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Sidebar: Literacy, Literature, The Lifeblood of the Icelanders


In Saga of Hope, Hans Peter Tergesen's store in Gimli, Manitoba became a cultural hub of the Icelandic community, where farmers and urbanites alike got together to exchange news and read the papers. Literacy and language were foremost concerns of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada, dedicated against all odds to preserving their culture and heritage.

The first Icelandic newspaper in Canada, the Framfari, made a public declaration of this goal in its first edition, just two years after Icelandic colonists had settled in New Iceland:

When the Icelandic immigrants came to North America they were very concerned with preserving their language and their culture. They in agreement that two things were necessary for the preservation of their precious heritage: a separate colony and a newspaper in the Icelandic language. These two projects were so closely linked that it was scarcely considered that one could thrive without the other. (1)

The Icelanders had began circulating a hand-written paper the first winter of their stay in New Iceland. It was called Nyi Thjodolfur and only lasted three issues. But more ambitious plans were soon in the works. The founding of a paper had first been discussed at the Gimli town meeting of January 22, 1877. The consensus was that a stock company should be formed to finance the purchase of a printing press. Certain individuals undertook to promote the sale of shares.(2)


Herewith certified that Mr.____________________

has paid $10 (ten dollars) of the capital of the Printing Company of New Iceland to the company management. He is therefore the rightful owner of one share of the Printing Company of New Iceland, and has acquired full membership rights in accordance with the company regulations.

Lundi, Keewatin

Per the company management(3)

By the next monthly meeting on February 5, 1877, a sufficient number of promises had been obtained to warrant proceeding with the project. The New Iceland Printing Company was formed. By-laws were adopted and a board of directors appointed. After half of the proposed capital of $500 had been collected, the board of directors looked into acquiring a printing press. They had to wait for a while, however. A die had to be specially made for some of the letters of the Icelandic alphabet. It was June before the press arrived. The first issue of the Framfari was printed in a log cabin at Lundi, and appeared on September 10, 1877.(4)

Sigtryggur Jonasson, who had led the settlers to their new colony and since become known as Father of New Iceland, was also the moving force behind the first newspaper. Jonasson worked as editor until one could officially be appointed. His brother, Johann Briem, was the printer, having learned his trade in Iceland. Framfari was a four page issue, 15 1/2 inches by 10 1/2 inches, published three times a month. The subscription rate was $1.50 per month in New Iceland, $1.75 elsewhere in Canada and the United States, and Europe. The newspapers name, both in its meaning (which translated to "Progress") and its bold gothic letters on the masthead, proclaimed the progressive character of its ambitions and its content.(5) Even the mainstream media such as the Manitoba Free Press was impressed, giving the Framfari's debut a favourable, although necessarily superficial, review:

It is very neatly printed, presents a fine typographical appearance and contains a large quantity of local news, or something, in the Icelandic language.(6)

The contents of the first issue, in addition to the address to subscribers, included Framfari's policy to provide information and enlightenment, and entertainment; its aim to preserve the Icelandic language in America; a page and a half of news from Iceland; the provisional by-laws of the Framfari Printing Company for the information of its community shareholders; and three jokes. Other standards were church matters, updates on Icelandic settlements elsewhere in Canada and the United States; European news; and practical advice on issues important to the settlers such as ploughing, clearing the land, and winter storage of crops.(7) An article from March 6, 1878, describes one contributors ideas on the importance of creating a thriving New Iceland economy:

It will never be said too often nor emphasized too strongly how honourable and rewarding it is to be able to help one's self, and how degrading, wretched and unhappy it is to live constantly in turmoil and disaster, applying to others for help with all the evil consequences that ensue....Most of us are like children in this new land, and therefore need not only to provide ourselves with the necessities of life, but at the same time all the most capable men of our colony need to concentrate their efforts on getting them here. Our settlement here is still so young, and everything about us in so child-like a state, that it is not sufficient even though men break their backs working and saving and doing without everything they can.

But what are we lacking? Of what have we the greatest need? We lack rapid transport connections with our neighbouring province, Manitoba, and we need to establish here the type of trading that will not deplete our supply of cash and come to an end when the cash is exhausted, but the kind of trading that will bring in money or merchandise of equivalent value for products we have to spare. In every land inhabited by civilized men trade is as essential as breathing is for the body....(8)

The founding of Framfari, less than two years after the first settlers in the colony, and in a small community of 1,500 ravaged by famine, disease and natural disaster, was quite an accomplishment.(9) But the Framfari, like the community, met economic difficulties early on and published only from 1877-1881. It was, however, merely the first in a long line publications in the Icelandic tradition. Literacy and literature were, afterall, said to be the lifeblood of the Icelanders. Between 1879 and 1910, eight other Icelandic publications originated in Gimli. In 1886 the Icelandic newspaper Heimskringla (The World) was founded. Logberg (The Tribune) was established in 1887. Both were published in Icelandic. It wasn't until 1959 that they were amalgamated in 1959 into Logberg-Heimskringla, and published in English.(10)

The Icelandic newspapers are just one branch of the enduring Icelandic tradition of literature. They provided links from generation to generation in maintaining the Icelandic language, and between communities and isolated individuals. They acted as a mirror of the lives of the people, because in addition to news, they carried a wealth of historical and biographical material. They were an invaluable means of expression, for both budding poets and polemics. The Icelandic people, after all, were known not only for their literary loves but for their argumentative nature - always eager for a discussion or a hot topic of debate. It was outside Hand Peter Tergesen's store, for example, that the town's people gathered round the weeklies and played out the stories, issues and controversies that were a part of their developing Icelandic community.

Framfari, 1877-1880
(Icelandic National League of North America, Gimli Chapter, Altona, 1986).

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

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

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