A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History


Sigursteinn Oddson and H.P. Tergesen emigrated to Canada in the 1880s. Oddson and Tergesen were just kids when a devastating volcano erupted in their native Iceland. The devastation that followed forced an exodus of Icelanders to search for a new homeland.

Iceland had a history of calamity and natural disasters. By 1800, the national population had been reduced to 47,000 from the 50,000 a century before, reflecting the tragedy inflicted by disease, starvation and volcanic eruptions.(1) The 19th century brought new disasters such as a sheep epidemic, climate deterioration and more volcanic eruptions.(2) The entire population was offered resettlement in Denmark. But the Icelanders declined, knowing that the tyrannical rule of Denmark wouldn't allow them rights and freedoms as an independent people. They heard of the natural wealth and milder climate of North America, with the promise of having their own self governing settlements. They also felt some affinity for this land because Icelander Eric the Red had discovered the continent and established the settlement of Greenland in 985 AD. In 986 AD, Bjarni Herjolfsson made the first known sighting of the northeast coast of Canada by Europeans.(4)

The first Icelandic immigrants to Canada since the Norse ancestors was Sigtryggur Jonasson. He arrived in Québec City in 1872. Jonasson wrote optimistic letters back home about the area he ended up settling in Ontario.(5) About 150 Icelanders followed in 1873. Canadian immigration authorities at Québec offered the group free transportation to Ontario, temporary quarters and two hundred acres of free land.(6) The Icelanders made their way to Rosseau in the Muskoka district but soon found that government jobs, which had been promised until the land was cleared, was insufficient. Most settlers soon dispersed. They left behind only a small permanent settlement.(7)

A second group of 365 Icelanders arrived in 1874. Sigtryggur Jonasson, then an agent for the Ontario Government, took the party to Kinmount, about 150 kilometres north-west of Toronto, where work on the Victoria railroad was waiting for them. But again, the work ran out, making prospects for a sustainable Icelandic settlement poor.(8)

Sigtryggur Jonasson contacted the Minister of Immigration in Ottawa about finding a suitable site for Icelandic settlers. An expedition was financed to explore the Red River Valley.(9) When they arrived, however, they found the area ravaged by grasshoppers and continued north to the unsurveyed shore of Lake Winnipeg -- beyond Manitoba's boundary.(10) The Icelander's liked the area: it was located on water, had an abundance of fishing and timber, as well as a good positioning along potential transportation routes. When the delegation returned to Kinmount, the settlers quickly voted to move west. They were so anxious to leave Kinmount that they abandoned crops and sold cows at half price. In 1875 about 235 Icelanders set out on another migration first by steamship and then north by railroad, and they again by water on flatboats.(11)

sketch of Hans Peter Tergesen
At their destination they had been promised an Icelandic reserve in what was then an unorganized part of the North-West Territories -- 90 kilometres along Lake Winnipeg's west shore. The reserve was established by an Order In Council and named New Iceland, a unique political structure in Canadian history. In New Iceland, settlers could create their own laws, set up their own schools and generally exist with independence and autonomy.(12) The name Gimli, referring to an historic "gold thatched hall" of the Norse gods, was selected for the envisioned capital of the new settlement.(13)

By this time, Jonasson had returned to Iceland to generate migration to New Iceland. In 1876, 1,200 more Icelanders -- commonly known as the Large Group -- joined the first inhabitants of New Iceland, creating the basis for the first permanent Icelandic settlement in Canada.(14)

sketch of Sigursteinn Oddson
Icelanders continued to immigrate to Winnipeg throughout the last 20 years of the 19th century. Between the 1870s and 1914 one fifth of the population of Iceland left their island home, many of whom came to Canada. Sigursteinn Oddson came in 1883. His neighbour, Hans Peter Tergesen, arrived in 1887. The main centre of New Iceland, as anticipated, became Gimli, and the entire settlement eventually became a part of the province of Manitoba. Rural areas of Manitoba were also settled by Icelanders, including Lundar, Glenboro, Selkirk, and Morden.(15)

A Manitoba Saga, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, by Wilhelm Kristjanson
(Kristjanson, Winnipeg, 1965).

The Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

Gimli Saga, ed. by Paul H.T. Thorlakson
(D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd, Altona, 1975)

Manitoba 125, A History, Volume II
(Great Plains Publications, Winnipeg, 1994).

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