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No Greater Love

The Dakota Icelanders Project

No Greater Love

This version is reprinted with permission as published in Lögberg-Heimskringla 11 Dec 1992 (699 Carter Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3M 2C3)

Ed. note: This article, submitted by Mary E. Freeman, was found in the papers of her grandfather, Skapti Olason. The Metúsalem mentioned was his father. It originally appeared in Fate Magazine in 1959.

No Greater Love, by Lauga Geir

The following story was submitted to me by the late J. J. Erlendson of Cavalier. He has sought all available sources to verify his statements including an interview with Jon Olason, nephew of Mrs. Long. Miss Kristbjörg Kristjanson of Mountain, N. D., also contributed information from the Thorgeirson Almanac for the year 1929, pages 58-59. This is the most authentic record now available of this incident which happened in March, 1881 or 1882.

The day dawned mild and calm. A blanket of snow shrouded the Village of Mountain, N. Dak., and covered the roofs of pioneer cabins, little houses, yet so big that there was always room for the homeless.

Such a place was that of Hallgrímur Jónsson and his wife, Nybjörg, living on what is now the Jóhannes Anderson farm, half mile west of Mountain. Sharing their home was a comely woman in her early thirties, Gudrún Long, with her two children, Borghildur, age 9 and Vilhjálmur, age 7. She had been in this country only a few years, having come to America in 1878. She was born in Nordur Múlasysla, Iceland, in 1850. At the age of 20, she was married to Sigmundur Long. For some time her husband was an innkeeper at Seydisfjördur, but in a comparatively short time, they were separated, and Gudrún with her two children sailed for America, going directly to New Iceland near Gimli, Manitoba, where her half-brother, Metúsalem Olason was located. Later he and his brother, Gudni, became homesteaders near Akra, N. Dak. After the first winter in Canada Gudrun brought her children to Mountain, N. Dak., finding refuge with Hallgrímur and Nybjörg Jónsson.

On this particular day Gudrún seemed somewhat depressed. This mood probably prompted a desire to see her intimate friends. Looking through the window she announced, “This being such a mild day I have a mind to go visiting. I plan to walk with the children to Gardar. I want to see my good friend, Asta, wife of Benedict Jóhannesson.”

“I hate to see you go that distance of foot,” replied Nybjörg. “Why not wait til later?”

“No, this is a good day,” insisted Gudrún. “I shall first stop awhile in Mountain at Thorlákur Jónsson’s place.” Among the notable homes in the community was that of Thorlákur Jónsson and his wife, Lovísa Níelsdóttir. Gudrún Long with her children made a short visit there but soon prepared to leave for Gardar.

Lovísa Jónsson protested. “Walk to Gardar? My dear, do you realize that it is six miles to Gardar and the snow still on the ground.”

“I agree,” echoed her husband, Thorlákur. “The weather is uncertain and traveling on foot with children this time of year isn't good. Why not wait til later?”

“Yes, Gudrún, why not wait? Perhaps you can catch a ride with someone later,” suggested Lovísa.

Gudrún’s reply was positive. “No, Lovísa, I am used to walking and the children are healthy, the weather mild. Don't worry about us; we will get there.“

So it was; no persuasion could stop her. Late that afternoon Gudrún Long and her children trudged the road south, bound for Gardar.

Not long after they left the wind began to howl. Threatening clouds overcast the sky, and snowflakes were falling fast. A North Dakota blizzard in all its fury was sweeping the prairies. Soon it was pitch dark. No one knew whether Gudrún and the children had reached Gardar. One hope remained, that she might have reached some home not too far from the road.

That night Nybjörg Jónsson woke up with a start calling her husband. “Hallgrímur, wake up. Gudrún Long is dead. She is dead I say.”

“What are you saying, woman? Dead? How do you know she is dead?”

“She is. I know it. I had a dream. I saw her coming in through the doorway, snow clinging to her garments. She stood at the foot of our bed, but said nothing. Then she put her hand under the bedcovers and touched my foot. It was an icy hand, so cold it sent shivers through me. Just now I saw her fade through the doorway.”

“There is nothing we can do now,” replied Hallgrímur. “It is still dark; we must wait for daylight.”

At daybreak Hallgrímur was out summoning Thorlákur Jónsson and other neighbours to search the road to Gardar. The storm had then abated. They followed the road south, stopping at the home of Kristján Backman, which is now the Arni V. Johnson’s residence. No one there had seen the wayfarers. The men continued their search southward, seeing nothing till they came to Sigmundur Laxdal’s quarter section, about three miles north of Gardar. There they noticed a stick with a handkerchief tied to it emerging from a snowdrift. On investigation they found the children buried in the snow but unharmed. A short distance away, by a boulder, was the scantily-clad body of the mother, frozen to death.

The bereaved children told how their mother had removed her own coat and other wraps to bundle them up in and then buried them in the snow, admonishing them not to stir until she returned. She was going to find her bearing before going farther.

“It was such a long night,” wailed the tearful children. “We were so scared we couldn't sleep and we prayed constantly as Mother told us to do.”

Now the long night was over, but there was no living mother to cling to.

Thorlákur Jónsson assured the nine-year-old Borghildur that she could be a member of his household. She remained there until she married at the age of 18.

The seven-year-old Vilhjálmur was adopted by Björn Thórlaksson.

Gudrún Long’s story remains a symbol of the purest motherly devotion. The curtain separating the living from the dead, so seldom penetrated, was opened by a mother's love -- a love stronger than death.

Notes added by Arlan Steinolfson:

Lauga Geir was the daughter of Jóhann Geir Jóhannesson Geir who brought his 2 sons and father, Jóhannes Grímsson, with him to America from Snorrastadir in Kolbeinsstadir Parish, Hnappadalssysla, Iceland, in 1876. As indicated by his name, this was a case where the second given name was adopted as a surname. Lauga, the daughter of Anna Kristín Jónsdóttir, Jóhann’s second wife, and whose whose proper name was likely Geirlaug Jóhanna, was born in 1888, the year after Jóhann died. She was then fostered by Davíd Jónsson and his wife, Thórdís Gudmundsdóttir, who lived a couple of miles west of the Geir homestead. Lauga remained a spinster her entire life, living as a resident housekeeper for her foster brother, Sigurdur (Siggi) Davidson. She was quite noted for her writings, in particular her play In the Wake of the Storm. Another noted Eyford community writer, the farmhand, handyman, grave digger, and sometime poet, KN Júlíus (Kristján Níels Jónsson), also is tied to the Geir homestead as that is where he lived and worked until he died.

Gudrún Long is Gudrún Einarsdóttir, who had left Iceland with her 2 chldren in 1878. Borghildur is listed in Thorlákur Jónsson’s household in 1885 as a 12 year old servant. Björn, Thorlákur’s son, may have adopted Vilhjálmur, but at the time of the 1885 census chose to list him as a 10 year old servant. By 1900, he has disappeared. This is the Thorlákur Jónsson whose family dominated early Vík (later Mountain) and Thingvalla township - the extended family held at least 1600 acres including and surrounding the village and in adjoining townships - and whose sons include the early ministers, Páll and Níels Steingrímur Thorláksson.

Hallgrímur Jónsson and Nybjörg Jónsdóttir apparently never had children, which may be why they took in Gudrún and her family. There is an agreement on file with the land records which transfers their land to Jóhannes Andrésson subject to the condition that he ‘keep, maintain, and provide ... for the rest of their natural life and give them respectable burials...’ Hallgrímur died in 1897 and is buried in Vikur Cemetery. Nybjörg, who was later listed in the census records as ‘adopted mother’ to Jóhannes, was buried in the Anderson family plot in the Mountain Cemetery after her death in 1918 (burials ceased in the Vikur Cemetery about 1910). My generation will remember the place as the Joe Anderson farm.

Kristján Backman is Kristján Sigurdsson Bakkmann, a widower who lived on the farm 1.5 miles south of Mountain with Viktoría Thidriksdóttir, at first his housekeeper, later his wife, and who had lost her husband, Jósef Gíslason, at some time before 1885. This land was later acquired by Sigurdur Jónsson, son of Hallbera Hjaltadóttir, widow of Jón Sigurdsson, who had homesteaded the land directly east of Kristján’s homestead. The Arni above is Sigurdur’s son.

Although the early settlers had suffered from a lot of deprivations, this story is especially tragic in that the death was so unnecessary. Besides the motherly devotion which is a truly beautiful trait of the Icelanders and, I hope, other people in general, it illustrates another trait which in some cases is desirable, but in this case proved fatal - that of pure Icelandic stubbornness.

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