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The Dakota Icelanders Project

The Icelandic Settlers of Pembina County

This webpage is currently in a transitional stage and will be updated periodically as more content is added. It was decided that the website itself would be put up prior to actual completion of all the segments of the website. The goal is to make people aware of the website; if they find it of interest they can return periodically to see the changes made. Changes and additions to the website are recorded at the Website History page.

I would greatly appreciate hearing from anyone who finds this of interest, who wishes to participate in The Dakota Icelanders Project, or who has corrections, comments or suggestions regarding the content of the website.

Pembina County

Pembina County 1893

Pembina County in 1895

Pembina County (map) is located in northeast corner of North Dakota, not far from the geographical center of North America. Some might say it is as far away from anywhere as you can get in North America; bluntly, the middle of nowhere.

In fact, this area is, other than the original 13 colonies, among the oldest permanently settled regions in the United States. Of course, this refers to settlement by the white invaders from Europe, not the settlements of the native population that had been there for untold centuries.

The settlements at Pembina and St. Joseph (Walhalla) can be dated prior to 1800 and are likely even older than that. Even though they were once semi-permanent fur trading posts with varying locations, they eventually evolved in the towns of today.

Pembina County is part of the great Red River Valley of the North, the “Breadbasket of the World.” Although renowned worldwide for the quality of the soil, it is very geologically diverse, as it also boasts portions of land sandy enough to be on any beach and other portions whose main crop appears to be rocks and boulders.

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Pembina County Townships 1893

Pembina County Townships in 1893

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The Icelanders

Although extant records of the Icelandic settlement relate the circumstances somewhat differently, it was most likely the following basic facts that led them to choose the area for settlement. (1) Although there were farms being established in portions of the county, much of it was open for homesteading; (2) Much of the land in the western part of the county was suitable for mixed farming; and (3) Established towns were not far distant.

As it happened there were few settlers in the southwest portion of the county, which at that time included the eastern edge of what is now Cavalier Township. That the Pembina Escarpment also existed along this western edge was likely an added incentive, as that was as close as they would find to the magnificent mountains they were familiar with in Iceland.

It is often said that the Icelanders walked across the most fertile land on the planet so they could settle in rocks and sand. Although in a sense this is true, there is a bit more to it. The Icelanders were well aware of the almost-yearly flood of the Red River and the frequent massive floods, and wanted to keep well away from that. And, although much of the land where they settled was indeed sandy or rocky, there were larger portions with fine crop soil and the lesser quality portions were often suitable for either grazing or hayland.

It is also recorded that the Icelanders learned of this land on a trip from Gimli, Manitoba, in 1878. This is simply not true. They were well aware of the lands available in the US and in Dakota in particular, likely even before the earliest settlers of this emigration period left Iceland in 1870.

In any event, the Icelandic settlement in Pembina County, although officially dated from 1878, started in 1877. More details of the initial settlement will be added later. More complete accounts can be obtained from many sources, such as the tribute included in another section (A Tribute to the Pioneer Icelandic Settlers of Pembina County). In 2006 The Dakota Icelanders Project published an annotized and supplemented version of Sveinbjörn Jónsson's 1906 account titled The Icelandic Settlement of Pembina County and this is still available.

Although for some purposes it would have been advisable to separate the Icelandic settlement families by community or congregation, practical reality led the project to separate them by township. In some cases the two coincide. For instance, practically all the Icelandic settlers in Park Township were in Vidalin Congregation, whereas the settlers to the west in Thingvalla Township could be in any of several congregations (Vikur, Thingvalla, Gardar, Vidalin). Vidalin Congregation included settlers in Akra, Cavalier, Park, Thingvalla, and Beaulieu Townships.

Although one might expect community and congregation to coincide, this isn't correct either. For instance, there were people in the Eyford Community (usually referring to the same geographical area as Thingvalla Congregation) who belonged to Gardar Congregation and others that belonged to Vikur Congregation, just as there were people in Thingvalla Township who belonged to Gardar Congregation. There are complications regardless of how the families are divided. Since most records (census, land, etc.) are divided by township, this just seemed the most reasonable.

There will later be posted indexes that may clarify (or further confuse) the situation. In the meantime, further information will be found in the township pages. Click on the township names below or in the panel to the left to view those pages.

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Advance (Avon) Township
Township 162 North; Range 55 West.
Akra Township
Township 161 North; Range 55 West.
Beaulieu Township
Townships 161 North; Range 56 West.
Cavalier Township
Townships 161 & 162 North; Range 54 West.
Gardar Township
Township 159 North; Range 56 West.
La Moure (Liberty) Township
Township 162 North; Range 56 West.
Park Township
Township 160 North; Range 55 West.
Pembina Township
Townships 163 & 164 North; Ranges 51 & 52 West.
Thingvalla Township
Township 160 North; Range 56 West.

The following townships are included in Small Groups:

Bathgate Township
Township 162 North; Range 53 West.
Carlisle Township
Townships 161 and 162 North; Range 52 West.
Crystal Township
Township 159 North; Range 55 West.
Hamilton Township
Townships 161 and 162 North; Range 53 West.
Joliette Township
Townships 161 and 162 North; Ranges 50 and 51 West.
Walhalla Township
Townships 163 & 164 North; Range 56 West.

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Click on the name below to contact The Dakota Icelanders Project.

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