Ed. Note: Rosa Benediktson was the daughter of the poet, Stephan G. Stephansson. Her son, Stephan, in getting his mother’s books ready to donate to the Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba, discovered a manuscript written by his mother.
This manuscript plus various speeches and articles has now been edited by Mooréa Gray and published as a book called Looking Back Over My Shoulder.
It is short and a pleasant, easy read. Anyone interested in the life of Stephan G. must have a copy.
Rosa is interesting in her own right. She brings a woman’s perspective, not just to being Stephan G’s daughter, but to the lives of Icelandic settlers who did not go to New Iceland. It is essential that the lives of the settlers and their descendents outside New Iceland be documented. New Iceland may be the heart of Icelandic immigration in North America but knowing only about the heart without any knowledge of the arms, legs, torso, neck, head leaves one with little knowledge, indeed.
We are a whole and, because Iceland’s population is so small and, comparatively, the North American community is so small, it is essential that we know about and acknowledge all of us.
I apologize, in advance to Mooréa for any violence I do to her work. The reader truly needs to buy the book and read it but these bits and pieces that I have strung together will, hopefully, provide a flavour of the memoir.
My ancestors immigrated to North America in 1873 from the northern area of Iceland. In Iceland, both my maternal and paternal families lived in Bárðardalur, in the county of Þingeyjar, where my father’s folks had moved when Father was fifteen. One of my father’s memories of moving north to Bárðardalur was that he saw two wonders of Nature for the first time, namely a rowan tree and a hog. He remarked that he thought the tree was a marvelous creation, but the hog was just so-so. When he returned to Iceland in 1917, he tried to find the tree but was told it perished in a fire.
The future held little or no promise of bettering their lot at that time, and there were immigration agents around from America who painted a rosy picture of life across the sea. As proof of their good judgment, in 1917 when my father visited the area where he was born and raised, all their farmsteads had been abandoned due to sand erosion and other difficulties of various nature.
So, on August 4th, 1873, all the passengers embarked on the S.S. Queen bound for Glasgow, the first leg of their journey to America. In all there were 153 people, of those 30 were destined for Milwaukee, US and the rest for Ontario, Canada – my family being among the former group. So, at two in the morning, the ship set sail and the emigrants said farewell to their homeland.
The accommodation on the Queen was far from regal. The immigrants were in crowded quarters, altogether in bunks along the wall and in the center of the room was the baggage, which they had to somehow crawl over to get around. There was a cargo of horses in the hold and a chimney up through the middle of the ship, but it was ill fitting, and the stench from the animals permeated the air in the cabin. That together with a choppy sea resulted in nearly everyone being sick, especially during the first few days. The food was strange for these people and not appetizing. So all in all, the journey was far from comfortable. They arrived in Granton, Scotland on August 10th.
There was a form of customs to go through before boarding a train, which was to take them to Edinburgh and from there to Glasgow.
The railway trip was fascinating and of great interest. They saw great forests and yellow fields of grain, and my father was greatly impressed by the beauty of Edinburgh and the scenic landscape of the countryside.
My father found the stores [in Edinburgh] fascinating with the variety of wares. Here for the first time they came in contact with shoe-shine boys, Negroes, donkeys pulling carts, inebriated women, women selling apples on the street, and parrots who talked.
On the 12th of August, all were on board the Manitoban for the journey across the Atlantic.
The ship was now wending its way up the mighty St. Lawrence, and, on the morning of August 25th, cast anchor at Quebec City. The group was met by Rev. Paul Thorlaksson, and here the group was divided – the majority was going to Ontario, but my family was going to Milwaukee. They bought their railway tickets then proceeded to a restaurant where they had a fairly good meal for 25 cents.
On the 29th of August, at about six in the morning, my father woke up from a deep sleep to a state of confusion on the train. The train stood still, people were milling about trying to get out, there was screaming and praying. It was impossible to get out as the exit was blocked with people. In one instant the car was full of heat and smoke, and so my father threw himself out of the window. No doubt this saved his life and he escaped burned, bleeding, and somewhat dazed.
Several people died, and of the Icelandic group about five were injured, luckily not seriously and no one succumbed. There was bedlam, but those who were able helped.
From Grand Haven the group went across Lake Michigan on the S.S. Ironsides arriving at Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 6 a.m. on August 30th, 1873. One of their countrymen, John Halldorson, resided in a large home in that city to which all of the group went and stayed – eighteen in number all told. Here they rested, were checked by a doctor, and had their injuries tended to. Most of them left on September 9th. My father and his group left after nine days for Stoughton where my father obtained employment.