E is for Elín Jóhannesdóttir

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……….

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The modern farm Bær in Súgandafjörd.  It was here in this valley in 1863 that Elín was born.  The old houses were called Turf houses.  They were rudimentary but made use of what was available to the people of the time, the earth, rocks and occasionally timber; imported if the people were rich, or driftwood collected from the sea.

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.

Elin and Grandchild
This is a photo of my great great grandmother Elín Jóhannesdóttir possibly holding her eldest grandchild Elín Helgadóttir approx 1926.  She would have been 63 years old.

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.

Badstofa Grenjardarstadir, Adaldal
A photo of an Icelandic Baðstofa or Bath Parlour in a turf house called Grenjaðarstaðir in Aðaldal.  This gives us an insight into the sort of accomodation Elín may have lived in throughout her early life.  The turf houses of old were known to have poor lighting and heating yet this is what the people were used to and accepted this as it was.  Candles and fish oil were used for light while heating came from the kitchen or in some houses, the livestock were housed beneath this room to maintain warmth.  This room which was the centre of the household, was used for sleep, indoor work, entertaining, learning, eating, birthing and dying.  Photo from the book Icelandic Turf Houses . Photographer Gunnar Rúnar Ólafsson, 1959, Ljósm. Rvk.

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.  

InkedInkedInkedSkalavik and Baer1_L2_LI
This map shows the various places Elín lived throughout her life.  Underlined in orange is Skálavík where Elín was raised after birth, in blue is Bær where Elín was born, in purple is Dalshús where Elín lived and worked for many years in her sister Margrét’s household. Underlined in yellow is Innri Hjarðadal where Elín and Jón lived as a married couple and their third child Helgi Júlíus was born.  Map supplied by http://www.islandskort.is

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.

Icelandic Kitchen
Drawing of a woman in a typical Icelandic turf house kitchen.  Image taken from the book ‘Ísland Svipur lands og þjóðar’, pg 62.

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

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A portrait of Elín’s husband Jón Sigurður Björnsson fisherman and farmer (1870-1908).  He was only thirty-eight years old when he died.

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.

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The farm at Hjarðardal Innri was situated in this picturesque valley nestled at the base of these mountains Torfhorn and Kambafjall.  It was here that Elín’s third child, my great grandfather Helgi Julíus was born in 1899.  This photo was taken on my travels in Önundarfjörd in July 2017.

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.

ElsaWedding
Elín Jóhannesdóttir and her youngest son Helgi Júlíus Jónsson at her grandaughter’s wedding in 1949.  Elín was eighty-six years old

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.”

 

 

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Elín was buried at the Fossvógskirjúgarður on the 15th of January 1964.  She is buried next to her son Helgi Júlíus and his second wife.

 

 

Sources:

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

Internet:

Cemetery Database, http://www.gardur.is

Íslendingabók, http://www.islendingabok.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

Newspaper Articles:

(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

 

 

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D is for Daði Guðmundsson

Daði Guðmundsson came from a long line of priests.  (Pronounced Dathy Gudmundsson) His own father, grandfather and great grandfather, were known priests and assistant priests in the southern region of Iceland in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Iceland is a Christian country having converted to Christianity in 1000AD from paganism.  In 1551 the reformation of religion took place in which the doctrine of the Lutheran Church was instated as the religion for Iceland over the old Icelandic faith which favoured the practices of the Catholic Church.

Reverend Daði, as was his title, was a priest in the district of Mýrdal in south of Iceland around the same time that the well known Reverend Jón Steingrímsson, moved south to Reynishverfi.  They were good friends and later colleagues as priests in neighbouring parishes.  In his memoirs, “Æfisaga”, Jón gave this description of Daði:

“He was not a prosperous man, and was often with me at Hellum; I often took care of his children.  He was a joyful man and loved to sing, which suited my temperament, was funny and good with verse, however he was not a very grateful person.  I didn’t let that bother me, as he was my priest and as his parishioner, should overlook such things because of his position.”-Lesbók Morgunblaðsins 9 Jan 1966 by séra Gísla Brynjólfsson. 

Daði Guðmundsson was my 6th great grandfather.  He was born on the 6th of August 1706, the only child of Guðmundur Jónsson and Ingibjörg Daðadóttir.  His father was a poet and an assistant priest in Steinsholt, Gnúpverjahreppur, Árnessýsla, (See map below).  His mother Ingibjörg was born and raised in Steinsholt and this is where Daði’s mother and father would have met.  Ingibjörg’s father Daði Halldórsson was a priest at Steinsholt also in his time, and an assistant priest at Hruna in Hrunamannahreppi and Stóra-Núp in Gnúpverjahreppi over various years.  It is easy to see why Daði himself must have either felt the push, whether from his own family members or within himself to pursue a career in the clergy.

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Underlined in yellow is the farm Steinsholt in Gnúpverjahreppur.  ‘Guesthouse Steinsholt’ is run from the property today offering accomodation and horseriding tours in the beautiful Icelandic countryside with views to Eyjafjallajokull.  It also boasts being close to famous Icelandic landmarks such as Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir. The website for the guesthouse is at http://www.steinsholt.is where you can view beautiful images of the area from their gallery page.

Iceland during Daði’s time was a country wrought with poverty and hardship.  Not only were the weather and landscape a contender for survival but also men who sought to take advantage of the country and its inhabitants.  Denmark was its sovereign, their king was Frederick IV.  Learned men were respected peers of society but the ruling Danish merchants and men of government still thought themselves far above the dregs of society; the common people of Iceland.  For Daði, a position in the clergy would have been a respectable position for him to aspire to.

Daði was only a year old when his father died in 1707 possibly from a terrible smallpox epidermic which ravaged Iceland in 1707 killing about 18,000 people.  His mother remarried a widower man by the name of Kort Magnússon, a law enforcer (lögréttumaður) at Árbær.  He drowned in 1733 in a little lake between Lækjarbotna and Kýraugastaðasels in the south of Iceland.  I wonder how difficult Daði’s childhood was.  It certainly was for his mother, who lost two husbands in her lifetime.  Daði was her only child but I wonder what events shaped this boys life, for the man he grew to be was deeply flawed.

The road he travelled was a bumpy one.  In the winter of 1729-1730 at the age of around twenty-four, Daði was attending school at Skálholt; a school to educate the clergy so that he could attain a position as a priest.  However Daði was expelled from the school for violence against another student by the name of Eirik Guðmundsson.

SkalholtInWinter
Skálholt is a historical site in the south of Iceland at the river Hvítá.  From 1056 to 1785 it was one of Iceland´s two episcopal sees ( the bishop’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction) along with Hólar.
Alongside the bishop’s office, the cathedral and the school, there was extensive farming, a smithy, and, while Catholicism lasted, a monastery. Along with dormitories and quarters for teachers and servants, the town made up a sizable gathering of structures.  The above photo is titled ‘Skálholt in Winter’ [By Andreas Tille – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=498741%5D
Daði eventually gained his qualification and was given permission to preach by the Bishop Jón Árnason.  Sadly this was not the end of his troubles.

It was custom for a priest who had attained his licence by the Bishop and completed his studies to return to his home and keep working alongside his family until a permanent position at a parish became available.  When Daði had completed his studies, he found work at sea at Höfnum and was also required to perform the duties of priest, though this was not his permanent parish.  On one occasion he stood at the altar at Kirkjuvogs Church and it was said that he did not appear to have his senses entirely with him as he preached to the local community and what was worse, this news traveled to the bishop. The bishop wrote a letter to Daði and commented about this incident reflecting that it was not likely Daði was suited to the role of priest as someone who sought alcohol at any opportunity it was presented.  It became difficult for Daði to gain a permanent parish, but he did receive some interest in a parish called Keldnaþing in March 1736 at the age of thirty but nothing came of it and he turned his attention to farming.

Daði became a farmer first at Árbæ in Rangárvöllum and then at Lambafell under the mountain of Eyjafjall but he is noted in a couple of sources as not being a successful farmer.  Finally he received a parish at Stóradal and was ordained as priest there on the

Fra Dyrholey til Reynisfjall
Looking from Dyrhólaey to Reynisfjall and Reynisdranga. This beautiful landscape was part of Daði’s parish in Reynisþing.  Image from the book Ísland svipur lands og þjóðar by Hjálmar R. Bárðarson, page 345

18th of May 1750 at the age of forty-five.  After six years at this parish he was transferred to the Reynisþingum parish in Mýrdal on the south central coast and he held that parish up until his death at the age of seventy-three.  It was said that for the last seven to eight years of his service he was completely blind and relied solely on his assistant priests.

Daði lived through the violent eruption of the volcano Katla in 1755, one of the largest and dubbed “angriest” volcanoes in Iceland.  It sits under Mýrdalsjökull Glacier north of the town of Vík in Mýrdal.

The eruption is said to have lasted 120 days and would have resulted in large scale glacial flooding. It is said that people were often scared of crossing the plains in front of the volcano because of the frequent glacial bursts and deep glacial river crossings.  The flood waters went mostly west of Hafursey, north of the outwashed black sands of Myrdalssandur.   Two men died due to lightning strikes and about fifty farms where abandoned temporarily.

Location_of_Katlas_caldera
Daði and his community at Mýrdal would have been affected by the volcanic eruption of Katla in 1755.  His community is nearly directly south of the Glacier Mýrdalsjökull, which lies on top of the volcano Katla.  Image By RicHard-59 – Iceland location map.svg from Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10171253

In 1760 Daði was in charge of the whole of the Mýrdal region.  There were two parishes in Mýrdal.  These were known as Reynisþing which had churches at Höfðabrekku and Reyni and Sólheimaþing with churches at Dyrhólum and Sólheimum Ytri.  This meant Daði would have serviced four churches.  Travel between parishes was often by horse, over rough landscape and in all kinds of weather, but it is said that Reverend Daði had some help from an assistant priest.  Daði was described as being short and obese, weighing in at about 120 kilograms and unlikely to have coped well with the travel between churches.  I had wondered if it was a common occurrence for priests to have assistants.  I found a book called “Travels in Iceland” written by Scottish explorer Sir George Steuart MacKenzie in the early 19th Century which discusses this ; “The duty of each parish devolves upon a single priest; with the permission, however, if his own circumstances do not allow the full discharge of his duties, to take an assistant from among the young men educated for the church who have not yet obtained a permanent position in life.”

Daði’s duties as priest for the community would have included christenings, marriage and death services as well as regular Sabbath (Sunday) church services and holy occasions.  An ordinary service of the church consisted of prayer, psalms, a sermon and readings from the Scriptures and it is known that the prayers and readings were chanted rather than spoken by the priest.  Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, again noted a typical Sabbath at an Icelandic church in his book “Travels in Iceland”:

“A group of male and female peasants may be seen gathered about the church waiting the arrival of their pastor, all habited in their best attire, after the manner of the country; their children with them, and the horses which brought them from their respective homes grazing quietly around the little assembly.  The arrival of a new-comer is welcomed by everyone with a kiss of salutation; and the pleasures of social intercourse, so rarely enjoyed by the Icelanders, are happily connected with the occasion which summons them to the discharge of their religious duties.  The priest makes his appearance among them as a friend:  he salutes individually each member of his flock, and stoops down to give his almost parental kiss to the little ones, who are to grow up under his pastoral care.”

Dyrholey1
This map shows the parishes of Reynisþing and Sólheimaþing with three out of the four churches highlighted: Ytri Sólheimar, Dyrholar and Reynir.  The fourth Höfðubrekka is located on the otherside of the mountain Reynisfjall.

The common priest was not wealthy.  Like his friend Jón wrote in his memoirs, Daði was not a prosperous man.  He would have been required to farm alongside his clerical duties, to provide a living for his family and it was known that priests often lived in little better conditions than that of their parishioners as stated in the book “Travels in Iceland” by Sir George Stueart Mackenzie,  ‘Their habitations are constructed merely of wood and turf like those of the farmers of the country and are equally destitute of all internal comforts.  A stove, or place for containing fire, is scarcely ever to be found in them.  Often there is only one apartment in the house to which the light of the sun has free access, or where there is any flooring but the naked earth; and the furniture of this room seldom comprehends more than a bed, a broken table, one or two chairs and a few boxes in which the clothes of the family are preserved.  Such is the situation during life of the Icelandic priests and amidst all this wretchedness and these privations, genius learning and moral excellence are but too frequently entombed. “

Daði married twice.  At the age of twenty-five he married his first wife Þóra Gottskálksdóttir.  They had four children together: Árni 1732, Ástríður Þorbjörg 1734-1796, Elín 1735-1738, and Gottskálk 1737-1774.  He lost his wife and daughter Elín in 1738.  There may have been some sort of illness that took his wife and daughter from him at the same time.

In 1740, thirty-four year old Daði married his second wife Sólveig Grímsdóttir who was eleven years younger than him.  They had seven children together.  They were:  Daði 1740, Jón 1741-1741, twins Guðni 1742-1808 and Þóra 1742-1808, Guðmundur 1743-1780, Þorbjörg 1748-1815, Grímur 1750-after 1762.  It is interesting to find here that Daði and Sólveig had fraternal twins Guðni and Þóra.  The twin gene does appear to be strong on my mother’s paternal side who is descended from Daði and Sólveig’s twin son Guðni.  Other twins have shown up in their descendants, including recently that of both of my sisters, who gave birth to naturally conceived twins within 10 weeks of each other.

Solveig came from a respectable family.  Perhaps Daði’s position as priest bought him a respectable wife. Her father was Grímur Jónsson, a sheriff at Brekku in Holtamannhrepp in his younger years and later a district counselor for Rangárvallahrepp.  Solveig is believed to have died sometime after 1762.

Reyniskirkja
The modern church Reyniskirkja was built in 1966.  It is located in Reynir in Mýrdal on the southern coast of Iceland.  There has been a church in this location since around the time of Iceland´s conversion to Christianity in 1000AD.  It was a church made of turf up until the mid 19th Century when a timber church was built.   The mountain behind the church is known as Reynisfjall.  Photo by Jóna Þórunn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
Daði, a man of god, who enjoyed life with song and poetry and perhaps too much of “the drink” died on the 1st of September 1779 at the age of 73.  He was the first priest buried at Reyniskirkja.  His good friend Reverand Jón Steingrímsson mentions Daði and the last time he saw him in his memoirs “Æfisaga”

“The old blind priest at Heiði feels his death drawing ever closer,, said he knew precisely when he would die, asked me to bury him and perform the burial service.  He let me assist him blindly outside, where we parted; blessed one another, and he sang my departure from his house with this verse: (written in Icelandic)

Af himna hæðum

hjálpræðis renni sól

með gleðigæðum.

Gúð sé þitt hlífðar skjól. etc.,

which he sang with a rich voice.  That was the last time Reverend Jón was fare-welled upon departure from the house, this simple custom no longer practised.”

 

 

Sources:

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

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

Mackenzie, Sir George Stueart, Travels in Iceland , William and Robert Chambers, Edingurgh, 1842

Steingrímsson, Jón, Æfisaga: Jóns Prófasts Steingrímssonar, Sögufélag, 1913.  *Accessed through the website Bækur.is: http://baekur.is/is/bok/000209172/0/443/AEfisaga_Jons_profasts

Websites:

Íslendingabók, http://www.islendingabok.is

Landsbókasafn Íslands, Map 59. Dyrhólaey, Danmörk, 1936, http://www.islandskort.is,

Wikipedia: Katla_Volcano, viewed 10 Sept 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katla_(volcano)

Wikipedia: Skálholt, viewed 10 Sept 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skálholt

Wikiwand, Reynir í Mýrdal, Viewed 10 Sept 2017, http://www.wikiwand.com/is/Reynir_í_Mýrdal

Frímann, J.  3 April 2011, A short history of volcano eruptions in Iceland, viewed 10 Sept 2017http://www.jonfr.com/volcano/?p=765

 

 

 

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.

20170714_164642
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.

20170714_164554
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.

20170707_104642
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.

20170704_163659
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 post 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 post 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.

Let the challege begin……

The Helmsman

  A TWIST OF FATE 

Helgi Julius Jonsson

My great grandfather Helgi Julius Jónsson was a man of the ocean, just as his father and countless generations before him were. He was an Icelander and they were bred tough, especially in the region where he was born – the Westfjörds, one of the most remote and rugged regions of Iceland.

Helgi was a born and bred fisherman.  He knew that the ocean was something to respect and give thanks for. It gave life with the sustenance of fish and fed hungry families, and yet it could snatch life away in the blink of an eye. One mistake or a sudden turn of the weather could mean never returning to the embrace of loved ones.

In 1924, Helgi graduated from the Stýrimannaskóla in Reykjavík, which gave Helgi the ability to work in the position of Helmsman, and Ship´s Captain on a ship.  Wikipedia states “The Helmsman was responsible  for maintaining a steady course, properly executing all rudder orders, and communicating to the officer on the bridge using navigational terms relating to ship’s heading and steering.”

Helgi worked on a ship named Max Pemperton RE278 for fourteen years as a helmsman. This was an English ship, manufactured by Cochrane and Sons Ltd in Selby England in 1917, however by 1935 the ship was owned by h/f Reykjavík.

Max Pemperton RE278

Max Pemperton RE 278.

In January 1944, nearing the end of the World War 2, 44 year old Helgi was due to set sail with Max Pemperton, and would be heading out to sea shortly, but his hand broke out in a bad rash and was so swollen that he had to see a doctor. The doctor told him to remain behind from this trip so that they could investigate this reaction further. He was given leave from this journey and another man was called to take his place on the ship.
No sooner than the ship had left the harbor, the swelling in Helgi´s hand disappeared. It was such an odd occurrence, but how could Helgi have known then that, that would be the last time that the ship Max Pemperton was ever seen again.

The ship perished with all 29 men on board. It was believed to have sunk at Malarifi at Snæfellsnesi on the 11th of January, on the north west coast. The ship may have been subject to military aggravation, but bad weather may have also played a hand in its demise.

Helgi lived to be 97 years old. He was married twice and had four children to his first wife Þorbjörg (Thorbjorg) Kristjánsdóttir. His oldest daughter Elín Helgadóttir was my grandmother.

Helgi sailed all through the war years to England with fish. From 1948 he was the number one helmsman on the ship Ísborg from Ísafirðir (Isafirdir) in the north west and from 1956 he worked for a net manufacturing company called Hampiðjunni in Reykjavík. He retired from working life in 1987 at the age of 88 years.

Photo of Max Pemberton by Guðbjartur Ásgeirsson.
Courtesy of Website
http://thsof.123.is/blog/2015/09/20/736701/

Where it all started

I first got started in family history at the age of 17.  That was 14 years ago.  I have always had a love of history, but when I was presented with the story of my maternal grandfather, who was first fostered out to the only grandparents my mother knew and later adopted, I was left with a persistent desire to know who his real parents were and why he was adopted.  This is what started me on my family history journey.

With the help of my parents who are both born and bred Icelanders, I wrote up a list of questions to ask.  This list of questions,  I found in a book about finding your ancestors and I mailed these off to my grandparents in Iceland.  They answered to the best of their ability, but there were many gaps.  I was surprised to learn that my grandfather knew who his birth parents were and also, most of his birth siblings, as he listed their names on the questionnaire with all their dates of birth and some death dates.  So it was interesting, especially for my mother, to know that her father, who never spoke of his birth family, when she was a young girl, knew about his birth family.  With the help of my father I took the liberty to search for these siblings, and found that some of his younger siblings were still alive and living in Iceland.  I was able to find their address details and send them this same family history questionnaire, with my details, email, postal address and why I was chasing this information.

A few weeks later I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email, and it was from an Icelandic cousin, I had never heard of.  He was a man in his forties, writing on behalf of his mother, who was my grandfathers birth sister.  He said that his mother had been so excited to hear from me and she and her other sisters had always wondered about their older brother and what he looked like and was doing now.  From this cousin, who was himself an avid genealogist, like a large majority of Icelanders, I was sent through all the information he had collated on my grandfathers birth parents and siblings as well as photos of them.  To their delight and with the permission of my grandfather, I sent them some photos of my grandfather, who they had never met or seen .  He also connected me with Islendingbók, which is Iceland´s genealogical database, and I was suddenly bombarded with information and my own family tree, which dated back to characters from the Icelandic Sagas, in 850 AD.  I was told to take some of this information with a grain of salt, as the accuracy was not necessarily there, being such a long time ago.

Suddenly I had too much information, but it was this simple curiosity of mine that led to the reunion of my grandfather and his sisters, who finally met for the first time a few months later.  I wish I could have been there to witness this, but I was still in high school, and had to suffice with photos of the event.  I love to imagine that it was their mother and father, my great grandparents, now long gone from this earth, that somehow, aided me on this journey to reunite their children.  It was meant to happen.

And this was where it all started…..

Journey

Kristján Albertsson and Guðrún Þórðardóttir (Gudrun Thorthardottir).  Two names.  Two individuals who came together, to create a family.  But what´s the story behind these two names, these people of the past, my ancestors, my great-great grandparents.  I don´t want to just know their names, and dates of birth and death.  I want to know more.  Who were these people?  What was life like for them?  What were their hopes?  What obstacles did they have to face?  I am a curious person.  Our generation take for granted so much in life, so I want to know what it took to survive, what our forefathers had to endure for us to get to where we are today.

Come with me on a journey of the imagination.  Let’s go back 135 years to a place and time so vastly different from the world we live in today.  Let’s leave this modern world of fast paced people and mind boggling technology for a simpler time.  This place is nestled at the base of a snow capped mountain and the formidable sea, in a place almost forgotten, a place so remote and rugged that it is a wonder that people survived there at all.  But they did and still do.

It is 1883 and this place is in such a remote part of Iceland that the only access to the place is by boat, via the sea. No roads have been built, no tunnels through the mountains, like today.  The Westfjords of Iceland, are my focus, and more specifically, Súgandafjordur  Turf houses are the accomodation, mode of travel is by foot, boat or horse.  Staple diet is fish.

It is a day in mid autumn, and a young couple join in matrimony amongst family and friends.  This is the bridegroom´s second marriage.  At 32 he has already seen much heartache and sorrow in his life, but no more than others in his community, for he knows like everyone else that life gives as it does takes, and that is just the way of life.  He looks upon his beautiful brown eyed bride, who is 9 years younger than he, but as the first registered midwife of her district, knows he has found a capable and resilient woman.

They go on to have 14 children, 11 of whom survive to adulthood, but mostly what I have is dates and names of places.  I want to dig deeper and find this family’s story.

My goal is to find out more about their life and piece together their story using resources from Icelandic books and records about the family and region and using social history to fill in the blanks.  This blog will hopefully journal my discoveries along the way.

My home is in Australia, so wanting to discover the world of my ancestors on the other side of the globe in Iceland presents a few obstacles, but this blog will hopefully be enjoyed by immediate and extended family who want to find out more about our common ancestors and anyone interested in family history.  I am by no means a professional genealogist.  I just have a love for family history and culture and have always desired to write.