“This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of North Dakota Horizons magazine.
This excerpted version is reprinted with permission.”
In the northeast corner of the state, a small group of North Dakotans is celebrating its heritage in a big way. Icelanders are not as large in numbers as those of Norwegian or German descent in the state. But what they lack in size, they make up for in pride in their history, heritage and homeland.
North Dakota Icelanders also boast an impressively thorough genealogical record, a strong connection to the homeland of their ancestors, and the largest Icelandic festival in the United States, The Deuce of August, also known as The 2nd of August.
“The Icelandic community is small, but the people are very proud of their Icelandic roots,” says Pam Olafson Furstenau, an active researcher and presenter of the history and heritage of North Dakota Icelandic settlers.
Pam is a fourth-generation North Dakota Icelander. She and her uncle, Curtis Olafson, who is president of the Icelandic Communities Association, and George Freeman, an active researcher of North Dakota Icelandic history, share the importance of preserving the history, heritage and celebration of their ancestors.
The first Icelanders came to North Dakota on the waves of hardship. “Everyone who left Iceland had their own story, but many left because their future in Iceland was grim,” says Pam.
At the time, Iceland had brutal climate conditions. Ice at times blocked fjords, and intermittent volcanoes destroyed farms, which brought many animals and people to their deaths. In addition, there were many financial and societal problems caused by trade monopolization from Denmark and over-population of the habitable areas.
A sharp divide formed between those who believed in staying in Iceland and those who set out in search of a new homeland. “I didn’t know before I started researching Icelandic history just how destitute most of the settlers were when they came to North America and how some friends and family who stayed behind disowned them,” says Pam.
Pam says that in the late 1800s an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people left Iceland, approximately one-fourth of the country’s population. “They felt like they had to go, but it wasn’t accepted by the people who stayed. Some of them never talked again.”
However, the struggles that began in their homeland followed the Icelanders to North America. A large number of immigrants settled in Canada, but eventually decided to set out in search of land for a new settlement.
In 1878 Pastor Páll Thorláksson, known as “The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota,” set out from the Gimli settlement in Manitoba, Canada, to find a new location for an Icelandic settlement. He travelled with 20 men on a steamboat to Winnipeg and then on to Dakota in search of land in Pembina County.
One of the first explorers of Pembina County was Jóhann Pétur Hallson. He, along with his son, Gunnar, built the first Icelandic home in the new settlement. Today, an Icelandic church housed in Icelandic State Park and a cemetery at the church’s original site nearby are named in his honor.
The new settlement in the northeast corner of the state grew quickly. “The immigration was fast and most of the settlers came to the area until between 1878 and 1883,” says historian Freeman. “At this time almost all of the homestead land was taken and the settlers began to move in 1886 to near Upham, north of Minot, and Roseau County in Minnesota. From 1900 to 1910 many Icelanders left Pembina County for unsettled areas in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.”
Despite the prospect of a new life, the settlers struggled in their new land. “When the Icelanders came to North America, they suffered greatly,” says Furstenau. “They worked and worked to make it. We have no clue how hard it was for them to change from herdsmen and fishermen to farmers.”
North Dakota was very different from Iceland, which made survival difficult in the first years of the settlement. “The immigrants didn’t know how to farm, and this was an extreme climate compared to Iceland,” says Curtis Olafson. “The winter cold and the summer heat were extremes they were not used to. There also are few insects in Iceland.”
Although the settlers struggled, they remained rooted in their faith and made it a priority to build places of worship. Nine Icelandic churches were built in northeast North Dakota. “Until a church was built religious services were held in private homes, and most homes had the custom of reading sermons, Bible verses, praying and singing hymns every day,” says Pam.
Pastor Thorláksson died before the Icelandic churches were built, but his vision remained with the settlers. “He envisioned the legacy of the Icelandic prosperity in America and the potential the Dakota Settlement could bring. This helped to ensure the success of the Dakota Icelandic pioneers.”