In the far northwest, in a remote mountainous region of Iceland known as the Westfjörds a little girl is born. It is early summer but there is still snow lingering in the mountains above the house made of peat, wood and stone; a cold, musty and mostly dark hovel of hallways and small rooms known as Bær. It blends into the landscape, now blooming in new growth and wildflowers. But the joy and hope that summer brings is not mirrored in the birth of this new child for its mother, a poor farmhand in Súgandafjörd.
Helga Jónína Guðmundsdóttir couldn’t look at the child she had just spent hours labouring into the world. This was her fourth and hopefully her last. She couldn’t imagine having to go through this torment one more time. The pain the birth inflicted on her body and then the ache in her heart at the loss. Her first boy Einar had died after only two and a half months. Her four year old daughter Gróa and one year old son Guðmundur had been fostered out to other families in the area. This child would be no different. Another child brought into the world, another ‘blessed’ child they couldn’t afford to keep. Only their eldest daughter, six year old Margrét remained with them. “Take her please”, Helga pleaded to the midwife.
Sigríður Haflíðadóttir looked at the tiny wrapped bundle in her arms. If the child would have any chance of survival, she would have to take her. Times were hard and the small family barely had enough to feed themselves, let alone provide for this new child. She looked to the child’s father, Jóhannes Guðbrandsson who sat next to his wife on the bed against the wall and nodded his solemn consent. This wasn’t the first time she had taken home another woman’s baby after helping the child into the world……….
Elín Jóhannesdóttir was the name given to this little baby girl and she was my great great grandmother, born into the world on the 7th of June in 1863 to parents who could not keep her. My own grandmother Elín Helgadóttir was named after her and this is where my own name originates. I feel proud to be descended from this woman. Hers was not an easy life. Like many in Iceland in those days she suffered loss and hardship but through her story I feel as if there was a certain fire within her, a bright light that could not be extinguished no matter what the world threw at her. She had a resilience that she drew from her faith in God, for she was a deeply religious woman and perhaps it was this faith that kept her hope and will to live instilled so strongly within her. She was the longest living woman in my family tree. Elín is my only centenarian ancestor.
Elín was a witness to Iceland’s transformation from the dark ages into the modern world. She saw Iceland rise out of its own poverty. In the 1940s when Iceland broke away from Danish rule she also saw independence for Iceland as a Republic. She saw the invention of electricity and the telephone, of automobiles and aeroplanes. She was alive during two world wars and lived through the measles epidermic of 1882 and the Spanish Influenza in 1918. Elín witnessed the transformation of small farms into towns and then a city and so much more. Elín was one woman, who I would have loved to have met, to sit down with and listen to her tell her story in her own words, a first hand witness to the days of old and traditional Icelandic way of life long gone.
Helga Jónína Guðmundsdóttir was thirty years old when she delivered her youngest child Elín and gave her away newborn into foster care. Not only did she have to suffer the loss of yet another child, only a month later she was dealt another blow when she lost her husband of six years, thirty-seven year old Jóhannes Guðbrandsson. Records do not tell what he died from, but he was listed as a Þurrabúðarmaður in the 1860 census. This position meant that he was either working at sea or he was working for the fishermen of a ‘fishing camp’ assisting them with their catch after they came back into harbour. Jóhannes and Helga lived near the sea and he was most likely hired out as a labourer as he did not own his own land or have livestock to support himself. But this was the bane of Jóhannes’ whole life, spent working for others. He was the bastard son of a man nicknamed “Barna-Brandur” Guðbrandur Jónsson who fathered nine children with five different women. Jóhannes was born and raised by his single mother Þóra Brýnjúlfsdóttir in the Súgandafjörd area. At the age of thirty-one, he married Helga from Vöðlum, in Önundarfjörd, the next fjord over. She was seven years younger than him, the daughter of Guðmundur Þorkellsson and Gróa Jónsdóttir.
Elín was the youngest of five children. Her siblings were: Einar Jóhannesson (1856 -1856), Margrét Jóhannesdóttir (1857-1925), Gróa Jóhannesdóttir (1859–1947) and Guðmundur Jóhannesson (1862-1926). As mentioned earlier Einar died as a baby and Gróa and Guðmundur were placed into other households in fostercare. The only child Helga was able to keep was Margrét.
After the death of her husband, the widow Helga moved from farm to farm in the Ísafjörd district over the years but working as a farmhand in various households. Some census records show her living in the same household as her children including thirteen year old Margrét at Bær in 1870 and later with her sixteen year old son Jóhannes at Hvílift in 1880. Helga died on the 25th of March 1889 at the age of fifty-five. It is not known whether Elín had a relationship with her mother. This is certainly a possibility as Elín grew up and worked in the same district as her mother.
Stories passed down, tell of Elín being taken into foster care upon birth by the local midwife Sigríður Hafliðadóttir and her husband Þorkell Sigfússon. They were an older couple aged forty-eight and forty-five with grown children of their own. In the 1860 census they were living at the farm Bær where Elín was born, but family stories tell of them living at Skalavík by 1863 and Elín being raised there after her birth.
By 1870 at the age of seven Elín was living at the farm Botn, back in Súgandafjörd, listed as a fosterchild in the household of Þorður Jónsson and María Sigurðardóttir, while the midwife Sigríður and her husband Þorkell were living at a different farm called Göltur in Súgandafjörd. These two farms are not close to one another. There were twenty-two people living at the farm in Botn under two separate households within the one house, which was common in the 19th Century. Everyone had a role to play, even children as young as Elín were expected to carry out various household chores. How Elín’s upbringing was is uncertain. Was she treated well? According to Alda Sigmundsdóttir author of ‘The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days’ it was all too common for children who were dependents of the district to be mistreated and abused. Hopefully this was not something that Elín was subjected to.
Elín was considered an adult at the age of fourteen when she went through her Confirmation with the church, which tested her ability to read and her knowledge of the church teachings as taught by a local priest. This was a compulsory practice in Iceland and as basic as it was, it was most likely the only education Elín and many girl’s of those times received. In some cases writing was also taught.
As an unmarried adult Elín was legally obliged to find herself a position as a farmhand until she married. She spent much of her early life working as a farmhand on various farms in Önundafjörd and Dýrafjörd in the Westfjörds region. According to Alda Sigmundsdóttir in ‘The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days’, as a farmhand Elín would have been obliged to stay at the farm she was positioned at for a year but permitted to move to another farm once the year was up provided she had secured herself another position. The working year ran from May to May and at the end of it was a four-day period in which people were allowed to move to their new positions. These days were known as fardagar or moving days.
According to Alda Sigmundsdóttir in The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days, Farmhands made up twenty-five percent of the population in the 19th Century and while male farmhands received a wage equal to the value of half a cow per year, shockingly female farmhands like Elín received no wages at all. “The farmer had total control over the people who lived on his farm. He was even entitled to any money that a farmhand in his employ might earn… In return the farmer was obliged to treat his farmhands well which meant housing, feeding and clothing them”
It was a monotonous and hard existence for a farmhand. As a woman, Elín was likely to be one of the the first ones awake and the last ones asleep. There was always much to do in the running of the farm and every task was done to ensure the survival of the household in the harshest and most isolated of places. Men, women and children all had to work together and did so to ensure their survival. The women of the house had to divide their activity between the ‘buverk’, or household work; that is house cleaning, cooking, milking and other dairy work along with extra seasonal work. For instance, in the spring there was lambing and sheep shearing or ‘securing the wool’-where the fleece was secured by picking it off the sheep while they were shedding their coat.
In the summer it was haymaking while the men spent day after day cutting the grass the women were responsible for raking-up the thinly spread hay as it was cut by the scythes into what is called ‘flecks’ or patches spread about to a certain thickness to dry. A game was often made of this where the women tried to humiliate the menfolk cutting the grass by doing their best to catch up to them, so the men always tried to stay well ahead of the women. If the women caught up to them it was called “að raka þá upp að rassi” or “raking them up to their asses” and “að gelda þá” or “to castrate them” .
In the winter, while the men spent the long dark days and nights indoors mending and carving, the women were set to work in earnest weaving wool into cloth so clothes could be made. They also took on knitting, stitching, making clothes and shoes not only for themselves but also the men of the household.
At the age of twenty-eight in 1890 Elín was living in her sister Margret’s household at Dalshús in Önundafjörd. Margrét Jóhannesdóttir and Steinþór Erlendur Jónsson ran their own farm. It was a large household with fourteen people living in the one house, including Margret and Steinþór’s two children, his mother and two younger brothers as well as seven farmhands. This was known to be a wealthy farm in its time.
It was in this household that Elín may have first met and fallen in love with her future husband, a promising young man of twenty by the name of Jón Sigurður
Björnsson, also a farmhand at Dalshús, his roots from Vestur-Húnavatnssýsla. He was the youngest son of Björn Guðmundsson and Rannveig Snorradóttir but like Elin he grew up as a foster child in various households.
Elín and Jón were working as farmhands in Saurum, Dýrafjörd when Elín gave birth to their first child Sigríður Guðmunda on the 6th of June 1892 a day before her twenty-ninth birthday. Elín and Jón would not have been permitted to marry unless they had the financial capacity to start their own farm but three years later in 1895 Elín and Jón marry and a year after that, on the 26th of November 1896 their second child Björn Þorkell was born at Dalshús in Önundafjörd.
By the time their third child my great grandfather Helgi Julíus came along on the 17th of July in 1899, Elín and Jón were living at Hjarðadal Innri in Önundafjörd with seven year old Sigríður and three year old Björn. The 1901 census shows that Jón was the head of the house and he was working as a fisherman.
Theirs was a happy but short lived marriage. Sadly only seven years later, Elín lost her husband Jón on the 2nd of September 1908. Family stories say that he drowned but church records indicate that he died in Ísafjörd and was buried on the 9th of September. It is very likely that he died in the hospital at Ísafjörd and that is why he was found in the church records for Eyrarsókn Ísafjörd not Holtssókn in Önundarfjörd. He was living at Valþjófsdal (Dalshús) in Önundafjörd at the time, but perhaps he was working in Ísafjörd or visiting. I have been unable to find confirmation for the true cause of his death. One resource mentions that in the 19th century sheep were often moved from Önundarfjörd to Ísafjörd for slaughter, also sheep from Ingjaldssand and Valþjófsdal. As Jón was living in Valþjófsdal, this could likely be a reason for him being in Ísafjörd.
Elin was left a widow at the age of forty-five and her three children fatherless, a fate Elín as well as many women of the time feared. Men had a much lower life expectancy than women in those days due to the hazards of their work, especially if their work was at sea. Elín may have been forced from her home and her household dissolved and she was back into working as a farmhand for other people. Her two eldest children Sigríður who was sixteen, was considered an adult. She was likely already working for another household at the time, as was common for a young woman to do until she married. Elín’s son Björn was twelve when his father died but by 1901, two years later according to the census, was living with his aunt, Elín’s sister Margrét Jóhannesdóttir at Dalshús in Önundafjörd as a farmhand. Elín and her youngest son seven year old Helgi moved onto the farm at Suðureyri in Súgandafjörd and she became a servant in the household of a forty-seven year old widow by the name of Guðrún Þorðardóttir, who later became her son Helgi’s mother in law. Elín stayed in Súgandafjörd for twelve years working in various positions but mostly as a housekeeper for fishermen.
In 1920 at the age of fifty-seven Elín moved to Reykjavík to her son Helgi who had moved there a year before. Her daughter Sigríður had moved to the city in 1918, while her son Björn remained in Suðureyri in the Westfjörds working at sea. Her faith was sorely tested yet again with the disappearance of her son Björn in May 1927. He was unmarried and childless and last seen in Vestmanneyjar – the Westman Islands. Elín’s obituary tells of the son she lost “he was a promising young man who drowned and was sorely missed by his mother and siblings”.
In 1920 Elín became a member of the Adventist Church of Reykjavík. The predominant faith in Iceland is Lutheran but Elín decided to become an Adventist; according to stories from relatives after she saw the Adventist church in Norway. She adhered to the Adventist custom of Saturday as a day of rest and her great granddaughter Kristín remembers that she used this day to wash and plait her beautiful long hair which reached the floor. She wasn’t allowed to eat pork, horse meat or blóðmör (blood pudding) as was the custom for Adventists. Elín was also very involved with the women’s association affiliated with this church called ‘Alfa’. They organised dances and raised money for those in need in the Iceland and overseas. Kristín also mentions that Elín would sit by her spinning wheel all day long combing and spinning wool and would knit socks and mittens for the church. She attended their meetings while she was still able, up until her death.
My great great grandmother Elín spent the remainder of her life living with her son Helgi, first when he was married to his first wife Þorbjörg Kristjánsdóttir from Suðureyri in Súgandafjörd and their four children and later with his second wife Kristín Larúsdóttir from Hvammi in Dýrafirði.
Elin’s great grandaughter, Helga recalls that her great grandmother Elín spent her whole life working for others. She was never her own master. She remembers fondly:
“When we went to visit amma (grandma) and afi (grandad) I always went straight to ‘lang-ömmu’ (great grandma) and into her room. She was always dressed in her ‘Upphlut’ (national Icelandic costume) and everything in her room was so old. There was an old spinning wheel which I enjoyed letting spin and a small chest, a rocking chair that was fun to rock in and an old chest of drawers for her clothes.”
Elín died on the 9th of January in 1964 at the age of one hundred. Her obituary mentions that she lived a quiet existence with her son and his wife. Her grandchildren were six, including my own grandmother Elín Helgadóttir and her great grandchildren were fourteen. My grandmother Elín wrote about her:
“Amma was a woman of strong faith. When my siblings and I were young she taught us our prayers and many psalms and verses. She always saw to it that we would say these before we went to sleep at night.”
Her great grandaughter Kristín recalls memories of Elín from her childhood:
“She always had candy in the pockets of her dress for the children and enjoyed giving us candy or socks and mittens.”
Another of her great grandaughters also named Elín, recalls a story that her father Hilmar told her of his grandmother Elín when he was a young man experimenting with youth.
“Elín was not one to partake in alcohol and was in fact strongly against it. One night when Pabbi (dad) was a teenager he came home so drunk that he did not make it to his bedroom and fell asleep on the couch in the living room. Elín amma wakes up, comes out of her room and places a hand on his shoulder and asks him with concern: “Are you sick Hilmar? He mumbles something unintelligible and she asks him in a serious tone “Were you drinking Brennivin? ‘(An infamous Icelandic spirit) Pabbi answers patiently: “No, no, just Whiskey”. “Well then”, says the old lady pleased, “all is well then.”
Bárðarson, Hjálmar R., Ísland Svipur lands og Þjóðar, Reykjavík, 1982
Hermóðsdóttir, Hildur, Icelandic Turf Houses, Salka, Reykjavík, 2012
Sigmundsdóttir, Alda, The Little Book of the Icelanders: In the Old Days, Enska textasmidjan, Reykjavík, 2014
Ólafsson, Kjartan, Vestfjarðarit I : Firðir og Fólk 900-1900 Vestur-Ísafjarðarsýsla, Útgáfufélagi Búnaðarsambands Vestfjarða, 1999
Cemetery Database, http://www.gardur.is
Landsbókasafn Íslands, http://www.islandskort.is
Þjóðskjálasafn Íslands Manntöl, The National Archives Census Database, www.mannatal.is
A Celebration of Women Writers: A Sketch of “Home-Life in Iceland” by Madame Sigrid E. Magnusson, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/eagle/congress/magnusson.html
(Accessed through the website http://www.timarit.is)
Helgadottir, E. 1964, ‘Elín Jóhannesdóttir Minning’, Morgunblaðið, 15 January 1964, pg 14
Guðjónsson, K. 1984, ‘Minning: Sigríður Jónsdóttir Yfirmatráðskona, Morgunblaðið, 29 June 1984, pg 26