A Tribute to the Pioneer Icelandic Settlers of Pembina County
by Kristbjörg Kristjanson (1886 - 1967)
As we think about the Icelandic settlement in Pembina County, we naturally wonder why the Icelanders came to America.
Did not Columbus himself before he sailed west consult the log books and charts of the Northmen in Iceland? Is it not proved that he sailed in an English ship to that island where he received many a hint, if not a demonstration, that there was a Cathay beyond the setting sun? These are matters of authentic history.
Who then would be more deserving of settling in this land than the descendents of the Vikings of old whose historical deeds gave Columbus the courage to go “on and on”?
The Icelandic pioneers, possessed of dauntless courage and daring, with love of adventure, came primarily to seek new homes in a land that offered them the heritage they most valued -- democracy, liberty, freedom, and opportunity.
Many of the Icelanders who first came to Pembina county did not come directly from Iceland, as one might imagine, but had migrated like the birds do, viewing places here and there, comparing and rejecting, until at last they found a location that met their heart's desire. Some came from Toronto, Manitoba, Wisconsin, and other places.
In the fall of 1876 the late Rev. Páll Thorláksson, later known as “the Father of the Icelandic Dakota Settlement”, travelled by boat by way of the Red River from Fisher's Landing, Minnesota, to Gimli, Manitoba.
During this trip the captain of the boat suggested that the Rev. Thorláksson induce the Icelanders whom the captain had taken to Gimli on a previous trip to come to Dakota to settle, saying he considered that group of immigrants too promising for the Canadian wilderness whereas the United States wanted desirable, intelligent, progressive citizens -- such as they appeared to be.
Finding adverse conditions in Manitoba Rev. Thorláksson and 20 other young men started in a steamboat called “Lady Ellen” to Winnipeg and Dakota on April 27, 1878. Three days later Samson Bjarnason, Fridjón Fridriksson, Magnús Stefánsson, Jóhann Hallsson and his son Grímur, followed in Mr Samson's steamboat.
While in Winnipeg Magnús Stefánsson met Mr. Hunter, editor of “The Standard”, who gave glowing accounts of the Dakota region, a country excellent for agricultural pursuit.
Immediately Mr. Stefánsson and Sigurdur Jósúa Björnsson started off for Pembina, thence southwest to explore. Being favorably impressed they returned to Pembina to claim homesteads. Here they met other members of their group who wished to proceed further, hence Magnús Stefánsson, Rev. Thorláksson, Jóhann and Grímur Hallsson and Arni Björnsson started off towards Cavalier. They reached the John Bechtel home in the evening. Mr. and Mrs. Bechtel not only furnished them with food and shelter for the night but gave them much worthwhile information concerning the surrounding country and it's qualities. They were always willing to give the Icelandic settlers help and advice.
The next day these five men continued their journey along the Tongue River, to the sand ridges where the soil seemed poor, vegetation meagre, but from where the could see the forest-covered Pembina Mountains stretching forth their protective shelter, reminding them of the beautiful scenery in Iceland, and luring them to start life anew in this enchanted spot. All but Rev. Thorláksson continued on to “Vík” - now Mountain. At that time the lowland east from Mountain was covered with water, forming a kind of inlet - hence called “Vík”. On both sides of this inlet - to the north and south - forests extended while to the east was the rolling prairie. From here the group continued southward till they came near to where J. K. Olafsson now lives - south of Gardar. By this time they feared should they go farther they wouldn't be able to find their way through the wilderness back to where their friends were.
On their return trip they spent the night at Butler Olson’s, near Cavalier. Mr. and Mrs. Olson, who were very hospitable, befriended and assisted the Icelanders in innumerable ways.
Returning to Pembina, these men acquired land then went to Gimli for their families and goods. Four days later, May 23, they, along with Benedikt Jónasson, started off for Dakota. Other members of their families followed by boat from Gimli to Pembina.
Teams of oxen and horses were used to convey them from Pembina to Hallson. Now three tasks faced them: to build a house, to get the winter’s supply of hay for the beasts, and to plow some plots to seed next spring.
The first Icelandic home to be built in the settlement was Jóhann Hallsson’s cabin - situated where Hallson now is. It was 14 ft. by 12 ft., 5 ft. high to the rafters. It was completed July 6, 1878. Then 9 people moved into the new house.
Jóhann Hallsson started farming with 3 cows, 2 calves, and 1 ox - for some time the only beast of burden in the community. He plowed and seeded 2 acres and got 40 bushels per acre in the fall of 1879 - the first wheat crop raised in the Icelandic settlement. The wheat was cut with an instrument called the cradle, hauled on one ox five miles to be threshed, and later taken to the flour mill in Walhalla to be ground.
During the first winter people had mostly potatoes, flour for bread making, some milk, and occasionally meat - most often venison bought from the Indians for some flour or trifles.
That the Icelandic settlement grew rapidly is evident for in 1879 there were only 5 Icelandic people in Dakota, yet only ten years later the largest Icelandic settlement in America was in Pembina County. In a certain sense it may be compared to a federation for it consisted of six distinct units, each one of which had its own church, schools, business centers, and social activities, yet they were all united as to language, customs, ideals, culture, and traditions.
The Icelandic Lutheran Synod, started in 1885, is a religious bond uniting all. Various social activities also serve the same purpose.
The six distinct units consisted of the following: Hallson, Pembina, Akra and Svold (formerly called “Sandhćdir”), Mountain (then known as Vík), Gardar (originally named Park), and Eyford.
As we are all prone to hero worship and to admire the ambitious, adventurous person who has enough initiative to be the first to accomplish a worthwhile feat, I’ll mention some of the first Icelanders in each of these units.
The first explorers, Magnús Stefánsson and Sigurdur Jósúa Björnsson, were the first Icelanders to acquire land near Akra. Samson Bjarnason pioneered in the general merchandise in his home and Stígur Thorvaldsson was the first postmaster.
At Hallson, Jóhann Hallsson was the first homesteader, storekeeper and postmaster, also the first to build a house. In his house the first Icelandic baby born in Pembina County was christened on September 25, 1878, named Hallur, son of Mr. and Mrs. Gísli Egilsson. Anna, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samson Bjarnason, now known as Mrs. S. T. Olafson of Akra, was the first girl.
The Rev. Páll Thorláksson was first to homestead at Mountain, the first postmaster and first minister of the Vikur, or Mountain, church, the oldest Icelandic church in America. He delivered the first Icelandic service on a weekday - December 5, 1878 - in Butler Olson's home. The tall white tombstone directly north of the church was erected in memory of the Reverend Thorláksson, the so called “Father of the Icelandic Colony of Dakota”. He not only gave his people spiritual guidance but did everything to help them become independent economically. His brother, Rev. N. S. Thorláksson, was the first teacher here, and his brother Haraldur the first storekeeper.
The first merchant and postmaster of Gardar was Eiríkur Bergmann. Here the first school was built in 1882 and Rev. Fridrik Bergmann was the first teacher and later minister. The Gardar congregation was the first one to be organized.
Sigurjón Sveinsson and Benedikt Jóhannesson were the first to acquire land in Gardar township. During the first summer Mr. Sveinsson devoted much of his time to haying. In the fall he wrapped up his personal belongings into a bundle which he then hid in a haystack, then proceeded to Cavalier to get a job. A few days later when he looked toward the west he saw huge billows of smoke. A prairie fire was sweeping across the region destroying his belongings and the year’s supply of hay.
In the Eyford district Jakob Eyford built the so-called “White House“ - a landmark and guide post midway between Mountain and Gardar. The lumber was hauled on oxen from Pembina; the house, when completed, was painted white. Should you drive four miles south on Highway 32 then on the west side of the road you can see the White House and the former Eyford Post Office while on the east side is the Eyford church and also a memorial statue dedicated to the memory of our Icelandic humorist and poet - K. N. Júlíus, who changed people's tears to laughter.
Most of the Icelanders who came to Dakota passed through or settled in Pembina. In South Pembina and on the elevation to the southwest they formed an Icelandic colony. By now most of them have gone from there but Mrs. Archie Lepine of Pembina is now living on her father’s homestead. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson (parents of the druggist in Crystal) and my parents were the first three couples couples to settle in Pembina though Arni Björnsson, Nurse Eyolfson’s uncle, was the first Icelander to acquire land near Pembina.
During pioneer days various organizations were formed, primarily for increasing knowledge and maintaining respect for Icelandic culture, art, literature, and religion. Some of these functioned only a short time while others still exist. Those affilliated with the church were most influential.
Each unit organized a congregation. Mountain, Hallson, and Akra each had a debating society. In 1888 Gardar started ”Menningarfelag“, a literary club whose object was to promote oratory and develop research. Each community had a library and also a Ladies Aid. The Akra library, called “Aurora”, was started in 1887. Some of these libraries still exist, having hundreds of volumes. The Mountain Ladies Aid, the oldest, was organized in 1883 by Mrs. Thórdís Bjornson, Nurse Eyolfson’s grandmother, and others.
In pioneer days the home was the social, religious, educational, and cultural center. There was not a single home but boasted of a library, and a person who could not read and write Icelandic was scarcely to be found. The mother usually taught her children how to read or, if time did not permit, then someone was hired to do so, often an elderly person who was glad to earn his board and room.
The custom of holding family worship every day was no unpleasant duty. The people were fond of reading sermons and singing hymns. They were never in a hurry when before the Almighty. Then, thought they, is the time to be reverent, thoughtful, calm, and meditative. I can remember how quiet we had to be while father read the scripture. Then all joined in the singing of hymns.
As an industrial center the home was a kind of factory where the mother not only took care of the home and prepared the meals, but also made the clothes for the family, changed the raw wool into underwear, scarves, mittens, and socks for the family, tanned the hides and then made shoes from them, and did various other tasks.
Social gatherings and entertainments were more frequent in the winter time than during the summer when people were extremely busy. Most of these gatherings were in private homes, particularly the larger houses. Here people had programs consisting of speeches, toasts, original poetry, stunts, music, and other amusements, often followed by dancing. Sometimes it so happened that a young man in the Mountain settlement heard about a public entertainment followed by a dance to be given at Gardar. Then, possibly, he would think of some fair damsel he wished to take to this social gathering. He would ponder as to how the might get there. Walking was out of the question. Now, if a neighbor, possibly 3 or 4 miles away, owned a team of oxen and a wagon he would borrow these, then invite the young lady. When the appointed time came and he had assisted the fair maiden into the spring seat on the wagon he would realize that the wagon box was twice as high as usual, and if it so happened that the spring on one side of the seat was broken, he’d see her far above him swaying from one side to the other, her feet dangling back and forth.
Usually he had to walk all the way, leading the oxen, for as a rule the oxen were so poorly tamed it was necessary to lead them. The distance to be covered would be at least 8 miles. He had to walk, she to have her feet dangling all the way. Sometimes, if he happened to look at his feet, he would see that his big toe was peeking out through his shoe or that the patch on his knee had become threadworn. But he would muster up courage, pull out his red silk handkerchief, his most precious accessory, and look sideways to where the fair maiden dangled as if if to ask “Aren't you satisfied with my appearance?” The saddest part was, as so often happened, especially if the oxen were inclined to be lazy, that when the young couple got to the place of entertainment, the dance was over with, or very nearly so.
The names and memories of great men are the dowry of a community. This Icelandic settlement can boast of an unusually large number of men who have won prominence. I'll name a few: Vilhjálmur Stefanson, famous arctic explorer; Hjörtur Thórdarson, inventor and electrician of Chicago; Arni Helgason, his former coworker, an electrician; Stefan G. Stefanson, a poet, our Icelandic Browning; K. N. Júlíus - poet and humorist, our Bobby Burns; Mr. and Mrs. Emil Walter, he an artist, she a writer; Sveinbjörn Johnson, our former supreme court judge; Gunlaugur Gunnlaugson, research worker and inventor, of Chicago; K. S. Hall of Winnipeg and Sigurdur Helgason of Bellingham, Washington, and Tryggvi Bjornson of New York, all leading musicians and composers.
In the educational field we claim T. W. Thordarson, who promoted the correspondence courses at the A. C. [North Dakota Agricultural College at Fargo, later North Dakota State University]; Mr. Thorleifson, a member of the U. [University of North Dakota at Grand Forks] faculty; Elína Thorsteinson, a former member of the U faculty. Magnús Hjalmarson, B. S. Hjalmarson's brother, graduate from the U in 1918, was the engineer in charge of the Los Angeles aquaduct - at 252 miles long the largest in the world. He is now an army engineer in charge of fortifications in Panama.
Among the lawyers we find the Snowfield brothers, the Bergmann brothers, The Skulason’s, the late Dan Laxdal, Magnús Brynjólfsson, and others.
In the line of medicine we find Dr. Brandson of Winnipeg, Dr. Eymundson of San Francisco, the late Dr. Gislason of Grand Forks, and others. As for nurses, we could name them by the score, and our ministers, too, are many: the Thorlaksons, Olafson, Bergmann, Peterson, Sigurdson, Bjarnason, and others.
Agricultural experts we claim include the Thorfinnson brothers, the Sturlaugsons, Peter Olafson, and Thorsteinn Kristjanson.
These are but a few of the those who have won recognition. We have likewise had in our midst unhonored heroes who have benefited humanity, as, for example, our homeopaths, Drs. Jónasson and Sveinsson, who were ever ready, day or night, to administer to the needy, never too busy for deeds of mercy.
In closing, may I quote Mr. Benson’s words, delivered when this Icelandic settlement celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1928.
“But as we look back and view the work that they, the pioneers, have wrought among us, what is it that we of the younger generation have inherited above everything else from these pioneers. To my mind the greatest legacy, the finest heritage, that has been passed on by these splendid pioneers to the present generation is that of unsullied character. You ask “What is character?” A man's reputation is what people say he is, his character is what he himself really is. Character is honesty, character is the divine spark of God in the human soul.”
Let us strive to preserve that heritage so it may pass on to future generations.
Quoting Mrs. Olafson in her history of Akra: “These people worked and sacrificed and laid the foundation to this commonwealth that made the country. We are enjoying the fruits of their sacrifice. Shall we let their memory fall into forgetfullness?”
The soldier has his shrine, the pioneer none.
The above was written by Miss Kristjanson, a long-time local schoolteacher, likely in the late 1940's, on behalf of the Pioneer Daughters and is reproduced from their archives. In fact, it sounds much like a justification for the memorial which the Pioneer Daughters later placed at the site of the altar of the church in Mountain after the church was moved to its present location. Kristbjörg was the daughter of pioneer homesteaders Kristján Gunnlaugur Kristjánsson and Svanfrídur Jónsdóttir, who both died in 1953, Kristján at age 102 and Svanfrídur at age 97. The extended family included many families in the area, among them (in addition to the large Kristjánsson clan) the Stefánsson, Jóhannesson, and Einarsson families. Though Kristbjörg is not available to grant permission to use her words, I feel confident she would be proud to know there are still many of us who read them with pride over 50 years later. The text is reproduced almost exactly as written, with some minor editorial changes and some additions enclosed in [ ].
Although Kristbjörg is (see above) allotted credit for this essay, it would be unfair to omit the fact that much of it was simply the result of translating from Icelandic to English existing and well-known accounts of the history of the settlement. Unfortunately, although the gist of the account is correct, there are a more than sufficient number of factual errors. As such, the account is not reliable as a valid source. For example, the first post office at Hallson was actually named Coulee and the first postmaster was NOT Jóhann Pétur Hallsson, who is thought to have been the third postmaster there. And although Hallsson was the first to have a cabin built, it was he and several others, not just himself, that constructed it.
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