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John Taylor and the Pioneer Icelandic Settlement in Manitoba and his Plea on Behalf of the Persecuted Jewish People

by Wilhelm Kristjanson

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 32, 1975-76 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

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Part I - The Icelandic Background

One hundred years ago, on 11 October 1875, 285 Icelandic settlers arrived in Winnipeg. Some fifty of these, almost all young people who found employment in the city, remained in Winnipeg, while the main body proceeded to the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, north of the then northern boundary of Manitoba, to the unsettled territory that the Canadian government had set aside for them. The official conductor of the party was a man by the name of John Taylor. Who were these Icelandic newcomers, and how did they come to be on their way to this remote and unsettled territory in the heart of the North American continent?

Iceland was discovered, or rather re-discovered, by the Norse and fully settled in the period 874-930 A.D., by the Norse from Norway and from the Norse settlements in Ireland, and a few from Scotland. Among the settlers from the British Isles there were many Irish retainers. Only the coastal fringe of Iceland was habitable and the total population in the colonization period numbered no more than about 60,000.

In 930 A.D. the freedom-loving, independent-minded Icelandic people established a parliament – Althing - and until 1262 Iceland had an aristocratic-democratic form of government. A comprehensive code of laws and regulations was developed, including some advanced social laws. In the 12th and 13th centuries especially, there burgeoned a remarkable literature, the semi-historical sagas and the histories that have been rated the best in Europe of that age.

The 13th century was characterized by internal feuding between powerful chieftains. As a way out of constant and intolerable strife, in 1262 the Icelandic people accepted the personal over lordship of the king of Norway. Later, this over lordship passed on to the king of Denmark. About 1660, at the time of absolute rulers in Europe, the Danish king asserted his absolute rule over Iceland.

Restrictive Danish rule, especially an oppressive Danish trade monopoly, led to a period of economic stagnation. Natural disasters in the 18th century caused a further deterioration of conditions: a small-pox epidemic, in 1707, caused the death of 18,000 people, or one-third of the population, and a violent volcanic eruption in 1783-1784, is estimated to have caused the death of 9,000 persons. About the year 1800, the population had declined to an all-time low of 47,000.

In the 19th century, conditions began to improve, but a volcanic eruption in 1875 spread devastating ashes over an extensive territory, and in the 1880s harsh weather conditions with pack ice inshore on the north coast seriously affected the pasture-hayland that supported Iceland's main industry, sheep raising, as well as the important fishing industry. However, in 1872 the population numbered 72,000.

Despite these hardships, there was a growing spirit of independence associated with the Romantic movement in the early part of the 19th century. The Icelandic people were all literate and, through the sagas especially, they had a remarkable knowledge of the history of their country. They were independent-minded and democratic in their outlook and they cherished the tradition of their 300-year republic of the saga age and their thousand-year Althing, attenuated as its powers had become under Danish rule. Theirs was a tradition of law and order. They were a rural people, the capital city of Reykjavik having a population of only 2,000. They had no knowledge of grain-farming or forestry. There was no army, not a soldier in the land.

Emigration to North America began in the 1870s, although a tiny group of Icelanders had settled in Utah as early as 1855. In 1870, four Icelanders arrived in Wisconsin. In 1872 the first permanent Icelandic settler in Canada, Sigtryggur Jonasson, arrived in Ontario. A group of 115 persons arrived in 1873 and were directed to Rosseau, in the Muskoka district of Ontario, and 365 arrived in 1874 and were directed to Kinmount, about 80 miles northeasterly from Toronto.

Conditions in Ontario were unfavorable for the Icelandic newcomers. The Rosseau (Hekla) country was largely a wilderness of heavy timber and rocks, under water spring and fall. At the time of the arrival of the Kinmount group, the weather was very hot. The newcomers were housed in excessively crowded quarters. There were at least twenty deaths. At the start, there was railroad work but this disappeared with the New York bank crash of 1872 which caused widespread unemployment on the North American continent. Members of the group began to disperse in search of employment on farms, at sawmills and the like. The wages were generally fifty cents a day, but some of the farm workers received as little as ten cents. At Kinmount, the nucleus of an Icelandic community developed. Some rented land and acquired cows. The people organized their own school, with Sigtryggur Jonasson giving instruction in the English language. However, prospects did not look promising in the winter of 1874-1875.

Part II - John Taylor enters the picture

The Icelandic Settlers move to Manitoba

At this point John Taylor enters the story. He was born in the Barbados, in Bridgetown, in 1812, the son of a British naval administrative officer, then a plantation manager. Another son, William Stuart, was eighteen years younger than John. John received a good education. He attended college in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at Oxford University. In 1844, at the age of 32, he delivered an address at a college or university in London. "It was a very long speech." He studied theology, but did not complete his studies and was not ordained.

In 1848 John Taylor and his 18-year old brother William moved to Canada where they settled at Kingston, Ontario. Later, William moved to Lansing, Michigan. John Taylor was married; his wife's name was Elizabeth. At one time or another Taylor was a teacher and a merchant. Then he became a lay missionary in the service of the British-Canadian Bible Society. He conducted a so-called Shanty Men's Mission among the lumberjacks in the bush camps north of Peterborough, Ontario.

John Taylor and Elizabeth had no children of their own, but when William's wife, Isabella, died, they took into their home his five daughters, Elizabeth, Annie, Caroline, Susan, and Jane. Caroline was then nine years of age. Elizabeth married at the age of sixteen. When William remarried, Annie and Caroline returned home while Susan and Jane remained with their uncle. The five girls described their aunt Elizabeth as a very kind person and a fine housekeeper, and they were very happy in their well-ordered home, a large comfortable log house.

It happened late in 1874 that Caroline, then with her father, at Lansing, passed through Kinmount to visit her uncle's family. There she saw an Icelandic woman who greatly impressed her and she heard much of the Icelandic settlers and their hardships. When she told Taylor of this experience, his interest was aroused. At the turn of the year 1874-1875 he took a trip to see the new settlers and he investigated conditions. He liked the people. He immediately secured from the railway company some improvements in the housing, and thereafter devoted himself to bettering their lot.

In the spring some of the Icelanders moved to Lindsay, Ontario. "The people there were good to us, and often helpful, but there was little work and the prospects were poor." The stay at Lindsay was brief, but many years later the book seller there referred to the high class literature bought by the Lindsay group.

Despite initial hardships, the general feeling among the Icelanders was that Ontario was a suitable place for settlement. However, the cherished dream of the people was the establishment of an Icelandic colony with sufficient room and free land for future immigration from Iceland, and by the spring of 1875 it had become apparent that there was no territory in the Free Grant area of Ontario suitable for a large colony.

The newly established province of Manitoba was then coming to the fore in the minds of the people of Ontario. The problem for the Icelanders was how to get there. John Taylor and Sigtryggur Jonasson, a leader among the Icelanders, proceeded to Ottawa. There they laid the problem before the Minister of Immigration, who had been a fellow student of John Taylor's at Oxford. He readily agreed to finance an exploratory party to Manitoba, to be headed by John Taylor, with two delegates chosen by the settlers. The settlers elected Sigtryggur Jonasson and Einar Jonasson. Three others proceeded at their own expense: Skafti Arason, Kristjan Jonsson, and Sigurdur Kristofersson, the last named from the Wisconsin group. The official delegates met the other three at Moorhead, Minnesota, on the Red River, where Taylor received them into his party, "trusting the additional expenses would not be objected to by the Department." The party of six arrived in Winnipeg, July 16.

They were favorably impressed with the Red River Valley, except that Winnipeg and some other parts suffered from a plague of grasshoppers that darkened the sky and dead grasshoppers were swept up by the wagon-load on Main Street and were piled several feet high along the river bank. After inspecting the country around Winnipeg and having made inquiries about different localities within a hundred miles or so, the delegates explored along the west shores of Lake Winnipeg. The country was wooded, there was good hay land on the Icelandic River and an abundance of fish was reported in the lake. Also the Canadian Pacific Railway was then scheduled to pass through the Crossing, now Selkirk. For a colony site the delegates selected territory extending along the lake front, from the Manitoba boundary on the south to 42 miles north (in 1877 reduced to 36 miles) past Icelandic River and about ten miles in depth; also Big Island (now Hecla Island). They named the region New Iceland.

The official delegates returned East and reported to the Government and to the Icelandic people. Again John Taylor and Sigtryggur Jonasson proceeded to Ottawa to seek assistance for the move. The initial response was that the government had authority to provide funds for immigration, not for migration within the country. Also, the cabinet ministers interviewed were dubious about the desirability of the Icelanders as settlers. At this juncture, Governor-General Lord Dufferin proved a friend in need. He held Icelandic people in high regard from the time of his visit to Iceland in 1856. He now intervened on behalf of the petitioners, pledging his official word of honor as Governor-General that the Icelanders would prove desirable colonists. A grant was made that enabled the settlers to proceed to Manitoba.

It took some time to assemble the people from their various places of employment. Some were anxious to proceed immediately; others thought it prudent to wait till the following year. On September 25, the party left Toronto. At that time there was no rail connection with Manitoba, so the route was on the Great Lakes to Duluth, thence by rail to Fisher's Landing, then on the Red River to Winnipeg. Accommodation on board the lake steamer was not up to today's standards. Simon Simonson says in his diary: "When cargo goods, luggage, and other litter had been stacked on board, and a quantity of livestock, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry, had been squeezed in, our turn came and we were packed like sardines on top of the luggage ... We were compelled to sit there and endure the stench of the livestock. The boat was so small and unstable that two of the crew were kept continuously ... rolling two sand barrels against the list ... In addition we met with rough weather ..." The journey to Duluth took five days.

At Glyndon, a wayside station near Fisher's Landing, there was a stopover on a Sunday. John Taylor conducted a religious service, in the course of which he expressed his belief that God had chosen him to lead the group into the great and unknown land. "Apparently the old gentleman thinks he is a chosen leader, like Moses. Who knows but this is so," was a comment made. The steamer International met the party at Fisher's Landing. Accommodation was limited on board the ship so that the majority were placed on flatboats which the steamer had in tow. These flatboats were without shelter and the journey took several days, marked by delays, negotiating shallows in the river. During the Red River journey, Olafur Olafsson from Espiholi suggested that they name the first town in America, which they proposed to build at Icelandic River, Gimli, after the home of the gods in Norse Mythology. The suggestion met with general approval.

The landing in Winnipeg was at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The coming of the Icelanders was an important event in a frontier community of 3,000 people and a large crowd was gathered at the landing place. Despite well-informed and favorable publicity in the local papers, including The Manitoba Free Press and The Standard, some of those assembled found their preconceived ideas wide of the mark. "Where are the Icelanders? Show us the Icelanders!", were exclamations heard. John Taylor pointed to the group. "There are the Icelanders. You can see them there."

But he was not believed. "We know what the Icelanders are like. They are short, about four feet tall, rather stout and thick set, with long, black hair and much like the Eskimos. These people are not Icelanders. They are white people." Taylor was rather at a loss what to say but answered with an indulgent smile. "I met these people down East, in Ontario, where they had recently come from Iceland. No one doubted that they were from Iceland, and I have accompanied them in the firm belief that they are genuine Icelanders. But of course you may believe what you like." The local papers described the first Icelandic settlers in Manitoba. "They are a smart-looking, intelligent, and excellent people and a most valuable acquisition to the population of our Province."

The Icelandic group arrived in Winnipeg on October 11. It came as a shock to the people to learn that no preparation had been made for their reception in New Iceland. No haying had been done. The thought of taking cattle along must be abandoned. On the 16th they proceeded on their way north on six flatboats and a york boat. At the mouth of the Red River they were taken in tow by the Hudson's Bay Company steamer, The Colvile. In face of a threatening storm, the captain dropped them off at Willow Point, about three miles south of the present town of Gimli. At Gimli they built temporary quarters, log cabins and shanties. Taylor's cabin was more pretentious than the rest, having double walls packed with clay, but it did not prove satisfactory.

The Dominion Government advanced a loan of some five thousand dollars to the New Iceland colonists, and with these funds John Taylor purchased supplies in Winnipeg. Some of the merchants seized the opportunity to dispose of quantities of old, unpalatable pemmican, flour of a poor quality, and weavilled beans.

The abundance of fish reported in Lake Winnipeg had been one of the main reasons for the choice of the colony site. Many of the settlers were experienced deep-sea fishermen, but their first attempts at fishing on the lake were not successful. They set their nets too close inshore and caught sticks and other rubbish. The mesh of the nets which they had brought from Iceland and Toronto proved either too small or too large and in Winnipeg they were unable to secure nets suitable for fishing on the lake. John Taylor offered a five dollar reward for the first Lake Winnipeg fish caught. The first catch was a gold-eye, a species unknown to the Icelanders, and a group of interested spectators gathered around. Two of the settlers caught sixty fish in December.

The colonists lost no time in establishing a school at Gimli. A letter dated 30 October, 1875, from John Taylor to the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba reads:

"The Icelanders in the colony are desirous of having a school for their children as soon as they can put up a school house. They have a teacher with them and wish to be connected with the regular educational system of Canada."

A formal petition for a school, dated 10 January 1876, was forwarded to the Dominion authorities. On March 8, the Minister of the Interior wrote to the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, "to remind you that the Department is not charged with the education of any but the Indian children." However, at Christmas the colonists had organized. their own school, with the capable Caroline Taylor as teacher.

The colonists were virtually on their own as far as government was concerned. On January 4, at the suggestion of John Taylor, they formed a village council of five. The Council chairman and John Taylor were jointly appointed Justices of the Peace by the Lieutenant-Governor. According to Taylor's report of January, 1877, no cases had appeared before them. During the winter, Taylor conducted Sunday services, with Fridjon Fridriksson at his side, translating for the benefit of those who did not understand. Social life and recreation were limited, but Taylor's home was somewhat of a social centre and there was visiting back and forth and reading from cherished books. A paper, in longhand, had 3 or 5 issues.

As the winter advanced, and it was a cold winter, the problem of food became more acute and only additional supplies of food sent in by the government removed the fear of starvation. Cold houses, hastily built on ice and snow, and an inadequate diet, especially the lack of milk, affected the health of some during the winter. However, in general health conditions remained good till March, when scurvy made its appearance. Women and children were the chief victims and there were several deaths.

During the summer of 1876, perhaps half the population of the colony went south to Manitoba for employment, in Winnipeg and on farms. Others, who had moved on farms outside Gimli, set about cultivating the ground for grain and garden crops. The agricultural implements were pick axe and hoe. In June a herd of cows was brought in and there was some success with fishing. There were storms and heavy rains in the summer and the crops were destroyed but in the fall the weather cleared and haying proceeded. "But they are, in view of everything, satisfied with their location and prospects," said John Howe, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, in his report of 9 August 1876.

In the summer of 1876 twelve hundred Icelandic settlers arrived in Canada, almost all of whom proceeded to New Iceland. Settlement extended north to Icelandic River and to Big Island (now Hecla Island). The great majority of the newcomers were virtually penniless.

A disease unknown to the people began to show itself at Icelandic River in September. Mild at first it was considered something like chicken pox. By November, with the advent of cold weather and the crowding in some cases of several families into one building, the disease became virulent. It was then diagnosed as smallpox. Doctors were sent in from Manitoba and smallpox vaccine was brought in from Philadelphia, but this proved useless. The disease swept through the district and 102 persons died. New Iceland was placed in quarantine from November 27 to July 20. This precluded anyone from going to Manitoba for employment and prevented the shipment of knitted goods to Winnipeg. A diet of fish was the mainstay of the people. In the face of these circumstances, the Canadian government advanced another loan.

The morale of the colonists was inevitably affected by the events of the year, but they absorbed the shock of their tragic experience remarkably well. In the autumn of 1877 they founded their own Icelandic language paper Framfari (The Progressive), printed in a log cabin at Lundi, now Riverton. A school was established at Lundi. Several congregations, presently eight in number, were organized and two Icelandic pastors from among the Icelandic settlers in Wisconsin and Minnesota accepted a call. Clearing the ground with axe and hoe proceeded slowly and Lake Winnipeg fishing was developed, on newly explored whitefish grounds to the north.

In the absence of an Ottawa-based administration, the settlers established their own colony government. A comprehensive set of rules and regulations was drafted. A colony council consisted of a President (Thingradstor), a vice-president, and the reeves of four district councils. One of the duties of the President was to maintain liaison with the Canadian government. Provision was made for statute labor for roadbuilding, for assistance to widows and orphans, supervision of health and welfare, and the fostering of community co-operation and enterprise. The provision for a conciliator in the event of disagreements was based on the Icelandic model. The first president of the colony government was Sigtryggur Jonasson.

Lord Dufferin, in the course of his Manitoba tour in the fall of 1877, visited Gimli on September 14. In his address he gave advice and encouragement. He hoped the people would cherish their ancestral heritage, including their heart-stirring literature. His friendly warmth won his hearers' high regard.

New Iceland suffered a further and most serious setback in the years, 1878-1881. There was an intense religious controversy between two factions led by two strong church leaders, one a fundamentalist and the other more liberal Lutheran. Following the good summer of 1875, the summers were increasingly wet, with damage to or destruction of crops. This. culminated in the destructive Lake Winnipeg flooding in the fall of 1880. These and other factors combined to cause an exodus of three-fourths of the population, a large number to Dakota and others to the Argyle (Baldur-Glenboro) district in Manitoba. In Argyle conditions were favorable for grain-growing and presently the district became one of the banner agricultural districts of the province. The remaining few in New Iceland held the fort. These were chiefly in the Icelandic River district, where a saw mill had been established.

Icelandic immigration continued in varying numbers but unbroken until World War I. Almost 1700 arrived in the peak year of 1887. New Iceland was quickly repopulated. The Icelandic community in Winnipeg grew; in 1890, at the time of the first Icelandic celebration, there were about 3,000 Icelandic people in the city. Icelandic settlements and communities were formed in various parts of Manitoba.

John Taylor was commissioned by the government to conduct the group of 1875 to New Iceland, but subsequently, especially after the return of Sigtryggur Jonasson with the "Large Group" of 1876, others took the lead in the affairs of the colony. During his years in New Iceland, however, John Taylor remained the Icelandic agent of the Government and gave full reports. He also took an active part in community life. At the Christmas Eve Concert at Gimli in 1878, he showed magic lantern slides of people, places, and animals, and at the Christmas Eve Concert in 1879 he was one of the four speakers. In 1879, when the sale of cordwood on the Winnipeg market was being promoted, Taylor was one who was planning to have a thousand cords cut. In the summer of 1880, when it had become starkly evident that there would be a further exodus from New Iceland, it was at his instigation that Skafti Arason explored in the Shoal Lake area, some thirty miles to the west of New Iceland. When migration to the Argyle district commenced, in 1881, Taylor moved to the nearby town of Carberry. Included in the Argyle group were John Taylor's brother, William, and William's daugher, Caroline (generally spoken of as Carrie), who had married Sigurdur Christopherson, in January, 1877, during the smallpox epidemic.

Part III - John Taylor's concern for the Jewish people

Our story now turns to the persecution of the Jewish people in Russia. In 1880 the Czarist regime had begun a systematic campaign against its Jewish citizens. Following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, in 1881, these attacks were intensified. Reports of mounting fury being unleashed against these people appeared with increasing frequency, including accounts of robbery, massacre, and expulsion from their homes in several of the larger cities. The Russian government appeared to be determined to rid itself of the Jewish populace. During the summer of 1881, several thousand victims crossed the western boundary of Russia. Some thousands of these made their way to the United States and the following year the move to Canada began.

Protests against these atrocities arose in democratic countries all over the world. The Manitoba Free Press of December, 1881, in voicing its protest, spoke sympathetically of the character of the Jewish people. The Jews are "a peaceable, intelligent and industrious element of the population."

In February, 1882, a protest gathering was held in the Mansion House, London. The Lord Mayor of London and several other distinguished leaders attended. A protest resolution was forwarded to Mr. Gladstone.

"While we disclaim any right to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia and desire the preservation of amiable relations with the country, it is our duty to express our opinion that-the laws of Russia concerning the Jews tend to retrograde influence."

A relief fund was opened.

One of those present at the Mansion House meeting was Alexander Tulloch Grant, Canadian High Commissioner to London. He was responsive to the urgent need for resettling the displaced persons. In January, 1882, he wrote a letter to Sir John A. Macdonald. Early in 1882, he was at work cooperating with the Mansion House Committee in London, helping to facilitate settling Jews in Manitoba.

While Galt was corresponding in London, John Taylor, bearing in mind the favorable reception accorded to his appeal on behalf of the Icelandic people, wrote to the Marquis of Lorne, the Governor General, to request that he intercede on behalf of the suffering Jewish people. The letter follows.

"St. Andrews, Manitoba, 15th February, 1882
The Marquis of Lorne,
Governor General of The Dominion of Canada

My Lord,

I had the honour of addressing Lord Dufferin in 1875 on the subject of the Icelanders who were suffering from the effects of a severe volcanic eruption in that desolate country. The favourable notice taken of my letter by his Lordship had been the means of promoting a desire for immigration, and of delivering some three thousand persons from a condition of helpless and hopeless poverty at home, to the enjoyment and prosperity and even affluence in this favored country.

The administration of Lord Dufferin will be always gratefully commemorated by this considerate act.

Recalling the kind reception of my appeal at that time, I feel encouraged to write to your Lordship in behalf of a class of sufferers in another country from the effects of a more terrible eruption, not however of a physical but of a social nature, namely of the Jews in Russia and Poland.

The extensive fertile country now being opened up by the Dominion Government of Canada presents a most desirable refuge for these oppressed and persecuted ones.

Asking your Lordship's favorable consideration, of this subject, I would take the liberty of suggesting that under your lordship's kind influence and patronage, a suitable block of land might be obtained for this purpose from the Dominion Government and placed in the hands of trustees to carry out the benevolent design of providing new homes far removed from the cruelties and atrocities so shame-fully perpetrated on this people in the name of religion.

Such a timely measure for the relief of the Jewish refugees, if happily connected with those now being made in England would be a lasting credit to this country and a bright memorial of your lord-ship's distinguished administration.

I have the honor to be,
My Lord
Your lordship's most obedient servant
John Taylor, Icelandic agent

Part IV - John Taylor

While in New Iceland, the Taylors adopted the daughter of a pioneering couple of 1873. She was one of seventeen children, eight of whom survived to maturity. The young girl's name was Rannveig Sigridur, but the Taylors called her Rose. Later, when she married, she became Rose Banks. The Taylors lived but a short while in Carberry before they moved back to Ontario, to Toronto. There Rose became their mainstay, and she cared for them to the end of their lives. John Taylor died in 1884. at the age of 72. His wife, Elizabeth, died in Rose's home in 1920, at the age of almost 95.

A picture of John Taylor emerges from incomplete records. What were his interests? "I guess first and foremost the 'soul.' from what I have heard passed down the generations." say John and Laura Christopherson - John being a grandson of Sigurdur and Carrie Christopherson. John Taylor was God-fearing and devout. His family ties were close. He was kind-hearted and generous and there was love in his heart. He was a strong humanitarian whose active concern was for the distressed individual as well as humanity in general. His letter to the Marquis of Lorne bespeaks innate dignity and poise. He was a fluent extempore speaker. He possessed at least a good measure of imagination and initiative. John Taylor was a dedicated person whose services are gratefully remembered.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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