There have been few serious mishaps among the Icelanders since they settled in New Iceland. The summer before last a certain Jón Thorkelsson from Klúka died after eating a root he mistook for angelica root. Late last winter an elderly widow, Anna
Guđmundsdóttir, from Steđji in Thelamörk, died of exposure on Lake Winnipeg. It can also be reckoned among the mishaps that last December two men from Big Island who were returning from Gimli in cruel weather were badly frost bitten. They had wet feet, lost their way, and were on their third day of suffering exposure. One of them had to have both feet amputated, the other only one. In the autumn of last year Thorsteinn Sigfússon from Hvammur in Möđruvellir sustained a broken leg when a tree fell on him and he has had a great deal of pain in it ever since. Early in August this summer a young boy drowned in Lake Winnipeg, Hjörtur Jóhannsson, who has relatives in Vatnsnes. He was practising swimming and probably had a cramp. Early in September a bachelor, Valdimar Sigmundsson from Thingeyjarsýsla, also drowned in Lake Winnipeg. He fell overboard from a sailboat and could not be rescued.
THE GOVERNMENT LOAN.
Since Icelanders began moving to New Iceland the Dominion Government has extended to the colonists in several installments a loan of very substantial proportions. To those who came here the autumn of 1875 the Government first loaned the sum of $15,000 for the purchase of their most essential needs to survive the winter, seed for sowing, and a few cows. The government then appointed an agent here to take charge of all procurement and transport of supplies to the colony and, in general, to administer all matters pertaining to the Icelanders. This agent, Mr. John Taylor, is still here.
The Dominion Government subsequently extended a loan to those Icelanders who emigrated the summer of last year and could not afford transportation from Quebec to Winnipeg to cover the cost of their tickets, about $5,000 in all. In addition, when these people were in Toronto, the Government allocated approximately $8,000 for the purchase of implements, yarn for nets and provisions for the journey to Winnipeg. Then it provided an additional $9,000 to cover the cost of provisions for three months and travel costs to the colony etc. In October the Government extended another loan in the amount of $ 18,000 for the purchase of provisions for the winter, 100 cookstoves, tools of various kinds and 100 cows. In April last spring the Government made its latest loan of $25,000, to be used for the purchase of seed, implements, yarn for nets, cookstoves and other items in short supply, as well as livestock. Of the latter there have already been purchased 250 mature head of cattle. Thus the Government has loaned the colonists approximately $80,000, the security for which is the tracts of land it distributed to them free of any charge, 160 acres to each settler. The colonists need not expect any additional loans, but the amount they have received ought to be sufficient if it is properly used.
At the beginning of October 1876 the Government appointed Mr. Sigtryggur Jónasson its agent here, along with Mr. Taylor, to superintend in particular matters concerning the loan extended to the colonists. Mr. Taylor has for the most part occupied himself with the purchase and transport of everything bought with the funds the Government has deposited in the Bank of Ontario in Winnipeg and paid out to suppliers according to the cheques issued by Mr. Taylor. Mr. Jónasson, on the other hand, has been made responsible for distribution to the colonists of the items purchased; and keeping records of such distribution.
After Mr. Sigtryggur Jónasson took over supervision of the loan, it was distributed in this manner in the colony. The colonists were divided-into groups of forty to eighty men, and the leader of each group was provided each month with what was to be distributed among his group. Provisions were distributed to each family evenly according to the number of members of each of the families, an equal amount of each type of provision for each family member, but other items according to need and circumstances. This rule applied to the entire loan made in 1876, but the last loan of' $25,000 was to be administered by the committee of each settlement so that the poorest families, who were least able to provide for themselves the necessities of life, could attain the level of those better off.
ROAD BUILDING AND SURVEYING.
In the autumn of last year the Dominion government appropriated $2,500 for planning a road from the closest road in Manitoba to New Iceland and the length of the colony along Lake Winnipeg, 36 miles in length. It also appropriated $8,000 for the construction of the road, and that work was carried out last winter under the direction of Mr. W. Beatty. The road is 20 feet wide and all of 50 mile long. For the most part, the work was done by the Icelanders themselves, providing work for many of them. The wages were 60 to 70 cents a day in addition to food. Some of the women also found employment preparing food for the men, for which they received the same wages.
The past two years the same government has also arranged to have surveyed 54 square miles of the Icelandic colony, with straight lines hewed between each square mile, consisting of four lots (quarter sections) with indications of the property lines. In addition, the Government has had three villages demarcated in the colony, named Gimli, Sandvík and Lundur. Gimli is in the second thorplenda (an area of six square miles) of the colony, while Sandvík and Lundur are in the sixth, counting from the south. Gimli extends for one mile along the lake and is half a mile in breadth. Sandvík, which is also on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, is half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. Lundur, three miles southeast of the mouth of the Icelandic River, is the same size as Sandvík. Each town lot is 22 fathoms in length and 11 in width. There are consequently five town lots to the acre. They are demarcated with straight lines; hewed as mentioned earlier in the rural areas.
COMMERCE AND THE TRANSPORT OF MERCHANDISE.
At the time the colony was being settled, a little store was established at Gimli. After the arrival of the Icelanders who moved to the colony in 1876 it was somewhat enlarged. Most of the wares sold there were small necessities and provisions which, as stated earlier, were provided by the government loan. The cost has been a little higher than in Winnipeg, but the convenience greater. The merchant is Mr. Friđjón Friđriksson, an adroit and clever businessman.
Most of the goods shipped to the colony; including all types of provisions, cookstoves, seed for sowing, implements etc., most of which were purchased in Winnipeg, have been shipped by water in the summertime. They were loaded onto the previously mentioned flatboats and shipped down the Red River, either to Railway Crossing (the closest commercial center to the colony, about 24 English miles from its southern border), or farther north into the mouth of the river. These boats were either permitted to drift with the current or were towed by steamboats which sometimes, weather permitting, towed them all the way to Gimli. Otherwise, goods have been shipped from the mouth of the river on steamboats, schooners or large York boats, which were unloaded at Gimli, Sandvík, Lundur and on Big Island. Last winter large quantities of goods were shipped along the lake on the ice and on the new road on sleighs drawn by oxen. From January until the ice melted between ten and twenty oxen were constantly in use the length of the colony.
The schooner "Jessy McKenny" (120 tons), owned by the sawmill company at Fort Alexander, carried sawed wood (boards and planks) to the colony this summer and autumn. About 45,000 feet were stacked at Gimli and about 36,000 feet at the Icelandic River. The price of this wood is twenty to twenty-five dollars a thousand (board feet). In addition to this timber, a considerable amount of the same kind of sawed wood has been available at the mill on Big Island for fifteen dollars a thousand feet.
ORGANIZATIONAL FRAMEWORK OF THE ICELANDERS.
The first group to come to the colony, those who arrived the autumn of 1875 and spent the first winter there at Gimli, immediately appointed a five- man committee to supervise distribution of the loan extended to see them through the winter. This committee was called "the village committee" (bćjarnefnd), but it was disbanded the following summer when more Icelanders arrived. Around New Year's Day, 1877, men began once again to hold meetings and discuss matters of general interest, especially a form of government for the colony. At two meetings held in January, one at Gimli, the other at Icelandic River, two committees were appointed, consisting of five men each, to draw up proposals for provisional by-laws to form the basis of a constitution. Their proposals were combined, discussed and adopted by a majority vote at a general meeting attended by people from all parts of the colony, which was held at Gimli on February fifth. These by-laws will eventually be published in "Framfari." The establishment of a printing shop to publish a newspaper in Icelandic was also discussed at that meeting. The results of the discussion are now apparent.
In accordance with the provisional by-laws adopted, elections were held in all the settlements of the colony on the l4th of February. In each settlement five men were elected to constitute a regional committee and two to serve as umpires. The committee in each district chose one of their number to serve as chairman. He is called the reeve (byggđarstjóri). The following men were appointed reeves: in Willow Point district, Björn Jónsson; in Árnes district, Bjarni Bjarnason; in the River Settlement, Jóhann Briem; and on Big Island, Jón Bergvinsson. The last named moved out of his district last spring and was succeeded by Vice-Reeve Halldór Friđriksson Reykjalín. On February 21st all the committeemen of the colony met at Sandvík. Among the purposes of that meeting was the election of a chairman and vice-chairman of the colony council, composed of the reeves of the various settlements. This chairman is called "Chairman of the Colony Council" (Thingráđstjóri). Sigtryggur Jónasson was elected to this office, with Friđjón Friđriksson as vice-chairman.
Upon its organization the Colony Council held a meeting and began work on matters affecting the community at large. On these matters where it was necessary to obtain the assent of the inhabitants of each district in order to put into force the decisions of the council, each of the reeves subsequently held a meeting in his own district. The principal matters of this nature on which agreement was achieved were: 1) that each male over the age of 21 perform annual work on the public roads, that is those roads indicated on the government survey; he shall either perform two days' work or pay the sum of two dollars; 2) that widows and people without means receive sufficient help as follows: that widows who appear capable of taking a homestead be helped with the work on it, and that other destitute people be helped according to their needs and as circumstances permit; 3) that five men be appointed in each settlement to exercise public supervision over the construction and cleanliness of the dwelling houses of the inhabitants, over wells, fire hazards in the houses and, generally speaking, everything pertaining to health and living conditions.
Before concluding this discussion of the ways in which Icelanders have organized themselves it should be mentioned that at one of the meetings of the Colony Council there was agreement on the necessity of procuring a pastor or pastors to minister to the spiritual needs of the colony, and to build a sufficient number of churches or schoolhouses which as a temporary expedient could be used for both purposes. The first action to be taken in this respect was meetings held on April 27th and 28th by residents of the River Settlement to discuss the matter. The overwhelming majority were in favour of building churches and paying the salary of a pastor: It became evident at these meetings that the people of the River Settlement could not afford the services of a pastor for themselves alone. To be sure, the Reverend Páll Thorláksson offered his services here as early as last autumn and announced that he would not ask for a specified salary at the moment, but since he repeated more than once his offer to come here without actually coming, people concluded that he was making game of them. Many were reluctant, moreover, to accept his pastoral services because he was a minister in the church body known as the Norwegian Synod, which had a poor reputation among those Icelanders who had made the acquaintance of its clergy in the United States. It was concluded at these meetings that the most suitable course for the Icelanders in this colony to follow would be to organize a separate church body which would be independent of all others. It was deemed preferable to obtain the services of an Icelandic clergyman who was not attached to any church body and people promised to make contributions toward his salary. Those attending the meeting then appointed a committee to take the following matters in hand: 1) to obtain the services of a pastor and arrange matters with him in cooperation with the people in other districts who desire the services of the same pastor; 2) to arrange for the contribution of funds and labour for the building of churches and for their construction; 3) to decline the pastoral services of the Reverend Páll (Thorláksson).
Around the same time meetings were also held in the other districts of the colony to discuss the matter of a clergyman and church affairs. People's opinions were divided on this subject. Those living on Big Island agreed in all respects with the conclusions reached at the meetings in the River Settlement and gave the committee there responsibility for negotiating with a pastor on their account. The majority of the people in the Willow Point district were amenable and followed the example set in the River Settlement and on Big Island in the matter of obtaining a clergyman, but some of the people in the Árnes district thought there was not sufficient reason to reject Pastor Páll's offer, as matters stood now. In view of the division of opinion on this matter there seemed little likelihood that more money could be collected from the River Settlement, Big Island and the Willow Point district to cover more than the emolument of a single clergyman. The people in those districts who did not wish the services of the Rev. Páll Thorláksson were almost unanimously in favour of obtaining the services of either of the well known theologians who spent last winter in Minneapolis, the Reverend Jón Bjarnason or Divinity School Candidate Halldór Briem. Since it was possible, however, on account of the shortage of funds, to have only one of them at a time, the committee members agreed first to seek the services of Pastor Jón, whom the first group of
Icelanders who settled in the colony had already during the winter of 1875 urged to become their pastor.
Around the middle of June the Reverend Jón Bjarnason visited us, staying here only ten days. During this short time he traveled north to the Icelandic River, conducting a service there and the following day one at Sandvík. He conducted a third service at Gimli on his way south, and a fourth in the southern part of the colony. On this journey he also married seven couples and baptized several children.
As he was well disposed toward our colony and its inhabitants, and they, on the other hand, were well disposed toward him and expressed their desire that he become pastor of the united congregations, he decided to offer his services. The committees of the congregations therefore held a meeting at Gimli on the 5th of September to compose a letter of call to Pastor Jón and an agreement as to how he should divide his time among the congregations. Pastor Jón replied immediately to the letter of call, stating his intention to leave Minneapolis to come to us around the middle of October.
OCCUPATIONS AND HOUSEHOLD MATTERS.
Our countrymen's mode of life is still in its infancy, as is to be expected, since as many people who might be said to be without resources came to the wilderness late in the summer, unfamiliar with most types of work which had to be done here, and then an epidemic created additional difficulties. But despite these hindrances to progress it appears as though most of our countrymen have a firm hope of a favourable future and there are many indications that life here, where there are so many types of work to be done, shows promise. The principal ways of making a living, farming, animal husbandry and fishing all appear to be profitable. To be sure, the cultivation of crops and vegetables has not yet been fully tried. The summer of 1876 people sowed several varieties of grain, potatoes and cabbage, most of which came up to expectations where the land was cultivated a little. This past summer more varieties were sown but the harvest was smaller. Sowing was late (in June). The smallpox epidemic delayed the shipment of tools and seed. The harvest was fairly successful in some localities, however, especially in areas that had been sown earlier and where the soil had been prepared to some extent for sowing. The soil here is considered fertile and good by those with knowledge of such matters. As time goes on, our countrymen can therefore be expected to devote a large part of their activities to the cultivation of grain crops. The only livestock our countrymen possess to date consists of cattle, of which there are now probably between six and seven hundred head. There are excellent and extensive meadows. In many localities the hay has been equal in quality to the best cultivated hay (in Iceland) and there is no need to give the animals larger quantities of it in terms of weight. In that respect the economy is good. There appears to be nothing to prevent the people in the colony from increasing their herds of cattle so that within a short time they can sell to some extent beef, cheese and butter, all of which command very high prices. In this connection one may mention that flies, known as "bulldogs," hamper the productivity of cows during a short part of the summer. Last summer these flies were present to any extent only for half a month, the first half of July. They appear only when the heat of the sun is strong and if the cows are then kept in the stable, the flies have little or no effect on them. When the colonists are given the opportunity to keep pigs and sheep, both may be expected to be no less profitable than cattle. Pigs, which are fed mainly on types of grain and milk, mature quickly and their meat is always in demand, bringing a good price. Sheep, which no less than cattle and pigs provide men with wholesome and delicious food, furnish them in addition good wool for their own clothing and which can be readily sold, either combed and spun or raw. Fodder and pasture land here can be considered equally suitable for sheep as for cattle, but with respect to pasture land, it goes without saying they should not be allowed to graze where there is a recent growth of brush which could snag their wool. Horses are not so requisite here as cattle, pigs and sheep, since oxen are invariably used both winter and summer for all heavy hauling, but as soon as there are more and better roads, it will be easier and more convenient to use horses for journeys, apart from the fact that they work more willingly.
Various kinds of poultry, such as chickens, ducks and geese, are both amusing to watch and agreeable to own. It costs little to maintain them where grain is cultivated.
There has been a large catch of fish in Lake Winnipeg. Fish are caught at all times of the year, but mostly in the autumn and spring. Fish are caught both in stationary nets and dragnets, as well as on lines. There are many species, all of which may be considered wholesome and delicious. There can be no doubt that fishing will be not only a source of food for the colonists, but will also provide them with a profitable source of income, whether smoked, salted or fresh, or preserved and transported packed in ice.
Almost 300 men have taken up homesteads here in the colony, over 200 of whom will now have completed construction of their dwellings, many of which are as well constructed as circumstances permitted. The houses are generally constructed of logs which after being felled are more or less hewed into shape so that they fit together. Roofing is either of smoothly cut planks with clay on top, of clinch-boarding, or smooth planks covered with shingles or the bark of trees.
Most of the homesteaders have cleared, harrowed and fenced in at least a few acres, but they have been cultivated and sown only to a small extent.
Then too, the colonists have been engaged in several other types of essential work, such as well digging, the excavation of cellars, ditch digging and the construction of access roads in addition to extending the amount of the acreage they intend to sow and fencing in their pasture land etc.
As a more detailed report on the colonists' way of life will be published in "Framfari" later, I shall not discuss it further at this time.
- - - - [A quite long chapter about weather conditions has been omitted here]
Although in this article of mine I have reported as carefully as possible every point I have discussed either in accordance with my own experience or the most reliable accounts I have been able to obtain, it may in some respects be inaccurate or expressed less satisfactorily than would be desirable and necessary for the history of New Icealnd which is still to be written. Should that be the case, I would ask those who are better informed to send me or the other directors of "Framfari" as soon as possible any corrections in this respect so they can be published here.
The two years which have passed since your settling here have not left behind for future time a history similar in style and substance to that of our ancient forbears in the days of the settlement of old Iceland. Although our vigour, valour and spiritual resources are in no way the equal of those of our forefathers, we hope and trust that our descendants inherit from us after the passage of a thousand years an incomparability better heritage than the bequeathed to us by our forefathers a thousand years ago.