Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Stronger Together is not just a cute slogan. It means something and is practiced in our Icelandic Roots Community.
Our recent blog posts have been about the emigration journey from Iceland. In one blog, we casually asked people to share any family stories, letters or documents about that journey. Sure enough – a wonderful 4-page translated account of an 1873 emigration journey was provided by one of our generous members. Now that document is preserved and linked to the pages of those noted in the story, and accessible so everyone in our community can enjoy and learn from this tremendous account. Its vivid descriptions include details about deplorable ship conditions, watching Icelandic farms disappear from view, a child’s death at sea, experiencing a railroad train for the first time, hooligans and thugs along the way, and finally arriving in North America.
This particular story describes travel from Iceland to Scotland aboard the ship Queen and then from Scotland to Quebec aboard the ship Manitoban. Enjoy the read and imagine your ancestors having similar experiences.
"Departure from Akureyri in northern Iceland
When all the 200 horses and our belongings had been set on board, we Icelanders went on board the ship Queen, 153 in all including the children. We were told to go down to the lower deck and settle down there. It was a terrible place, cramped, hot and intolerably smelly because of all the horses. They were packed tightly together the whole length of the hold and up on the deck in pens both sides of the canvas partition. They were exposed to the force of the open sea and were sometimes knocked over, though they managed to stand up again.
There we were, as I have mentioned, on board as well as many of our countrymen who had accompanied us on board at 2 o'clock on the morning of 4th of August. Then the engine was started, causing the ship to shudder and move. We were about to say our last goodbyes to our relatives, but unfortunately, there was no time. They all rushed into the boats and made for land.
The ship took off at great speed out along the fjord. I leaned against the stern of the ship and ill-humouredly watched the sad farms that I had known so well disappear from view for the last time. It was a painful experience. We steamed straight out to sea, so by the morning I saw Tjörnes, the last trace of my native land.
It was now the 5 August and the sea was rather rough causing many to feel seasick and vomit. I felt ill but did not throw up much. On 6 August, the weather got worse. Most people were throwing up and some very ill. On 7 August the weather improved. Many passengers had totally recovered and all felt better. That day we saw the Faroe Isles, though just in the distance. On 8 August at 4 o'clock, land was sighted, but as we got nearer we realized it was the Shetland Islands. They are barren, and yet inhabited. We saw farms on both sides of the ship, as it steered through channels between the islands. A flag was raised asking for a guide into the harbour. It was not easy for him to approach us because of the force of the wind and tide. It looked as though his little boat would capsize and in the meantime our ship waited. He finally reached us; he had another man on board. At 9 o'clock we reached Leirwick and the anchor was thrown overboard. Leirwick was a very attractive little town, not much bigger than Reykjavík, but it had many more inhabitants. Walker, Lambertsen and several Icelanders went into town.
By now horses had started dying off as a result of disgraceful treatment (** see note.) I often wished that they would all die. Hay was thrown in to them once every 24 hours, and perhaps some got some nourishment, but it was insufficient and the most docile ones got nothing. They were never given water - it upset me terribly to see them straining their necks whenever water was being carried along the deck - but neither I nor any other could alter this situation. The crew did not allow us to interfere; they simply left the horses to struggle until they collapsed and died. The carcasses were left lying a long time before they were hauled up and thrown overboard. I counted six dead horses, beautiful creatures. You can imagine the stench in our eating and sleeping quarters. I continually wished that the horses that I had sold the Company would perish, but unfortunately they did not. Here in Leirwick 15 horses were put on land, because Walker had a farm and there they were sent. Later the same day the anchor was heaved up.
**Note:The Icelanders had sold off many of their possessions, including their prized Icelandichorsesto pay for their trip to North America. They felt quite badly to see the animals, which had been purchased by farmers in Scotland, so badly treated en route. Arrival in Aberdeen, Scotland
On 9 August at midday, we arrived at Aberdeen, and the ship sailed right into town. It was a very big place, with a man-made harbour where the ship lay beside the pier. Another little pier, or broad plank was placed between the deck and the main pier, so the horses would not loose their footing before they reached dry land. Then the horses were driven on land, beginning with those that were on deck. They were sent one by one, in single file, into a fenced-in space just beyond the pier. There were crowds of people gathered on either side as the horses came up, including a group of rough youngsters armed with staves and sticks and each horse suffered no less than two blows on either flank.
When the deck had been emptied of horses, those in the hold were hauled up to the mast, lowered on to the deck and then steered off the ship where they received the same treatment. Finally they were all driven away behind a large building and that was the last I saw of them.
At 5 o'clock in the afternoon we set sail and put in to land at Granton at 2 o'clock in the morning. Here we were meant to leave the damned horse transporter.
The ship was positioned with its broadside against the pier just below the custom's building where our belongings were to be examined. Early in the morning a man came on board the ship. He was a sly character, who asked the women for brennivín and tobacco but we had very little of either. Two or three little chests lay open and in one he found a piece of tobacco, marked it with chalk and walked away. We were sensible enough to wipe the mark off and divide up the tobacco amongst ourselves. A little later another man appeared who spoke Danish. He said he was to examine our luggage and that the former man had been his colleague. Quite a while passed before we were told to leave the ship with all our belongings. The women and children were allowed to go first and the men were told to bring the luggage.
It was hard work, as the ship lay so low on account of the tide that a ladder had to be placed from the deck up to the pier and we had to clamber up with the luggage.
We were driven on without mercy. When everything was on land the examination began. They found nothing of any particular value and soon gave up, so most of us escaped from this nit-picking.
We were left to wait there by our luggage until we were told that a steam engine had arrived to take us to Glasgow. That was the first time I saw a steam engine. It is no easy task to describe this gigantic monster, which kills everything that gets in its way. It glistens beautifully, all made of iron with a funnel poking up from it for the steam. Behind the funnel was another pipe, much narrower, with a string attached. When the string is pulled, the pipe lets out a terrifying hoot that can be heard miles away. Anyone who has not heard it before is scared out of his wits. This hoot means "look out" and if the warning is not heeded, the creature that does not obey is death's prey. Behind the engine comes the coal wagon, then the luggage cars, which are full of goods and possessions belonging to emigrants. Then come the passenger carriages, which are very long. Here I can describe their width: along the length of the carriage is a passage wide enough for one person. On both sides of it are seats, like those in churches, wide enough for two.
We were then told to hurry up on board. The train headed for Edinburgh, where there was another long wait. We got off the train and walked around the town a little with Lambertsen (the Allan Line agent). Then we set off again and for a while we traveled underground in pitch darkness, then came out into daylight again. The view of the countryside was beautiful: attractive fields and bushes made a pretty scene that flew past as the train tore on ahead.
In a short while we were told to get off the train as we had arrived in Glasgow. The street lamps had been lit. It was a long walk to the inn where we were to stay. We were followed by an enormous crowd of locals. Never before have I seen so many people gathered in one place. There were all sorts of ruffians who made fun of us and generally misbehaved, sometimes trying to break up our ranks but we showed them our tempers and they backed off. At last we reached the inn building where we were counted like sheep as we entered. Here we were fed and had a bed for the night. We stayed here all day. I did not wander far; there are many traps, treachery and stealing. The horses here are the biggest I have ever seen. They tower over me, though you will not believe it. The next morning we were to go on board the ship that would transport us across the Atlantic.
We had to walk almost as far as we had done the day we arrived in Glasgow. At last we reached the ship that lay beside the pier so we only had to step on board. It was an enormous ship, named Manitoban, and made entirely of iron, except for occasional structures inside. There were so many people of all nationalities, who were on their way to America: Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Scotsmen, English, Germans, French; we were all to be fellow passengers.
We were told to go below deck and make ourselves comfortable. We Icelanders were all together in one room. It was tolerable, though rather cramped. An hour later we were ordered up on deck to be counted and have our tickets examined. Then we were ordered back down again. We were 720 passengers in all. Along the sides of the ship were toilets, one side for men, the other for women; each toilet had space for seven at once, and everything fell straight down into the sea.
That day we sailed to Grenvik, a small town. Here Lambertsenleft us and went back in a steamboat - he was not missed. Next we sailed to Liverpool, where Lambertsen had told us we would get tickets for Milwaukee, which we had paid for in Akureyri. That did not turn out to be the case and we realized we had been cheated. It was all reported to Allan. I doubt if Lambertsen will ever be used again as an agent for the Icelanders as Allan wants everything to as reliable as possible.
When we had been there a while, a man came down and informed us that he was to be our interpreter on the way over the ocean, said his name was Bentsen and came from Norway. It was difficult for us to understand him. He did not allow Icelanders to go into town. He said it was dangerous, but offered to accompany as many as 10, if they needed to buy something. They agreed to this; and were soon back again.
Departure for Canada from Liverpool, England
On 14 August, we left Liverpool and headed west out to the ocean. I shall not waste many words on our voyage. The services on board were tolerable.
The two Sundays we were on board we Icelanders spent reading from the Bible as we would have done at home. Not much happened on the way. One child died; its parents came from Dalasýsla. A while after the child died, two of the ship's crew came down and placed sheets of metal on either side of the corpse, wound canvas tightly around it and sewed it tight. Then they carried it up on to the deck, placed it in a quiet spot and spread a cover over. An hour later many collected up on the deck, some of them ship's officers. Two of them took the corpse and carried it down into the ship; many followed them. There, the openable gates on the side of the ship were removed and some official made a speech, with closed eyes and uplifted hands. They then threw the corpse overboard. Our interpreter proved to be very useful and we went to him often when we needed his help.
On the 25 August, we arrived at Quebec. Our luggage was quickly removed from the ship. It was then driven on horse-drawn wagons up to the custom's building. Here Páll Þorláksson came to welcome the Icelanders. Our chests and baggage were marked once again. Those who intended to carry on to Milwaukee had to pay a second time for the fare from Quebec, although we had already paid it in Akureyri. Páll thought it was much better for the Ontario-bound men to go west; but they could not make any changes.
Now we were told to get into the wagons and the train set off at lightning speed.
It is not a good idea to carry food on trains, as the wagons are narrow, so the people became rather hungry. But early in the morning the supervisor on the train comes to ask if we want to eat. He writes down the number of persons and sends a message with the metal wires that always lie alongside the railway to the next post office. The train rushes on, covering the equivalent of many days travel on horseback, until we are told to get out and enter a building where the food is ready and we are to have dinner. had to pay one dollar for the four of us wherever we bought food, and we were lucky if we left feeling full.
One evening in the dark, while the train rushed along at full speed,Kristinn's wife from Eyjafjörður gave birth. The train stopped while she was carried into a house with the unwashed baby. The family stayed behind there; the Icelanders pooled together a few dollars to help them out. The following day the train was taken apart and the Ontario men separated from us.
It all happened so quickly that we had no time to say goodbye and we were quite sad."
Short Biographical Note on the diary writer, Gudmundur Stephansson:
Born: April 15, 1818 at Arnarstaðir, Hólasókn, Saurbæjarhreppur, Eyjafjarðarsýsla, Iceland
Died: November 24, 1881 at Gardar, North Dakota, USA
Emigration Year: 1873 - Came with wife (Helga), daughter (Sigurlaug) and son (Stefan Gudmundur Stephansson, who became a noted writer and poet)