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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

On the way we stopped off in Edinburgh where lived an old college mate of father's. We remained at his home two or three days and he took us through the city to see the sights. The only one that I remember was Sir Walter Scott's monument, a lofty granite column on top of which stood an heroic figure of the poet. I remember being laughed at because I looked up, plucked father's coat and timidly asked, "Is he alive?" The journey to Glasgow was then continued and on arriving there we were quartered in a large building on one of the principal streets.

A never-to-be-forgotten event now took place. Queen Victoria was visiting Glasgow and rode in state through the city. This was the Queen's first appearance in public since the death of the Prince, Consort some fifteen years before. I can still remember the magnifi­ cent carriage drawn by snow white horses in which sat the Queen with her ladies in waiting. But what interested me perhaps still more were the out riders in brilliant uniforms, mounted on prancing chargers who rode before and after the carriage.

We next boarded the steamship Phoenician and sailed down the Clyde on our way to Quebec. Through some influential friends of father's, we did not travel steerage as did all emigrants, but had cabin accommodation instead. I soon made friends with the sailors, and they took me all over the ship, into the hold and down to the engine room where I was greatly impressed by the swiftly moving machinery and the shining brass fittings. We could not, of course, understand one another, but they no doubt had some fun out of my eagerness, curiosity and simplicity.

West to Montreal

Reaching Quebec we were at once put on a train and sent west­ ward with brief stops in Montreal and Toronto. At Kingston a stop was made for dinner and we were all gathered into a large dining hall where ample justice was done to the menu. Dinner over, the proprietor demanded payment for the meal. When this was not forth­ coming, he shut the door and assumed a belligerent attitude. This was too much for the sturdy earls from the north. They started for the door and proceeded to force it open. Some scuffling followed and the proprietor, a very corpulent man, was thrown to the floor. His wife screamed at the top of her voice and prayed to deliver her from those awful savages. Just then the interpreter came and explained that the meal would be paid for by the Dominion government and so peace was restored.

Came to Fisher's Landing

From Kingston we continued by train to Collingwood where we were put on a boat which took us over Lakes Huron and Superior to Duluth. A train was waiting there which carried us across the state of Minnesota to a little hamlet on the Red Lake River known as Fisher's Landing. I have in recent years visited this little town [Fisher, Minnesota] and stood on the very spot from which we embarked. The water in the river is now quite low and would no more than float a good sized rowboat. Here we boarded the river steamer "Dakotah" and proceeded on our way to Winnipeg. On the way we stopped at Pembina to take on cordwood. While it was being loaded some of the men went on shore to look around.

One more venturesome than the rest, thought he would take a little stroll on the prairie. Suddenly the whistle blew, the boat backed into the river and proceeded downstream. The venturesome one saw his plight and at once started in pursuit. I can see him yet, sprinting along the river bank trying to keep up with the boat. However, the steamer stopped at Emerson only three miles down and he was taken on board again.

Cows Stray Away

The following day we arrived in Winnipeg and the boat docked at the north bank of the Assiniboine River, just a stone's throw east of the present main street bridge. We were housed in tents on the Hudson's Bay flats, while waiting for the boats to take us to Lake Winnipeg. A man brought a herd of cows and sold them to the settlers. Father bought one for $35 and two men were hired to watch the cows until they could be driven to the lake.

But one night they fell asleep and some of the cows strayed away and could not be found. Needless to say, one of these was fathers. We were now put on huge barges, or scows, which were towed by steamer, to the mouth of the Red River. Here they were set loose and left to the winds and waves to do as they pleased. They were steered partly by a huge car manipulated by some husky emigrants.

They drifted along the west shore and next morning touched land just south of Willow Point. Some small boats took us to Gimli where we were welcomed by some of our countrymen who had come over earlier in the summer. We found lodging in the home of Mr. John Taylor, who was in charge of the colony.

My father now set out to locate a homestead and found one at a place called Sandy Bar, about five miles south of the present village of Riverton. With the help of some others, he felled trees and cut logs and built a house. He then returned to Gimli to get the family. A York boat was secured and in it we sailed and soon reached our new home, which awaited us complete in every respect except that it lacked a roof, floor, doors and windows.

Uneasy About Indians

The west shore of Lake Winnipeg extending northward from Boundary Creek to the White Mud River had been acquired by treaty from the Indians and was set apart as a reserve for the Icelandic colonists. All the Indians, however, had not vacated but were still living in their homes, especially in the northern part of the reserve. This was not altogether comforting, for on the way down the river, we had been told about the Custer massacre in Montana only some two months previously. An Indian family named Ramsay was still living on the homestead selected by my father. This family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, a baby in arms, a girl of about my age and two boys about fourteen and sixteen.

They lived in a neat log cabin, such as you see even today along the banks of the Red River. The logs were hewn and dove­ tailed at the ends, it was plastered with mortar and there was a good floor and a thatched roof. It was my parent's intention to move into this cabin when the Indians vacated it, but it was otherwise ordained, as we shall see later. Ramsay was quite friendly and helped my father in many ways. He showed him how to mix clay, chopped grass and water to chink the spaces between the logs, and also how to thatch the roof with bundles of sluice grass to keep out the rain.

The second Sunday that we were there a missionary came and conducted services for the Indians in the Ramsay's house. We children were invited to attend and sat in a devout attitude during the service. The message, however, I feel, fell into stony ground for it was delivered in the Indian language.

Disappointment Keen

We had now reached the journey's end and had come into the land of promise. Keen disappointment must have come into my parents ‘hearts when first they set foot on this anticipated Utopia. The west shore of Lake Winnipeg was not then, and is not now by any means, a golden strand. The shoreline was low and covered with an ugly growth of scrub and dwarfed trees, poplar, tamarach, spruce and an occasional birch. The ground behind was low and swampy with here and there a small grassy plot. In a little clearing stood the walls of the log house that was to be our home. It was now late in September and much work remained to be done. A roof was put on the house, the walls were chinked and doors and windows put in. There being no lumber available, spruce branches were cut and spread over the earth in lieu of a floor. But during the winter, my father and a man who lived with us, erected a scaffold, put some logs upon it and with a rip saw, sawed enough boards for a roof, a floor and an upstairs. In addition, they split pieces of tamarac into thin slices, thinned out one end into a shingle with a hand iron and covered the roof with them.I mention this simply to show the ingenuity and resourcefulness of these pioneers to meet what­ ever difficulties that faced them.

Following the many incidents and adventures of the journey, life for me became somewhat dull and colorless. Playing in the sand, and gathering pebbles and shells soon lost its novelty. So now the Ramsay boys came to the rescue. They took me for long walks through the woods and along the shore. They showed me birds' nests, curiously shaped stones and multi-colored shells. They let me shoot with their bows and arrow and once took me in a canoe, a short piece from land and taught me by gestures, how to sit in a canoe without tipping it.

Smallpox Brings Tragedy ... * OB did write a lot more and you can find it on his IR individual page. He is #I104246. You can also find ancestral farms, emigration, ships, ports, biography, and obituary on his page.

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

Have you ever wanted to move beyond your genealogy research to tell the compelling stories that lurk in your Icelandic family tree? Maybe you’ve tried but got stalled along the way. Or maybe you don’t even know where to start.

Join Christina Sunley for a Members Only webinar that will cover some key principles of family history storytelling, like how to create dramatic tension that will keep your readers turning the page.

We’ll look at how to mine the Icelandic Roots database for the fascinating details, first-hand accounts, and historical context that will bring your ancestors’ world to life on the page.

If there’s enough interest, Christina may offer a 4-week class in the Winter or Spring to help you draft your ancestors’ Icelandic immigration story and learn how to organize and sustain a larger family history writing project.

Christina Sunley is the author of the acclaimed novel, The Tricking of Freya, which was inspired by her Icelandic family history. Please join Christina for the webinar on November 4th on "Writing Your Icelandic Family Stories." Let's keep writing our family stories!

Icelandic Roots has a special Section for Emigration Stories and Women and Children Stories. If you have a story to share on your family, just send it in and one of the genealogists will attach it to the individual's page. If you are not a member yet, come and join us and take in all the wonderful opportunities and events within the Icelandic Roots Community.


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