Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


About one-quarter of Iceland's small population, already shrunken by famine, disease, and volcanic disaster, immigrated to the middle of the North American continent in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Since they left a treeless place where the only real crop was native grass, the landscape of the Great Plains seemed less strange and forbidding to them than to the many immigrants who had left more temperate wooded places on the European continent. Icelanders expected harsh and lengthy winters in the New World, and of course the Great Plains fulfilled those expectations. The torrid summers surprised but did not delight them. In Iceland the temperature seldom rose above 60ºF.

In the Old Country, these immigrants had been mountain sheep farmers and, on the coast, fishermen, egg gatherers, and seabird catchers. In good years they ate salt fish, smoked mutton, and hard tack. Though they did harvest the native grasses, they had never planted a crop, tasted pork, or seen a gathering of more than three or four cows at a time (and those usually old milkers).

The earliest immigrants located in Spanish Fork, Utah, and Washington Island in Lake Michigan, but the great bulk of the 16,000 immigrants moved to the Great Plains. In the United States they settled on farms in Lyon and Lincoln Counties in western Minnesota, the terminus of the railroad in 1875. A few years later they colonized the northeastern counties of North Dakota (then Dakota Territory), settling mostly around Mountain and Cavalier on the old shore of Lake Agassiz at the western edge of the Red River Valley.

The bulk of the Canadian immigration, beginning in 1873, went north of Winnipeg to the interlake country, where the Canadian government had established New Iceland. The harsh climate and infertility of the district soon promoted a migration to better land in the North Dakota settlements, to Glenboro and Brandon in Manitoba, to Wynyard in central Saskatchewan, and finally, in 1888, to Markerville, Alberta, eighty miles north of Calgary. Some Icelanders continued west to the Pacific, establishing settlements between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, but most seemed more comfortable with long views, grass, and wind. Winnipeg, to this day, boasts the largest concentration of Icelanders in any city outside Reykjavik.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the immigration was substantially complete. A half dozen towns and districts in the Great Plains had assumed an Icelandic identity, and the countryside there was populated by families with names like Gislason, Gottskalkson, and Thorbjornsson. The Icelanders were unusual among immigrants in their literacy and their devotion to books and learning. Hardly an immigrant chest, no matter how poor the owner, was without the Icelandic sagas and a handful of favorite Icelandic poets. As the generations passed, the Icelanders sent their children off to university–an unattainable dream in the Old Country–where they became mostly lawyers, judges, teachers, and journalists, sometimes of great distinction. The Icelanders preferred such vocations to business or farming. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, born in 1878 in New Iceland, left North Dakota to become one of the most famous Arctic explorers of the twentieth century, but even he is best remembered for the quality of his prose.

This small immigrant community's great legacy to the Plains is to have produced three of the best Icelandic poets of the twentieth century. They all lacked formal schooling but were well-read men of the laboring class, one a hired man, the other two farmers. K. N. Julius (1860–1936) of Mountain, North Dakota, was the first light-verse satirist in modern Icelandic: many of his humorous poems describe immigrants' struggles with English. Guttormur Guttormsson (1878–1966) of Riverton, Manitoba, was a panegyrist in Old Icelandic poetic forms of Canadian nature. And Stephan G. Stephansson (1859–1927) of Markerville, Alberta, considered by Icelanders to be one of the giants of their literature, was a great innovator in language and a profound philosophical thinker. All three wrote in their beloved Icelandic but greeted their neighbors in accented English. In the subsequent generations, Icelandic, like all immigrant languages, steadily evaporated in the New World. The descendants of these great poets must now read them in translation. Still, their works stand on as monuments to the Icelandic heritage in the Great Plains.

Bill Holm Minneota, Minnesota

Arnason, David, and Vincent Arnason, eds. The New Icelanders. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1994.

Palmer, Howard. "Escape from the Great Plains: The Icelanders in North Dakota and Alberta." Great Plains Quarterly 3 (1983): 219–33.

Walters, Thorstina. Modern Sagas: The Story of the Icelanders in North America. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1953.

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