A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES, COMING TO CANADA

Sigursteinn Oddson and Hans Peter Tergesen, like many of their fellow Icelanders, set out for Canada with hopes of finding a life of happiness and prosperity, of escaping the curse of calamities that had plagued Iceland throughout its history.

Poverty and natural disasters dated as far back as The Black Death of 1402-1404, which decimated two-thirds of the population.(16) Danish trade restrictions, erupting volcanos and an epidemic that killed 200,000 sheep crippled Iceland's economy during the 1860s. The winter of 1874 was the severest of the century. And 1875, although mild, met with earthquakes and more volcanic activity, climaxing with the tremendous eruption of Mount Askja which blew smoke and clumps of glowing volcanic ash that covered nearby communities.(17)

The Icelandic immigrants who pioneered New Iceland hadn't entirely escaped hardship. In the settlement's first winter of 1875, there was a scarcity of food supplies. By mid-December supplies were so low that one family had nothing to eat on Christmas Eve but a few scraps of bread. By the spring scurvy was rife and several settlers died of disease or famine.(18)

The Large Group of immigrants that arrived from Iceland the following summer were lucky because the land had already been broken and sufficient equipment and supply routes established. They faced considerable difficulty in other ways, however. The Icelanders were complete strangers to the way of life and methods of work, which differed dramatically from what they were used to in Iceland. Many were sick from their long journey and ill prepared to survey provisional land and select sites for building a homestead.(19)

It also seemed that the plight of natural disaster followed the newcomers. In the fall of 1876, an unfamiliar disease appeared among the settlers of New Iceland. Although mild at first, it quickly spread throughout the entire colony. Sigtryggur Jonasson, who was now living in Lundar and known as the Father of New Iceland, sent for a skilled physician and medical supplies from Manitoba.(20)

The poor housing situation made it inevitable that the disease would reach epidemic proportions in the colony. The weather had turned cold and many of the settlers hadn't finished construction on their dwellings. As a result, several families crowded into a single building, sharing clothes and blankets contaminated with the disease. By December a doctor had arrived and reported that the illness was small-pox. A vaccine sent up from the United States proved useless. Among the settlers, about one in three caught the disease. It killed 102 settlers, mostly children and young adults.(21)

A quarantine was set up to prevent the epidemic from reaching the province of Manitoba. No one could leave the colony without waiting two weeks at the quarantine line. The consequent disruption of trade and employment was ruinous to the economy of New Iceland. The quarantine wasn't lifted until four months after the epidemic had passed. But by this time, the settlers were so discouraged that they were ready to leave the colony for good.(22)

An exodus from New Iceland to Winnipeg and North Dakota began in 1878. The numerous strains suffered in establishing the settlement had proven to much to bare. Land had been cleared of timber, but no markets were found for its sale. Floods ravaged the farms, destroying gardens and fields and sweeping away houses and haystacks. Money was scarce and many had to seek temporary work outside of the colony. Roads were poor, unsafe or non existent. The small-pox epidemic was followed by scarlet fever a few months later, and then diphtheria and measles. By 1881, the population of New Iceland had declined to 250.(23)

Nevertheless, new immigrants continued to come to New Iceland and by 1900 the population had risen again to 2,000.(24) Sigursteinn Oddson and Hans Peter Tergesen, for example, had faith that New Iceland still held opportunity. But for some the fates remained against them. While Tergesen succeeded in opening a store that became the centre-point of the Icelandic community in Gimli, Sigursteinn Oddson was broken by the hardships of starting over. His land titles proved swampy, bringing struggles with the land office bureaucrats as well as reluctant crops. Hard work wasn't enough. He succumbed to alcoholism. He was broke. His fourth daughter had to be given away to an aunt and uncle. And in the end Sigursteinn Oddson's family was splintered all across Canada.

Footnotes:
1,5,6,8,14,16,19,20,25,26
A Manitoba Saga, The Icelandic People in Manitoba, by Wilhelm Kristjanson
(Kristjanson, Winnipeg, 1965).

2,4,7,12,15,23,,27,28,29
The Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

3,9,11,17,18,21,22,24
Gimli Saga, ed. by Paul H.T. Thorlakson
(D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd, Altona, 1975)

10,13
Manitoba 125, A History, Volume II
(Great Plains Publications, Winnipeg, 1994).


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