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THE ICELANDIC CANADIAN

Autumn 1979

The Author
Gudbjorg Bertha Johnson was born and grew up in the Swan River Valley. There she received her elementary and high school educa­tion, then attended Normal School to re­ceive a Manitoba First Class teacher's certifi­cate. She taught both in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and attended the University of Saskatchewan to acquire a Standard Certificate in that province.
Her husband was Bodvar Johnson. He was born and grew up near Lundar, Manitoba, where he fished on Lake Manitoba and played violin in a dance orchestra. After moving to Northern Manitoba, he fished many northern lakes, including Reindeer Lake, where he both fished and freighted his catch on his tractor train 250 miles to the railway at Flin Flon. Later he fished Sissipuk Lake until his retirement  in about 1973. They have resided in Flin Flon since 1944.
Her father was Jonas Danielson from Borgum at Skogarstrond in Snaefelsnessysla, Iceland. Her mother was Johanna Johannsdottir from Laxardal, at Skogar­strond in Snaefelsnessysla. They first settled in North Dakota. She is their only Canadian-born child.    

SIGURHLIF


To the dwellers of the valley, December in Iceland, in the year 1887, had seemed unusually mild. As always in mid-winter the short days were little more than twilight, for on this lone isle, bordering on the Arctic Circle, there are sunless weeks, and darkness hovers like a sinister troll over the land. Not even the thrill of  reading the sagas, nor the religious fervor of recited Passion Psalms could allay the pervading gloom. Now the people were glad the winter solstice had come and gone, and days lengthened as the approach of Christmas brought new hope and cheer.
"We shall go to church today," Jonas said. "The ponies will be the better for exercise. They are becoming lazy in their idleness. Besides, it is time for our little one to be christened. Sera Eirikur will frown on our long delay."
Johanna's warm brown eyes kindled with happy anticipation.
"It is many months since we attended a service, and little Sigurhlif is now old enough to notice the altar candles," she said, beginning to prepare herself and her children, dressing them in warm homespun and knitted shawls.
Jonas brought the ponies. The warm spell had enticed them from their retreat in the foothill valleys where the grass was still succulent, and turbulent streams had open water-holes. Johanna observed how thick-haired and shaggy they had become fending for themselves through the winter. Their manes and tails hung long and tousled, giving them a wild appearance that belied their gentle nature. They were small and not beautiful, yet to Johanna no fairy steeds could have seemed more delightful.
Jonas helped her mount with the child, swung Hanna onto the smallest pony, and
set Juliana in front of his saddle before he sprang into it, then tucked her against his warm body under his heavy sheepskin.
"I'll lead your little Alfur, Hanna," her father said. "Hang on tight like a big girl. With his rein fast to my saddlehorn, he'll follow."
They moved single-file along the week-old trail left by Sera Eirikur's string of pack ponies on their return from Vik with Christmas provisions. By this time it was drifted, but the sure footed horses moved forward in slow procession over the rough stretches and floundered through the drifts.
For two hours they travelled toward two basalt cliffs. The air was invigorating, and Johanna's anticipations high when finally they saw the church and manse sheltered on three sides by the dark volcanic rock.
"I shall see the glorious Christmas candlelights, and hear the choir. Then, too, sister Karitas will be there. After the service we shall all be invited to the manse for refreshments. We all know Sera Eirikur to be a very hospitable man," Johanna thought happily.
The church was thronged with all the folk of the countryside, who had ridden from far and near to this Yuletide service, and to enjoy an hour or two of pleasant fellowship.
The candles! Not only were the candles on the altar, but gently flickering lights wavered from tapers placed high on either side of the pews. The little girls gazed in awe, and Johanna's spirits soared in all this light, and warmth, and hope of heaven.
She glanced around, and saw a tall and beautiful woman enter with her husband.
"My sister Karitas and Sigurd," she thought happily. "I have so longed to see Karitas; and here she is."
Then Johanna became aware of a hushed silence. Sera Eirikur was reading the Christmas story, of shepherds and angels, of Wisemen with gifts from the East, and of the Holy Family. As the pastor spoke, they be­came a living reality, and the story took on a new beauty and deeper meaning as the birth of a Child manifested the love of God.
"How simply and beautifully he tells it," Johanna thought. "His simple works I must remember forever to tell to my children as each new Christmas comes.''
Then the lusty voices of the congregation swelled the hymns of the choir, and the service was over.
They were called, and Johanna stood beside Jonas at the altar, cradling the infant in her arms. She became conscious that Karitas and Sigurd stood with them as sponsors.
"That is well," she thought. "I may die young. Who knows? I can trust Karitas with my little one's upbringing.''
The lights on the altar held her spell­bound.
"They drive off the winter darkness," she thought. "As it will be driven off by our returning sun."
During the christening, Johanna made the responses as in a dream.
"I christen you, Sigurhlif," she heard the pastor conclude.
Christening drops of water touched the red-blond hair of the infant, and trickled gently down her forehead, and Sigurhlif’s innocent laughter rose above the minister's chanting.
Later, in the manse, Johanna sat with her family and Karitas and Sigurd, sipping hot coffee and enjoying food the poorer folk seldom tasted.
'' I have had no news from our mother and brothers in America," Karitas said.
"Nor have we."
"America! It is a world away," Karitas spoke impatiently. "They should have stayed."
"It is hard to face endless poverty. Our brothers are young. It was their only hope. In America they will find opportunities."
"Yes. We are fortunate, Sigurd and I. We are in better circumstances. Never will I leave Iceland. I simply couldn't. Here I shall bring up my children in the best Icelandic tradition. Here I shall see my grandchildren born," Karitas said decisively. "Iceland must have a better future.''
"We hope so," Johanna sighed, but a cloud dimmed the joy of this festive occa­sion at the recollection of the lean years she had known.
"Your little Sigurhlif is lovely. Never have I seen a more beautiful child. How I long for a girl. My boys are like gales, all noise and motion, but we love them just the same."
On their return from the service, Johanna entered their humble home with a feeling of gratitude. It was warm and tidy. Her spin­ning wheel stood idle in a far corner. No spinning for her today; only the meal to prepare, and for Jonas the urgent chores of tending the animals.
The tired little girls slept while Johanna busied herself with the evening meal. She was content, but she could not altogether dispel the ache of loneliness for her loved ones in America. She had hoped that Karitas had heard from them. It seemed such an eternity since they departed.
"I wonder how my mother (Ingibjorg) and brothers, Mundi (Gudmundur) and Joe (Johann), are faring," Johanna re­marked wistfully as they all sat with their bowls of rice porridge, with raisins in honor of Christmas and the christening. "Karitas has had no word."
"Don't despair. News will come." Jonas encouraged gently. "The ships were delayed by storms last fall. Your folks promised to write; and write they will. They will tell us how things are, for they know I have been seriously considering going to America."
"To America!" Johanna echoed. It was the first intimation she had heard of his interest in emigrating.

"But what do I hear? Surely it is the neigh of a strange horse?"
" Yes," Jonas responded going out to put up the horse and invite the guest in.
Johanna looked sympathetically on the gaunt and weary man.
"Welcome, and bless you," she said. "You have come a long way?"
"Greetings. Yes, far. From the coast."
Jonas came in.
"From the coast, you say?" he asked eagerly.
Johanna set a portion of their simple holi­day meal before the hungry traveller, who ate in deadly silence as if his hunger knew no bounds. Only when Johanna rose to refill his bowl did he speak.
"I brought this letter that has lain long unclaimed; since the last ship anchored in the fall. It is from America," he said.
"From America! Read it Jonas while I make a fresh pot of coffee," Johanna ex­claimed excitedly.
Jonas read silently. Then he turned to the others.
"They are faring well. Already each has land, and sheep grazing. And a cow. They put up much hay in the summer, and hired out some time for wages. They are established in their own log cabin, with stoves for heating, and plenty of firewood.
" Ah, yes. Wood must be plentiful. I have heard that in America there are opportuni­ties even for a poor man."
"So I have been told," Arni Bjornsson agreed.
Aloud, Jonas went on. "Your mother says, 'I miss you, my dear Johanna. Your brothers send a little gift. Perhaps it will help pay your passage on the first vessel in
the spring. You would do well to leave Ice­land. May God bless you all."
Jonas handed the letter to his wife.
"Yes, I am more than ever convinced that we should leave, and seek a better life in a new land," he said.
"If I survive the grim poverty of this winter, perhaps, I too, shall join you in your venture," Arni replied.
The mildness of early winter gave way to cold, heavy snowfall, and bitter storms. Great avalanches swept down the moun­tainside burying part of the valley. Through God's mercy Jonas's home escaped de­struction, but half his flock of sheep were caught, and lay dead beneath the snow. When spring finally came reluctantly, Jonas sold the cow and remaining sheep, and rode the ponies to the coast where a ship lay at anchor ready to leave.
Standing beside her sister, Karitas, Johanna marvelled at the harbor, crowded with people, those emigrating and their kinfolk sorrowfully bidding them farewell.
"Yes, a lifelong farewell," Johanna thought. "For never in this world will be meet again."

The first departing tramp steamer of the season loomed like a giant beside the dozen fishing boats that rocked at their moorings. (The Copeland .)  Never before had Johanna seen such a ship. She gazed in wonder at its huge steel-hulled bulk, its black-painted sides, white derricks and ventilators, and the two tri-colored fun­nels from which black coal-smoke belched. She heard its throbbing engines, and real­ized that unlike the accustomed sailing vessels, this monster would not be at the mercy of winds and weather.
"Foolishly, I expected a sailing ship, not this floating palace belching smoke," she said.
They walked slowly down to the sea.
Johanna watched with interest as brawny stevedores, like laden slaves  from some Arabian Nights' tale, loaded bales of dried fish, sheep's hides, and enormous bundles of hay.
Shepherds arrived driving a small flock of sheep. They manoeuvred them along a high-slatted gangway, and the sheep added their frightened bleating to the hum of human voices, and the captain's crisp commands.
A dozen horses, too, were led onto the ship.
"Dear Icelandic ponies that carry Icelan­ders on all occasions from the cradle to the grave," Johanna thought.
"A cargo for Scotland," Arni Bjornsson explained.
The passengers were embarking. Jonas shouldered their heavy wooden koffort (chest) and Johanna followed him, the two little girls, Hanna and Juliana close by her side, and the little one snuggled in her arms.
There were no tears, and no time to mourn deserted kinfolk and friends. Only the quiet dignity of determined action.
' 'God will surely be with us in America,'' Johanna comforted her sister, and the thought eased her own qualms.
Karitas kissed little Sigurhlif's cheek fondly.
"the child is much too young to go on such a journey," she sighed. "Leave her with us. We could give your lovely one every advantage our ample means can af­ford."
"I cannot part with her; nor can I think of depriving her father of his little one."
"He has his two daughters from his first marriage," Karitas argued.
"Be patient, my Karitas. you will have a little daughter," Johanna comforted. "It must be good-bye for us all, beloved sister."
They took ship and descended to the lowest deck. As they made their way to their cabin, Johanna glimpsed firemen in grimy dungarees climbing out of the fiddley, like dirty demons, to relieve their bursting lungs with a breath of air. Farther along she gasped in terror as they passed the gaping holds into which the cargo was stored and the animals driven.
"Hanna, hold your little sister's hand," she directed urgently.
But already Jonas had stowed his chest and other luggage, and came to relieve her fear for the two little girls.
"Come," he said. "We'll stand on deck and bid our land farewell.''
They gazed mutely while the crew hove anchor, and the ship put out to sea. Slowly the shores receded, and Johanna knew that never again would they see their native Iceland, with its gleaming glaciers, lava landscapes, verdant valleys, heather-strewn hills, and tumultuous waterfalls.
Johanna laid a gentle hand on her hus­band's arm. She sensed that his heart was heavy like her own even while the new world beckoned with hope for them and their children.
The weather was calm; the sea unruffled. Each day Johanna and her family sought the outdoor sight of the ocean and the salt sea air to escape their overcrowded cabin and unpleasant animal smells from the holds below them.
On the third day Hanna exclaimed ex­citedly.
"Mamma! Mamma! I see America. Look, that coast away off."
Johanna's eyes followed the child's pointing finger.
"An Island, perhaps," she ventured.
"Not America!"
Johanna smiled at the evident disappoint­ment in the childish voice.
Johanna laughed.
Joining the group Baldvin Baldvinsson spoke, "the Faroe Islands," he informed. "We are now about halfway to Scotland. It's not such a trying voyage for folks whose ancestors were bold Vikings riding out storms in open rowboats and square-sailed dragon ships."
The ship headed directly towards the islands that rose abruptly out of the ocean. As they drew nearer, Johanna marvelled at the lush green color, contrasting strangely with the sombre basalt ice-capped peaks of Iceland. Their vivid color was a brighter hue  than the grasslands of the upland valleys and the cultivated hay-plots of her native land.
Hundreds of guillmots soared in protest from their craggy heights as the ship threaded its way down a channel between two islands that rose a thousand feet on either side. The ship turned sharply left into a very narrow inlet where it came upon a tiny fishing village.
"Someone is coming aboard," Johanna exclaimed.
She heard the man speak in perfect Ice­landic.
"Everything will be brighter in America, Lovisa dear," he smiled, and Johanna listened in surprise to the woman's low reply. She could understand the tongue so similar to Icelandic, but in a  dialect that sounded so strange to Johanna.  The ship headed back and past the longest island where another village clustered along the shore.
"That must be their capital, Torshavn," Jonas said.
Then the steamer sped directly across the ocean. Two days later the coast of Scotland appeared in view to the southwest.
Presently the ship approached a town. Johanna with the other emigrants from the island on the rim of the Arctic stared in amazement at the large buildings, and tall smoke stacks of industry such as they had never seen before.
By evening they had reached the wider estuary of a river, its banks scarcely discern­ible in the dusk. Later Johanna, standing beside her husband, looked up into the dark blue heavens where stars twinkled as bril­liantly as they did in Iceland's winter.
"And this is early June (1888).  In five days we have left Iceland's bright summer night," Johanna said.
It was now becoming so dark that land was no longer visible. They were fast approaching an unbelievable city. Johanna saw she was not alone in her awed staring at  the rows of lights; all colours, white, and red, and green.
"This is Glasgow," Baldvin Baldvinsson announced. "Here we leave our tramp steamer to board the S.S. Norwegian  of the Allan Line, which is scheduled to leave for Canada in two days.''  They left Glasgow  on June 29, 1888.
From the outset the Norwegian plowed through heavy seas. As the days wore on, Johanna thought wearily that leagues of seemingly endless ocean still lay between them and America.
Time dragged dismally. The little girls became restless, and Sigurhlif toddled about pale and quiet. In the afternoons while the child slept Johanna sought the deck. There she sat beside her husband, knitting and taking stock of her fellow passengers.
"Sigrid looks worn out. There are blue circles under her eyes. Poor woman! God pity her! Her time is near. She may give birth at sea," she observed to Jonas. "Ingrid and Helga, too, droop wearily."
Heavy seas and high headwinds con­tinued to retard their voyage. Already ten days had passed since the Norwegian left Scotland. Each weary day the tired, and often seasick, emigrants stood on deck gazing ahead in the hope of seeing land.
One day Johanna observed the men lean­ing tensely over the deckrail for a better view of a gleam they saw on the tossing billows. The gleam became a white streak, appearing to drift slowly towards the ship.
A hush fell upon the watchers, disturbed only by the faint bleating of sheep in the hold beneath. Everyone fixed their eyes upon the approaching object in abated anxiety.
"What is it, Jonas? A ship?" The man was slow to answer. Finally he said: "No. An iceberg."
"In June?"
"Yes".
Mr. Baldvinsson spoke up quietly.
"Summer is the time for icebergs in the North Atlantic," he said.
"When warm weather comes they begin  to melt and break away from the shores of Greenland and Labrador."
The mass had come nearer now in all its sinister beauty of glistening prisms and pin­nacles. The sight was awe-inspiring and frightening, Johanna thought. It resembled the massive glacier, Snaefelsjokull, she had seen on their journey to the harbour. That glacier had boded no evil, this floating ice-palace was a menacing threat to their safety.
'' What becomes of icebergs?'' she asked, more to relieve her anxiety in speech than from curiosity.
"Eventually they break up in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream," Mr. Baldvinsson said. "And the growlers scatter throughout the ocean till they melt com­pletely."
For hours the ship steamed in sight of the iceberg, unable to leave it behind, driven as it was, not by winds, but by the current of the Gulf Stream. Day faded into night, and the fog-shrouded sea lay gray and forbid­ding. The white ghostly menace of ice, no longer seen, held a deeper threat to the ship's safety.
"The fog is like a spell of sorcery." Johanna thought, shuddering. "It bodes evil . . . perhaps death."
Suddenly Captain Malcolm appeared on their lowest deck.
"Be prepared to take to the lifeboats," he commanded.
The whispers of the Icelanders and the whimpers of their weary children hushed into a deadly silence.
"Wait in your cabins with doors ajar," the captain concluded, leaving the people shocked and shaken.
"Come," Jonas said, but their departure was halted by the deep and solemn voice of Arni Bjornsson.
"We are in God's hand" he said. "Let us pray."
Later, in the cabin, the children slept, but Johanna tossed fitfully. Beside her, Jonas  lay   anxious  and  sleepless   awaiting  the dreaded order to take to the boats.
The night was an eternity of fearful wait­ing. A heavy gale added its perils to the fog, and the ship lurched ahead, every motion bringing with it added apprehension.
But the anxious hours brought no shock of collision; no thudding or scraping sound of steel against ice. At dawn the gale died down for a time. By sunrise the fog was lifting.
The people went out on deck. Away in the distance behind their ship, the iceberg gleamed, no longer a hazard to their safety.
The Norwegian continued full steam ahead.
"Thank God!" Johanna said in relief. '' A night of fear does not last forever.''
There was no hope for calm.
A raging storm broke in fury. The ship rolled and lurched against frothing breakers whipped up by a terrific gale that lasted for days. It crawled along, seeming scarcely to move. Everyone took to the cabins, unable to eat; unable to stand. Johanna, crossing the floor to attend her sick children, swayed dizzily with each pitching motion of the vessel. Her stomach heaved in violent nausea, and a terrifying sickness pervaded her whole being.
She fell onto the bunk unable to help herself or the children.
"Jonas, my love," she moaned. "See to the little girls."
For days she lay semi-conscious and utterly miserable. At Jonas' insistant plead­ing the overburdened ship's doctor brought what relief he could give. But not till the storm was spent did Johanna rally. Then she realized that little Sigurhlif was dangerously ill.
She heard the infant's cries, piteous and frightening, and she struggled up. She saw the pale shadow of her once lovely child.
"She is dying," Johanna moaned. "O God! Why are we so helpless to save her frail little life?"

Again the ship's doctor came with Mr. Baldvinsson. He shook his head sorrow­fully.
"He says there is nothing can be done. She is dying." Baldvinsson said. Even as he spoke the child lay still in her mother's arms.
"Captain Malcolm will have to be in­formed," the doctor said.
Johanna was left alone with the two sleep­ing girls and her dead child while the men sought the captain.  On their return she spoke.
"Are we far from land? Can the burial wait?"
"More than a day's voyage. Through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and up river to Quebec City," Baldvinsson informed.
"Then we can wait?" the woman in­sisted.
"No, Johanna, my love, it is against regulations. The burial will be at four o'clock in the morning," Jonas said in a whisper.
"At sea!" Johanna sobbed.
It was the hour before the dawn, July 2nd.  The engines had stopped; the propeller had ceased to turn; and the Norwegian lay at rest. There were no passengers on deck; only Captain Malcolm, two uniformed members of his crew, Baldvin Baldvinsson, and the parents standing in grief-stricken silence.
Mercifully the now calm ocean was hidden in heavy morning mist.
Captain Malcolm opened his Bible. Johanna knew he was reading the burial service, but his foreign words pierced her aching heart.
"Let not your heart be troubled ..." Quietly Baldvinsson re-read the whole service in their native Icelandic, and the passages became a meaningful balm for the soul.
The officers bore the child to the deck's railing. Again the captain spoke and Bald­vinsson translated.
"We now commit the body of our dear departed to the deep."
Johanna shivered and tears rolled down her wan cheeks. She saw them lift their canvas-shrouded burden and lower it over the railing. With a sob she turned and pressed her tear-stained face against her husband's rugged chest.
They arrived in Quebec City, Quebec on July 7, 1888.

It was early summer in Pembina County, North Dakota, 1889. The long wearisome train journey from Quebec to Winnipeg, and the covered-wagon ox-cart trek on the rough trail to Pembina were now in the dim vistas of the past. In their small log cabin, Jonas and Johanna were hopeful for the future.
There had been rains, and the grass stood lush and high for their stock's grazing and for the summer's haying. The Icelandic settlement was prospering against all odds. There was food, shelter, hope, and love.
In her tiny home-made crib another baby girl lay sweetly rosy and beautiful.
"Tomorrow we shall go to the church at Mountain and have her christened," Jonas said.
"Yes, christened and named Sigurhlif for the dear one we lost."
"She will grow up in America, and her descendants will be citizens of this New World," Jonas said gravely.
Johanna looked lovingly at her husband, tall, muscular, still handsome though his red-blonde hair and red beard were already streaked with gray.
"In the past tragedy has touched our
lives. But God is good. He gives a balm for
every sorrow, and hope is eternal," she said
fervently.




S.S. Norwegian
           Photograph of the S.S. Norwegian courtesy  Norway Heritage

Passenger ship list
Passenger Ship List for the S.S. Norwegian

Jónas Daníelsson, farmer, Jóhanna, Sigurhlif,
Júliana, Jóhanna

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