It’s serendipity

Researching articles for the Heritage Highlights section of our newspaper is fascinating, entertaining and sometimes downright amusing. The uncovered historical information from many different sources is frequently of the eye-opening “I didn’t know that” category. 

Day after day I’m transported to a state of wonderment by what I can learn by pouring through old newspapers, books, letters and articles and what can be discovered by talking to people who have either experienced an historical event firsthand or have extensively studied a particular subject from the past. 

Historical research does have its periods of frustration and occasional lapses into boredom, especially when trying to verify some detail that involves the onerous task of back-checking sources. But sometimes there are pleasant surprises while engaged in the minutiae of verification.

Serendipitous revelation is a portion of any research. I had such an experience while talking to Manitoba author Nelson Gerrard, who specializes in the history of Icelandic settlements in North America, especially the Interlake. Gerrard, originally from Neepawa and now living north of Gimli, is a gold mine of information and possesses one invaluable ability that is paramount to his research and writing — he’s able to speak Icelandic. 

It’s his knowledge of Gimli history that prompted me to give him a call while researching this week’s Heritage Highlights article. I already had a wealth of information from many sources, but I wondered if he had something on hand that would add to the narrative.

I wanted to use Gimli as an example of the difficulties encountered by many Manitoba communities around the turn of the 20th century when their residents tried to convince governments and railway companies that their villages and towns warranted a connection to the outside world. Gimli provided a prime example of government promises and Canadian Pacific Railway interference that had taken almost 30 years to resolve. Gerrard was intrigued and promised to get back to me after looking through some old Icelandic-language newspapers published in Manitoba. 

It didn’t take long for Gerrard to call back. He read from an August 16, 1905, article in the Logberg which discussed the process of obtaining a promise from the CPR to build the railway.

By way of introduction, Gerrard explained how it had devolved into a political issue, reflecting the party allegiances of the two publishers of the major Icelandic-language newspapers in Manitoba. Baldwin Larus Baldwinson published the Heimskringla, a newspaper favouring the Conservative Party, while Sygtryggur Jonasson, published the Logberg, a newspaper with a Liberal Party leaning. Today, the two have lost their political affiliations and are merged into the Logberg-Heimskringla, a Winnipeg-based newspaper that publishes English articles and contains lessons in Icelandic.

“Do you speak Icelandic?” asked Gerrard.

“No,” I replied. I may have been born and raised in Gimli, but my parents didn’t share a common ethnic heritage and they only spoke English at home.

He then said he would attempt a running translation of the lengthy Logberg article. He started off by reading the names of the railway committee members representing Gimli during the negotiations with governments and the CPR. One  of the names he mentioned caught my ear — G.M. Thompson. Surprise! I knew that was my great-grandfather, Gisli Magnus Thompson.

But what really floored me was hearing Gerrard read out the name of the author at the end of the article. It was an article by none other than G.M. Thompson. 

I had known that my great-grandfather was an author of some note in Gimli, but I had never actually encountered anything — translated or otherwise — he had written. 

According to family tradition, related by my mother and told to her by her aunts (his daughters), her grandfather died at the relatively young age of 45 after catching pneumonia while returning from northern Manitoba. He had been reporting on the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway in 1908. His untimely death meant that his six children and wife Monica were left to run the family homestead at Krossi (English: The Crossing), just two kilometres north of Gimli and now the site of a golf course.

Understanding the role he played in the community before his death, it really shouldn’t have surprised me that he was deeply involved in the railway question. Besides having brought the first printing press to Gimli in 1891, he had published three periodicals, all in Icelandic, and had been the Reeve of the Municipality of Gimli in 1896.

Of course, Thompson was an anglicized version of his original last name of Thomasson, and provided an indication of how quickly the Icelanders were adopting to their new Canadian environment. 

What is strange and confusing to us today is that Thomasson was not even the last name of his father — he was Thomas Jonsson — who brought his family to Canada in 1884. In Icelandic tradition, sons and daughters adopt the first name of their father as the initial portion of their last name. In G.M.’s case, his last name became Thomasson (son of Thomas). Icelandic daughters had dottir  attached to the end of the father’s first name (daughter of —). The Icelandic tradition ended with G.M. who later began using the last name Thompson. 

When enlisting in the Canadian Expedition Force during the First World War, G.M.’s son Peter had his surname listed as “Thomson” in his attestation (enlistment) paper, but he determinedly signed his last name twice as Thompson. There may have been some confusion between the Winnipeg-based army recruiters and Peter, although my mother assured me that, besides a command of Icelandic, her father fluently spoke and could read and write English. It was the recruiters who made the mistake, she asserted.

My conversation with Gerrard reinforced a fact of historical research; you’re often pleasantly surprised by what you dig up. If I hadn’t been engaged in an article on the construction of the Gimli branch line, I would never have discovered through Gerrard a piece written by my great-grandfather — serendipity!