Gudbjorg Bertha Johnson
was born and grew up
in the Swan River Valley. There she received her elementary and high
school education, then attended Normal School to receive a
Manitoba First Class teacher's certificate. She taught both in
Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and attended the University of Saskatchewan
to acquire a Standard Certificate in that province.
Her husband was Bodvar Johnson. He was
born and grew
up near Lundar, Manitoba, where he fished on Lake Manitoba and played
violin in a dance orchestra. After moving to Northern Manitoba, he
fished many northern lakes, including Reindeer Lake, where he both
fished and freighted his catch on his tractor train 250 miles to the
railway at Flin Flon. Later he fished Sissipuk Lake until his
retirement in about 1973. They have resided in Flin Flon
Her father was Jonas Danielson from
Skogarstrond in Snaefelsnessysla, Iceland. Her mother was Johanna
Johannsdottir from Laxardal, at Skogarstrond in Snaefelsnessysla.
They first settled in North Dakota. She is their only Canadian-born
To the dwellers of the valley, December
in the year 1887, had seemed unusually mild. As always in mid-winter
the short days were little more than twilight, for on this lone isle,
bordering on the Arctic Circle, there are sunless weeks, and darkness
hovers like a sinister troll over the land. Not even the thrill
of reading the sagas, nor the religious fervor of recited
Psalms could allay the pervading gloom. Now the people were glad the
winter solstice had come and gone, and days lengthened as the approach
of Christmas brought new hope and cheer.
"We shall go to church today," Jonas
ponies will be the better for exercise. They are becoming lazy in their
idleness. Besides, it is time for our little one to be christened. Sera
Eirikur will frown on our long delay."
Johanna's warm brown eyes kindled with
"It is many months since we attended a
little Sigurhlif is now old enough to notice the altar candles," she
said, beginning to prepare herself and her children, dressing them in
warm homespun and knitted shawls.
Jonas brought the ponies. The warm
spell had enticed
them from their retreat in the foothill valleys where the grass was
still succulent, and turbulent streams had open water-holes. Johanna
observed how thick-haired and shaggy they had become fending for
themselves through the winter. Their manes and tails hung long and
tousled, giving them a wild appearance that belied their gentle nature.
They were small and not beautiful, yet to Johanna no fairy steeds could
have seemed more delightful.
Jonas helped her mount with the child,
swung Hanna onto the smallest pony, and
set Juliana in front of his saddle
before he sprang into it, then tucked her against his warm body under
his heavy sheepskin.
"I'll lead your little Alfur, Hanna,"
said. "Hang on tight like a big girl. With his rein fast to my
saddlehorn, he'll follow."
They moved single-file along the
week-old trail left
by Sera Eirikur's string of pack ponies on their return from Vik with
Christmas provisions. By this time it was drifted, but the sure footed
horses moved forward in slow procession over the rough stretches and
floundered through the drifts.
For two hours they travelled toward two
cliffs. The air was invigorating, and Johanna's anticipations high when
finally they saw the church and manse sheltered on three sides by the
dark volcanic rock.
"I shall see the glorious Christmas
and hear the choir. Then, too, sister Karitas will be there. After the
service we shall all be invited to the manse for refreshments. We all
know Sera Eirikur to be a very hospitable man," Johanna thought happily.
The church was thronged with all the
folk of the
countryside, who had ridden from far and near to this Yuletide service,
and to enjoy an hour or two of pleasant fellowship.
The candles! Not only were the candles
on the altar,
but gently flickering lights wavered from tapers placed high on either
side of the pews. The little girls gazed in awe, and Johanna's spirits
soared in all this light, and warmth, and hope of heaven.
She glanced around, and saw a tall and
beautiful woman enter with her husband.
"My sister Karitas and Sigurd," she
thought happily. "I have so longed to see Karitas; and here she is."
Then Johanna became aware of a hushed silence. Sera Eirikur was reading the
story, of shepherds and angels, of Wisemen with gifts from the East,
and of the Holy Family. As the pastor spoke, they became a living
reality, and the story took on a new beauty and deeper meaning as the
birth of a Child manifested the love of God.
"How simply and beautifully he tells
thought. "His simple works I must remember forever to tell to my
children as each new Christmas comes.''
Then the lusty voices of the
congregation swelled the hymns of the choir, and the service was over.
They were called, and Johanna stood
beside Jonas at
the altar, cradling the infant in her arms. She became conscious that
Karitas and Sigurd stood with them as sponsors.
"That is well," she thought. "I may die
young. Who knows? I can trust Karitas with my little one's upbringing.''
The lights on the altar held her
"They drive off the winter darkness,"
she thought. "As it will be driven off by our returning sun."
During the christening, Johanna made
the responses as in a dream.
"I christen you, Sigurhlif," she heard
the pastor conclude.
Christening drops of water touched the
hair of the infant, and trickled gently down her forehead, and
Sigurhlif’s innocent laughter rose above the minister's chanting.
Later, in the manse, Johanna sat with
her family and
Karitas and Sigurd, sipping hot coffee and enjoying food the poorer
folk seldom tasted.
'' I have had no news from our mother
and brothers in America," Karitas said.
"Nor have we."
"America! It is a world away," Karitas
spoke impatiently. "They should have stayed."
"It is hard to face endless poverty.
Our brothers are young. It was their only hope. In America they will
"Yes. We are fortunate, Sigurd and I.
We are in
better circumstances. Never will I leave Iceland. I simply couldn't.
Here I shall bring up my children in the best Icelandic tradition. Here
I shall see my grandchildren born," Karitas said decisively. "Iceland
must have a better future.''
"We hope so," Johanna sighed, but a
cloud dimmed the
joy of this festive occasion at the recollection of the lean years
she had known.
"Your little Sigurhlif is lovely. Never
have I seen
a more beautiful child. How I long for a girl. My boys are like gales,
all noise and motion, but we love them just the same."
On their return from the service,
their humble home with a feeling of gratitude. It was warm and tidy.
Her spinning wheel stood idle in a far corner. No spinning for her
today; only the meal to prepare, and for Jonas the urgent chores of
tending the animals.
The tired little girls slept while
herself with the evening meal. She was content, but she could not
altogether dispel the ache of loneliness for her loved ones in America.
She had hoped that Karitas had heard from them. It seemed such an
eternity since they departed.
"I wonder how my mother (Ingibjorg) and
Mundi (Gudmundur) and Joe (Johann), are faring," Johanna remarked
wistfully as they all sat with their bowls of rice porridge, with
raisins in honor of Christmas and the christening. "Karitas has had no
"Don't despair. News will come." Jonas
gently. "The ships were delayed by storms last fall. Your folks
promised to write; and write they will. They will tell us how things
are, for they know I have
been seriously considering going to America."
"To America!" Johanna echoed. It was
the first intimation she had heard of his interest in emigrating.
"But what do I hear? Surely it is the
neigh of a strange horse?"
" Yes," Jonas responded going out to
put up the horse and invite the guest in.
Johanna looked sympathetically on the
gaunt and weary man.
"Welcome, and bless you," she said.
"You have come a long way?"
"Greetings. Yes, far. From the coast."
Jonas came in.
"From the coast, you say?" he asked
Johanna set a portion of their simple
meal before the hungry traveller, who ate in deadly silence as if his
hunger knew no bounds. Only when Johanna rose to refill his bowl did he
"I brought this letter that has lain
long unclaimed; since the last ship anchored in the fall. It is from
America," he said.
"From America! Read it Jonas while I
make a fresh pot of coffee," Johanna exclaimed excitedly.
Jonas read silently. Then he turned to
"They are faring well. Already each has
sheep grazing. And a cow. They put up much hay in the summer, and hired
out some time for wages. They are established in their own log cabin,
with stoves for heating, and plenty of firewood.
" Ah, yes. Wood must be plentiful. I
have heard that in America there are opportunities even for a poor
"So I have been told," Arni Bjornsson
Aloud, Jonas went on. "Your mother
says, 'I miss
you, my dear Johanna. Your brothers send a little gift. Perhaps it will
help pay your passage on the first vessel in
the spring. You would do well to leave
Iceland. May God bless you all."
Jonas handed the letter to his wife.
"Yes, I am more than ever convinced
that we should leave, and seek a better life in a new land," he said.
"If I survive the grim poverty of this
winter, perhaps, I too, shall join you in your venture," Arni replied.
The mildness of early winter gave way
to cold, heavy
snowfall, and bitter storms. Great avalanches swept down the
mountainside burying part of the valley. Through God's mercy
Jonas's home escaped destruction, but half his flock of sheep were
caught, and lay dead beneath the snow. When spring finally came
reluctantly, Jonas sold the cow and remaining sheep, and rode the
ponies to the coast where a ship lay at anchor ready to leave.
Standing beside her sister, Karitas,
marvelled at the harbor, crowded with people, those emigrating and
their kinfolk sorrowfully bidding them farewell.
"Yes, a lifelong farewell," Johanna
thought. "For never in this world will be meet again."
The first departing tramp steamer of
loomed like a giant beside the dozen fishing boats that rocked at their
moorings. (The Copeland .) Never before had Johanna seen such
ship. She gazed in wonder at its huge steel-hulled bulk, its
black-painted sides, white derricks and ventilators, and the two
tri-colored funnels from which black coal-smoke belched. She heard
its throbbing engines, and realized that unlike the accustomed
sailing vessels, this monster would not be at the mercy of winds and
"Foolishly, I expected a sailing ship,
not this floating palace belching smoke," she said.
They walked slowly down to the sea.
Johanna watched with interest as brawny
like laden slaves from some Arabian Nights' tale, loaded
dried fish, sheep's hides, and enormous bundles of hay.
Shepherds arrived driving a small flock
They manoeuvred them along a high-slatted gangway, and the sheep added
their frightened bleating to the hum of human voices, and the captain's
A dozen horses, too, were led onto the
"Dear Icelandic ponies that carry
Icelanders on all occasions from the cradle to the grave," Johanna
"A cargo for Scotland," Arni Bjornsson
The passengers were embarking. Jonas
their heavy wooden koffort (chest) and Johanna followed him, the two
little girls, Hanna and Juliana close by her side, and the little one
snuggled in her arms.
There were no tears, and no time to
mourn deserted kinfolk and friends. Only the quiet dignity of
' 'God will surely be with us in
America,'' Johanna comforted her sister, and the thought eased her own
Karitas kissed little Sigurhlif's cheek
"the child is much too young to go on
journey," she sighed. "Leave her with us. We could give your lovely one
every advantage our ample means can afford."
"I cannot part with her; nor can I
think of depriving her father of his little one."
"He has his two daughters from his
first marriage," Karitas argued.
"Be patient, my Karitas. you will have
a little daughter," Johanna comforted. "It must be good-bye for us all,
They took ship and descended to the
lowest deck. As
they made their way to their cabin, Johanna glimpsed firemen in grimy
dungarees climbing out of the fiddley, like dirty demons, to relieve
their bursting lungs with a breath of air. Farther along she gasped in
terror as they passed the gaping holds into which the cargo was stored
and the animals driven.
"Hanna, hold your little sister's
hand," she directed urgently.
But already Jonas had stowed his chest
and other luggage, and came to relieve her fear for the two little
"Come," he said. "We'll stand on deck
and bid our land farewell.''
They gazed mutely while the crew hove
the ship put out to sea. Slowly the shores receded, and Johanna knew
that never again would they see their native Iceland, with its gleaming
glaciers, lava landscapes, verdant valleys, heather-strewn hills, and
Johanna laid a gentle hand on her
arm. She sensed that his heart was heavy like her own even while the
new world beckoned with hope for them and their children.
The weather was calm; the sea
unruffled. Each day
Johanna and her family sought the outdoor sight of the ocean and the
salt sea air to escape their overcrowded cabin and unpleasant animal
smells from the holds below them.
On the third day Hanna exclaimed
"Mamma! Mamma! I see America. Look,
that coast away off."
Johanna's eyes followed the child's
"An Island, perhaps," she ventured.
Johanna smiled at the evident
disappointment in the childish voice.
Joining the group Baldvin Baldvinsson
Faroe Islands," he informed. "We are now about halfway to Scotland.
It's not such a trying voyage for folks whose ancestors were bold
Vikings riding out storms in open rowboats and square-sailed dragon
The ship headed directly towards the
rose abruptly out of the ocean. As they drew nearer, Johanna marvelled
at the lush green color, contrasting strangely with the sombre basalt
ice-capped peaks of Iceland. Their vivid color was a brighter
than the grasslands of the upland valleys and the cultivated hay-plots
of her native land.
Hundreds of guillmots soared in protest
craggy heights as the ship threaded its way down a channel between two
islands that rose a thousand feet on either side. The ship turned
sharply left into a very narrow inlet where it came upon a tiny fishing
"Someone is coming aboard," Johanna
She heard the man speak in perfect
"Everything will be brighter in
dear," he smiled, and Johanna listened in surprise to the woman's low
reply. She could understand the tongue so similar to Icelandic, but in
a dialect that sounded so strange to Johanna. The
headed back and past the longest island where another village clustered
along the shore.
"That must be their capital, Torshavn,"
Then the steamer sped directly across
the ocean. Two days later the coast of Scotland appeared in view to the
Presently the ship approached a town.
the other emigrants from the island on the rim of the Arctic stared in
amazement at the large buildings, and tall smoke stacks of industry
such as they had never seen before.
By evening they had reached the wider
estuary of a
river, its banks scarcely discernible in the dusk. Later Johanna,
standing beside her husband, looked up into the dark blue heavens where
stars twinkled as brilliantly as they did in Iceland's winter.
"And this is early June
(1888). In five days we have left Iceland's bright summer
night," Johanna said.
It was now becoming so dark that land
was no longer
visible. They were fast approaching an unbelievable city. Johanna saw
she was not alone in her awed staring at the rows of lights;
colours, white, and red, and green.
"This is Glasgow," Baldvin Baldvinsson
"Here we leave our tramp steamer to board the S.S. Norwegian
the Allan Line, which is scheduled to leave for Canada in two
days.'' They left Glasgow on June 29, 1888.
From the outset the Norwegian plowed
seas. As the days wore on, Johanna thought wearily that leagues of
seemingly endless ocean still lay between them and America.
Time dragged dismally. The little girls
restless, and Sigurhlif toddled about pale and quiet. In the afternoons
while the child slept Johanna sought the deck. There she sat beside her
husband, knitting and taking stock of her fellow passengers.
"Sigrid looks worn out. There are blue
her eyes. Poor woman! God pity her! Her time is near. She may give
birth at sea," she observed to Jonas. "Ingrid and Helga, too, droop
Heavy seas and high headwinds
retard their voyage. Already ten days had passed since the Norwegian
left Scotland. Each weary day the tired, and often seasick, emigrants
stood on deck gazing ahead in the hope of seeing land.
One day Johanna observed the men
tensely over the deckrail for a better view of a gleam they saw on the
tossing billows. The gleam became a white streak, appearing to drift
slowly towards the ship.
A hush fell upon the watchers,
disturbed only by the
faint bleating of sheep in the hold beneath. Everyone fixed their eyes
upon the approaching object in abated anxiety.
"What is it, Jonas? A ship?" The man
was slow to answer. Finally he said: "No. An iceberg."
Mr. Baldvinsson spoke up quietly.
"Summer is the time for icebergs in the
North Atlantic," he said.
"When warm weather comes they
begin to melt and break away from the shores of Greenland and
The mass had come nearer now in all its
beauty of glistening prisms and pinnacles. The sight was
awe-inspiring and frightening, Johanna thought. It resembled the
massive glacier, Snaefelsjokull, she had seen on their journey to the
harbour. That glacier had boded no evil, this floating ice-palace was a
menacing threat to their safety.
'' What becomes of icebergs?'' she
asked, more to relieve her anxiety in speech than from curiosity.
"Eventually they break up in the warmer
the Gulf Stream," Mr. Baldvinsson said. "And the growlers scatter
throughout the ocean till they melt completely."
For hours the ship steamed in sight of
unable to leave it behind, driven as it was, not by winds, but by the
current of the Gulf Stream. Day faded into night, and the fog-shrouded
sea lay gray and forbidding. The white ghostly menace of ice, no
longer seen, held a deeper threat to the ship's safety.
"The fog is like a spell of sorcery."
Johanna thought, shuddering. "It bodes evil . . . perhaps death."
Suddenly Captain Malcolm appeared on
their lowest deck.
"Be prepared to take to the lifeboats,"
The whispers of the Icelanders and the
whimpers of their weary children hushed into a deadly silence.
"Wait in your cabins with doors ajar,"
the captain concluded, leaving the people shocked and shaken.
"Come," Jonas said, but their departure
was halted by the deep and solemn voice of Arni Bjornsson.
"We are in God's hand" he said. "Let us
Later, in the cabin, the children
slept, but Johanna
tossed fitfully. Beside her, Jonas lay
and sleepless awaiting the
dreaded order to
take to the boats.
The night was an eternity of fearful
heavy gale added its perils to the fog, and the ship lurched ahead,
every motion bringing with it added apprehension.
But the anxious hours brought no shock
no thudding or scraping sound of steel against ice. At dawn the gale
died down for a time. By sunrise the fog was lifting.
The people went out on deck. Away in
the distance behind their ship, the iceberg gleamed, no longer a hazard
to their safety.
The Norwegian continued full steam
"Thank God!" Johanna said in relief. ''
A night of fear does not last forever.''
There was no hope for calm.
A raging storm broke in fury. The ship
lurched against frothing breakers whipped up by a terrific gale that
lasted for days. It crawled along, seeming scarcely to move. Everyone
took to the cabins, unable to eat; unable to stand. Johanna, crossing
the floor to attend her sick children, swayed dizzily with each
pitching motion of the vessel. Her stomach heaved in violent nausea,
and a terrifying sickness pervaded her whole being.
She fell onto the bunk unable to help
herself or the children.
"Jonas, my love," she moaned. "See to
the little girls."
For days she lay semi-conscious and
miserable. At Jonas' insistant pleading the overburdened ship's
doctor brought what relief he could give. But not till the storm was
spent did Johanna rally. Then she realized that little Sigurhlif was
She heard the infant's cries, piteous
and frightening, and she struggled up. She saw the pale shadow of her
once lovely child.
"She is dying," Johanna moaned. "O God!
Why are we so helpless to save her frail little life?"
Again the ship's doctor came with Mr.
Baldvinsson. He shook his head sorrowfully.
"He says there is nothing can be done.
dying." Baldvinsson said. Even as he spoke the child lay still in her
"Captain Malcolm will have to be
informed," the doctor said.
Johanna was left alone with the two
girls and her dead child while the men sought the captain. On
their return she spoke.
"Are we far from land? Can the burial
"More than a day's voyage. Through the
Gulf of St. Lawrence, and up river to Quebec City," Baldvinsson
"Then we can wait?" the woman insisted.
"No, Johanna, my love, it is against
regulations. The burial will be at four o'clock in the morning," Jonas
said in a whisper.
"At sea!" Johanna sobbed.
It was the hour before the dawn, July
engines had stopped; the propeller had ceased to turn; and the
Norwegian lay at rest. There were no passengers on deck; only Captain
Malcolm, two uniformed members of his crew, Baldvin Baldvinsson, and
the parents standing in grief-stricken silence.
Mercifully the now calm ocean was
hidden in heavy morning mist.
Captain Malcolm opened his Bible.
Johanna knew he
was reading the burial service, but his foreign words pierced her
"Let not your heart be troubled ..."
Baldvinsson re-read the whole service in their native Icelandic, and
the passages became a meaningful balm for the soul.
The officers bore the child to the
deck's railing. Again the captain spoke and Baldvinsson translated.
"We now commit the body of our dear
departed to the deep."
Johanna shivered and tears rolled down
cheeks. She saw them lift their canvas-shrouded burden and lower it
over the railing. With a sob she turned and pressed her tear-stained
face against her husband's rugged chest.
They arrived in Quebec City, Quebec on
July 7, 1888.
It was early summer in Pembina County,
1889. The long wearisome train journey from Quebec to Winnipeg, and the
covered-wagon ox-cart trek on the rough trail to Pembina were now in
the dim vistas of the past. In their small log cabin, Jonas and Johanna
were hopeful for the future.
There had been rains, and the grass
stood lush and
high for their stock's grazing and for the summer's haying. The
Icelandic settlement was prospering against all odds. There was food,
shelter, hope, and love.
In her tiny home-made crib another baby
girl lay sweetly rosy and beautiful.
"Tomorrow we shall go to the church at
Mountain and have her christened," Jonas said.
"Yes, christened and named Sigurhlif
for the dear one we lost."
"She will grow up in America, and her
descendants will be citizens of this New World," Jonas said gravely.
Johanna looked lovingly at her husband,
muscular, still handsome though his red-blonde hair and red beard were
already streaked with gray.
"In the past tragedy has touched our
lives. But God is good. He gives a balm
every sorrow, and hope is eternal," she