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Personalities from the history of Western Icelanders

Gunnsteinn Eyjólfsson (1866-1910)

Gunnsteinn Eyjólfsson was born at Unaós in Útmannasveit, in northern Múlasýsla, but moved to Canada with his parents in 1876. He became a farmer at Unaland by Icelandic River. He was the first man in New Iceland to buy a harvester. He was also involved in trade and postal services. Gunnsteinn was a very versatile man. He was both a writer and a composer. In the book, "Saga Íslendinga í Vesturheimi" (The History of Icelanders in the New World), Ţorsteinn Ţ. Ţorsteinsson describes him in the following manner:

"He was unusually talented and was good at practically everything he did. He was self-educated and was the life and soul of cultural activities such as; theatre, song and horn-playing among Western-Icelanders early in the settlement period. In his writings, Gunnsteinn was wise and sarcastic, but there was a tender melancholy about his music. He is the voice shouting in the desert in times when the cow roamed free in the field, grazing on the new grown grass, while farmer Jón at Strympa lay sleeping in his bed."

Gunnsteinn wrote controversial articles in local papers. He wrote other stories about the farmer Jón at Strympa in addition to the one shown here, and a short story, called Elenóra. This was published in 1894 and describes the seduction of a young girl in Winnipeg and how she later dies in childbirth. The story is a bitter criticism of the hypocrisy (both religious and otherwise) of the Icelandic leaders in Winnipeg. Gunnsteinn died before completing another novel, of which only the beginning and end have been preserved. The beginning describes a Western-Icelandic politician who buys votes with money anddrink. The end of the book depicts the politician's death and arrival in Hell.

Guttormur J. Guttormsson (1878-1966)

Guttormur J. Guttormsson was born at Víđivellir by Icelandic River in New Iceland. He attended primary school for three years but was otherwise self-educated. He was a farmer who loved music and played in a brass band. He is often considered the second best Western-Icelandic poet, the first being Stephan G. Shephansson. Guttormur mainly composed poetry but also wrote a few plays. His first book of poetry, "Jón Austfirđingur og nokkur smákvćđi", (Jón from the Eastern Fjords and a few poems), was published in 1909. Most of the book is a long narrrative poem about Jón from the Eastern Fjords, his journey to North America, difficulties he encountered and his fate. His next book, "Bóndadóttir" (Farmer's Daughter), was published in 1920 and contains a few of his best known poems, e.g. "Sandy Bar" and "Winnipeg Icelander". He then published Gaman og Alvara (Amusement and Seriousness) (1930), Hunangsflugur (Honey Bees) (1944) and Kanadaţistill (Canada Thistle) (1958). Guttormur was controversial and radical in his beliefs and yet playful and sarcastic. He readily composed poetry about Western-Icelanders' lives and the reality they faced. He also tended to describe the down-to-earth reality of his immediate surroundings, depicted in an unexpected, often symbolist context.

Jón Bjarnason (1845-1914)

Reverend Jón Bjarnason was a minister's son from Álftafjörđur. He worked as a teacher in Reykjavík for a while, after graduating with honours from Prestaskólinn (The Ecclesiastic College) in Reykjavík. He immigrated to North America in 1873 with his wife Lára Guđjohnsen, who was a musician and teacher. As Páll Ţorláksson puts it in one of his letters, she was "the daughter of the nationally renowned Icelandic musician, Pétur Guđjónsson". At first they lived in Milwaukee and Minneapolis but in the summer of 1877 they went to New Iceland where Jón worked as a minister. The following summer, he was requested by the majority of the New Iceland congregation to work as a minister at Gimli. Reverend Páll had occasionally preached at the Gimli congregation before Jón's arrival. Not everyone agreed upon which man should be appointed to the position but the settlement leaders were in favour of Reverend Bjarnason. Religious disputes were caused by this disagreement. Jón was thought to be liberal, whereas Páll was under the influence of the Norwegian Church and followed a stricter fundamentalism. Both were great leaders, but it is difficult to tell to which extent the disputes were religious or personal.
Reverend Bjarnason moved back to Iceland in 1880 but later moved to Winnipeg, where he died. He was a long-standing spiritual leader for Western Icelanders. He ran their church group and edited its periodical, Sameiningin (The Unification). He was a good writer and was thought to be a good orator. It is ironic that as the years passed, Reverend Bjarnason became stricter in his religious convictions and had disputes with liberal clergymen and laymen. Among them were Stephan G. Stephansson and his colleagues in the Cultural Society, which they founded in North Dakota in the late 1880's.

Jón Ólafsson editor and poet (1850-1916)

Jón Ólafsson, editor and poet, was the half brother of the poet Páll Ólafsson. He was one of Iceland's most colourful journalists. He began his career as a journalist in 1868. Because of his disobedience to the authorities in Iceland, he fled the country by immigrating to North America in 1872. The flow of immigrants to North America had begun and Ólafsson showed great interest in immigration. He thought that Icelanders should settle in Alaska. He tried to gain support for his idea within the United States government, and even met with President Grant. The U.S. government was interested in the subject since it had just made a highly criticised purchase of Alaska. The government was eager to find a use for the new territory. However, nothing came of Jón's efforts and he returned to Iceland in 1875. He later returned to North America and became the editor of "Lögberg" and later "Heimskringla." Without a doubt, Jón was partly responsible for the fierce rivalry between the two papers. The editors were at their lowest when they accused each other of causing the death of the poet Gestur Pálsson, who had been the editor of "Heimskringla" in 1890-91. Gestur certainly disliked the feuding and didn't prosper in Winnipeg. He was about to return to Iceland when he fell ill and died. In 1893, Jón first published his monthly journal, "Öldin". It was a fine cultural journal which published selected fiction, educational material and cultural discussions. Stephan G. published many poems in "Öldin". Jón returned to Iceland and, among other things, sat in parliament for a time. Jón was a fine poet and would have liked to have devoted more time cultivating this talent. However, he was a man of action and had little time to spend on poetry. He took part in literary debates and was a merciless critic, to say the least.

Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason (1866-1945)

Jóhann Magnús Bjarnason was born at Međalnes in Fell, northern Múlasýsla. He moved to North America with his parents at the age of nine. They lived in Nova Scotia at first but later moved to Winnipeg where he received his teaching degree. For the most part, he was a primary school teacher in New Iceland but also lived elsewhere in Canada. He was an ambitious writer and was involved in literary debates and innovations in the field. He also wrote a lot himself. He was sensitive, impressionable and often naive in his writing. His writing and publishing efforts had a great impact on the start of Western-Icelandic literature. In 1887, at the age of twenty, he published the first Icelandic book of poetry in North America. It contained poems written by him and by two other poets, Kristinn Stefánsson (1856-1916) and Sigurđur Jón Jóhannesson (1850-1923). He was also the first to publish a book including prose, "Sögur og kvćđi" (Stories and poems), in 1892. Those stories and poems were not highly valued. However, the poetry in "Ljóđmćli" (Poetry), published in 1898, was better. He often vividly described the conditions of the poor, degraded immigrants. He corresponded with Stephan G. Stephansson. They exchanged views on literature and Stephan gave him advice. Even though, in 1898, Stephan wrote a fair and honest review which praised "Ljóđmćli" (Poetry), it was received by the public with mixed reviews. Jóhann Magnús turned his back on poetry and concentrated on writing stories (both novels and short stories), which were very popular. Aside from a few novellas by Gunnsteinn Eyjólfsson and Snćr Snćland (pen name for Kristján Ásgeir Benediktsson), the novel, "Eiríkur Hansson I-III" (1899-1903), by Jóhann Magnús was the first significant Western-Icelandic novel. It is a most entertaining story of an Icelandic boy who immigrated to North America and his coming of age. Jóhann Magnús' joy of the narrative blossomed in "Brasilíufararnir" (The Brazilian Migrations) (1905-1908), and "Í Rauđárdalnum" (In the Red River Valley) (1942). It was first published as a series in the journal "Syrpa" in 1913-1922. Both stories are romantic adventures and detective stories. The first is about those who left Iceland for Brazil and the latter is set mainly in Winnipeg. Jóhann Magnús also wrote an adventure story for young boys called "Karl litli" (Little Karl) (1935), two collections of short stories, "Vornćtur á Elgsheiđum" (Spring Nights on Mooseland Heights) (1910) and "Haustkvöld viđ hafiđ" (An Autumn Evening by the Sea) (1928). He also wrote a few plays which were never published. Jóhann Magnús' best known short story is, without a doubt, "Íslenskt heljarmenni" (An Icelandic Strongman). It is about a sturdy Icelandic man who lived on an island off the coast of eastern Canada. It is an heroic epic about an Icelander who stood out among other strong men.

Káinn/KN - Kristján Níels Júlíus Jónsson (1860-1936)

Káinn was born in Akureyri but immigrated to North America in 1878. From 1883 onwards he lived in North Dakota. He worked as a farmhand for the most part, was a bachelor, and was known to enjoy his drink. Even so, he was, as the writer Bill Holm said, "the most interesting man to ever live in North Dakota". Káinn is one of the best comic poets who has ever written poetry in Icelandic. He didn't take himself very seriously as a poet. His poetry was for the most part occasional poems, constantly sparkled with humour when describing daily life, farmwork, and many other themes. His drinking songs may have contributed to his reputation as a drunk. Few, if anyone other than Steinn Steinarr, could use paradoxes as well as Káinn. He combines English and Icelandic with great craftsmanship in many of his poems. Beyond the predominantly mischievous tone of his poems, there is often a great warmth and wisdom, which gives them depth and makes them truly remarkable. Some of his poems for children are pure gems:

Síđan fyrst ég sá ţig hér,      Since I first saw you here,
sólskin ţarf ég minna.          I need less sunlight.
Gegnum lífiđ lýsir mér         The light of your eyes
ljósiđ augna ţinna.              brightens my days.

An example of his witty mischieviousness is a poem composed for a woman scolding him by saying that if it were not for his drinking, he could have had his pick of girls to marry:

Gamli Bakkus gaf mér smakka   Old Bacchus gave me the taste of
gćđin bestu öl og vín.                  the best goods, ales and wines.
Honum á ég ţađ ađ ţakka          To him I can be grateful
ađ ţú ert ekki konan mín.           That you are not my wife.

And a blend of Icelandic and English:

Bindindismennirnir birta ţađ hér           Abstenists say here
ađ brennivín geri men crazy.                 That drink makes men crazy
En ţađ get ég sannađ ađ orsökin er      But I can prove the cause is
oftastnćr brennivínsleysi.                     Usually the lack of drink.

And here is an excerpt of a speech he made:

And so I have noticed that people no longer listen to or read long poems. They have started to take up the ways of our ministers when they say: "And next we shall sing the first and last verses of psalm so and so." And that is why I have gotten into the habit of writing the first and last verse in one stanza so that if they are going to read the poem, they will have to read it all.

Kviđlingar (Ditties) was published in 1920. A complete collection, "Kviđlingar og kvćđi" (Ditties and Poems), edited by Richard Beck, was published in 1945. In it are also very humorous speeches written in prose. A selection of his poems has also been published.

Margrét J. Benedictson (1866-1956)

Margrét was born Jónsdóttir. She was from Hrappstađir in Víđidal, the daughter of Jón Jónsson and Kristjana Ebeneserdóttir. She immigrated to North America in 1887; first to North Dakota, and later to Manitoba. She was an outstanding woman. Though she had to support herself, she was still able to educate herself to some degree. In 1893, she married the printer and poet, Sigfús B. Benedictson. He had become familiar with the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Bríet Bjarnhéđinsdóttir before he left Iceland. Sigfús and Margrét divorced in 1910. However, while they were married they worked together on projects involving publishing and supporting women's rights. Their efforts contributed to women in Manitoba getting the right to vote. Manotoba was the fist province in Canada to grant suffrage to women. Icelandic women led the battle for women's right to vote. Together, they published the journal "Freyja," from 1898-1910, which was the first women's rights' magazine at the time. In its first editorial, Margrét describes the policy of the journal and says, among other things: "At the top of its agenda will be progress in the women's rights movement. It will support abstinence and all that is good and pure." The material in "Freyja" was not solely devoted to women's rights. In it were poems, stories, articles about famous people, reviews and children's material. The journal was successful and had a large circulation, but was discontinued due to the couple's differences.
Margrét took part in women's social affairs and founded a women's rights society in Winnipeg in 1908. She was somewhat of a poet. She published poems and short stories, though often under a pen name. The subject of her work was usually the social position of women at the time. She was also a member of the Winnipeg Rhymer Association which was active in the early 1900's. Many meetings were held at her home. She moved from Winnipeg to Seattle in 1912, and from there to Blaine, Michigan. Her pioneering work was appreciated by women on the west coast. They started fundraising so that Margrét could attend the Alţingi festival in Iceland in 1930.

Ólafur Ólafsson (d. 1918)

Ólafur Ólafsson, a wealthy farmer (often called Ólafur Ólafsson from Espihóll), was from Espihóll in Eyjafjörđur. He was among the primary leaders of the first settlers. His foster son was Friđrik Sveinsson/Fred Swanson, the son of Sveinn Ţórarinsson, a governor's clerk. Ólafur departed with the large group which left from Akureyri in 1873 (see Guđmundur Stefánsson's account of his journey to North America) and participated in preparations for the trip. Ólafur was well travelled. He first went to the Muskoka region in Ontario, Canada, then to Wisconsin. He was one of the leaders of the group to first settle in Gimli in 1875. He is also said to deserve the credit for the name. The year before, he had accompanied the editor Jón Ólafsson and Páll Björnsson to Alaska to explore possibilities of an Icelandic settlement there. In the spring of 1876, Ólafur settled on some land north of Icelandic River and his dealings with native Indians in the region are well known. At first, the native people didn't react favourably to Ólafur. However he showed courage, determination and tack in his dealings with them. During these dealings, Icelanders met a native Indian named Ramsey. Guttormur J. Guttormsson tells a story of this encounter.

In 1880, Ólafur left New Iceland for North Dakota and then on to Alberta in 1888. He didn't stay there long and left for Seattle on the west coast. He died in Winnipeg. Ólafur was "a wise and kind man"according to the "Saga Íslendinga í Vesturheimi" (The History of Icelanders in the New World). He was well read, energetic and daring, as seen by how many places he settled. When Stephan G. Stephanson came to Alberta in 1889, Ólafur had already settled there. Stephan described Ólafur as: "the old fellow, works like a bull, is as healthy as a horse, is as chipper as a chickadee and keeps to his own flock." "Bréf og ritgerđir" (Letters and Essays) I:1)

Páll Ţorláksson (1849-1882)

Páll Ţorláksson was the son of Ţorlákur Jónsson from Stóru-Tjarnir in Ljósavatnsskarđ, who was one of the men who encouraged Icelanders to immigrate to the New World. Páll went to Milwaukee in 1872 and studied there for a while. He also worked within the Norwegian church community. He became a minister for Icelanders settled in Shawano County and a few local Norwegian congregations. The first couple he married were Stephan G. Stephansson and Helga Jónsdóttir. Páll was very helpful to his compatriots immigrating from Iceland during those years. He had the support of the Norwegians, which may have caused feelings of antipathy among some Icelanders.

As described in the summary about Reverend Jón Bjarnason, Páll was one of the main participants in the Icelanders' religious disputes during these years. Residents of New Iceland chose Jón over Páll, as his fundamentalism was not to their liking. But, as Ţorsteinn Ţ. Ţorsteinsson said, his fundamentalism was a little contradictory to his character:

Despite his fundamentalism, which some people hardly liked, he aroused a sense of trust with his open nature, unwavering determination, warmth and sincerity. Reverend Ţorláksson was an eloquent speaker and an old-fashioned rationalist (Saga Íslendinga í Vesturheimi III, p. 40)(The History of the Icelanders in the Western World).

From 1879, Páll was the minister for an Icelandic community in North Dakota but was of poor health after contracting Scarlet fever. He died in March of 1882, at the age of 32.

Laura Goodman Salverson (1890-1970)

Laura Goodman Salverson was born in Canada. She was the daughter of Lárus Guđmundsson, a saddle craftsman, and Ingibjörg Guđmundsdóttir who immigrated to Winnipeg in 1887 from Grundir in Bolungarvík. They lived in poverty, moving from place to place, including in the United States. Her father was known for his disputes with Stephan G. Stephansson.

Laura was influenced by her father's interest in literature and dreamed of becoming a writer at an early age. She published short stories in journals and in 1923 her novel The Viking Heart was published. Laura wrote other novels which weren't as popular as her first. In 1939, she wrote her memoirs, "Confessions of an Immigrant Daughter". An Icelandic translation by Margrét Björgvinsdóttir was published in 1994 (Játningar landnemadóttur). This book may be considered as the pinnacle of her career as a writer, as it received an award.

Sigtryggur Jónasson (1852-1942)

Sigtryggur Jónasson, often called the father of New Iceland, was one of the first Icelanders to immigrate to North America. He was a very enterprising man during all of his long and eventful life. He was born at Bakki in Öxnadalur and was very bright from an early age. He was clerk to a sub-governor at Möđruvellir before leaving for North America on his own in 1872. He worked laying railroad ties and as a lumberjack. He later started his own prosperous business. When large groups of Icelanders started coming to the New World, he greeted and assisted them, as a representative of the Canadian government. Guđjón Arngrímsson describes his participation in "Nýja Ísland" (New Iceland), on page 184:

He had taken on three roles which he performed for the better part of his life. He was the Icelanders' social and political leader, an official of the Canadian government, and a shrewd businessman. He never seemed to decide which role should have the upper hand. Instead, circumstances seemed to determine the course his life took. One thing is certain, he was always well to do and in his later years he was much better off than most of his compatriots.

Sigtryggur was an active participant in the settlement of New Iceland. It was during this time that he married his childhood sweetheart, Rannveig Ólafsdóttir Briem. Sigtryggur was the settlers' main leader and owned and operated a steamboat on Lake Winnipeg. In 1881, he moved from New Iceland and settled soon thereafter in Winnipeg. He was involved in different forms of business. He went to Iceland as an agent for immigrants to North America, encouraged Icelanders to set up a steamship company in order to export fresh fish, and was the editor of "Lögberg" for a while. He was even the first Western-Icelander to become a member of Canadian parliament for the Liberal party in 1896. He lived at Arborg in New Iceland for a while. In his sixties, he worked the old farm he called Möđruvellir. He spent most of his twilight years with his foster son, Percy, in New Iceland.

Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927)

Stefán Guđmundsson was better known by the name Stephan G. Stephansson, which he adopted in the New World. He regretted doing this, to a degree. He was the Western Icelanders' primary poet, and one of the finest poets of the Icelandic language. He was born at Kirkjuhóll in Seyluhreppur in Skagafjörđur. He also lived at Syđri-Mćlifellsá, Víđimýrarsel and finally in Mjóidalur in Bárđardalur. He left for North America with his parents in 1873. He tried settling in three different places. First he settled in Shawano County in Wisconsin, then in Garđar in North Dakota and finally in Markerville in Alberta, Canada. Stephan was thought to be very intelligent as a child. However, he never attended school, except for a few weeks worth of English studies in Bárđardalur before immigrating to North America. He was active in community affairs and economic development. In his childhood, he published a handwritten paper called, "Dalbúinn" (The Valley Resident), and continued the tradition with some friends in North Dakota by publishing the paper "Fjalla-Eyvindur." It was there that he took part in the foundation of the Cultural Society which dedicated itself to liberal progressive ideas which were of great interest in North America at the time.

He was a prolific poet who first attracted attention with his nature poems from Alberta in 1890. The Canadian professor, Watson Kirckonnell, says that no other poet could draw a comparable picture of the nature of western Canada. He wrote many fine obituaries and composed poems based on ancient stories, history and contemporary events. For the most part, he was a controversial poet. His writings were often thought to be abstract and obscure. He took part in debates about national affairs, had radical and challenging opinions. Many people wrote opposing views in newspaper articles. His life was somewhat calmer when he was older but he was still capable of upsetting people. For example, he later protested the participation of Western Icelanders in World War I. After the war, he strongly protested plans to raise a memorial for the fallen soldiers of Icelandic heritage. He thought it was more sensible to take care of those who returned with broken bodies and souls. He said: "Perhaps some part of our glory can be preserved in a pyramid so that it won't be blown away in the deserts of time. Even so, this human notion of taking bread from the living to give stone to the dead is misguided" (Bréf og ritgerđir (Letters and essays IV), p. 332).

Many of Stephan's poems are about experiences of immigrating to North America. He did this without glorifying the New World, as was common. He was more critical than that. In Iceland he is best known for the patriotic poem "Úr Íslendingadags rćđu"(From a Speech on Icelandic Day) which begins with the words "Ţó ţú langförull legđir/ sérhvert land undir fót" ("Though you, who have widely travelled/ were to travel to every country"). His patriotism was fairly mixed. He wrote poetry for both Iceland and North America and once said in a poem that he really wasn't a native of any country.

Undína (Helga Steinvör Baldvinsdóttir 1858-1941)

Undína was from Litla-Ásgeirsá in Víđidalur in Húnaţing. She was the daughter of Baldvin Helgason and Soffía Jósafatsdóttir. They first settled in Rousseau in the Muskoka region of Ontario, but later in North Dakota. Undína married twice. Her first husband was a drunkard and she divorced him. Her second husband died in 1904. She then lived on the west coast until her death, spending her last years in the care of her daughter Sophia. For the most part, Undína wrote poetry before and around the turn of the century, but little after that period. Deservedly, she aroused the interest of Icelandic language literary scholars among Icelanders in North America. Her verses are simple and poetic. Many of them were patriotic poems. Her best poems are melancholic and romantic in tone, and candidly show the settlers' feeling of rootlessness. A complete edition of her poetry was published in 1952. It is entitled "Kvćđi" (Poems).

Efnisyfirlit Heimildir Tenglar Gestabók Póstur
Ritsjóri:  Ritstjórar:  Viđar Hreinsson og Jón Karl Helgason
Höfundur meginmáls:  Viđar Hreinsson
Hönnun og samsetning:  Anna Melsteđ
Vefur c 1999 RÚV 1999