B is for Björn Einarsson

Along the rocky black coastline of Vatnsleysuströnd in the south of Iceland, one is reminded deeply of man´s insignificance to the forces of nature.  It is here that we are able to witness the evidence first hand that it is truly nature that dictates our survival.  It is here that you can stand in fields of moss covered lava that stretch out from the mountains to the sea and feel the cold hardened insides of the earth that thousands of years earlier spewed forth to create land mass.  Iceland is a volcanic island and it´s natural powers were and still are a force to be reckoned with.

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The rocky lava covered coastline of Vatnsleysuströnd.  This is the lighthouse near the farm of Narfakot, where Björn Einarsson lived with his family.

There is a haunting beauty in the rawness of the landscape and I often wonder if the Icelanders of old loved it or cursed it.  We only have to travel back to 1783 to see Iceland’s population brought to its knees, with the power of nature and its catastrophic effects, after the Laki eruptions and its downpour of lava and toxic gases causing the deaths of up to ten thousand people in Iceland.

It was only thirty-four years after this catastrophic event,  in the winter of 1817 that my own great great grandfather Björn Einarsson was born.  It was a dark age in the history of Iceland.  The common people lived in poverty and constant hardship brought on by the effects of natural disaster, disease and constant bad weather for agriculture.  Not only that, they also had to contend with the hardships brought on by man.  Icelanders were a people oppressed by their Danish sovereign, who made money from Iceland’s resources, but did little to help its subjects.  This compounded with foreign wars such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, left Iceland in dire shortage of imported necessities such as salt, iron, timber, grain, fishing hooks and also hindered their ability to export their own goods.

Common Scurvygrass
The Icelanders would have relied on food nature provided, such as ‘common scurvygrass’ which was high in Vitamin C and other vitamins

The common people of Iceland did the best they could with what they had and it was into this hard world of fighting for survival that Björn was born.

Björn Einarsson was a farmer and a fisherman.  A man noted for his good skills working with timber and metal.  He was also the father of ten children, the son of a male midwife, a providing husband and a brother with thirteen siblings.  He was noted as being a man respected by his peers.  His children were good people as was his father so I know, through the deeds of this ancestors and descendants that he too was a good man.

Björn was born on the 14th of December 1817 at a farm called Eyrarkot on the south coastal peninsula of Iceland in a region known as Suðurnes.  He was one of fourteen children and the second eldest son of the much respected male midwife Einar Jónsson and his wife Hallvör Björnsdóttir.  His parents came from humble beginnings and spent most of their lives in poverty and in poor health but the people of Suðurnes loved them for their generosity and willingness to help others in need.

Björn’s father Einar delivered 300 babies in his time and was often called out late at night and in all kinds of weather.  It was said there was no man like Einar around Suðurnes, in doing what he did to help and support the community.  Einar was also a self taught healer and was called out to doctor the ill.  It is not unreasonable to believe that Einar may have been the one to deliver his own son Björn and that of his other thirteen children and many grandchildren.

Björn’s siblings were: Jón (1814-1896), Guðrún (1816), Margrét (1821), Randalín (1823-1870), Helga (1825-1889), Guðríður (1828), Árni (1830), Einar (1831), Guðlaug (1833) and Júlíana (1835).  Only ten siblings were listed in Íslendingabók.  I suspect the three other children born, died as babies.

Björn was raised in his parents household.  They lived in a turf house shared by two families.  He would have been expected to help out from a young age and may have taken on tasks such as working wool, tending to animals, emptying chamber pots and taking on the role of shepard among other duties.  Going to school was not an option in those days but Björn would have received a basic education with the ability to read and write through the teachings of the Church, whose responsibility was for him to read, so that he could adopt its religious teachings.  Reading was a major part of the Icelanders life, especially over winter during the Kvöldvaka, when the whole household would sit under the candlelight and read stories from the bible and other literature available while the household would complete menial tasks such as weaving, wool carding and mending or making tools.

Kvoldvaka
This is one of my favourite paintings depicting Icelandic life in times past.   I took this copy from the book Ísland Svipur Lands og Þjóðar by Hjalmar R. Bárðason.  The original painting by H. Aug. G. Schiott (1823-1895), Kvöldvaka in the Icelandic Baðstofa is located the National Museum of Iceland.

Björn stayed in his parents household well into his adult life.  He may have worked as a fisherman or as a farm hand during that time.  On the 16th of November 1849, at the age of thirty-two, Björn married twenty-eight year old Þorgerður Pálsdóttir.  She was born on the 20th of February 1821 at Fróðholtshól in Landeyjum, the daughter of Páll Pálsson and Steinunn Guðmundsdóttir and one of sixteen children.   Þorgerður was said to be a most generous woman, and reached out to those that were less fortunate than herself.

It is uncertain how Björn and Þorgerður met.  The census of 1845 shows her as a worker in a household called Skúmstaðir in Rangavallasýsla and Björn was living with his parents at Réttarhús in Gullbringusýsla.  These areas are not overly close in distance. Þorgerður’s father died in 1839 leaving her mother Steinnun a widow, but she moved into her sons home after his death.  They were farmers at Fróðholtshól.  We can perhaps imagine that Björn may have been seeking summer work in that area, as was common for men of the Suðurnesjum to do, for cash work, though stories are often told of them travelling north rather than east, but it is a possibility.  Otherwise, it may have been Þorgerður that found work in a household, near Björn’s home and that was how they met.

Sveinbjorn Bjornsson
Sveinbjörn Björnsson, Poet and Stone-mason, was the son of Björn Einarsson.

Björn and Þorgerður had ten children.  Nine of these children grew to adulthood.  They were Sigurður (1850-1931), Þorbjörg (1852), Guðmundur (1853), Sveinbjörn (1854-1931), Valgerður (1857-1941), Páll (1859-1941), Júlíana (1861-1935), Steinnun (1863-1932) and Þorbergur (1867-1943).

In 1850, Björn and Þorgerður were living at Miðhús in Suðurnes, in a turf home.  There were two families living in this house.  In one part of the house lived his parents and three of his siblings, Árni (20), Helga (24), Júlíana (15) and a thiry-one year old fisherman by the name of Árni Jónsson.  In the other part of the house was Björn,  his new wife and his eighteen year old brother Einar.

Thorbergur Bjornsson
Þorbergur Björnsson was the youngest of Björn´s children. He was a well respected stone mason.

Björn and his father were listed in the 1850 census as ‘tomthús’ men which meant they lived off the income that fishing provided and did not farm at the time.

Five years later in 1855, Björn, Þorgerður and their four children Sigurður (5),  Þorbjörg (4), Guðmundur (3) and my great grandfather Sveinbjörn (1) were living at a new residence, a farm near the ocean called Narfakot, in Vatnsleysuströnd.  This was on farming land, so Björn was able to house sheep on his property and also fish over the winter, if he needed, which provided an added income for the large family.

Björn and Þorgerður lived at Narfakot nearly their whole married lives.  Their children were raised there by the windy sea where the fish was aplenty and they grew to become successful and well respected adults.

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You can just see the grassy outlines of ruins of the old turf house at Narfakot in Vatnsleysuströnd, where my great great grandfather Björn Einarsson lived most of his life.  Today, a guest house is run on the property.

Björn died on the 14th of March in 1894 at the age of 76.  He lost the love of his life Þorgerður, five years earlier on the 24th of March 1889 at Narfakot.  She was sixty-eight years old.  After the death of their parents, their sons, bachelor brothers Páll and Sigurður continued running the farm at Narfakot, sometimes with tenants, at other times alone.  They died as old men aged well into their eighties.

Kort Bjorn Gunnlaugssonar Gullbringusyslu og Kjosar
This is an enlarged and edited copy of a map by Björn Gunnlaugsson of Gullbringusýsla and Kjósarsýsla, drawn in 1831.  This shows a few of the farms where Björn Einarsson lived thorughout his life.  Hloðunes is underlined in Red, Narfakot is in orange and Miðhús is underlined in blue.

Below  is a poem written by Björn’s son Sveinbjörn and I like to think it is a reflection of the sort of persons Björn taught his children to be.  To me, it is a reflection of the kind of man his son Sveinbjörn was as well as the people he came from.  It is difficult to translate to English but I am told that this poem is the advice given to a young man that honesty and friendship is the way to win the hearts of others.

 

Heilræði við Ungan Mann.

Mannlífs braut er myrk og hál
millum krappra boða,
æskumannsins óspilt sál
er þar stödd í voða.

 

Því er bezt á lífsins leið
að leggja dygðum búinn,
hjálpar þá í hverri neyð
himnesk von og trúin.

 

Vinur hverjum vertu’ í þraut
virtu’ hið göfga’ og sanna,
svo þú hreppir heims á braut
hylli guðs og manna.

 

-Sveinbjörn Björnsson, Ljóðmæli

 

 

Sources:

Bárðarson, Hjálmar R., Ísland Svipur lands og Þjóðar, Reykjavík, 1982

Björnsson, Sveinbjörn, Ljóðmæli, Fjelagsprentsmiðjan, Reykjavík, 1924

Finnbogason, Guðmundur A., Í Bak og Fyrir: Frásagnir af Suðurnesjum, 1985

Hjálmarsson, Jón R., History of Iceland: From the Settlement to the Present Day, Iceland Review, Reykjavik, 1993

Jóhannsdóttir, Arnbjörg Linda, Medicinal Plants of Iceland: Collection, Preparation and Uses, Mal og Menning, Reykjavík, 2012

Sigmundsdóttir, Alda, The Little Book of the Icelanders: In the Old Days, Enska textasmidjan, Reykjavík, 2014

Websites:

Þjóðskjálasafn Íslands Manntöl, The National Archives Census Database, Manntalið for Björn Einarsson 1835, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890,  www.mannatal.is

Íslendingabók, http://www.islendingabok.is

http://www.islandskort.is

Newspaper Articles:

(Accessed through the website http://www.timarit.is)

Kunnugur, 1932, ‘Ekkjan Steinnun Björnsdóttir’, Visir, 14 May 1932

Kristjánsson, K, 1931, ‘Sveinbjörn Björnsson, skáld’, Morgunblaðið, 1 November 1931, pg 8

Vinur, 1943, ‘Minningaorð um Þorberg Björnsson, steinsmið’, Morgunblaðið, 19 January 1943, pg 7

A is for Albert Jónsson

‘There is hardly anything as beautiful as the sea on good days, or clear nights, when it dreams and the gleam of the moon is its dream.  But the sea is not a bit beautiful, and we hate it more than anything else when the waves rise dozens of metres above the boat, when the sea breaks over it and, no matter how much we wave our hands, invoke God and Jesus, it drowns us like wretched whelps.  Then all are equal.  Rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and the sad.  There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it´s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.” -pg 8, Heaven and Hell, Jón Kalman Stefánsson

I begin this post with this excerpt from a book I am reading about a young Icelandic fisherman who loses his best friend to the sea on a fishing expedition at the turn of the twentieth century.  This is a fiction novel, but it speaks a truth about how Icelanders must have felt about the ocean.  It was an event that occurred all too often in Iceland´s history.  The sea stole many lives.  It was therefore not a surprise that this excerpt also sadly reflects the fate of one of my own ancestors, my three times great grandfather, Albert Jónsson.

Fishing played a major role in the lives of many Icelanders, whose island sits in the North Atlantic ocean within short distance of some of the world´s richest fishing grounds. Fishing was vital to the Icelander´s survival but the life of a fisherman was risky and uncertain as weather conditions could be unpredictable and the sea could change from calm to crazy in a matter of hours.

For centuries, it was a part of the Icelandic way of life for men to farm in the summers and fish over the winter period,  if the farm had fishing permits.  Only those farms near the ocean had the rights to fish and if a farmer owned a boat, he could hire a crew.

Albert was one of those men who left their homes over the winter for fishing huts scattered across the coastline where boat landings were possible.  Rowing was taken up in wooden open boats called a sexæring or sixereen, meaning six oared boat.  They also rowed eight oared boats called an áttæring.  A crew of 6 to 8 strong men manned these boats, including the foreman, who was responsible for reading weather conditions and would make the decision whether they would row that day or not.  As a fishermen Albert would have had to endure not only hours on end in rough or calm seas, but also the constant feeling of being cold and wet.  His fishing clothes would have been made from the skin of sheep, cured and oiled and his shoes of sheepskin or fishskin, which did not do much to keep the water out.  In later years, rubber shoes were introduced, which made a big difference in fishing footwear.

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This is a photo of a replica sixereen located at the Ósvör Maritime Museum in Bolungarvík.  Here I met Jóhann, the museum guide in July 2017.

It was the winter of 1858 that my ancestor Albert Jónsson, a young man of 32 was claimed by the sea, along with all his crew.  They had been rowing out from Ósvör, in Bolungarvík, not far from the mountains and fjords, where he was born and raised.  It would be a few days before his wife received news of the accident, a few days before she would be forced to face the world anew as a widower with two young boys under the age of seven.

What a hard life for the wife of a fisherman!.  How many times had she stood by the door of her turf house, and watched her husband walk away, a knot in her belly, praying under her breath to God, ‘please spare my husband, please let him return to us’.?   Oh, the elation she must have felt in her heart as she remembered in times past, his strong figure in the distance, walking the track, alongside their mountain towards home, his pack heavily loaded with fresh fish and other necessities.  The look on his face must have been one of weariness after a 3 hour walk in the wintry white landscape, but the spark in his eyes, would speak of a joy and love for the family that awaited him.

Albert Jónsson was one of many good men lost in the prime of his life to the sea, but his story begins in 1826 with his birth at Tannanes in Önundarfjörður, on the 11th of January.  Tannanes was a farm run by his parents Elín Eiríksdóttir and Jón Ólafsson.   Albert was the oldest of five children- Ragnheiður (1827-1874), Þuríður (1829-1830), Ólafur (1830-1895) and Guðfinnur (1833-1834).  Both Þuríður and Guðfinnur died as babies as was all too common in those days.  Elín and Jón came from respected people, including well known bishops, priests and councilmen in the Westfjords region of Iceland.

At the age of 15, after the death of his father in 1841 Albert left home .  His mother Elín remarried a man named Einar Jónsson and went on to have two more children with her new husband.  They were Guðmundur (1844-1901) and Kristín Hólmfríður Hallbjörg (1846).

Albert was working at Holt in Önundarfjörður for the next five years as a general labourer.  He was 20 by the time he came to Suðureyri in Súgandafjörð in 1846 and it was in this household that he first met his future wife Guðfinna Þorleifdóttir.  She was only 14 at the time and had recently arrived in Suðureyri with her father Þorleifur Þorkelsson from Fjallaskaga in Dýrafirði.  He had been the previous head of the house for Suðureyri.  At the time his daughter Kristín Þorleifsdóttir and her husband Guðmundur Guðmundsson ran the household at Suðureyri.

Albert Movements Map
Map supplied from the book Firðir og Fólk 900-1900 Vestur Ísafjarðarsýsla.  The words boxed in red pen are the places where Albert worked. 1.  Tannanes 2. Holt 3,6,9 Suðureyri 4. Laugar 5. Hjarðardalur 7. Bær 8. Staður and 10. Gilsbrekka.

 

Albert was a wanderer over the next few years, moving from farm to farm for work as a labourer.  He left Suðureyri and was at Laugum for one year and then went to Hjarðardal in Önundarfirði and finally he arrived back at Suðureyri in 1849.

Upon his return to Suðureyri, Guðfinna was a young 17 year old woman and 23 year old Albert couldn´t keep away any longer.  It was generally frowned upon to be with a man unless you were married but less than two years later, on the 19th of January, their first child Kristján Albertsson was born at Suðureyri.  Albert was 25 and Guðfinna 19.

Kristjan Albertsson
Kristján Albertsson was the eldest son of Albert Jónsson.  As there are no photos of Albert Jónsson, perhaps we can get an indication of him through his son.

That spring the young family moved to another farm in the district called Bær and it was  while they lived there that they married on the 19th of September, nine months after Kristján was born.

Over the next years the family moved from Bær to Stað and Suðureyri but only stayed one or two years in at each place.  It wasn´t until the spring of 1856 that Albert and Guðfinna finally became masters of their own farm when they took over the lease of Gilsbrekka in Súgandafjörður and moved there with their two sons Kristján and Jóhannes, who was in his first year.  It is not known whether other people came with them, but the previous farmer at Gilsbrekka Egill Ólafsson stayed on, along with his wife and they owned some sheep.

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The farm of Gilsbrekka is likely the rocky grass ruins on the left near the water or somewhere hereabouts.   Taken on my walk of Súgandafjöður in July 2017.

Gilsbrekka is a small parcel of land, about 300sqm.  The homefield was small and the outerfields difficult to work, but the grazing land was very good and sometimes grazeable over winter.  Albert only kept a small amount of livestock on his land which meant that the household was not overly profitable.  To makeup for this Albert took to rowing in Bolungarvík in the winters.  In good conditions the mountain road is easy to walk and only takes about 3 hours from the farm at Gilsbrekka to Malir in Bolungarvík and even shorter to Ósi if rowing from there.  It was therefore possible for Albert to drop home on weekends when the opportunity presented itself and he was able to provide the family with fresh fish and other necessities.

To be able to work away from home over the winters, Albert would have needed to have people at home who could care for the livestock and he would have likely used Egill Ólafsson to help with the livestock and assist his wife as needed.

Gilsbrekku to Bolungarvik Map
The yellow lines highlighted show the two possible walking routes Albert may have taken to get to the fishing outstation at Bolungarvík from Gilsbrekka, which is outlined in blue.  It was said that this walk was about 3 hours in good conditions.  Map provided by the website islandskort.is/en/

It is unknown whether Albert rowed in Bolungarvík the winter 1856-1857, but it is likely so.  The following winter he was rowing from Ósvör in Bolungarvík, but it was a hard winter and on the 2nd of February 1858, Albert´s ship disappeared with all crew on board.

To ensure her survival and that of her sons, Guðfinna kept the farm running, but to do that she needed help.  In the spring of 1858 she hired a farm manager, a promising young man by the name of Sigurður Jónsson.  He was 24 years old when he took over the running of the farm.  Two years later Guðfinna and Sigurður were married.

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This is the Ósvör Maritime Museum in Bolungarvík taken in July, 2017.  Here stands a replica of the fishing huts used by Icelandic fishermen in centuries past.  I had not known when I visited the museum that my own 3 x great grandfather Albert had rowed from this place, the day he died 159 years earlier.

 

Sources

Þorvaldsson, Kristján, 1962, ‘Kristján Albertsson Bóndi á Suðureyri’, Ársrit Sögufélags Ísfirðinga, pg 6-8.

Íslendingabók

Sigmundsdóttir, Alda, 2014, ‘The Little Book of The Icelanders: In the Old Days’, Prentmidlun, Reykjavik

Alphabet Ancestors – A New Challenge

It’s been a long while between posts.  During that time I have continued my search into my bloodlines and have even recently returned from the adventure of travelling to Iceland, to reconnect with the land and my people and to delve deeper into the history and lives of my ancestors.

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Now, though is the time to put pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard to write about the people that came before me, in a way to honour their lives and also so to ensure that my children have something in English to read about their ancestors, if it happens to interest them one day.

 

Alphabet Ancestors was an idea of mine, inspired by Amy Crow Johnson’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge with the goal to blog about one ancestor per week in the hopes of getting into the habit of writing regularly.

However, I’ve spun a twist to this. I feel very lucky to have the benefit of Íslendingabók, an online national genealogical database listing all of my known ancestors from now back to the viking ages, but because I have hundreds of ancestors to choose from it frequently leaves me baffled as to where to start and who to start with so I’ve decided to select my ancestors using the letters of the Icelandic alphabet.  Each week will be a letter of the alphabet and I must chose an ancestor from my tree, whose name begins with that letter.

The challenge will run for 32 weeks from A to Ö, as the Icelandic alphabet consists of 32 letters, some of which are not found in the English alphabet and only the Icelanders use.  Icelandic also does not contain the letters C, Q W and Z.  Added letters are Á, É, Ð, Í, Ó, Ú, Ý, Þ, Æ and Ö.

Posts will be released every Saturday…fingers crossed.

Let the challege begin……