The Interesting Icelander series is profiling a most important man in the establishment of New Iceland. Meet Ólafur Ólafsson, the man who named Gimli and was also the second President of New Iceland.
While searching the Icelandic Roots database for our article for July, selecting Ólafur Ólafsson (IR#I18216) seemed the right choice to make. He was born in 1834 at Auðbjargarstaðir, Garðssókn, Norðurþing, N-Þingeyjarsýsla . At age 39, he embarked on his journey to Canada aboard the SS Manitoban arriving in Quebec City in August 1873. He first settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; then emigrated to Canada, returned to the United States, and finally settling in Winnipeg where he remained until his death in 1919.
Ólafur, before leaving Iceland in 1873 had already demonstrated his proficiency in leadership; a skill he practiced adeptly. He was elected as a spokesman for people who were intent on emigrating to North America from the Eyafjord district. He emigrated in August 1873 to Quebec City with his wife and two fostered sons.
In the Spring of 1874, just a few months after his arrival, he established the first Icelandic Association in America. Ólafur’s focused on finding the best environments where Icelanders would be able to settle and thrive. Ólafur Ólafsson and many of the leaders of his kind during those main immigration years believed that the best way for Icelanders to strive in America was to settle together in somewhat isolated areas away from others. This would lend to a better preservation of the Icelandic heritage.
Much excitement arose with the thoughts of Icelanders settling in Alaska. Ólafur was afforded the opportunity to be one of three of a delegation that included Páll Bjornson and Jón Ólafsson, to explore the potential for settlement. Jón returned after three weeks giving a favourable report to the United States President; however, after Ólafur and Páll spent the winter in Alaska, returning to Milwaukee in June 1875, they determined that this was not an area suitable for Icelanders to settle.
Ólafur continued to assist immigrants with their settlement. When he accompanied a group to New Iceland on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, he suggested calling the place “Gimli”, meaning “Paradise” in Norse mythology.
It was here that Ólafur was elected to the bæjarnefnd (village committee), responsible for the community’s administration and affairs, including a plan for growth and stability. Struggles became prevalent and frustrations grew. It was in 1878 Ólafur was elected as the vice governor of the Regional council, a governing body of the settlement replacing the bæjarnefnd. The New Iceland constitution became law that was effective until 1887 when provincial municipal laws began.
Additionally, as we near the end of July, many of us are anticipating one of the biggest festivals to celebrate our Icelandic Heritage. We descendants are proudly drawn together attending the August the Deuce or Íslendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba. Íslendingadagurinn has been celebrated since 1890 and has been held in Gimli since 1932.
In North Dakota, the town of Mountain and the surrounding communities annually commemorate Icelandic heritage with The Deuce of August or The 2nd of August celebration. This marks the day in 1874 when Jón Sigurðsson convinced the Danish government to give Iceland its freedom. A new constitution was created and all Icelandic churches held a special service on the evening of August 2, 1874, to celebrate the country’s freedom.
As with all our Interesting Icelanders we have profiled since this series began, there is much more to read. I draw your attention to the list of references below to enhance this short profile of the man who named Gimli and worked his life for the betterment of all Icelanders immigrating to North America.
Additionally, if there is someone in your ancestry that is an Interesting Icelander, we encourage you to write their story and send it to Outreach@icelandictoots.com. We welcome input from our readership.
Icelanders In North America The First Settlers by Jonas Thor University of Manitoba Press c2002
White Settler Reserve New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West Ryan Eyford UBC Press 2016