Icelandic Settlement in the Swan Valley

The decades between 1870 and 1890 were years of poor economic times in Iceland.

For a number of years harsher weather patterns than normal were experienced, contribut­ing to an already poor economy. Volcanic erruptions forced others to seek new places to dwell.

In Iceland as in other European countries, Canadian and United States Governments were promoting immigration by every means possible to fill the vast spaces in their countries. The Icelanders decided to make a new start in North America.

In October of 1875, 285 Icelandic people arrived to start a settlement on Lake Winnipeg. A second group followed in 1876. Though a devastating epidemic of smallpox struck the colony around 1876, by 1900 the Icelandic population was near the 10,000 mark and groups were searching for places to move to start new colonies. The full story of these first Icelandic settlers can be read in The Icelandic People In Manitoba by W. Kristjanson.

Some of these hardy, adventuresome people found their way to Swan River Valley, many first having settled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Baldur, Win­nipegosis or parts of the United States; a few came directly from Iceland.

P.R. Belanger, a surveyor working in the Dauphin area in 1896 was approached by a group of Icelanders who had been unable to find land suitable for a new colony. He was asked for information on the Valley of the Swan River. As he was unable to comply, the group hired a guide and started for the Valley to see for themselves. The leader of this group was Sigudor Chistopherson of Argyle, government immigration agent.

When the Valley was opened for settlement in 1898, the Icelanders began to arrive interspersed with other settlers. Jake Vopni and family, along with his brother-in-law Gunnar Helgason and family, arrived by ox team and wagon from Dauphin. They had first settled near Baldur. They brought with them a herd of cattle and sheep, which made travel slow. The journey took one month. Haldar Egilson, Simunder (Sam) Helgason, John Hrappstead, Mrs. Ingueldur Jonsson and four sons, John Eggertson, Halldor Eggertson, G. Palsson, Gudsundar Laxdall, Johann Laxdall, John Swanson, Sigudur Sigurdson were others who came in 1898 and 1899. There were many more.

The Icelandic people settled mainly in two general areas but neither could be rightly be called a “colony” as they were interspersed with others of different backgrounds and each family lived independently.

The area on the west end of the Valley included Harlington, Egilson, Big Woody, and Thunderhill School Districts. The settlement on the eastern side was spread from Egre­mont District to Craigsford.

In 1916 the Icelandic people in the west part of the Valley decided to build a Community Hall. Logs were taken out and sawed at Egilson’s sawmill. The actual building began in 1917 with volunteer labour under the supervision of a well known carpenter, John Simundson. Located on the northwest corner of section 11-36-29, across from the Laxdall home, this hall was used until the early 1920’s for a variety of social and cultural activities. In 1927, the United Church bought the hall to move to Fairdale where a cemetery had been established on two acres of land donated by Johann Laxdall. By 1930, few people remained to support the church and the building was moved to Swan Valley District for a home.

For a number of years an Icelandic Lutheran Minister visited the Valley during the summer, holding services on Sudays and Bible study during the week. He would instruct those that wished to be confirmed in the church. He spent many hours travelling from place to place covering the Valley in his ministry.

These pioneers like most in the Valley, suffered from the usual privations in the early years. Other jobs on the railway, and in sawmills were taken to supplement the farms until production increased. A few were discouraged and moved to other places – most stayed to help develop our Valley to what we see today.