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.
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.
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.
In America, Hans Thorgrimsen became a well-loved and respected pastor who served the North Dakota Icelandic people for many years. He helped the ladies to form a Ladies Aid in 1883. It was the first one in America. He helped the community start Sunday Schools and Young People Societies. He believed that his countrymen would not feel as if they had roots in the new land until they had a church building to call their own.
Construction plans were made on 10 Mar 1884 to build the Vikur Church on Séra Páll’s homestead. The oak-beamed church was 46’ x 28’. The construction was completed at the end of the summer under the leadership of Séra Hans.
Séra Hans suggested in 1884 that the Icelandic congregations in Canada and the United States become united in an Icelandic Lutheran Synod. Reverend Jón Bjarnason agreed with the plan and became the leader of the movement. An organizational meeting was held on January 23, 1885, in Mountain, North Dakota. The synod was founded in June 1885 at a constitutional convention in Winnipeg, Manitoba by Icelanders from Manitoba and North Dakota.
North Dakota was admitted to the United States on November 2nd, 1889. At the same time, the North Dakota voters approved a separate clause concerning the prohibition of alcohol for the new state. The law was not repealed until 1932. The Icelanders in northeast North Dakota started a literary society and Icelandic libraries were started in the various communities.
Séra Hans was responsible for seeing many churches built and attended to the congregations in northeast North Dakota. He was called to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1886 but he came back to the turmoil embroiled North Dakota congregation in 1901 when Reverend Friðrík Bergmann left for Winnipeg. More on this story another time.
Séra Hans stayed in the ND Icelandic Communities until 1912 not actively promoting the religious controversy, although he favored the conservative side, which ended up building two Lutheran Churches in the small town of Gardar. He was very active in the community by leading musical groups, bands, choirs, and other activities.
In 1925, the Icelandic Synod had 4 pastors, 16 churches, and 1,485 members.
In 1951, the Icelandic Synod had 4 pastors, 12 churches, and 1,568 members. In 1962, the Icelandic Synod dissolved.
There is much more to this story! You can find information, stories, documents, passenger lists and more about Hans, his family, and his accomplishments on the IR Database membership site. There you can find articles, photos, genealogy, history, letters, special reports, biographies, maps, ports, ships, and more. Find out how you are related to Séra Hans Thorgrimsen and others in this story by using the IR Relationship Calculator and find your cousins with the special ‘My Cousins’ feature.
We respect our Icelandic ancestors and their contributions, courage, and sacrifices. The pastors achieved so much in the early days of our Icelandic communities. They made the most of their opportunities to provide a good life for themselves and future generations. Continuing to preserve their history, genealogy, photos, and more is our way to honor their hard work and dedication. Together, our volunteer team works on one site to preserve the story of the Icelandic pioneers, their ancestors, and all their descendants.
Séra Hans B. Thorgrimsen was born 167 years ago today – 21 Aug 1853. He is Icelandic Roots ID #I207404. May we remember his contributions always.
Freeman, George A. Pembina County Pioneer Daughter Biographies. Volume 1. Icelandic Settlements of Akra/Cavalier, Gardar, Mountain, North Dakota. Laxa Press. Grand Forks, North Dakota. 2007.
Houser, George. Pioneer Icelandic Pastor: The Life of the Reverend Paul Thorlaksson. The Manitoba Historical Society. 1990
Jackson, Thorstina. Saga Íslendinga í N. Dakota. Winnipeg, Manitoba. The City Printing & Publishing Co. 1926.
Kristinsson, Júíus. Vesturfaraskrá 1870-1914. Reykjavík. University of Iceland. 1983.
Walters, Thorstina. Modern Sagas: The Story of the Icelanders in North America. North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies. Fargo, North Dakota 1953.
Tímarit.IS. www.timarit.is Heimskringla newspaper. Winnipeg. 1886-1950.
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Tímarit.IS. www.timarit.is The Minneapolis Journal. 1904, May 21. Page 12. ‘Icelanders Have Made Their Mark in America.
Icelandic Roots. Icelandic Roots Database. Fargo, North Dakota. 2012-2020. www.IcelandAncestry.com
Furstenau, Sunna. Pembina County RootsWeb. Gardar, North Dakota. 2014. http://sites.rootsweb.com/~ndpembin/pembina.htm
Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands. The National Archives of Iceland. 2020. https://skjalasafn.is/