The Voyage across the Atlantic in 1873|
Recorded by Guđmundur Stefánsson
Stefán Karlsson, the former director of the Árni Magnússon Institute at the University of Iceland, prepared the text for printing, wrote the introduction and compiled the footnotes.
The following travel account was recorded by Guđmundur Stefánsson, Stephan
G. Stephansson's father. Guđmundur Stefánsson emigrated late in the summer of 1873 accompanied by his wife Guđbjörg Hannesdóttir and their children, Stefán (nearly twenty years old) and Sigurlaug Einara, (seven years younger).
Stefán G. also wrote an account of this journey, in greater detail than his father. It is published in the fourth volume of Bréf og ritgerđir (Letters and Essays) (Reykjavík, 1948), pp.111-34. It is obvious that either one of them has borrowed from the other, (probably Guđmundur from Stefán). However Guđmundur's account includes various interesting details not mentioned by Stefán. In some instances, his perspective differs from that of his son. This is to be expected due to their age difference. Guđmundur's account also continues farther, detailing the autumn in Wisconsin, ending on 12 November 1873. However, Stefán's account ends on 14 October.
Stefán's account includes a few poems he composed during the journey. He composed even more in connection with the voyage, e.g. "Kveđja" ("Farewell"). This was written on behalf of Guđmundur, his father, and published in Norđurfari several days after they left Akureyri (see Andvökur IV (Reykjavik, 1958), pp.108-109).
Three years prior to emigrating, the family had moved from the west of Skagafjörđur to Bárđardalur in the north. There Stefán was employed as a labourer at Mjóidalur for Jón Jónsson and his wife Sigurlaug, Stefán's aunt. Both families emigrated at the same time. Their daughter, Helga, subsequently married Stefán in 1878. During the years at Bárđardalur, Stefán's parents worked at Mýri for Kristján Ingjaldsson and his first wife Helga Stefánsdóttir, (Guđmundur's half sister).
Guđmundur had intended to write the account of the journey for his sister Helga, although this is not specifically mentioned. However, he did receive news of her death before sending it. He mentions this in the postscript of his account. Although his name is not written, this is obviously directed to Kristján Ingjaldsson, Helga's husband. In this postscript, Guđmundur comments that "Stebbi" (Stephan G.) composed for him a few verses in remembrance of his sister Helga. A parcel including the account of the journey also includes some epilogues dedicated to Helga, one of them written on behalf of Kristján. These documents have been preserved amongst the belongings of Ingólfur Kristjánsson, Ingjaldur's grandson, and his daughters.
The explanations that appear in the appendix are mainly taken from the travel account of Stephan G. Stephansson, previously mentioned, his autobiography, which is also printed in Bréf og ritgerđir IV (Letters and Essays) (pp. 79-98), Saga Íslendinga í Vesturheimi (The Story of the Icelanders in America) by Ţorsteinn Ţ. Ţorsteinsson, vol. II ( Winnipeg, 1943), and Tryggvi Gunnarsson by Ţorkell Jóhannesson and Bergsteinn Jónsson, vol. II (Reykjavik, 1965).
I have no desire to write home to Iceland, as life has not been so pleasant since I left there.
To begin with, from the short time we spent in Akureyri1 up until now, Guđbjörg2 has been seriously ill and has only now slightly improved.
I don't need to mention our stay in Akureyri and how we were cheated by Walker3 and even by Lambertsen4, as was more obvious later, because it is well known at home - some news of it has already been written home.
When all the horses5 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 August6. 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. 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 docilest 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 Company7 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.
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. The carriages are about two metres high, with panelled ceilings and floors, and the finest of them are all painted and have padded seating. There are large glass windows, one after another on both sides of the carriage, so one can see everything outside and have the windows open if it is hot. There is a toilet in each carriage and a water container to drink from if one is thirsty. Then all these carriages are joined together, one after another, possibly 20 to 30 in all. It is such a long train that it seems incredible to one who has not seen it with his own eyes that the steam engine could pull this whole train along, with such power, that it only takes an hour to cover the distance a man on horseback would cover in a day. Now this would all be fine if it weren't for the danger involved.
We were then told to hurry up on board. I could not go as fast as they would have liked as Guđbjörg suffered so terribly from the pectoral disease that she had first contracted in Akureyri. She was far from recovered, though she could just dress herself. Lauga8 was also ill at that time. When we were all on board the train set off. It was very exciting and I would have found it entertaining had I not been unable to enjoy anything. 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. Then we set off again and for a while we travelled 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. A man came up to us and told us to follow him; he was the officer in charge of emigrants. Lambertsen followed behind; we walked in a long procession. We were told to walk quickly but some were ill and many had children. 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. The next day we stayed put. There we met Icelanders, the wife of Einar Bjarnason from Reykjavík with 10 children and another girl. She had been waiting for us for four days.
11 August. We stayed here all day. Some changed money with varied results. It seemed as though Lambertsen hindered rather than helped as before.
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 be believe it.
First, I had little money to exchange, nor did I dare; two others were in the same position and I did not regret it.
Later that day Lambertsen called all the men together and happily took from us the half English pound that he said he had managed to get as a discount in compensation for- the delay at Akureyri. And I had to hand over 18 Danish dollars for myself and family. We stayed there the following night and did not have to pay; Allan9paid.
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.
(This is all that is necessary when ships dock in or leave.)
It was an enormous ship, named Manitoban10, 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 Grenvik11, a small town. Here Lambertsen left 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.
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 October, 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 Ţorláksson12 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.
Here is a list of those who went west: Ţorlákur from Stóru-Tjarnir with his family, Magnus from Hrappsstađir with his wife and children, Jón from Mjóidalur with his wife and children, Guđmundur from Mýri with his wife and children, Stefán from Ljósavatn; those who came from Eyjafjörđur were Pétur Thorlacii from Stokkahlađir with his family, Hallgrímur from Rútsstađir with his family, Kristinn Ólafsson with his wife and children - and the woman from Reykjavík with her children, Gísli from Mjóidalur with his wife, 43 people in all.
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. I 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 Eyjafjörđur 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.
We were then joined up to another train.
The following morning we arrived at the boundary between the British territory and the United States. There is a large river that separates them and there is a town on either side. The train went as far as the river. There it was shortened in such a way that there were three rows of wagons side by side standing on a raft. This went out on to the river and crossed over with a steam engine. There was our train then up on the tracks in the other town with us still inside it.
Here we got out of our compartment as our luggage was to be inspected. First we had to wait a long time and then each person who carried bed clothing had to pay 10 cents. From there, we continued at midday.
Late in the day we were told to get out at a station and were shown into a big building until another train arrived to take us. It did not arrive until late at night. We Icelanders were put in the last carriage and had never before enjoyed such comfort.
We travelled on all night until dawn next morning when we suddenly stopped, because a big axle in the steam engine had broken. It happened to be 29 August, the execution day of John the Baptist. Here was a single track that the broken-down train stood on and dense woods on either side. I and a few other Icelanders had gotten up and gone outside but many still slept. Dense fog hung everywhere. We then began to hear another train coming along on the same track. The supervisor ordered his assistant to walk along the track in the direction of the advancing train to give a warning to stop. The servant grumbled something in reply and only went on a short distance. I saw the steam monster approaching and called out to the rest to get out of the train quickly but it was too late. Guđbjörg just managed to get out before the engine came up behind our wagon, broke all the rear end and the wagon in front completely. Nothing remained to be seen of it except pieces the size of a man's hand either side of the tracks and half of the third wagon. At the same instant, steam poured into these broken wagons and immediately began to scorch and burn them.
I could only see the Icelanders who had come out at the same time as I had. I was not sure that I would see my children or fellow countrymen again. I walked really far along past this terrible sight and found my son Stefán in the wood, with blood coming from his bare head and both his hands and feet burnt. I asked him if he had seen his sister and he replied that she was further on in the wood, unharmed along with other Icelanders.
In brief, God had protected all the Icelanders from death and harm, but five received injuries. Their names are: Stefán, my sister Sigurbjörg, Hallgrímur's wife from Rútsstađir and a boy, as well as Eirikur from Eyjafjörđur. Eirikur and Stefán had the most serious injuries. Those who died were the wife of a Swedish man and his two children, another girl about 20 years old, a pregnant German woman and an English man. Two of them survived in great pain until later in the day.
Many lost the possessions they had had in the carriages: hats, shoes, blankets, covers, bags and much more that burnt, because the rescuers had naturally concentrated on getting people out through the windows and not thought of anything else.
A lot of towns people had arrived by then as it was only a short distance to the next station. The wounded were put in a wagon along with others and they were taken by local men into town where the wounded were attended to. More men returned, filled their wagons with passengers and led them into town.
We were treated so well that we could not have been better treated by our friends if we were returning to Iceland after many years abroad. I didn't have a hat like many others. An old English man came to me and pointed at my head and I pointed in the direction of the railway line. He understood where I had lost my hat, and told me to come into his house with him. There he took off his own fine hat and put it on my head. I did not receive any other such gifts.
We stayed in the town until late in the day when a new train was procured to continue with us. The wounded were invited to stay behind but they all wanted to carry on. We set off and came to Lake Michigan that evening. We went on board a steamship at seven in the evening and reached Milwaukee at 6 o'clock the next morning where we were welcomed by our fellow countrymen.
We stayed for nine days with Haraldur Ţorláksson13 and paid rent and upkeep. The wounded were paid for by the railway officials and also received an additional sum as compensation. The value of all our lost goods was also reimbursed.
I have never in my life been so bored as I was those days in Milwaukee, nor seen a place with more temptations. I longed to get out into the country and learn the work methods from the farmers. At the end of those nine days, we travelled 80 English miles north into the country in a steam train, which took four hours. The journey cost nearly three dollars for each one of us. Stebbi and Eirikur remained, as their wounds had not healed. Those who carried on were: Jón from Mjóidalur, Magnús Gíslason and his brother, Hallgrímur.
We are staying with Norwegian farmers, each on a different farm. The one I am staying with is called Óli Oftelie. The Norwegians have built large farms here. Stefán joined us a week later. We started to work straight away on our arrival, but we Icelanders are not together. Stefán comes and goes and I stay mostly at home. We live in a separate house and get our necessities partly from the master and partly from other places. We have to live very carefully so as not to collect debts as we are paid very little for this work period.
My Lauga does her share of work. She works for our master (there are no other women apart from the master's wife) and is highly esteemed as she is so able.
They have given her new shoes and she eats all her meals there.
Early one morning the farmer came and told me to go to the next farm to help with the threshing. That is hard work. Ten horses work with the machine, in twos side by side, evenly spaced around a pillar on which one man stands in the centre and drives the horses. The design is such that they run round the pillar without needing to be steered. The machine spews out the stalks so quickly that three men can hardly keep up with collecting the hay from it. The corn comes out equally quickly but from another opening. There are 12 men altogether working at the threshing. This is done on each farmer's land in turn and they all work together. After two days at this work my armpit swelled up and became infected. A lot of blood and puss came out and I have not been able to work for a month.
Farmers are well off here. My master, or rather his chattel, is valued at 70,000 dollars ---- and all the farmers here have to pay taxes -----, but many are richer than him. His father came from Norway 26 years ago. Óli was 14 then, and they walked from Milwaukee, as they had no money with which to travel. They took over land here and have prospered.
I went to church once. The form of the service is the same as in Iceland but I did not understand much. The Norwegians are equally as Christian as the Icelanders, but much more disciplined and work harder here than at home. Most of the work here is hard. That comes from using machines which one can not do without and they drive one on.
I do not think I will ever get used to working here, least of all in the summer heat and quite wish I was back home again. But I have read that others have felt the same way the first year.
We will only be here until the spring because Óli has promised the house to some Norwegians whom he is helping to emigrate. The Norwegians are always assisting their fellow countrymen to come here. This summer, we will most likely be somewhere nearby in the area. I think most Icelanders intend to take land, probably in Nebraska, because it is only partly inhabited and the land prospects are good.
I think it is a good experience for all young Icelandic men who plan to farm to come here, as they do not need to be here long before they start making money. The same applies for single women and we have often been asked for a girl. But it is no good for those to come who are neither adaptable nor ready for hard work.
It is impossible for me to describe the developments, machines and order in everything here, as it is inconceivable for those who have never seen such things.
I was very disappointed that Jón14 did not follow to keep me company. He is the sort of man that would do well here. I hope that he will come later although I do not want to give him any false ideas.
After the winter nights we have had storms, cold spells and snow that lasted for a week. Then the weather improved. Now we have temperatures below zero again and a little snow.
You will probably never come to America but I think it would be good for your children. One does not have to be afraid that one's children will lack necessities, that is, if those who have emigrated settle on reasonable land.
Since it is costly to send many letters to Iceland from here, please let our relatives at Eyjadalsá read this scribble, if you, yourself, can read it. I do not want them to hear our news second hand, and yet, at the same time, please do not let others read my scribbles.
I send warm wishes to all those I know and pray that God will keep them all and allow us to meet again in life after death.
Finished 12 November 1873
I have not yet sent the letter, but have heard from a letter from Iceland the sad news of my sister's death. I never imagined it would be the first news I would receive from Iceland. I decided, my dear friend, to send you the letter. But I ask you not to let it go further than to Eyjadalsá, as I can only afford to scribble one letter to you all.
I wish poor little Stebbi15 were here with me, as it is cheaper to live here than in Iceland because I can not imagine that we will have many debts by the end of the winter seeing we have worked most of the time and the Norwegians are good to us.
If you can, I think you should emigrate.
I pray that God gives you the strength to battle on alone and prosper.
These are the words of your G.S.
I forgot to mention that my Lauga was given a complete set of clothing from the master and his wife as wages.
Here are a few verses that Stebbi has helped me to compose in memory of Helga and are addressed to you.
If you write to me, address it to:
Mr. Guđmundur Stefánsson
Care of Mr. Ole O. Oftelie
Utica P.O. Dane Country. Wisconsin
l The emigrants to America had to wait for many weeks in Akureyri because of the late arrival of the ship that was to take them to Scotland. Guđmundur and his family waited from 13 July to 14 August.
2 Guđbjörg is Guđmundur's wife.
3 Walker was a merchant in Edinburgh who bought sheep and horses from Iceland.
4 Guđmundur Lambertsen was a merchant in Reykjavík and agent for the ship company Allen, which sailed with emigrants to America.
5 Tryggvi Gunnarsson had, on behalf of the company Gránufélagiđ, bought animals from the emigrants and made an agreement to send the major part to Scotland. The horses sailed on the same ship as the emigrants while the sheep were sent later in the autumn.
6 The passengers went on board the ship Queen the evening of the 4th of August, but the ship did not leave until two o'clock in the morning of the 5th of August
7 This is a reference to the Company Gránufélagiđ
8 Lauga is, no doubt Guđmundur's daughter, Sigurlaug.
9 This is a reference to the Allan Ship Company, officially named the Allan Brothers & Co.
10 The ship's full name was the Manitoban of Glasgow.
11 This town is called Greenwich in the account of Stephan G. ( at least in the printed version), but was most probably Greenock, a little town on the Firth of Clyde.
12 Páll was the son of Ţorlákur from Stóru-Tjarnir. He emigrated to America in 1872 and prepared the arrival of the Icelanders to Wisconsin, procuring work for them with Norwegian farmers so that they could learn American farming methods before they began to farm themselves.
13 Haraldur was Páll Ţorláksson's brother who emigrated at the same time as Páll and settled in Milwaukee.
14 It is not sure who this Jón was, but he could possibly be Jón Jónsson from Mýri, then eighteen years old, who emigrated thirty years later with seven children.
15 This Stebbi is, without doubt, Stefán Kristjánsson's son, later forest commissioner at Hallormsstađur and Vaglir. He was the youngest son of Helga and Kristján at Mýri, only three years old when his mother died.
16 The last words from "Write to me" are in another person's handwriting, probably that of Stephan G.