History Is All Around...


Icelandic River Roast Coffee

PDF Print E-mail

Sigtryggur Jónasson & Framfari

A Talk Given by Nelson Gerrard at ‘A Literary Lunch’, Riverton, Oct. 22, 2006


Yesterday marked the 131st anniversary of the arrival of the first Icelandic settlers at Willow Island. Instead of a “walk to the rock” to mark this occasion, however, I took a walk in the woods and through the old pioneer cemetery near my home at Eyrarbakki, near Hnausa. The day was cold, both the sky and lake had turned a leaden grey, and it began to snow. I thought back to those intrepid pioneers of 1875… and to those who followed in 1876… including my own great-great-grandparents… and I considered their remarkable achievement in launching the newspaper Framfari, in a log printshop here in Riverton, 129 years ago while they were struggling to get established in what was then virtual wilderness.

I also thought about Sigtryggur Jónasson – and a remarkable fact occurred to me: that had it not been for the life and work of Sigtryggur Jónasson, not only would there have been no Framfari, there would have been no New Iceland… and in the great scheme of things, none of us here today would exist. History would have taken a different course and everything would have unfolded differently in both Iceland and Canada…

This event has been billed “a literary lunch”… but what, you might well ask, does literature have to do with the topic of Sigtryggur Jónasson and Framfari? While Sigtryggur was certainly a literate man who had an appreciation for literature, he was no poet… Quite the opposite, he was a realist… Perhaps the answer to the question –“What does one have to do with the other?” - lies in the word inspiration… Even pragmatic realists find inspiration in literature, and there is little doubt that Sigtryggur’s life and career were strongly influenced by a background of both literacy and literature…

It has sometimes been suggested that Iceland’s literary heritage, its sagas and poetic tradition, is nothing short of a miracle considering the centuries of dire hardship endured by our ancestors. How could they possibly have time for poetry and stories… when their very survival was so often at stake?

BadstofaThis “miracle” is more easily understood when we realize that literature in traditional Icelandic society was not a luxury, not a frill, not just a diversion for an elite few. Nor was literature simply a form of entertainment – to while away long winter nights...

Literature in Icelandic society was an integral part of life.... Our forebears lived their literature… and lived by their literature. It brought them solace, understanding, awareness, empathy. It demonstrated and taught both virtues and vices, admirable and dishonorable conduct. It shaped attitudes and influenced personal responses. It affected the course of daily life… and it had the power to inspire dreams and achievements.

BakkiIt is against this backdrop of literature and literacy that we see young Sigtryggur Jónasson, a farm boy with no formal education, become a bold young entrepreneur in a foreign land, a visionary among his countrymen, a key figure in the establishment of New Iceland, and the driving force behind the founding of the newspaper Framfari. There can be no doubt that he was inspired by ideas beyond his own experience, by literature and other writing, and in turn his story is certainly an inspiration for us today…

Born at Bakki in Öxnadalur in Northern Iceland in 1852 – 154 years ago – Sigtryggur grew up in an isolated farm home that was materially poor, but wealthy in books, intellect, and spirit. His father, Jonas Sigurdsson, was a crofter in the valley of Oxnadalur, the son of a modest farmer-poet, closely related to poet laureate and naturalist Jonas Hallgrimsson. Literacy and literature were both of a relatively high order in this home, and there can be no doubt that young Sigtryggur’s outlook on the world was shaped by the exceptional home schooling provided by his parents, including studies in character from the pages of the sagas.

HraundrangarThe confines of the valley where Sigtryggur grew up were narrow, but his upbringing was not. The family home was on a major thoroughfare – still the only road between Southern and Northern Iceland – and at the edge of the heath – so there were many visitors and overnight guests… from all walks of life… As an indication of the atmosphere in the family home, a poem entitled “Jónas i Bakkaseli”, by Jón Stefánsson, makes reference to the exceptional hospitality extended equally to all – bishop or pauper. The poem also alludes to the intelligent, sociable, and witty personality of Sigtryggur’s father.

Young Sigtryggur’s horizons began expanding rapidly when at 12 years of age he went to live on the estate of Möðruvellir… with the family of Governor Pétur Havstein, first as the Governor’s groom, then as his clerk and assistant. At Modruvellir, Sigtryggur acquired a wider education, including lessons in English from the Governor’s daughter, and as an indication of the cultural atmosphere at Möðruvellir, Sigtryggur’s boyhood friends there included Jón Sveinsson, later the well-known children’s author “Nonni”, and Hannes Havstein, the Governor’s son who became one of Iceland’s major poets and statesmen. In this home Sigtryggur also developed close personal ties with Tryggvi Gunnarsson, later one of Iceland’s leading entrepreneurs, and members of the Briem family – including Rannveig Ólafsdottir Briem, who would become his wife.

1872In his work with Governor Havstein, Sigtryggur gained insight into a variety of new areas – including politics – but the narrow political climate in Iceland at that time did not limit the widening awareness and perspective of the young Sigtryggur… who not unlike the “young guns” of contemporary Iceland, saw beyond the confines of his home valley, and even beyond his homeland – to a world of infinite possibilities… Ultimately, however, it was disillusionment with Iceland’s root-bound political system that prompted him to emigrate as a young man of 20 in 1872. He did so on his own…

That so many of Icelandic descent call Canada home today is undoubtedly a direct result of the conscious decision made by Sigtryggur en route to America in 1872. From knowledge he had already gained of both the British and American political systems, he had decided that he preferred British government and society, and a conversation with a fellow passenger, a Scottish settler from Ontario, clinched the matter. He chose Canada – Ontario at first…

His decision, of course, was a personal one, and he never foresaw or sought a position of leadership among his countrymen who would follow. His first task was to make his own way in his new surroundings, improving his knowledge of English and finding work. His first job was with the Ontario Car Company in London, a manufacturer of carriages and wagons, but his entrepreneurial skills soon became evident when he contracted with the New York Central Railway as a supplier of oak railway ties.

It was in part Sigtryggur’s knowledge of English and his experience in the new land that lead to his involvement in the search for an Icelandic settlement site, first in Ontario… following the arrival of groups of his countrymen there in 1873 and 1874… His natural leadership skills also won him the trust of his countrymen and others. An indication of the impression he made is found in a letter written by Björn Pétursson, later of Sandy Bar. “The longer I know Sigtryggur, the more impressed I am with him. He is an especially intelligent and cautious man.”

Neither was there anything narrow or parochial about Sigtryggur’s understanding of Canadian society… or his new obligations as an immigrant aspiring to the rights and privileges of a British subject in the Dominion of Canada. He demonstrated his worthiness and found himself welcome in Canada, and reciprocated with respect and loyalty. He was therefore a good candidate for leadership in his countrymen’s dealings with authorities in both the Ontario and Dominion governments.

SigtryggurRannveigThus Sigtryggur found himself chosen by his countrymen at Kinmount in 1875, as one of the scouts appointed to choose a suitable site for Icelandic settlement in Manitoba. Through the goodwill, connections, and support of John Taylor, the backing of the Dominion Government in Ottawa had been secured for this venture, and additional support was forthcoming once the Lake Winnipeg site had been selected - both in securing this tract of land as an Icelandic Reserve, and in the form of major financial assistance to transport the Icelanders west and get them established in the new settlement. Much of this initial support, which amounted to more than $65,000.00, was in the form of a loan from the Government of Canada.

Those staking their personal honour on the success of this venture included not only the kindly and good-willed John Taylor, but Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada. Also responsible for the venture and the repayment of the loan were those elected to positions of leadership in the settlement. Most prominent among these was Sigtryggur Jonasson, who became the settlement’s first head of council, or “governor”. In the fall of 1875, however, while the first group headed west from Ontario, he took on the responsibility of returning to Iceland to guide large numbers of his countrymen who had decided to emigrate following the eruption of the volcano Askja.

NewIcelandNew Iceland was indeed a bold experiment within the framework of the Dominion of Canada… though a similar arrangement had previously been made with Mennonite settlers in Manitoba. With the Riel Uprising of 1869 still fresh in the minds of Canadian leaders, however, certainly Ottawa never entertained the concept of a foreign political state within its bosom – as mistakenly implied by references to New Iceland as a “republic” - and neither were New Iceland’s leaders under any illusions in this regard. New Iceland was, instead, a cultural enclave in a virtual territory or Local Government District – within Canada from its inception, and though a constitution of local by-laws was drawn up, New Iceland was under the direct jurisdiction of Ottawa - duty bound and legally responsible to the Dominion Government.

The vision of Sigtryggur and other leaders such as Friðjón Friðriksson and John Taylor was clear in such matters, and remained unwavering despite severe initial setbacks in New Iceland – including the terrible smallpox epidemic of the winter of 1876-77. The venture must succeed, and every effort was directed at bringing about progress so that the settlers could become self-sufficient. Regular communication within the settlement and with the outside world was vital, and for this a newspaper was needed. In January of 1877, as soon as the smallpox abated, a meeting to organize a newspaper was held.

FramfariThe publication of Framfari at Riverton from September 10. 1877 to April 10, 1880 stands as one of the crowning achievements of Icelandic immigrants in North America – and in particular of those who had the vision and resourcefulness to make it happen. All shareholders and subscribers contributed to this accomplishment, but the ledger of the Prentfelag Nyja Islands – the Printing Company of New Iceland - reveals that most of the financial backing came from two men: Sigtryggur Jonasson and John Taylor, who bought 10 and 20 shares respectively, at $10 a share. Of 105 shares pledged, 78 were paid in full, including one in Iceland, one in Milwaukee, one in Chicago, and one in Lyon County, Minnesota – raising a total of $892.75. Through Rev. Jon Bjarnason, then still in Minneapolis, a printing press and miscellaneous equipment were purchased there at a cost of $313.81. Board members of the printing company were Sigtryggur Jonasson, Johann Briem, and Fridjon Fridriksson. The printer was Jonas Jonasson, Sigtryggur’s brother, and Sigtryggur edited the first eight issues, pending the arrival of editor Halldor Briem.

Subscriptions to Framfari cost $1.50 per year in New Iceland and $1.75 elsewhere. Subscribers included 39 in Iceland, 8 in England, 1 in France, 2 in Norway, as well as several in Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. Some 90 subscribers lived in New Iceland. Numbers varied from year to year, but at one time 589 copies of Framfari were being printed.

The year 1877 was a proud one for New Iceland. The smallpox quarantine was lifted, building and land clearing resumed, Lord Dufferin visited the settlement and praised the settlers for their progress, and Framfari made its debut. At Icelandic River, a school was established in Sigtryggur’s home at Möðruvellir, which also served as editorial office and a sort of Government House for New Iceland.

Unfortunately, New Iceland was dealt three severe blows when it could least withstand them: first, the smallpox epidemic devastated some families, brought suffering to all, and paralyzed progress in the settlement; second, religious dissension divided the settlement and created hostile factions; and third, abnormally wet weather crippled agriculture in its infancy, brought hordes of mosquitoes, and swelled the lake’s waters to flood levels. None of these misfortunes was foreseeable. The cumulative effects were devastating.

Sigt72Throughout all of this, through the pages of Framfari the leadership of New Iceland strove to inform the readership, educate the settlers in agricultural methods, foster a progressive attitude, and inspire loyalty. Unfortunately Framfari also became a medium for dissension and a source of contention, first over religion, and subsequently over the issue of abandoning the settlement. Considerable numbers were planning to pull up stakes and cross the border to Dakota Territory, and some felt entitled to take with them the cattle, stoves, and equipment paid for by the Canadian Government. This not only undermined the future of New Iceland, in which so much had been invested on behalf of the settlers, it raised ethical issues that called into question the integrity and reliability of the Icelandic people. Needless to say, this defection was both disappointing and humiliating to those who had worked so hard to establish the settlement, and who had staked their honour on its success. Sigtryggur, frustrated by what he viewed as counterproductive insubordination, did not suffer fools gladly. Framfari now reminded defectors of their obligations.

It is ironic how short memory can be and how fickle the minds of men. In April of 1879, the same Björn Pétursson who had praised Sigtryggur for his intelligence and character not long before, wrote, “Now poor Sigtryggur is having a difficult time with the settlement. It looks as if it will disintegrate in his hands, and few are ready to rise to his defense …” As so often, when benefits were abundant, support was widespread. Now, that the time had come to stand independently, many were quick to find fault…

Despite valiant efforts, it seemed that New Iceland would indeed disintegrate. Between 1879 and 1881, large numbers defected to Dakota Territory and elsewhere, leaving most of North and South Árnes, and the area from Boundary to Willow Creek all but abandoned. Only at Icelandic River did a core population remain, with pockets of loyalists on Hecla Island, in Breiðavík, and near Gimli. The dream of New Iceland, it seemed, had ended, and with it, Framfari, the last regular issue of which was printed in January of 1880.

FridjonAnd there the story would have ended, had it not been for an initiative already in progress… in the form of economic activity that would ultimately save New Iceland. If Sigtryggur Jónasson had not already earned the honorary title “Father of New Iceland”, he did so now, together with his friend, supporter, and business partner Friðjón Friðriksson.

Just as the settlement was at the point of losing the critical mass it needed to survive, these partners established a major logging, sawmill, and shipping operation at Icelandic River. The employment and activity generated by this venture, including regular sailings to Selkirk and the construction of a sawmill and two large barges, stabilized the population and warded off the total collapse of New Iceland. Within two years, new settlers began to arrive from Iceland, to occupy abandoned homesteads, and within 10 years there were 273 settlers in New Iceland.

Sig1925Though Sigtryggur’s business ventures eventually took him elsewhere, he continued to work for the welfare of New Iceland – both as editor of Logberg, and as the first Icelandic Member of the Manitoba Legislature. Using his influence and personal connections, he worked tirelessly to have the railway extended to Gimli in 1906, to Arborg in 1910, and to Riverton 1914. As homestead inspector for many years, he gave individual assistance to many settlers in a variety of ways, and it was his greatest satisfaction to see New Iceland finally thrive – with successful farms, grainfields, fishing and logging activity, roads, villages, schools, churches, and new generations of healthy and happy young people to take the place of the aging immigrants.

In 1928 Sigtryggur was invited to speak at an Icelandic Celebration held in Riverton. The scene must have given him great satisfaction. As reported in the pages of Lögberg, “…A huge crowd was gathered from all directions – certainly no fewer than 1500 people – and wherever one looked, whether around the stage or across the playing field, the eye beheld a beautiful sight: happiness and courteous conduct; handsome people, young and old, bearing the characteristics of their forefathers; and the idyllic, productive countryside all around…”

SigThrough his 70 years in Canada, Sigtryggur never forgot Iceland or the welfare of the Icelandic people – indeed his parents, a brother and two sisters, and numerous close relatives remained there. He made several trips to his homeland, and in 1894 he put before the Althing a major proposal for improving transportation both within Iceland and with Europe. Known as “Stóra Málið”, The Big Deal, this venture involved a major investment of foreign capital to build a railway in Southern Iceland, construct telegraph lines, initiate regular sailings around the country and shipping abroad, and even introduce refrigeration technology so that fresh fish could be transported to Britain. This comprehensive plan even anticipated the Icelandic tourist industry.

Unfortunately this proposal was stymied by conservative opposition and a “catch 22” situation surrounding the approval and investment - and the Icelandic nation would have to wait almost 20 more years before Eimskip, the Icelandic Steamship Company, was founded to achieve much the same goal. Sigtryggur’s last visit to Iceland was in 1930, on the occasion of the Millenium of Iceland’s Althing, at which he represented the Canadian Government.

Sig90Having returned to New Iceland in 1910, Sigtryggur lived his later life in quiet but active retirement, both at Arborg and in Riverton, among other things editing the periodical Syrpa and reviewing material for a long-awaited history of New Iceland that he considered writing. He died in 1942, at the age of 90, and is interred in the Riverton Cemetery – in the heart of his beloved New Iceland. His dream, however, is still alive, and his life continues to influence our lives…

Framfari, like New Iceland, rose from the ashes… first in the form of the newspaper Leifur, printed in Winnipeg on the same press, then as Heimskringla and Lögberg, rival weeklies that eventually amalgamated in 1959 and continue the tradition 129 years later.

What meaning does all of this have for us today? The true legacy of pioneers such as Sigtryggur Jónasson and achievements like Framfari is… inspiration. Just as those weaned on the Icelandic sagas found… and continue to find… inspiration in that literature, there is much in the sagas of our Canadian pioneers – courage, imagination, initiative, endurance, honour, wisdom, diligence - to inspire us in our daily lives...

Along with this legacy come both the privilege of celebrating it and an obligation to preserve it… The activities of this “Weekend in New Iceland” are a good example of both celebration and commemoration, as are the Riverton Transportation Museum, the Heritage Village at Arborg, and the New Iceland Heritage Museum at Gimli – but there is more we can and must do…

Consider, for example, the need to recognize and preserve many of our local historic sites, such as the pioneer cemeteries at Sandy Bar and Nes. Just a few years ago, individual initiative resulted in the construction of monuments at Arnheidarstaðir in Geysir and Kirkjuból on Hecla Island. I can visualize beautiful parks and monuments at Sandy Bar and Nes as well, and annual ceremonies to commemorate the pioneers, similar to the one held each Oct. 21st on Willow Island. Imagine too a life size bronze statue of Sigtryggur Jonasson, looking out across the Icelandic River…

There is talk of forming an Icelandic River Chapter of the INL at Riverton – a step in the right direction – and today will mark the first meeting of an Icelandic River Historic Sites committee, to begin working toward the recognition and preservation of historic sites in our area. Considering the obstacles our pioneers surmounted in spite of limited means and technology, we should be able to accomplish whatever we decide to undertake.

This is the legacy of our pioneers… I think Sigtryggur would approve…