbor south of Wickman’s property. Corrigan hired Gislason as a clerk for the store.

Sometime in 1884, Corrigan decided to retire from his Island enterprises, and over the next few years, Gislason bought him out. He first purchased the pier, store, and other Detroit Harbor property for $2,000. The next year Gislason bought some 440 acres of Corrigan’s wooded property and then sold some of it to other Islanders.

An ad for his store tells us about the general merchandise Gislason offered: “Dry goods, hats, caps, clothing, shoes, jewelry, drugs, furniture, crockery, hardware, flour, feed, staple and fancy groceries, fruit in season, and everything that a big store should have.”

Gislason became one of the most prosperous Island residents, paying the highest taxes for many years as a result. He was active in civic affairs, serving as a supervisor on the town council, justice of the peace, and clerk of the board of education.

It’s not often that vintage news accounts tell us much about the personality of the people reported upon. As Gislason was very successful and prominent, he is mentioned frequently and we have a few snippets that give us insight into the man: “well educated, a gentleman in every way, has a wide acquaintance, held in high esteem by those who know him, genial shop-keeper and sang bass in the Easter concert in 1892.”

John and Augusta Gislason had 10 children together. They lost an infant son before 1900 and suddenly lost their 10-year-old daughter Stella in 1903. Their son Charles, born on the Island in 1889 and killed in action in France during World War I at the age of 29, was preceded in death by his parents.

John & Augusta Gislason

John Gislason, apparently in good health, died suddenly at his home in September 1912 at the age of 62. He is buried in the Island cemetery. Augusta died three years after John in 1915 at age 60 and lies alongside her husband near Schoolhouse Beach in the Island cemetery.

This article is a composite of a 1900 publication by Arni Gudmundsen, parts of Anne Whitney’s 1950s book “Let’s Talk About Washington Island,” and some of Conan Eaton’s writings in the 1970s. Those various sources are expanded and enhanced with new information gathered over the past 50 years. Arni Gudmundsen's article is found in Icelandic here:

To find more information, photos, documents, stories, and more on these people, go to their personal pages and family pages in the Icelandic Roots Database.

  • Guðmundur Thorgrimsen IR# I207401 - Merchant at Eyrarbakka, father of Séra Hans Bogöe Thorgrimsen who emigrated in 1872, the most beloved and famous pastor in North Dakota

  • Jón Gíslason IR# I305558 - He was a clerk for Guðmundur Thorgrimsen 1864-1870 and he owned a store on Washington Island

  • Árni Guðmundsson IR# I581933 - an accomplished carpenter who also worked for Guðmundur Thorgrimsen

  • Jón Einarsson IR# I505684 - an assistant to Iceland’s chief physician who traveled throughout Iceland

  • Guðmundur Guðmundsson IR# I85090 - Worked at farming and fishing in Washington Island

  • Arni Gudmundsen IR# I191509 - the Island’s long-serving treasurer who arrived on the Island two years later than the first four immigrants.

  • William Engelson IR# I619420 - IR volunteer plus the author and researcher of this article.

Three other people are known to have left Iceland in 1870. IR has a strong Emigration Team researching all people who left Iceland from 1855-1914. We also enter the emigration dates of everyone who has left - even through today.

  • Halldóra Samúelsdóttir IR# I7845 as well as her newborn baby, who died on the way. Halldóra left from Vestmannaeyjar and went first to Denmark and then to Utah.

  • Jón Stefán 'Nonni' Sveinsson IR# I201626 became a famous author known around the world. He did not emigrate to North America but did visit his younger brother and other Icelanders on his visits to North America.

For more information, become a member of Icelandic Roots. Also, see the following video webinar by IR Volunteer Genealogist, Willie Engelson.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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