Ofeigur Sigurdsson and Astridur Tomasdottir, new Icelandic immigrants, had left their homeland in 1887, and had spent two years working in and around Winnipeg as well as in North Dakota.
Astridur found employment as a domestic in wealthy homes and Ofeigur worked as a farmhand.
Photo courtesy of Karen Gummo
Hearing about the promise of better opportunities in the Northwest Territories, they travelled with their four-month-old daughter in June of 1889 by train to Calgary and then on foot and by ox cart over a muddy, bumpy path from Calgary to the settlement of Icelanders near the Medicine River northwest of Innisfail. It took four days to get to the Red Deer River from Calgary. There were no bridges. They had to float their ox and cart across the waterways and coax the horse to swim. This was frightening. Neither Ofeigur nor Astridur could swim, and they needed to keep their belongings dry.
The first Icelanders to settle the Markerville area had come in a large group the year before, in 1888. They were offered assistance by Mr. L.M. Sage who helped them build rafts to cross the river. Perhaps Ofeigur and Astridur received his kind help, too. Other travellers who came in 1889 were Sam and Kristin Grimson, as well as Stephan G. Stephansson and his wife Helga. All were faithful friends.
By the spring of 1892 Ofeigur, Astridur and little Rooney (or Gudrun as she was christened) were well settled in the district. They had found a piece of land on the N.E. quarter of Section 10 Township 37 Range 1 west of the 5th meridian. They worked to put up a log cabin using the timber that they could cut in the vicinity. Eventually there would be six children in the family – Gudrun, Tomas, Cecilia, Struna, Jonina and their adopted sister, Josephine.
According to the Census of Icelanders compiled by Baldwin Baldwinson in 1891 - 92, they had one acre of broken land under roots and vegetables, three cows, seven young cattle, six sheep, 10 poultry, the value of their lands, buildings etc. was $900.00, their capital at commencement had been $150.00, and their net worth was said to be $1180.00.
What accomplishments they had made in three short years.
It was not easy to make headway in this new land. They were isolated from other settlements because they settled west of the Red Deer River and there was still no bridge. As a result they relied on their neighbours, most of whom were of Icelandic origin. This made it difficult to learn English. Indeed, Icelandic was a dominant language in the district for quite a few years. They helped to found a thriving community of hard working people who worked together to get ahead.
The land that Ofeigur chose to homestead looked appealing for there weren’t too many trees on it.
They found it to be a little wet the next spring. There were ways of coping with that. The winter of 1889 – 90 was very mild with little snow. The few animals the settlers brought with them grazed out all through the dark months. The next winter was very long and severe with lots of snow. The stock would have died in many cases except for the fact that the good providers shared their hay with their overconfident neighbours.
Ofeigur used the skills that he brought over from his homeland. He knew how to tend sheep as a shepherd and, from his two years as a farmhand around Winnipeg, became expert at shearing them. Luckily for many of the young Icelanders who were eager to get ahead, there were large sheep ranches in the Nose Creek Valley near Airdrie where they could get work as shepherds. The only way to travel there was on foot, for they could not afford a journey by stage coach, and it took at least four days in each direction. The men would be away for months at a time, leaving the women at home to tend the children and run the farm. Icelandic women had watched their mothers in the old country running the household independently while husbands were away for long periods herding or rounding up sheep.
This new land was so vast. The milk cow could wander miles away when there were no fences, and she did. Astridur would ride their faithful buckskin pony, Blake, across the prairie, listening for the sound of the bell around the cow’s neck. My grandmother Struna told us that sometimes her mother had to travel up to seven miles away to find the milk cow.
Both young parents had to travel, but Ofeigur’s journey was much longer. Sometimes he might leave in the spring and not come back until fall. He came on foot all the way to the sheep ranches in the Nose Creek Valley near Airdrie. Some say he did not walk, he ran. This young man stretched his limbs over open prairie. He moved like a Laplander they said, in a low crouch. The path he followed was well worn by other travelers. It was the First Nations people who pioneered the trails. Along the way, he came across bears, coyotes, and wolves who were known to roam across the prairie in those days. He would have seen many birds, ground squirrels, and other rodents, butterflies and much more. Likely he saw more on the way south to Airdrie, for on the way home he was burdened with his pay in the form of groceries; 50 pound bags of flour, sugar and coffee. He had to lean forward to balance the load on his back.
His first task was to shear the sheep and Ofeigur set a record of 106 sheep sheared in a day. When the shearing was complete the young Icelanders turned to shepherding, as they journeyed with their flock of sheep over the prairie, fattening them up on prairie grasses and clovers.
He walked across the Nose Creek Valley and beyond, taking shelter where he could under rocks, and in caves along creek beds and water ways. He had to know how to find food, how to ward off predators and how to survive in the great outdoors. He likely fed on the plentiful berries that he could find through the summer season.
Late one summer Ofeigur was caught in a fierce snowstorm. It raged on and on. Deciding to stay with the sheep so that he might keep them alive, and not take shelter in his cave, he found that he began to suffer from the cold. Before the storm was over he had found it necessary to slaughter four sheep and wrap their warm pelts around his body to prevent himself from freezing to death. In this way fewer animals died or were lost. He sacrificed the lives of a few to keep watch over many more. He was thankful that these animals had given up their lives so that he could survive the storm.
Now Ofeigur journeyed back northward with some cash in his pocket, a 50-pound bag of flour, sugar and coffee on his back. He came again to the Red Deer River and had to borrow cut timber lying along the bank to fashion a raft so he could make his way across the water without soaking his groceries and himself.
Astridur and the children had been on their own for a long time, keeping the household, the garden, and the farm animals in good shape. If Astridur was lucky she would have had a chance to keep company with the other women of the district as they sat at their spinning wheels.
After four long months, Ofeigur came home to his family. What relief they must have felt to be together again. He made this journey south for the first three summers between 1889 - 1892 and then had little further need to earn cash so far away from home.
Ofeigur was a clever farmer and soon made it so that his own family farm could support him. This had not been widely achievable in his homeland for many generations.