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The Pendant - A Family Heirloom

A pendant heirloom passed through the generations shrouded in mystery as to its beginnings. A lesson from the author to make inquiries with our ancestors now, before it's too late.

By Alfreda Erikson



Alfreda Erikson photo
Alfreda Erikson photo

The obverse, the principal side to display, has the inscription KONAGE AT DANMARK, King of Denmark.



Alfreda Erikson photo
Alfreda Erikson photo

The reverse, as you can see, is slightly off-kilter, has the coat of arms with the denomination of 1 Kronur and the date of 1875.


The 1875-coin pendant migrated from Iceland to Canada in 1889 with my langamma, Steinunn Jonsdottir, a.k.a. Steina (I251196). My assumption is that it was originally a gift in 1875 from her betrothed, Eirikur Rafnkelsson (I399462). Is that commitment a likely supposition? The problem is nobody knows anything about it, so all I can do is presume. I like to think that it was a promise that they would marry, which they did in 1878, three years after the coin was minted.


Why do I suppose they made such a promise to marry? Well, because they already had a child together, a daughter named Sigridur, born in 1872. They were not alone; many children were born out of wedlock during the “poor law” legacy. Sadly, many women were left on their own to deal with raising a child without a husband. And, in numerous cases, any family they had could not afford to take them in either. Many became destitute. According to the “poor law” that existed then, nobody could marry until they could afford a farm. And if anyone had any debt at all, they were simply not allowed to marry. The authorities believed that this system not only controlled the population growth but provided cheap labour for those with farms or a fishing boat and especially for the big owners who owned commercial fleets or several farms.


I like to think that my langafi was an honourable man and always intended to marry and provide for Steina and their daughter. As a young man (1870-1871)* there are compelling stories of his endeavours to earn money through fishing, even whale hunting, or climbing cliffs to hunt for puffins or to collect their eggs. But when he and Steina had their first child together in 1872, despite descending from generations of farm folk, clergymen, and officials from the same area (p.672 Gerrard), he obviously did not have enough at that time to obtain a farm. Therefore, he could not marry her.


In the book The Icelandic River Saga (p.672), Nelson Gerrard writes a wonderful description of my langafi. “A remarkable man in many ways, Eirikur was known for his exceptional physical strength and endurance – attributes which stood him in good stead both as a pioneer in the Canadian wilderness and when in his younger years he braved the barren sands and raging rivers of Skaftafellssýsla to join the fishing fleets off Suðurnes. He was also gifted with a sharp mind, a keen memory, and an outstanding talent for story telling.”


Hof in Öræfi, where both Eirikur and Steinunn lived, is described as a cluster of farms in the municipality of Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður in southeast Iceland, close to the Vatnajökull glacier.** My langafi lived with his mother, Thorgerdur, and his stepfather, Thorlak Jonsson. According to the Icelandic River Saga, Eirikur took over their farm in 1878. He was more fortunate than many; by becoming a bóndi(a farmer) this allowed him to finally marry Steinunn Jonsdottir, which he did that same year. Once married, they had more children. My afi, Rafnkell (I431791), was born on their farm 10 Oct 1879. Jon was born in 1882, and Jon “Yngri” in 1884, both at the same farm in Hof. Gisli, the last child, was born in Canada in 1890, shortly after they emigrated and settled in Mikely.


This pendant that emigrated with them to Canada features a first-issue coin with a content of 0.800 grams of silver. There is a small jump ring on the top of the coin and another jump ring attached to a copper tube-shaped bail. The two different metals, the silver coin, and the copper bail are linked together by a small piece of silver wire formed into a tiny ring. The obverse side, which is the principal side to display, has an image of King Christian the IX of Denmark with the inscription of KONAGE AT DANMARK (King of Denmark). The reverse is slightly off-kilter, it has the king’s coat of arms with the date of I875, along with the denomination of one kronur. One kronur in today’s value is approximately .18 cents Canadian. Not an expensive piece of jewelry, but its simple existence is of enormous value to my family, and I truly believe it tells us a story.


After it lived with my langamma, it was later passed on to my aunty Steina, her first granddaughter, who was evidently named after her. If aunty ever wore it, I never saw it or noticed it. Her son Ron later passed it on to my brother Larry. Ron has two daughters; how does one choose? Whereas my brother Larry has the one daughter, Kirstin, who now owns the pendant. She has no children; where its journey continues is anyone’s guess, but I am confident that the pendant is destined to stay in the family. Before it arrived at her home, though, it resided with me for approximately six years. When I slipped a chain through the bail to wear the pendant for the first time, I felt the chill of the cold metal coin on my chest, but it quickly warmed up with the heat of my body and pride of ownership. Albeit temporary ownership, I wore it often and with the gratification and wonderment that my langamma first wore it about 142 years before me.


The pendant, a family heirloom, is the focus of this story. It is unfortunate that nobody is around to tell us what the significance of it really was. I struggled to discover any information to verify its importance... therefore, is my supposition believable? It was recently suggested to me that the coin could have been issued to commemorate King Christian’s visit to Iceland in 1874. It was rare for a Danish monarch to visit Iceland, but he did as part of the celebration of their 1000 years of settlement (874 – 1874). But, if that was the case, would it not have had an image of Iceland or words that would have commemorated the dates? As much as I like this idea, it does not sound feasible. Instead, I looked for anything that occurred in 1875 that was significant. I found two events, one in Iceland and the other in Canada.

  1. Askja volcano erupted several times during 1875, with the largest emission in the history of Iceland exploding from it in March of that year. Heavy ash covered much of the eastern part, where my great-grandparents lived, destroying many farms. This devastation brought on starvation and increased hardship for the people. With a crippled economy, people began to look in earnest to the new world, to North America. Maybe Eirikur and Steinunn not only made that marriage promise, but maybe this destruction turned their dreams of a life together to the New World. Perhaps that was the real promise. Who knows? At that time, all they had was one child, no farm of their own, and no chance of marrying. This eruption would have only magnified their desperation and lack of hope for a future together in Iceland.

  2. In October 1875, the Canadian government reserved a large area of land along Lake Winnipeg for the exclusive use of Icelandic immigrants. That information would have made big news in the local newspapers in Iceland. On arriving in Canada in 1889, a small section in this reserved area was where Eirikur, Steina, and their family, including their oldest son, ten-year-old Rafnkell, who later became my afi, first ventured to build a home for themselves. They named their first farm in the New World Flugustaðir after the hoards of mosquitos that thrived in this damp section near the lake. With farmland prone to flooding, Eirikur needed all the strength he could muster to establish anything of worth to house any livestock or even his family.


The above may not be the reason for the date; the coin may simply be a first-issue coin. Nothing more. But I have trouble accepting that. 1875 must hold some meaning; hence why have this coin as a pendant? To myself as well as to the rest of my family, the pendant remains a valuable artifact and an important reason for me to tell its story… even though its ‘raison d'être’ shall always remain a mystery. An unsolved mystery that hopefully reminds everyone who still has parents or grandparents or, if you are lucky enough to have some great-grandparents, to ask those important questions. I wish now that someone had encouraged me to do this… I had so many sources at hand, which I lost from lack of interest or encouragement. Before it is too late… do it… then enter all that information into Icelandic Roots for safekeeping. Their genealogical database is our safety deposit box of family information, documents, stories, photos, and much more. Then wait for that one family member who is keen to write your story. Your ‘raison d'être’!

***

Hof turf church was built in 1883 and is the youngest turf church in Iceland. Photo by Ira Goldstein
Hof turf church was built in 1883 and is the youngest turf church in Iceland. Photo by Ira Goldstein

Sources:

*(1870 – 1871) Reference Eirikur’s stories @ Icelandic Roots I399462. SEE: Note Section. Two stories originally published in the Almanacs of Olafur Thorgeirsson (1929) in Icelandic and translated by Icelandic Roots in 2022.


** "Hof, in Öræfi, is a cluster of farms in the municipality of Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður in southeast Iceland, close to Vatnajökull glacier and twenty-two kilometres south of Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park. It is located on Route 1 southwest of Höfn, in the narrow strip between the seacoast and the glacier. A notable building in Hof, this turf church was built in 1883 and is the youngest turf church in Iceland. Since 1951, it has belonged to the National Museum of Iceland." (Description of Hof by Inge Johnsson 10 August 2017).


The church was built with labor from the local farmers; chances are that my langafi would have been one of those local farmers. Together, Eirikur and Steinunn farmed in Hof on one of the farms clustered together from 1878 to 1887 until they moved from their first farm to another called Holt within the same region of Hornafjörður (translation: “Fjord of Horns”), where his afi once farmed. From there, they left for Canada and arrived on the 23rd of July 1889 with their family and the pendant, our family heirloom, and a story that remains a mystery to this day.


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