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The New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli, Manitoba
tells the story of Icelandic and other settlers
Gimli, Manitoba is located on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg about an hour’s drive north of the city of Winnipeg. The town, whose name means paradise in Icelandic, is in the centre of an area once known as New Iceland. The New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli tells the story of New Iceland and the Icelandic experience in North America.
Between 1870 and 1915, almost twenty thousand Icelanders left their country in search of a new home, driven by a string of long hardships, which included extreme cold, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, destruction of the sheep industry, and a measles outbreak. In 1875 the eruption of Mount Askja blanketed the East Fjords with volcanic ash. It wrecked the island’s economy and was the last straw for many Icelanders. In the years following, up to 20% of the island’s population emigrated, mostly to Canada and the United States.
My visit through the Museum started in a small room focused on the physical geography of Iceland: its hot springs which provide geothermal energy and its volcanic activity. There is information on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and famous Icelandic volcanoes. You can enter a ballot to guess which volcano will be the next to erupt.
While the people of Iceland were struggling in the late 1800s, the governments of Canada and the United States were looking for farmers to settle the west. Both countries offered immigrants free land. In Canada, an Act of Parliament in 1871 set up immigration districts and agencies. Immigration Aid Societies were formed. A few of the first Icelandic immigrants were hired to return to Iceland and encourage people to move to Canada. Sigtryggur Jonasson was one of these. He wrote a pamphlet “New Iceland in Canada” and became instrumental in establishing an Icelandic settlement in Manitoba.
In 1875, the Canadian government granted Icelandic immigrants a reserve region along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Here the immigrants established Nýja Ísland or New Iceland with a constitution of its own. New Iceland became part of the province of Manitoba in 1881, but retained its own system of government until 1887.
The arriving Icelanders wore homespun wool clothing. Sorta, which was a black clay found in bogs, blueberries, lichen, and nettles were used as dyes. The women wore small hats with long tassels. Footwear was made of sheepskin, cow hide or fish skin, and was tied with a drawstring at the ankle.
They brought with them values of law, literacy, democracy, religious faith and love for the Motherland. And a few personal possessions. Packing suggestions made by Björn Andrésson in a letter back home in 1877 included warm woolen clothing and bedclothes, tools, as much rope as possible, spinning wheels and carding combs, and good chests. He suggested whey, dried fish and smoked meat as foods that would last. He recommended English gold, not Danish, because of its exchange rate. He said chewing tobacco was unobtainable in the New World except for a horribly sweet kind. Most people turned to smoking. He did not need to tell people to bring books. Every family brought as many books as possible.
Life in the New World was hard. The Icelanders were not prepared for the harsh winters. In 1876 a smallpox epidemic took a heavy toll. They had been fishermen in Iceland but Lake Winnipeg froze over in the winter. The flora and fauna were different than they were used. They struggled hunting for food. Rabbits were unknown in Iceland. They were reluctant to eat them because of their similarity to cats. Eventually they adapted, through perseverance and assistance from the natives, who showed them how to set fishing nets under thick ice.
Many of the pioneers were devout Lutherans. Prized possessions included religious books. Formal congregations were established throughout New Iceland, but ministerial visits were irregular due to distances and poor roads. Religious strife arose in 1878 when two pastors offered different versions of Lutheranism. In 1879, many settlers followed the more conservative pastor to Dakota Territory.
In 1897, the New Iceland reserve was opened to settlement by non-Icelanders. The first to come were Ukrainian homesteaders following by Polish and Hungarian settlers. By 1917, the area no longer had an exclusively Icelandic characters, although the Icelandic heritage would remain strong for another century.
The last section I toured in the Museum was again focused on physical geography, specifically rocks. Iceland was said to be young as its rocks are little more than 20 million years old. Manitoba is old with rocks over billions of years old. Mixed in with rock information in this room were bits of Icelandic lore and mythology: “hidden people”, trolls, and magic stones.
The New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli is open daily year-round from 10 am to 4 pm. It provides an interesting look at Icelandic immigration, the life of early settlers, and overall history of the area. When I visited, the couple ahead of me was from Iceland and the Museum was getting ready to host a tour group from Iceland. That number of Icelandic visitors may not be a daily occurrence, but it highlights the ongoing connection this area has with Iceland.
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