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The Dakota Icelanders Project


The Beginnings of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota Territory

The following is based on traditional published accounts. There is some evidence that there were Icelanders living in Pembina County in 1877.

Who started the Icelandic settlement?
Rev. Páll Thorláksson is known as ‘The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota’. The Icelandic form of adress for a minister is ‘séra’ and he is usually referred to simply as ‘séra Páll’.
When was the area settled?
An exploratory group left Gimli in New Iceland (now in Manitoba) 22 Apr 1878. By 19 May some were back on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. Between these dates were the first land filings.
Who was in this group?
Jóhann Pétur Hallsson, Magnús Stefánsson, Sigurdur Jósúa Björnsson, Árni Fridbjörnsson Bjornson, and séra Páll Thorláksson, who had convinced them to at least come and look at the possibilities.
So who were the first settlers?
Magnús Stefánsson and Sigurdur Jósua Björnsson went ahead of the others and were back in Pembina filing on their chosen land (about 5 miles west of Cavalier) when the other 3 arrived in Pembina.
So who was the first settler?
Could give credit to Magnús Stefánsson, as he remained on his land while the others returned to New Iceland to get their families and possessions.
Where was the first Icelandic home?
Was completed 23 Jun 1878 on Jóhann Pétur Hallsson’s land. Built of logs cut in the immediate area and dragged by hand to the building site, it was 12 x 14 feet and 5 feet under the eaves and housed 9 people. Later it served as Hallson Post Office.
What was the first Icelandic community?
The first Post Office in the Icelandic settlement was almost certainly Coulee, near where the hamlet of Hallson would later be sited. This could be considered the first 'Icelandic community.'
When was the first Icelandic congregation formed?
On 24 Sep 1880, séra Páll held a meeting to organize a congregation in the Gardar area. However, before official organization, church services were held throughout the community, usually in homes. The first church service may well have been held in Níels Steingrímur Thorláksson’s home on the banks of Cart Creek (on the south side of present Mountain Cemetery).
Where was the first school in the Icelandic community?
25 Feb 1881, less than 3 years after the first settlers arrived, School District 31 was organized in Akra Township. However, educational training was not neglected until then. It is likely the first school was held at the same location as the first church services.
So who was the first settler in Thingvalla or Mountain, now considered the center of the Icelandic community?
Unknown. If séra Páll filed before leaving in May of 1878, then his was the first filing. His homestead included Vík, later Mountain. Others credit Sveinn Sveinsson as the first to erect buildings in the area.
So where did séra Páll live?
Unknown. My own belief is that he lived northeast of where Vikur Church now stands, just south of Byron's Bar. At the time there was a small creek there.
And what happened to séra Páll?
Tragically, séra Páll suffered from a disease which he well knew was killing him. Yet his dedication and perseverence helped to ensure the survival of our community. Even while sick, his efforts on behalf of the people he had helped to convince to move here were astounding. Hopefully, his story will appear here later. He died 12 Mar 1882 and is buried in Vikur Cemetery in Mountain.
And what of the other ‘first’ settlers?
Jóhann Pétur Hallsson remained and is buried in Hallson Cemetery. Magnús Stefánsson relocated to Gardar Township, then served as Postmaster at Mountain, and several years as Deputy Sheriff in Cavalier before moving to Saskatchewan. Sigurdur Jósúa Björnsson later moved to Alberta, then to British Columbia. Árni Fridbjörnsson’s entire family (parents, brothers, and sisters) settled in Thingvalla and there are still many descendents in the area; he moved to New York where he is believed to have been in the banking business.
First Dakota born child:
Hallur Egilson, son of Gísli Egilsson and Ragnheidur Halldóra Jóhannsdóttir, grandson of Jóhann Pétur Hallsson, and considered by many the first Icelandic child born in Dakota Territory, later moved to Saskatchewan, as did many of the rest of the remaining Hallson family.
First Dakota born daughter:
Anna, the daughter of Samson Bjarnason and Anna Gudrún Jónsdóttir, is usually considered the first Icelandic daughter born in Dakota. She married Sigtryggur (Tryggvi) Ólafsson and there are many descendents still in the area.
First US born resident of the area:
Jón Olafson, son of Kristinn Ólafsson and Katrín Ólafsdóttir and born in Wisconsin, is generally considered the first Icelandic child born in the United States whose family settled in the area. He married Kristín Hermannsdóttir and there are still descendents in the area.
First harvest:
80 bushels by Jóhann Pétur Hallsson in 1879 on the 2 acres he had broken the first summer.
First entrepeneur:
The first store was opened at Mountain by Haraldur Thorláksson, Rev. Páll's brother.
Most interesting dialogue:
There was sharp opposition in Iceland to emigration. One of the first Icelandic settlers in Pembina County was taking leave of his brother, who had exhausted every effort to dissuade him from leaving Iceland. The former said, "I shall come back when I am rich." "No man has ever returned from hell," was the grim reply.

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Source for much of the above is the article “Landnam Íslendinga í Nordur Dakota” by Rev. Fridrik Jónsson Bergmann in Ólafur Thorgeirsson’s Almanak of 1902, much of which was translated by Sveinbjörn Jónsson (aka Sveinbjorn Johnson) for his “The Icelandic Settlement of Pembina County”, published in the first volume of the Collections of the North Dakota Historical Society in 1906, and also a main source. An annotated and supplemented version of this latter account was published by the project in 2006 and is still available.

The reliability of the facts above is no greater than the reliability of the sources. I would appreciate any information related to the veracity of the information.

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