A Pioneer Icelandic Dakota Settler's Story

The Dakota Icelanders Project

A Settler’s Story

Imagine that our great-grandfather, Kristján Guðmundsson, was asked to give a statement at the time he filed his final homestead papers instead of merely filling out forms. It may have went something like this ...

The date is May 21, 1889.

“My name is Kristján Guðmundsson. I recently observed my 55th birthday and have now lived in this country for more than 7 1/2 years. I am a naturalized citizen of the United States, and now fully own the property on which I have worked since I arrived in Thingvalla Townhsip of Pembina County in Dakota Territory, which this year will enter the union as the states of North and South Dakota.

“I have been a farmer all my life. I intend to keep farming, and improving my farm, until I can retire, at which time my sons will be old enough to take over if they so wish. Since I have been here, educational opportunities have increased, so maybe they will want to do something other than farming. If so, perhaps I will be successful enough to help them in other endeavors. If not, then I can only hope that the farm I leave will be enough to get them all started in their own lives.

“My father, Guðmundur Jónsson, who was a farmer, as was his father before him, was born in 1789. In the late fall of 1816, when he was 27, he married a young lady of the same age. This was Halldóra, daughter of Ívar Ívarsson and Guðrún Böðvarsdóttir, who lived for a long time at Setberg, a farm not far from where my father lived in Breiðabólssadir Parish in Sn√¶fellsnessysla. Between 1818 and 1831, my father and Halldóra had 4 daughters. But, unfortunately, there were no sons, and Halldóra was now unable to bear any more children. At the time of the birth of the last daughter, Guðbjörg Ögmundsdóttir was working as a housekeeper for the family. I suppose, as later happened to me, my father just made the best of a sad situation. Guðbjörg, who would become my mother, did not marry my father, but did bear 3 children with him, 2 sons and another daughter. I was the oldest of this second family, being born 11 August 1834.

“I grew up on the this farm, Drángar, and worked it with my father. By the late 1850s, I had not yet married. My father was worried that he would have no grandson, so I arranged to marry a lady somewhat older than myself. And on the 28th of October in 1858, I, at age 24, was married to Ragnheiður Halldórsdóttir, who was then 39 years old. Some questioned the wisdom of this marriage, but we were happy enough. We had 2 sons, Árni, born just before Christmas of 1859, and Guðmundur Halldór, born in the spring of 1863. We honored the firstborn with the name of Ragnheiður's brother, who had been her companion through the years. The second, of course, bore the name of my father. And then the sadness started. First, little Mundi died, just past his 3rd birthday. And 4 years later, in the spring, 10 year old Árni was accidentally drowned.

“I should be relieved, I suppose, that my father did not have to witness this. He was with us for the birth of Árni, but he died the spring after Árni was born. My mother, sadly, also died too young, at age 37 in 1846. So she was not witness to any of this.

“Whether from the grief, or just a result of increasing age, my wife could bear no more children. Not knowing any other example to follow, I followed my father's. We also had a housekeeper working on our farm, a very nice young lady, Ragnhildur Kristín. She was the daughter of Bjarni Ívarsson and Kristín Helgadóttir who lived in the neighboring parish of Narfeyri. Ragnhildur Kristín was born while they were living in Thingeyrar Parish, Húnavatnssysla, on the 22nd of August, 1850.

“I did not consider divorce an option. Where could Ragnheiður go? Where, or how, would she be able to find another man? So we decided that, although unorthodox and perhaps not exactly following the strictures of our religion, we would work out an arrangement. The result was that Ragnheiður continued as my wife and Ragnhildur Kristín became an essential part of the family. She bore our first child 5 years after the death of Árni. Guðbjörg, my mother's namesake, was born in midsummer of 1875. She was followed by another daughter, Kristjana Ragnheiður, named after my father and my wife, in midsummer 2 years later. Our first son, Guðmann Ágúst, was born summer the next year, and the second son, Guðmundur Árni, whom we honored by giving the names of the 2 sons my wife and I had lost, the following winter. The third son, Bjarni, named after Ragnhildur Kristín's father, followed a year later, just a few months before we began our journey to America. It is rather satisfying to know that my wife is the proud godmother to all these children.

“Although by the standards of the time, I was quite well situated in Iceland, I was much aware of how I would have difficulty in providing opportunity for my growing family, now 2 daughters and 3 sons. We had every intention of having more children, but what if all of them were to survive childhood? The farm would provide a livelihood for one son, or perhaps 2, but what of the rest?

“I had read and heard much of the success, though not without hardships, of many of the Icelanders who had been moving to Canada and the United States over the last few years. There land was yours practically for the taking! And more people, not only from Iceland, were going there all the time. And opportunities, even other than farming, seemed almost unlimited. These thoughts weighed heavily on our minds for several years.

“Finally, we decided we would join the people looking for a different future and made plans to leave in the summer of 1881. And, in late summer the trip was made! The travelling group numbered 10. In addition to my family of 8, it included Krístin's younger sister, Jósefína, and the young lady who had been working for us, Sigríður Salómonsdóttir. As with the other emigrants, we first shipped by tramp steamer to the British Isles, then by passenger ship to America, thence by boat and rail to Winnipeg. Here we learned more about the new settlement in Dakota Territory and decided to take our chances there rather than in Canada.

“So it was that we arrived in Pembina, the port of entry to the United States, just after mid-September in 1881. Our journey was also marked by sadness, however, as Bjarni, our youngest son, took sick and died along the way.

“We immediately travelled to Mountain, about 50 miles distant from Pembina. Here I found a plot of land, 160 acres, 2 miles south and 1 mile west of the village, which had not yet been claimed. I immediately arranged for a pre-emption filing on this land and set to work building a place to live. Our first house, like so many others, was a sod house. It was 14 x 18 feet and also had a sod roof, but we did manage to have a board floor, door, and windows. The assessed value of this house was $50.

“As soon as the house was habitable, I started on a sod stable for our few livestock. This, also with a sod roof, was 10 x 12 feet and was valued at $25.

“The land I had chosen was not the best, but was as good as much of the other land around and as good as most of the other that had not yet been claimed. Although mostly prairie, much of it appeared suitable for farming and the rest would serve for grazing.

“By the time we got settled in it was too late to do anything about breaking land. That would have to wait until the next spring. And in 1882 we prepared fully 1 acre which yielded the following year 50 bushels of wheat. By 1884, I had 4 acres in wheat yielding 96 bushels, and in 1885 5 acres, but only 56 bushels yield. In 1886 I had 5 acres planted but no yield due to the drought. 5 acres yielded 50 bushels in 1887. In 1888 I had 2 acres in oats and grap seed, but put the rest in summer fallow. This year I have 5 acres in wheat, 2 acres in oats, and 2 acres in grap.

“We lived almost 3 years in the sod house, building our present house in 1884. This started as a 16 x 20 foot 1-1/2 story frame house with shingle roof. A 7 x 20 foot addition was soon added, also shingled. The house has board floors, doors, and windows and is valued at $250. We also added a 14 x 18 foot stable and 14 x 14 foot sheep house, both of sod, with sod roofs, and a frame grain house with board roof valued at $100. I also have one well, 10 feet deep, with a pump, valued at $20. These farm improvements have a total value of $450. I also have 60 acres fenced, valued at $200, for a total farm improvements value of $650.

“The only farm implement I have is a wagon, bought in 1882. My livestock consists of 4 cows, 2 oxen, 8 young cattle, 32 sheep, and 35 lambs. Our home furniture consists of a cook stove, table and chairs, and 5 bedsteads and bedding. Together with my land, this is the total of my possessions.

“As soon as we were well settled in the new house and felt assured that our new venture would be a success, we were comfortable in adding to our family. Another daughter, Björnína Kristín was born in the late spring of 1885, another son, Guðbjartur Theodór, early in 1888, and we are expecting another child in a few weeks.

“There are times I certainly miss my home. Standing on my farm and being able to look out over the sea, or turn around and look at the magnificent landscape of Iceland, are cherished memories. But life is better for us here. I do not have to doubt that all my children will have an opportunity for a happy and productive future. And we are in the middle of a large Icelandic community, where we can all share our common heritage and look forward to an ever more promising future.”

Sadly, there are no available records from the family itself. They may exist, but I have never been able to find any. Likely Kristján, Ragnheiður, and Ragnhildur Kristín all corresponded with their family back in Iceland and with others from the near family who had moved to America. As far as known, none of this exists. The actual details on which the narrative are based are all gleaned from other sources - mostly church records in Iceland and land records in the United States. Obviously I took some liberty in expressing the thoughts of people I never knew. Whether they actually had them is pure supposition - but it seems likely. Who knows, it may have been exactly like that! If not, then this will suffice, even if speculation, until the real truth is learned.

To finish the story ...

The next month another son, Lárus Ívar, named after Kristín's grandfather and brother, was born. And 3 years later, one more son, Ólafur, arrived in the spring. Kristjan died of unknown causes in the fall of 1899, at the age of 65. The family was now well enough situated so the oldest son, Guðmann ágúst, could be sent to school. Sadly, while at school in Crookston, Minnesota, he died from tuberculosis in 1901. The second oldest, Guðmundur Árni, who at the time of Kristján's death was 19, was now running the farm. Sometime between 1900 and 1910, Ragnheiður also passed away. The mother to all the living children, Ragnhildur Kristín, lived to the age of 83, passing away in 1934.

As to the children:

Guðbjörg married Sigurður, the son of Einar Jónsson and Halla Jónsdóttir, whose family had emigrated from Miklaholt Parish in Hnappadalssyla, in 1874 and 1876, eventually settling in Pembina County. Sigurður, likely from the name of his home county in Iceland, took the last name Hnappdal. They moved to Canada where Guðbjörg died in 1917.

Kristjana Ragnheiður was married in 1896 to Sveinn Jónsson Johnson, son of Jón Jónsson and Thorgerður Jónatansdóttir who had emigrated from Brenniborg in Víðimyri Parish, Skagafjardarsysla, in 1876, and, after living in Canada for a time, settled 2 miles west of where Kristján later homesteaded. Her husband, known as Borgar Sveinn as his father was often called Jón Borg (likely a shortened version of the name of their home in Iceland), took over the home farm so "Aunty Jana" was never far from her family. Sveinn died in 1946 and Jana in 1963.

Gudmundur Árni took over operation of the home farm, eventually purchasing all rights from the 10 other heirs. In 1909 he married Kristjana Guðlaug, the illegitimate daughter of Jónas Kristján Jónasson and Anna Jóhannesdóttir. Anna had married Hannes Björnsson, a widower who had obtained the land just west of Kristján's. Hannes' first wife, Rósa, was the daughter of Jóhann Kristjánsson and Rósa Jónsdóttir from Skagafjarðarsysla, who had homesteaded the land Hannes later acquired. Guðmundur Árni died while working on the home farm, then operated by his son, in 1955, 4 years after his wife had died.

Björnína Kristín, who never married, moved to Seattle where she worked at various occupations and died there in1975.

Guðbjártur Theodór married Guðrún, a daughter of Rósenkar Frímann Hannesson and Helga Jóhannesdóttir, who was a sister to Anna, mother of Guðmundur Árni's wife. Ted and Gunna, as they were always called, moved to the Icelandic settlement in the Mouse River area near Upham, North Dakota, where they farmed. Ted died in 1960 and Gunna in 1974.

Lárus Ívar married the widow Sigrún, daughter of Sveinn Sveinsson and Guðrún Símonardóttir, who lived near Vídalín Church in Akra Township. Her first husband, Árni Guðjónsson, had died unexpectedly in 1913. Lárus eventually took over the farm of Sveinn, and they lived there the remainder of their lives, Lárus dying in 1965 and Rúna 2 years later.

Ólafur, the youngest, also moved to Seattle where he died in 1962 after having been married twice.

The farm that Kristján homesteaded, and which was taken over by Mundi, was in turn taken over by Mundi's oldest son. This son, Guðmann Ágúst, having the same name as Mundi's brother who had died, kept the farm going into the 1960s. It was then sold to Richard Hannesson, a descendent of Jónas Hannesson who had acquired the land to the northeast of Kristján's that was originally homesteaded by Sveinn Sveinsson above.

This document was originally published with the title “A Statement Never Given”. In addition to the title change a few corrections and additions have been made.

Although there may not appear to be that much information in the above narrative, it is still the result of a lot of research effort. This is merely a preliminary draft of a larger narrative which will be made available at some future time. In addition, there are almost certainly glaring errors in the information presented as some is based on as yet incomplete research. However, it is it may be of some interest, particularly to other family members, so it is made available in this form at this time. For those reasons I genuinely hope no one takes the liberty to publish any of the above in any form. In other words, this is meant to be just as stated. If it interests you, read it. If you would like to correct any errors or provide additional information, please contact.

As to the narrative, I still have not identified the crop name grap, though I suspect it was a sort of mustard, very similar to today's canoli. If any reader knows, I would certainly appreciate being informed.

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