Remembering the Life of an Icelandic Pioneer Pastor

We often hear the saying, “The Icelandic immigrants were poor. They had to leave Iceland because of the volcanoes, the weather, not enough land, not enough food, …”

However, we cannot make sweeping generalizations and say that everyone had the same circumstances. Today, we remember the life of Séra (pastor) Hans Bogöe Guðmundsson Thorgrimsen. He was born today, August 21st, 1853.

Hans was raised at the Húsið (The House) at Eyrarbakki in southern Iceland. It is is a grand merchant’s home built from a Norwegian Kit Home in 1765. Eyrarbakki was one of the largest and the south coast’s only trading center at the time. As the oldest preserved timber dwelling house in Iceland, it is now a museum and a wonderful place to visit. Merchants lived in this home for almost two centuries. It was always at the center of art, culture, fashion, music, and literature. Guðmundur Thorgrimsen and his wife Sylvia Níelsdóttir moved to Eyrarbakki in 1847. Hans was born six years later – in 1853.

Eyrarbakki og Húsið

In 1855, the population of Iceland was below 65,000 people. When Hans was a little boy, a Danish man named William Wickmann worked for his father. Guðmundur was the store merchant at the Eyrarbakki trading port. His full name was: Guðmundur Geir Jörgen Torfason Thorgrimsen. He was born to an Icelandic man and a Danish woman. The family of Hans lived in good means and had a good life.

In 1865, William Wickman immigrated to America. He first went to Milwaukee where his sister lived and then he went to Washington Island – both in Wisconsin. He wrote many positive letters back to Eyrarbakki about the wonderful location and praised his new home. Traders from other countries also told stories of America. This caused great interest in young and old. Many rousing discussions were held.

On May 12, 1870, four young men left Eyrarbakki for America. Their route took them to Reykjavík, Copenhagen, Hull in England, Liverpool in England (which was not even a city until 1880!), Quebec, and then finally to Milwaukee on June 27, 1870. They set out for adventure and to see the world. They wanted to see these opportunities in America that they had heard so much about. They were not poor. They had good incomes, homes, work, and well-to-do families.

Two years later, seventeen people of varying lots in life, but mostly those with good futures emigrated from Iceland to join their friends in Milwaukee. Hans Thorgrimsen, age 19, was one who left for this grand adventure. He is listed as ‘yngispiltur’ (a young boy) departing via the port of Eyrarbakki aboard the ship, Thor, bound for Milwaukee in the Vesturfaraskrá book. Also in the group was the cousin of Hans, Séra (pastor) Páll Þorláksson. He is the man who became the Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota. Another famous figure with the group was Sigtryggur Jónasson. He became the Father of the Icelandic Settlement in New Iceland. They were followed the next year, 1873, by a large group and the population of Iceland flowed toward the west in the coming years.

1874 Milwaukee

In the spring of 1878, the first Icelanders left New Iceland for the formation of the Icelandic settlement in the Dakota Territory. By the fall of 1879, about 50 families had moved to the Pembina Hills area. Most of them were destitute. Séra Páll also had moved to Mountain permanently by this time, but he was seriously ill with tuberculosis. Even though he was extremely frail, he continued to conduct services and assist his countrymen in the best ways possible.

In the fall of 1880, Séra Páll and the pioneers made plans for scheduled religious services. Séra Páll writes,

 ‘‘At last there appeared to be good reason to believe our settlement would survive the coming winter for several farmers had a fair crop that autumn and our community had been augmented moreover, by the arrival of a number of self-supporting individuals and even men of some means from Lyon County, Minnesota, and Shawano County, Wisconsin. Quite a few of the settlers who had hired out as harvest hands returned to their homes with appreciable sums of money, and we were also joined by people with means of their own who came from Winnipeg and other places in Manitoba.’’

In 1881, Séra Páll donated land in Mountain for a cemetery and a church. Knowing that his health was failing, he strongly recommended his cousin, Séra Hans Thorgrimsen, be called as the next pastor in Dakota. Séra Páll continued to hold services in his log home and his health continued to decline. The energetic and respected pastor died 12 Mar 1882 of tuberculosis and he was buried in the cemetery later that spring.

Hans was still in St. Louis at Concordia Seminary when Séra Páll died. Séra Hans graduated a few months later. In his letter on file from June 14, 1882, he accepted the call but states he has plans to visit Iceland first. His first service at Mountain was held outside on 05 Aug 1883. In Iceland, people were born into the Lutheran state church, which was much different in America.