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Why The Icelanders Left

By Sharron Arksey

Why did thousands of Icelanders leave their homeland for North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

The easy answer is “volcanic eruptions and seismic tremors”. The easy answer is not wrong, but it does not tell the whole story.

This summer, I read “Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland” by Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson. The author devotes one chapter to just this question and the many factors that contribute to its answer.

Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland
Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland

Despite sheep scab, poor fish catches and deteriorating climatic conditions throughout the 1800s, the Icelanders did not begin to leave their island until the 1870s and Magnusson attributes that to lack of opportunity more than anything else. As more ships became available and the cost of a trip decreased, obstacles to departure grew smaller. North American governments were eager to attract new residents and Canada, in particular, offered subsidies to Icelanders willing to make the trip, along with the promise of land when they arrived.

Magnusson suggests that the decision to emigrate was made often with a desire to improve the lot of the family unit and that the majority of those who left Iceland held low socio-economic status and wanted a measure of upward mobility for family members. The opportunity to become a landowning farmer in Iceland, for example, was restricted by existing practices and the available land base.

And finally, Magnusson notes the importance of individual family issues and dynamics in making the decision of whether to leave or stay.

I have long known that the history of my own family showcased varying reasons for Icelandic emigration, but Magnusson’s book sharpened my perspective.

My paternal grandmother’s father was the first to leave, although it was the late 1880s when he did. Research indicates that he was a seasonal fisherman and farm laborer from northwestern Iceland. He arrived at the ship with his young daughter; his wife had died, possibly in childbirth. Would he have been able to continue caring for his daughter had he stayed in Iceland?

The woman he would eventually marry was on the same ship. They first lived in Mountain N.D., and it was there that my Amma was born. From there, the family moved north to what would become Saskatchewan and then east to Manitoba.

Jon Atli Magnusson
Jon Atli Magnusson IR# I377818

My paternal great-grandparents Jon Atli Magnusson and Gudbjorg Hjalttadottir

 Gudbjorg Hjalttadottir
Gudbjorg Hjalttadottir IR# I525012

More than a decade later, my maternal grandfather’s parents made the decision to come to Canada from southern Iceland. My Afi was about five years old at the time.

Relatives tell me that it was not hardship, climatic or otherwise, that prompted the family to leave. Rather, it was the fact that arable farmland was difficult, if not impossible, to find in Iceland. What farmland there was had already been claimed.

So, my great-grandparents came to Manitoba, settling in the area east of Lake Manitoba.

My maternal Afi's parents Einar Sigurdsson and Oddny Skarphjendottir

Einar Sigurdsson
Einar Sigurdsson IR# I265695

Oddny Skarphjendottir
Oddny Skarphjendottir IR# I263837

My maternal Amma’s parents had a different story. My great-grandfather was Danish. After a career in the Danish military, he came to Iceland to work in one of the many commercial enterprises the Danes held in that country. My future great-grandmother worked at the same business. The rest, as they say, was history.

Many Danes looked down on residents of the nation they controlled and Icelanders, many of whom vigorously supported independence, disliked Danes on principle. Their marriage was not universally welcomed.

Moving to North America was thus a way of starting fresh away from any disapproving eyes.

And it didn’t hurt that friends who had emigrated to Canada sent word back that money was plentiful. You could practically reach up and grab it from the trees, one letter said. That would turn out to be more wishful thinking than reality, of course.

The couple moved to the same area where my Afi’s family settled, although in those days, with mud trails instead of pavement and horses instead of horsepower, even a few miles meant a daylong trip. In time, Afi and Amma would find each other and raise their family in the same general area where they had grown up.

My paternal grandparents on their wedding day Nov 19, 1919
My paternal grandparents, Gudrun Magnusson and Malcolm Wild, on their wedding day November 19,1919

My maternal grandparents on their wedding day June 22, 1928
My maternal grandparents, Skapti Sigurdson and Gudrun Olavia Sveistrup, on their wedding day June 22, 1928

I have known these stories since I was a child. Research has helped me fill the gaps more, but there are still many holes to fill. I know that the Icelandic Roots database will be a help.

And since my summer reading, I now understand more fully how complex and individual each emigration story is. There will always be more to learn.


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