- Education and Science
The story of the Icelandic emigration to the New World
Imagine Iceland in 1875. This is a rural society where most people are very poor but try their best under hard conditions to live off the land. Winter is long, dark and cold. During the darkest months, there are ony a few hours of daylight. Life is definitely not easy. People are heavily dependant on their sheep, cows and horses. On March 28th Mount Askja erupts and spews ash in such quantities that that it even falls in Norway and Sweden. In Iceland, there is a thick layer of ash in many parts (especially in the East Fiords and in North-Iceland). The livestock having nothing to eat dies from starvation. Many people die as well. Others are forced to leave their homes in search of a better life. It's not a coincidence that 1876 was a big year in the emgration from Iceland to the New World.
Utah, Brazil and other exotic places
Icelanders started emigrating to America earlier though. From 1855 onwards a few had gone to Utah to become Mormons. Novelist and Nobel Prize winner Halldr Laxness tells this story in his 1960 Paradise Reclaimed (Paradsarheimt in the original language). In 1873 a group of 34 adventurous Icelanders went all the way to Brazil to start a new life.
In the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th, a large portion of the small Icelandic nation emigrated to America, many to the United States, but even more went to Canada. Shipping companies and even the Canadian government had agents in Iceland who encouraged the locals to go (how things have changed, I can personally attest to the fact that Canada is quite a bit difficult to get into these days, unless you have a job lined up).
One of the first Icelanders to take the leap was Sigtryggur Jonasson (1852-1942), from Oxnadalur in North-Iceland. His story is one of success. He was twenty years old when he crossed the Atlantic in 1872. He went alone. He got work building railroads and cutting trees before establishing his own company, which made him financially well off. When Icelanders came to New Iceland, he helped them as he could, he became their leader. In 1881 he settled in Winnipeg, and even went back to Iceland as an agent, urging people to go to Canada.
Other notable pioneers of the Icelandic settlement in the West include poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927, born Stefan Gudmundsson), priest Pall Thorlaksson (1849-1882) and editor/poet Jon Olafsson (1850-1916) to name just a few.
Settling in "the West World" (the Icelanders called the American continent "Vesturheimur", meaning "West World" or the world in the West) was not easy, and Icelanders had tried their luck in North Dakota, In Kinmount north of Toronto, in Nova Scotia and other places. Many, including children, died from the hardships they endured. The Icelanders did what they do best: they formed a committee. Its job was to find a better place. The Committee finally chose a spot 70 miles north of Winnipeg, where today is the town of Gimli (the word Gimli comes from Snorri Sturluson's Edda, it's the place where the survivors of "Ragnark" live and is described as the most beautiful place on earth). There they formed their colony of New Iceland. The area was chosen for the near forests from which timber could be harvested, for Lake Winnipeg, which was supposed to have plenty of fish, for the farmland etc. Thus, over 200 Icelanders moved there in the autumn of 1875. That first winter was hard, many died from hunger and cold (this area is much colder in winter than Iceland, in spite of the "Ice" in Iceland). They still managed to build a school for the children (had done so by Christmas) and publish a magazine (Nyi Thjodolfur). The next year a large group of Icelanders came to New Iceland, and in spite of losing over a hundred people to smallpox the year after, the group endured. Many of the "West-Icelanders" (In Icelandic the emigrants and their descendants are called "Vestur-slendingar", meaning Icelanders in the West) of today owe their existence to the perseverance of these first brave settlers.
Should I stay or should I go now?
Were those who left Iceland right in doing so, or should they have stayed?