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The Sólskin Children, a Reykjavík Hobo, and a Poem

By Ruth Cartwright

Poem by Nelson S. Gerrard

One hundred fifty letters from first, second, and third-generation Icelandic children living in North America were published in Sólskin, a special section of the Lögberg newspaper between October 1915 and April 1918.

The idea of Sólskin came from Dr. Sigurður Júlíus Jóhannesson (IR# I521542), editor of Lögberg. Dr. Siggi Júl emigrated as a student in 1899 from Iceland at 31 years of age. The 155 letters were from children in areas with large Icelandic settlements: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington State, and North Dakota.

Dr. Sigurður Júlíus Jóhannesson (IR# I521542), editor of Lögberg
Dr. Sigurður Júlíus Jóhannesson (IR# I521542), editor of Lögberg

There was also a few impressive letters from fourteen-year-old Halldór Guðjónsson (I242781), the renowned author, Halldór Laxness.

I started researching the children who wrote the Sólskin Letters or ‘sunshine letters’ in the Icelandic Roots database. Although I enjoyed the challenge of looking them up, there were many that I was unable to find. The most significant find for me was that of my great Aunt Asta Helgason Jonasson (I584588), who wrote Letter #127. She was such a lovely tiny lady who, when we would visit her and Uncle Larus in Selkirk, would go out and pick fresh blueberries and put thick cream on them, not whipped, but so thick and yummy.

After finishing my research on the Sólskin children, I read a post on Facebook that Nelson Gerrard had written six years ago about Sæfinnur, the water carrier in Reykjavík. It turns out that Dr. Siggi Júl Johannesson was the nephew of Sæfinnur Hannesson (I268312). Sæfinnur was a handsome young fellow who had many women interested, but he loved only one, and she rejected him. Always waiting in hopes she would come back, he became one of the famous Hobos of Reykjavík. There were quite a few famous Hobos ofReykjavík, so much so that pictures of them were taken and made postcards of them.

I went back to Icelandic Roots to learn more about Sæfinnur’s family. Sæfinnur, born in 1826 and named after his mother's father, was the firstborn child of Hannes Guðmundsson (I268310) and Guðlaug Sæfinnsdóttir (I268211). Between 1829 and 1837, they would have seven more children. Child #7 was named Guðlaug after her mother. After a four-year break between babies in 1841, Guðlaug died in childbirth while delivering twin boys, who also perished.

Sæfinnur, now 15 years old, lost his mother, but his father wasted no time in finding a new wife, Þuríður Sigurðardóttir (I268321). After 18 months of marriage, she had two children in 1844. Guðrún, born 03 January, and Guðlaugur, born 16 December. A mere ten months later, on 04 October 1845, Þuríður had a third child Guðlaug, the second daughter for Hannes with that name.

Hannes moved on to a new woman, Herdís Helgadottir (I266907), who had her first child with him in 1850. Herdís would go on to have 16 children over 20 years with Hannes, but only six would live to adulthood. Children #7 and #8 were listed as born two months apart in the fall/winter of 1859; there will need to be some research on whether a typo has been made, or possibly they took in a child and called it their own. Between children # 9 and 10, Hannes finally married Herdis in 1861. (Second wife, Þuríður, did not die until 1858, nor were they divorced).

Their last child, Sigurður, was born when his father was 70 and his mother was 39. This was the 29th child for Hannes, who died in 1888 at the age of 87. Herdís passed away at the age of 40 in 1872 when Sigurður was not even two years old.

Back to "Sæfinner with 16 shoes”. He had 13 siblings who never made it past the age of 5. He was 1 of 16 surviving children; could this be why he had 16 shoes? Sæfinnur became famous after his picture was turned into postcards and posters.

There were several other hobos of Reykjavík, but they are difficult to trace as they were only known by their nicknames, no first or last names. I am glad that I have been able to highlight Sæfinnur’s story. Researching has been very interesting, and I hope it inspires all of us to explore our Icelandic Roots.

Postcard of Sæfinnur 16 shoes, one of the famous Reykjavík hobos
Postcard of Sæfinnur 16 shoes, one of the famous Reykjavík hobos

"Sæfinnur of the Fjords”

by Nelson S. Gerrard

A fair-haired lad, he played upon green banks,

And sprinted with his dog, the lambs to find;

Along the brookside, dales, and mountain foot,

Through distant, sunny summer days so kind...

With wind-blown roses in his child's cheeks,

And cloudless, sea-blue, eager, searching eyes;

He sought out white-sailed ships far off at sea,

And followed flights of eagles in the skies...

Until at end of day, his mother's voice,

Across the gloaming hillside's purple crest,

To grass-roofed, white-browed gables called him home,

Where kissed and blessed and tucked, he lay to rest...

Secure from mountain trolls and darkling elves,

Who stalked the northern nights with dreaded hands;

Warm in his downy bed he slept and dreamed,

Of castles, kings, and fabled far-off lands...

Until into the world beyond his fjord he fared,

To follow siren dreams that called to him;

And there, forlorn amid the city's glare,

He foundered on the streetways dark and dim...

Where now the farmboy's milk-white, lilting laughter,

Lost in the rippling, silent depths of time?

Now aged, dull-eyed, he sits, a beggar stranger,

Sad runes inscribed upon each wrinkled line...

Hair no longer flaxen - grey and grimy,

And grizzled beard of tangled, tarnished strands;

His broken teeth and lonely stare belie him,

His dreams a wreck upon time's endless sands.

Printed with permission by Nelson Gerrard


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