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My Icelandic Emigration by Olaf Bjornsson, MD

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Christina Sunley will present "Writing Your Icelandic Family Stories" on November 4th. See the Event Calendar for more information. Below, you can read her great-grandfather's fascinating emigration story which inspired her.

Here is my grandfather Olafur Bjornson’s brief memoir about his immigration. He had planned to write more but died before he got the chance (so don’t put this off, people!)
He was known as “OB” because as you know he ended up being an obstetrician. My mother sent it to me when I was in my mid-30s. Before then I hadn’t shown much interest in the family history, especially genealogy, which I found horribly boring! This was partly because of the fact that I had never met any of my Icelandic relatives – I had no aunts, uncles, grandparents or cousins in my life. So it was all kind of abstract. Reading OB’s words for the first time, a huge lightbulb went off. It was so powerful.
When I taught life story writing to seniors, I would hold up the memoir and tell them how those 7 pages had changed the course of my life, and how you never know, but by writing down even one compelling story, you could impact the life of descendants who haven’t even been born yet. That was so inspiring to them and made it all seem less daunting. Just write one story, and that might be enough. Or more likely, you’ll get hooked and want to do more!
I’m leaving in the incorrect Icelandic spellings since I’m trying to preserve the authenticity of the publication and how things were presented at the time.

The Cavalier Chronicle of Cavalier, North Dakota on Friday, April 9, 1937, carried this article written by Dr. Olaf Bjornsson, a retired Winnipeg physician six months before his death. He had left Iceland with his parents as a lad of six and spent three years in the Canadian New Iceland Colony before moving with the family to Pembina County in the Dakota Territory. Here he offers his recall of his journey to America and of his early North American years.

On a sunny evening when I was six early in July, 1876, we left our farm, Hallfretharstathir, 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 a short time we came to a large river. We were ferried over in a boat while our ponies swart across. We then journeyed on through the night, if night it might be called, for it was bright as day. Toward midnight I became sleepy and developed a list to star­ board; so to prevent me falling off, father took me and held me on the saddle in front of him.

Early in the morning we came to the crest of a hill and there before us in panorama, appeared an arm of the ocean. A fairly large ship lay at anchor in the bay and along the shoreline nestled a cluster of houses, a typical fishing and trading post. An aunt of mine lived in the village, and we were guests at her house for ten days or so, while waiting for the ship, the Verona, on which we were to sail.


At last the ship came and with much bustle and excitement, we, along with some four hundred other emigrants, were transferred on board and stored below in the hold. The night was foggy and drizzly and the ship's siren blew a mournful blast as she steered out of the harbor. Many a sigh and many a pang must have gripped the hearts of these people who were leaving home, friends and loved ones to embark on a journey into an unknown land.

In the morning·a pathetic scene presented itself in the hold. Seasickness had gripped everybody and great misery and wretchedness prevailed among the passengers. Unwashed, unkempt and disheveled, they were tossed about by the rolling of the ship, and bags, boxes and trunks careened crazily about.

Our first stop was at the Faroe Islands and those who were able, went on deck to view Thorshavn, the chief town of the islands.

On the third day we came to Granton, Scotland and were at once put on a train for Glasgow. This was my first railway journey, and I remember being puzzled over what made the cars go, but finally came to the conclusion that there must be men running behind and pushing them along.

Stop at Edinburgh