Settlement in Canada |
Páll Ţorláksson waited in Quebec for the large group that left Akureyri in the summer of 1873. Having accepted an offer from the Canadian authorities of free transport to the area, 115 people went to Rousseau in the Muskoka region of Ontario, Canada. Fifty people went with Páll to Wisconsin. There they were given work by farmers in order to learn about agriculture in the new country. Some of them settled in Shawano county in Wisconsin a year later. They then moved on to North Dakota in 1880. However, a multitude of difficulties awaited the settlers in the Muskokas. This was in part due to the fact that there were no fellow countrymen there to assist them. They established a colony in Cardwell, Muskoka, but the land there was poor for farming. Some got work in forestry, while others were unemployed in Rousseau. They were lent money and Páll Ţorláksson gathered funds for them from the Norwegians in Wisconsin. The following year they left, even though Sigtryggur Jónasson had been searching for suitable land to establish a colony.
When 375 Icelanders migrated to North America in 1874, an attempt was made to settle at Kinmount, north of Toronto. On behalf of the Nova Scotian government, Jóhannes Arngrímsson accompanied a group of people to settle land in Mooselands Heights, Nova Scotia. Some Icelanders called this area Markland. Thus, all 375 Icelanders settled in Canada. However, neither the settlement at Kinmount nor at Mooselands Heights was successful. However, Mooselands Heights in Nova Scotia lasted longer than Kinmount in Ontario. Approximately 30 children and 10 adults are said to have died as a result of the difficult conditions at Kinmount.
The first Icelandic settlers arrive at Willow Point near Gimli, 21 October 1875
Drawing on an old postcard
In the spring, men were sent from Kinmount to search for a better location. Sigtryggur Jónasson, Einar Jónasson and Reverend John Taylor formed a delegation, (with the support of the Canadian authorities), to investigate fertile land in the Red River Valley, Manitoba. Some land had already been settled there, but people feared unsettled areas in the north. This was due to cold weather and alleged cruelty of the native Indians. John Taylor was of Anglo-Saxon origin but had become acquainted with the Icelanders in Kinmount. He had taken such an interest in them that he decided to move to Manitoba with them. That summer, the worst locust plague ever to hit Manitoba spread over the land. The delegation finally chose a location 70 miles north of Winnipeg, the present day site of Gimli.
The settlement area extended far north to a river, now known as Icelandic River. In fact this was north of Manitoba, in the Keewatin county. This area was largely uninhabited except for native Indians who lived north of the river. The Icelanders were searching for land suitable for mixed farming. The location was heavily forested, thus providing an abundant supply of lumber. In addition, the terrain was suitable for hay pastures and crop cultivation. There was also a plentiful stock of fish in the river. Fruit and wild game was found in the woods. The lake and river made for easy transportation to Winnipeg, and finally there were no locust plagues. The area seemed suitable for establishing a colony, and with the support of the authorities, a group of approximately 200 Icelanders moved there in the autumn of 1875. Although the group originally consisted of 285 people, some stayed behind in Winnipeg.
On the way they encountered numerous problems. For example, they were not allocated the cattle that they had been promised. However, they managed to settle the land in late October. The most pressing task then was to construct log cabins that only a few individuals had the skills to build. Initially a log cabin was built for one of the leaders. It later became a storage building and gathering place. After that, 30 smaller cabins were built as only 30 cooking stoves were available. This meant that two to three families lived in each cabin.
Hunger and cold added to the arduous first winter. Fishing in the lake did not go well, and there was a severe milk shortage. That first winter, a considerable number died, especially young children. Around Christmas a school was established, and several issues appeared of a hand-written paper called Nýi Ţjóđólfur.. In spite of the harsh conditions, people tried to enjoy themselves. The difficulties of daily life encountered by the settlers are described in an account by Jóhann Briem.
A year later, a large group arrived at Gimli from Iceland. The winter that followed was a time of both sacrifice and victory. Over a hundred people died in a smallpox epidemic that resulted in the area being quarantined for six months. Despite these tragedies, several people met on 22 January 1877 to discuss founding a newspaper. Given the circumstances, this was a somewhat optimistic venture. All the same, the paper Framfari was founded, and a printing set with Icelandic letters was bought. On 1 September 1877, the first issue was printed in a log cabin at Lundur, the present day site of Riverton. It came out three times a month and was four pages long.
The first issue of Framfari covered key issues that concerned Icelandic settlers at that time. The maintenance of the language and national identity were their main concerns. Their reasons were twofold: an Icelandic colony, and a publication of a newspaper in Icelandic. However, this did not mean that the Icelanders wanted to isolate themselves. They were in fact receptive to their new homeland and wanted to adjust to it.
Immigration to North America had a large impact on immigrants and their lives. There was a considerable difference in conditions between Iceland and North America. Sod farms were the norm in Iceland, but log cabins predominated in North America. As a result, people had to learn skills such as tree-felling and construction techniques. In Iceland, the winters were mild. Contrastingly in Manitoba, where the majority of Icelanders settled, winters were very cold and temperatures could go as low as -40°C. In Iceland, only livestock farming was practiced. In North America, people had to learn about grain cultivation. They also had to learn how to ice fish in the Canadian lakes. Furthermore, fish species in Canada were not the same as those native to Iceland.
Overview of Gimli, 1906.
Reykjavík Museum of Photography
The number of migrants varied from year to year. The peak years were 1875-76, 1883, 1885-89, 1894 and 1900-1905. Most came from the northeast corner of Iceland. The weather was worse in the northeast. Ash fall-out from Mount Askja played havoc on the people. There were also fewer fishing villages there that could absorb the extra people. Icelanders had mixed feelings about migration to North America. Some thought it was a promising and interesting alternative. Others felt that it was betraying the mother country. It was also true that emigrants themselves had mixed feelings about it. The total number of those who emigrated to North America is thought to be placed at 15-20,000. The names of 14,000 people are recorded in the Vesturfaraskrá (the register of Icelanders who left for North America). These were mostly compiled from ships' passenger lists. However, this is not an exhaustive list.