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Icelanders in Lyon County

Part I

In a publication titled “Ninety Years at St. Paul’s,” October 1977, a committee of the members of the Icelandic Lutheran Church in Minneota compiled and wrote a history of the church and that of the early settlers. The following excerpt was written by J.A. Josefson, chairman of the committee:

“Gunnlaugur Petursson was the first Icelandic settler in the Minneota community, homesteading the present Riverside farm (now occupied by the Stensruds) and arriving in July of 1875. The land closer to Minnneota had been largely taken up by Norwegian settlers who preceded the Icelanders. Other early Icelanders were my father and his uncle. My father, “A.,” left Iceland in 1875 at the age of 13, after having been confirmed a year early so that he could accompany his uncle, Joseph Josephson (the father of Victor and Elvira) to Copenhagen, Denmark. The uncle had a business in Copenhagen, Denmark. The uncle had a business in Copenhagen as a locksmith and he had three daughters but no son of his own and he wanted my dad to accompany him. My grandfather had three older sons older than my dad; so there were plenty of boys in our family.

I remember hearing my dad tell how he went to the prison in Copenhagen with a big ring of skeleton keys around his arm, unlocking doors so they could not get open. He was rapidly becoming a mechanic.

When my dad left home, his father gave him fifty crowns which was the equivalent of $12.50. When Gladys, Lois and I visited Iceland a century later, in 1975, fifty crowns were worth 31 cents. So much for the ravages of inflation. My dad shipped as a cabin boy on a sailboat bound for Denmark to meet his uncle, who went by steamboat. The weather proved to be very adverse, and the captain of the boat had to put into port in Norway to get fresh water and food. He didn’t have any money; so he asked my father if he had any, and my dad lent him his fifty crowns. In Copenhagen, my father visited the Tivoli gardens, and you can imagine the impression this part made on a poor young boy coming from the barren wastes of northeastern Iceland. He never forgot Tivoli. We also visited Tivoli Gardens in 1975.

Everybody sailed for America from England in those days. There were no ships sailing directly from Iceland to America. A large party of Icelanders met in England in 1878 to board the ocean steamship. Among the passengers were my dad, his uncle and his cousins from Denmark. My mother, then age 7, was on the same ship. She was the oldest child in the S.S. Hofteig family. The entire party came directly to Westerheim Township, where they knew Gunnlaugur Petursson. Gunnlaugur had come from the same general area in Iceland that Grandfather Hofteig came from, a place near the present city of Egilsstadir. My father’s people came from quite a distance away — 60 or 80 km. — on the northeast coast, Vopnafjordur, which had been one of the trading posts for the Hofteigs.

My dad worked for my great uncle 14 years following their arrival here. They lived on a quarter section which the uncle had bought from a homesteader. He tree-claimed a quarter section south of the original quarter and my father planted the 10 acres of trees for him, some of which are still standing. All that land along the Yellow Medicine River is a little light, but the south quarter, the tree-claim quarter, is the better quarter of the two, which comprise E 1/2 Sec. 8, T 113, R 42. Grandfather Hofteig homesteaded the quarter on which Cecil lives today, SE 1/4, Sec. 2.

I did not know of any Icelandic immigrant train, but in 1879, when 160 Icelanders came out here there could have been one. Icelanders did not bring much personal property with them; so it would not take much of a train to haul them. They didn’t have many possessions. The immigrant trains later on, when people moved from here to North Dakota or Canada, carried livestock and machinery as well as people. I am sure the Icelanders brought no livestock with them when they came here.

(Continued next week)

Sources: “Ninety Years at St. Paul’s,” Committee Members, J.A. Josefson, Cecil Hofteig and Haldur G. (Jimmie) Johnson of Icelander Lutheran Church, Minneota, MN., October 1977.

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