Why did the Icelanders leave their country? Iceland in the 18th century was a difficult place to live, even though material conditions had improved significantly. People lived in sodhouses, raised sheep, and did not have the opportunity to welcome commerce and industry.
Arctic conditions made life difficult and volcanic eruptions destroyed houses, blanketing huge areas with black ash, killing animals and starving people. The land had been settled for hundreds of years and the only way to be a land owner was to inherit it.
Most of the population were farm laborers who worked for others. The poorest didn't even have the chance to get married and raise a family because it was not "proper" for laborers to fill the earth with "weaklings".
It is easy to understand why people took the chance of a better life when agents from the the New World promised them their own land. Still, bad conditions at home are not the only reason for the immigration from Iceland; many established farmers and people, high in the society, also immigrated. Canada was not the first country to open their door to immigrants from Iceland.
Between 1855 and1871 a small number of Mormon converts moved to Utah in the United States, and roughly 40 people went to Brazil in the years 1863-1873. Difficult transportation prevented more people from going. In 1870 four young Icelanders moved to Wisconsin and their letters home encouraged many others to go the same way and try life in the New World.
Thanks to the effort of American and Canadian agents, positive news from earlier immigrants, and organized shipping to Canada through Scotland, the immigration snowballed. In the next few years many others left their home country to start a new life in the United States and Canada.
The New Country The dream was for Icelanders to found their own colony, a land where the Icelanders could stay together, speak their language, and keep their customs. This land was found in the district of Keewatin, north of the newly formed province of Manitoba.
New Iceland followed the shore of Lake Winnipeg from Winnipeg Beach to Icelandic River, about forty-two miles long and about eleven miles wide. There were many reasons to choose this land; the soil was good, there was enough wood for building and burning, game was plentiful, and the fishing was good to name a few. The lake was also a good means of transportation, in both summer and winter.
The First Years
The first group to arrive at New Iceland consisted of earlier immigrants who had tried to settle various other places in North America, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The thought of an all-Icelandic colony was tempting, and the opportunities in the east hadn't been what they had expected. A loan from the Canadian government made the moving possible. Still, the trip was long and difficult and when arriving in Winnipeg almost fifty people chose to stay behind. Others, full of spirit and hope, continued their journey to the dreamland, ready to face whatever nature would offer.
Bad weather made it impossible to go all the way to the original destination, Icelandic River, so the town of New Iceland was chosen in the bay north of Willow Point. This town was Gimli. Freezing cold and hunger made the first winter extremely difficult. Icelandic nets were put into the Canadian lake without much luck since the Icelanders were accustomed to fishing at sea.
Lake Winnipeg froze unusually early and none knew how to fish through ice. The game was not as easy prey as suspected. Owning guns was not enough and the inexperienced Icelanders lost most of the animals to experienced Aboriginals. The lack of hay resulted in a loss of cattle, and the colony was without milk for the first time in their lives. Only the rabbits and occasional fish caught kept the people alive.
People started to get sick of scurvy and other diseases. Approximately 35 lost their lives the first winter in New Iceland. Things got better when cattle came in the summer, as well as potatoes and flour from Winnipeg. The birds returned and were hunted, and wild berries and herbs added some variety to the diet of the colony. Still, the summer was difficult. It rained a lot and therefore it was difficult to hay. The flies attacked the few cows in the colonies and lack of knowledge resulted in a complete crop failure.
In the fall the so called 'big group' arrived, over one thousand Icelanders, tired after seven weeks travel. Cleanliness was deficient and Icelanders didn't know what to do in the suffocating summer heat of the prairie. The food was exotic and the water was not always healthy. All this, along with frost and cold houses in the fall weakened the strength of the Icelanders, making them more vulnerable to the horror that awaited them.
Smallpox started slowly but soon had spread all over New Iceland, putting the colony into complete isolation from the rest of the world. Total fatalities were just over one hundred. The spring came with hope. Haymaking went well and the harvest was good. More cows arrived to the colony and times looked brighter. Two difficult pioneer years were behind and the future looked promising.
A school had been established, also a newspaper, a government and laws had been set for the Republic of New Iceland. Two pastors arrived, splitting the colony in two religious groups. Still, the years to come were not going be a dance on roses, and some people decided on a new start in another part of the country. Others stayed behind and continued the battle for life in their new home.
Getting Used to a Life in a New Country More people came from Iceland and the colony grew. Icelandic settlements were formed in Alberta and Dakota, and Icelanders can be found in most areas of North America. Immigrants learned to handle the ax, how to prepare the soil, fish through ice, and hunt game. They learned how to dry the land, build better houses, make better life.
From 1875 to 1887 New Iceland was completely independent, without any interventions from the Canadian government, although the colony had officially become a part of the Province of Manitoba in 1881.
Until 1897 only Icelanders were allowed to settle in New Iceland and Icelandic was spoken. The colony changed when it became a part of Canada. English grew in frequency, the children got better educations, and gradually New Iceland changed from an Icelandic colony to a Canadian community.
Still, many things have been kept the same amongst the Icelandic Canadians. Old superstitions are honoured by belief in the ghosts of Thorgeirsboli and Mori and by keeping the faith of the three waves, the three sisters.
The old month of thorri is celebrated by eating the old Icelandic food when they can get it: slatur, sheephead, shark, smoked lamb and meat pickled in sour whey. They bake Icelandic pancakes and vinarterta. The old sagas are still read, and Icelandic literature when it is available. Amazingly, many can still speak and understand Icelandic, though fewer can read or write the language.
Source: Icelandic Canadian Homepage, University of Manitoba