Westward ho! – misfortune is turned into a New World success story

by Bruce Cherney

Manitobans are well aware how quickly the weather can change for the worse in the fall, something that was made all too evident this week. 

Historically, autumn’s icy blast played a major role in altering the settlement plans for one of two major immigrant groups that arrived en masse in the years 1874 and 1875. They were the trailblazers for the tens of thousands of immigrants that would follow, proving to the rest of the world the viability of settling Canada’s West.

The Mennonites were the first, arriving in 1874. They paved the way for the second group from Iceland, who came to Manitoba after a brief and disappointing sojourn in Eastern Canada.

“The individuals composing the party seem to be composed of exactly the right sort of stuff, physically, for pioneer life,” the Manitoba Free Press of August 8, 1874, said days after the first contingent of Mennonites stepped off the steamer International at Winnipeg, “and this taken in connection with the well-known frugal habits and thriftiness of the Germans, ensure their prosperity here.”

Indeed, the Mennonites, who were promised land, the freedom to practice their own brand of the Christian faith and exemption from military service, proved to be the “right sort of stuff,” thriving as farmers in southern Manitoba while building strong and prosperous communities such as Steinbach.

But, the original inhabitants of the province at first regarded the Mennonites with suspicion.

“An idea has got abroad that a foreign immigration, or in other words an influx of people not speaking the English language, is not desirable here ...,” according to a report in the Free Press.

Fortunately for those who followed, the German-speaking Mennonites’ ability to quickly adapt to a strange land would ease any qualms Manitobans had about “foreigners” not being the right sort of people for the young province.

The Mennonite experience subsequently made it easier to accept non-English-speaking Icelanders as immigrants.

Like the Mennonites before them, the Icelandic settlers had sent a small party to Manitoba to investigate the province’s potential. But unlike the Mennonites, the Icelanders would be more hasty in arriving at their decision. Exploration of the Icelanders’ potential new home to actual settlement occurred in the space of just three months, from mid-summer to late-fall 1875, while it took over a year for the Mennonites to decide to abandon Russia and establish themselves in Manitoba.

Another difference between the two immigrant groups was that a small party of Icelanders had already briefly  been in Canada, though in the East, which still ill-prepared them for what they were about to endure hundreds of kilometres to the west in the heart of the North American continent.

Small groups of Icelanders had settled in Ontario and Nova Scotia in 1873 and 1874, while others had made their way to the United States. When 375 Icelanders arrived in Canada aboard the St. Patrick in 1874, they were pursued to join those who had already settled in Kinmount, Ontario. Although some men found employment in railway construction, the land they received proved to be too poor for them to pursue their traditional occupation of farming. A financial crisis put a stop to railway employment and the disheartened settlers began to look elsewhere to establish a settlement.

Before arriving in Manitoba, the Icelanders actually underwent a series of setbacks that began in their homeland.

The Free Press reprinted a story on August 14, 1875, from the Icelandic weekly paper Nordanfari, telling of earthquakes frequently occurring during the past Christmas and New Year in the eastern portion of Iceland. And then, “early in the morning of the 29th March, a great noise was heard like the rolling of distant thunder in the west ... About 9 a.m. particles of whitish grey pumice began to rain down from the sky (from Mount Askja),” added the article.

It would have seemed to the Icelanders that the old Norse gods worshiped by their ancestors had been reawakened, and that Thor was once again striking mighty blows with his magical hammer, creating lightning (common during volcanic eruptions) that made “deafening reports of artillery across the sky.”

Molten lava also flowed from fissures in the Lake Myvatn Wastes. During the dark hue of evening, it looked like one enormous glowing inferno, although the lava was actually spewing forth from 40 individual rips in the earth’s surface. Other fissures opened up in the Odathahraun Wastes to the south of Myvatn. But the most spectacular volcanic display occurred when Mount Askja erupted for a second time on Easter Monday. 

By July 1, The Times of London was reporting the presence of famine brought on by the volcanic eruption, which was “in character and extent almost identical to an eruption that had occurred two years earlier and killed 14,000 (out of population of 150,000) people (this eruption convinced the first Icelanders to come to North America)...

“A large number of the most prosperous country districts in the island were laid waste in the course of four hours last Easter Monday by being covered with ... pumice and volcanic ashes. The inhabitants have had to fly for life, with their stock, into districts not yet affected.”

Eirik Magnusson, the author of The Times article, an Icelander who was then a sub-librarian at University College, Cambridge, England, said he received letters from his homeland that said thousands of square kilometres of pasture had been destroyed and sheep, cattle and horses, which relied upon this fodder, began to starve.

The calamities they faced in their homeland would cause Icelanders to rediscover their wanderlust and a desire to establish themselves for the second time in Canada. It was the Norse from Iceland who had settled briefly at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, almost 500 years before Columbus had “sailed the ocean blue.” 

The Manitoba Free Press wrote after the widespread eruptions that: “Every humane feeling and every hearty sympathy should be aroused among us, to assist to remove speedily from their now overcrowded island, and a hearty welcome should be extended to them to settle among us and help to occupy our vast but now useless territory.”

The first eruption in 1873  was the initial catalyst for immigration to Canada, but the final impetus was the eruptions during the winter of 1874-75.

Because of their hardships in Ontario, the Icelanders petitioned the Canadian government for a better location for a settlement. At first Ottawa paid little attention, but Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin, who had earlier been to Iceland, intervened and convinced the Canadian government they would made good settlers in the West.

“By means of a friend (John Taylor, a Methodist priest) who had taken a lively interest in their welfare from their first coming to the backwoods of Ontario ... the plan was proposed of forming a large settlement in Manitoba,” reported the Free Press.

Taylor convinced the federal government to provide assistance to the Icelanders for their quest to find a “New Iceland” in the West.

The first step was to send a delegation to Manitoba to investigate potential sites for the colony. This group was headed by Taylor, who by this time had become a federal agent, and Icelanders Sigtryggur Jonasson, who came to be known as the “Father of New Iceland,” and Einar Jonasson from Kinmount, as well as Skafti Arason, Kristjan Jonsson and Sigurdur Kristofferson, who were representing other Icelandic settlements in Ontario and the United States.

The movements and findings of the delegation were extensively reported in Winnipeg newspapers. The Free Press published a lengthy August 14 article about their journey north from Winnipeg.

Upon arriving in Winnipeg, the delegation conferred with Crown lands agent Donald Codd on what was available. The advice they received indicated their best land prospects were along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Since some of the Icelanders in their homeland had earned a living from the ocean, settling along an inland sea had great appeal. 

The group left the Hudson Bay Company’s Upper Fort Garry on July 20 and reached the the company’s administrative centre at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) on the same night where they were provided with a mast, rigging, sail, tarpaulin, tow-line and other items for their York boat obtained from the HBC in Winnipeg.

A July 20, 1875, letter to the Free Press complained that the hospitality afforded the Icelanders was inadequate and that the Americans had a better record for welcoming potential settlers.

“Here is an immigration of 30,000 people going begging and this flourishing Province and City cannot afford even courting the delegation,” wrote the individual who signed himself as Senex. “They should have been shown the country around lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg in ordinary comfort and under intelligent guidance. If our economical City and Provincial Governments have no finances for such purposes a subscription could have been raised from citizens.”

The Free Press editor answered the criticism by pointing out that the HBC had provided the Icelanders with a boat, men and supplies, “and they feel well pleased at the attention they are now receiving.” Still, the editor felt the Canadian government could have provided better assistance and “should have taken them in tow in the same manner that they did the Mennonites.”

In Selkirk, the delegation met Dr. John Schultz, the Manitoba MP and businessman most noted for his clashes with Louis Riel during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70. Schultz had acquired for the Icelanders the services of Metis guide Monkman, who was widely known as the best man to be found for the exploration of the lake and its environs.

The group reached the mouth of the Red on July 23 at 9 a.m. The Icelanders marvelled at what lay before them — a vast and now tranquil Lake Winnipeg which had just the day earlier been whipped into a frenzy by strong autumn winds.

“It was with a sense of regained freedom we looked out on the noble expanse of water ...,” Taylor wrote in his notes made during the journey. These notes would provide the framework for the delegation’s subsequent report to the Canadian government and the Icelanders waiting in the East.

The delegations were equally impressed by the craft they met as they entered the lake, including a schooner under sail from Fort Alexander and two large boats taking a more easterly channel of the Red into the lake.

“In this wonderful land of progress, who can tell how soon this river mouth may be bristling with the many masts of lake-going vessels,” mused Taylor, “laden with rich products from the far-off plains of the mighty Saskatchewan and other parts. Shall the trading craft of our Icelanders be among them?”

The delegation sailed “close enough (to the west coast of the lake) ... to enable us to verify the statements of our guide. A white sandy beach without a rock to be seen marked the shore nearly all the way to Willow Island.”

The delegation journeyed as far north as the Big Island (modern-day Hecla Island), and then returned south to explore the Icelandic River region.

“We had set our minds upon this place (Icelandic River) before leaving Fort Garry, and few can understand the deep interest we felt as we proceeded up ... The country was exactly what we wanted,” wrote Taylor.

At the time, the expanse of land selected for a new settlement was actually just outside Manitoba’s northern border which ended at Boundary Creek near present-day Winnipeg Beach. The future New Iceland was in the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories which fell under the jurisdiction of the Canadian government.

 In thanks to having found the heart of New Iceland along the Icelandic River, the group held a Sabbath service. Taylor quoted Monkman as saying after they sang the hymn O God of Bethel that: “A settlement thus begun cannot fail to be blessing to this country. Every Indian for miles round would have gladly been here today, had they known we were to have religious services.”

Although no original inhabitants were then in the area to hear the prayers of the delegation, like the Selkirk settlers who proceeded them decades earlier, the Icelanders would later benefit from the advice and aid offered by the First Nations people.

Taylor said the reasons for selecting the lake country as their new home were:

“1. Abscence of grasshoppers hitherto (at the time, grasshoppers had been a continual plague to the inhabitants of Manitoba).

“2. Good and easy access to the spot — railway and steamboat every step of the journey from Quebec (where immigrants would enter Canada).

“3. Excellent and abundant fishing.

“4. Extensive bay marshes everywhere scattered through the entire region.

“5. Superior quality of the land. Deep black soil resting on white clay.

“ 6. Abundance of timber for building (so much timber was an extraordinary sight for the Icelanders, whose homeland lacked forests), fencing, fuel and for commercial purposes.

“7. An extensive and well protected harbor.

“8. Facilities of intercourse with Fort Garry and the Red and Assiniboine rivers both north and south.”

Their explorations over, the delegation prepared their report which was completed on August 5, 1875. This report was later distributed in Iceland by the Canadian government to promote immigration from the island.

After the Icelanders accepted the report’s favourable findings, the Canadian government arranged for free transportation for any Icelanders wanting to resettle in Manitoba.

Although the season was late, a group of from 200 to 250 people decided to immediately go westward. Meanwhile, Sigtryggur Jonasson and Canadian government agent W.C. Kreiger went to Iceland to encourage further immigration to New Iceland, the name given to the new colony by the Icelanders.

The Kinmount group headed west on September 25, 1875. News of their progress was continually reported in Winnipeg newspapers which gleaned articles from communities along their route — from Kinmount by train to Sarnia, by steamboat on Lake Superior to Duluth where they were joined by a small group from Wisconsin, and by train to Fisher’s Landing where St. Paul and Pacific Railroad ended near the Manitoba-Minnesota border.

“The Icelanders that went down (the Red) on the last trip (of the navigation season) of the International are the best and neatest batch of emigrants that have gone down the river into Manitoba this season,” reported the Grand Forks Plaindealer on October 16, 1875.

Despite the continual news about the Icelanders, misconceptions still prevailed in Winnipeg.

When the International docked in Winnipeg, a crowd of curious onlookers jostled each other to get a first glimpse of the strangers from an alien land. Some even pushed their way onto the steamer hoping to satisfy their curiosity.

“Where are the Icelanders?” they shouted. “Show us the Icelanders!”

When Talyor pointed to a group of passengers on the boat, the onlookers were dumfounded.

“We know what Icelanders look like,” they asserted, “they’re short, about four feet in height, and heavy-set, with coal black hair — something like Eskimos! These are no Icelanders; they’re white men!”

Apparently some Winnipeggers came to believe that Icelanders were just another group of Inuit people from the Far North. What they didn’t seem to know was that the Icelanders were descendants of Viking seafarers who had arrived at the then unoccupied North Atlantic island in the ninth century.

“I met these people back east in Ontario shortly after they came from Iceland,” countered Taylor, exasperated by the crowd’s assertion. “No one there doubted that they were Icelanders, and I am here in the firm belief that they are just that. But, of course, you may believe what you like.”

On October 16, the Free Press reported that 285 Icelanders had arrived in Winnipeg. “They are a smart looking, intelligent, and excellent people, and are a most valuable acquisition to the population of our Province. Their Icelandic experience, supplemented with some experience with our mode of life, is quite sufficient to give them that peculiar off-hand manner of overcoming obstacles, and an energy of character, which will ensure their success here, and make their settlement, in a very few years, one of the best in the Province...”

On the bank of the Red opposite Notre Dame Avenue, Taylor and Stefan Eyolfsson looked northward as the Icelanders boarded barges which were to drift with the current down the river while kept in formation by an HBC York boat.

“It looks dark to the north,” said Eyolfsson.

“The sky is clear and I see no darkness, or is it that you’re having second thoughts?” asked Taylor of Eyolfsson. “If so, you still have the chance to remain behind as I have already advised both you and others ...”

Eyolfsson replied in the negative and boarded one of the four barges for the trip downriver. Despite periodically running aground, the flotilla reached the mouth of the Red after a day and night of travel.

It was during their trip down the Red that people had time to discuss their future settlement. Manitoba author Nelson S. Gerrard in his book Icelandic River Saga said that Olafur Olafsson suggested that the central community along the Icelandic River should be called Gimli (gim means fire and hle means ice, shelter in Icelandic), “... this name was taken from the ancient Norse poem Voluspa (Sybil’s Prophecy), in which Gimli is a ‘gold thatched hall’ and the home of all worthy men.”

Until the town of Gimli was incorporated into the RM of Gimli in 2002, its official motto was “Home of the Gods.” Still others translate Gimli as meaning “Heavenly Abode.”

At the mouth of the river, the Icelanders met up with the HBC steamer Colville which was to tow them to the Icelandic River. It was during this trip north on the lake that the Fates intervened. Snow began to fall, marking an early onset of winter. When the contrary winds halted their progress, the Colville’s captain refused to continue northward to their anticipated home.

A year later, the journey to New Iceland was told in Free Press which said that a “north-east wind got up a heavy swell against them which ultimately drove them to the west shore where they got some shelter, but were in some danger of being wrecked, They had however gained a good landing place ... After a night’s delay ... the wind had gone round to north-west and made smooth water for them. In the course of the day, however, the wind became strong against them, and it became necessary to use extraordinary efforts to gain harbor at Willow Island” on October 21 at 4:30 p.m. 

Willow Island, a few kilometres south of today’s Gimli, is not a true island but more like a peninsula jutting out into Lake Winnipeg. Little could the Icelanders have imagined that their place of landing would not be the much-anticipated Valhalla in the wilderness along the Icelandic River, but a near-barren spit of sandy land that offered virtually no shelter from biting winter winds. 

Knowing the precariousness of their situation, the Icelanders felt a wide well-treed bay just to the north of Willow Island was a better site to build their first homes. They firmly believed at the time that this location was only temporary until they could proceed in the spring to the Icelandic River. They were mistaken. Where they spent their first winter became the central community of New Iceland. Gimli’s present location along the wide bay was the result of bad luck rather than good planning.

The lateness in the season and the early onset of winter — Lake Winnipeg started to freeze over just after their arrival — took its toll; 35 died in the first winter, mostly the young and old from scurvy brought on by a poor diet. 

But amid the death came life with the birth of the settlement’s first baby, Jon Johannson, born in a buffalo-hide tent during a bitterly cold November day as snow swirled over his mother’s bed.

Johannson’s birth was an omen and a foothold was established in what would become known as the “Republic of New Iceland ” because of its unique system of constitutional government that governed the colony until the boundaries of Manitoba were expanded in 1881. New Iceland, known to the Canadian government as the Icelandic Reserve, because it had granted Icelanders exclusive right to settlement, would range from Boundary Creek in the south to Hecla Island in the north. 

Federal government agent Walter Moberly travelled to the “temporary” community that winter and reported in December 1875 that he found the Icelanders “comfortably” housed for the winter in about 30 “mudded log houses.” The fact that they were able to erect 30 cabins in such a short period of time was a feat unto itself. The Icelanders were also able to erect a log warehouse for goods purchased in Winnipeg and a combined house and general store.

Months later over 1,000 men, women and children would arrive directly from Iceland, the commencement of a mass migration from their homeland. This migration began the movement beyond Gimli and led to the founding of towns and villages such as Riverton, Arborg, Arnes and Hecla in New Iceland. The Icelanders also took up the maritime traditions they had inherited from their Norse forefathers and became the dominant commercial fishermen on Lake Winnipeg.