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Icelandic explorer Leif Eiriksson reached the shores of North America 500 years ahead of Columbus. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the largest wave of Icelandic immigration.


The shores of Lake Winnipeg.

In the late 19th century, Sigtryggur Jonasson led a group of Icelandic immigrants to Northern Manitoba and the shores of Lake Winnipeg. The expedition hoped to find a suitable place in Canada to begin a new settlement abundant with farmland and natural resources, and not so different from the Nordic landscape of Iceland.

In 1875, the Canadian government granted Jonasson and his band of Icelanders the 60 square kilometers they wanted, and termed it the Icelandic Reserve. For a while, the new land seemed promising. A small settlement was set up independent of Canada, although not recognized as its own republic, and a constitution was even drafted to govern the 1000 settlers.

The majority of these emigrants did settle in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in a colony called New Iceland. The town was incorporated in 1873 (after some rebellious townspeople gave the Manitoba Legislature's Speaker a tar bath). A flood of immigrants, high wheat prices, plentiful capital, and improved farming techniques contributed to making Winnipeg the largest city of western Canada.

The areas of Icelandic settlement covered the area north of Boundary Creek as far north as Hecla Island, with Gimli in the Riverton area the focal point of Icelandic immigration. This was mainly due to the efforts of Sigtryggur Jonasson, an earlier Icelandic migrant, who wrote a pamphlet on behalf of the Canadian government entitled Nyja Island I Kanada ("New Iceland in Candada") and went back to Iceland to convince Icelanders to join him across the ocean.Publication.

Jonasson was part of an expedition to thNyja Island New Iceland.e north of Manitoba to find a suitable location for the colony. New Iceland had to be isolated, have good soil for farming and be close to a lake, for fishing. The only drawback of the eventual site, 18 miles upstream from the Icelandic River: an abundance of grasshoppers. For his efforts, Jonasson is remembered as the " Father of New Iceland."

The very first Icelandic town in New Iceland was named Gimli, Icelandic for Paradise. Conditions were far from idyllic, however: low on resources, many colonists didn't survive the first, harsh winter.

The following year, 1876, saw the arrival of the St'ri Hpurinn, the Large Group of 1,200 immigrants, swelling the colony s population to nearlMap of New Iceland.y 2,000. At the close of that same year, the colony was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, killing off as many as 500 colonists and resulting in a quarantine on the whole of New Iceland that lasted until the middle of next year.

By 1878, over a hundred Icelanders from the Canadian colony, New Iceland, were forced to relocate because of severe weather conditions, outbreaks of smallpox, and religious disputes.

The Colony of New Iceland was recognized by the Canadian government as a separate nation with full jurisdiction on immigration, taxation and legal matters." However, no evidence of this exists. In any case, emigration continued, however, to better lands as far south as Dakota.

In 1881, New Iceland barely counted a hundred inhabitants. The local newspaper folded, the government of New Iceland disbanded itself. Moving south to the United States, they joined more recent Icelandic immigrants in the northeastern section of the Dakota Territory. With the help of more established Norwegian and German immigrant groups, they formed what later became the largest Icelandic community in America.

Winnipeg, Canada


New Iceland fell on better times a few years after the great exodus, when fishing, farming and freighting offered better job opportunities. New Icelandic immigrants set up the towns of Riverton and Arborg (Icelandic for Riverton ). In 1893, New Iceland was almost back to its previous numbers. In 1887, all of New Iceland was incorporated into Manitoba as the Gimli Municipality, thus ending the brief, fledgling existence of the first neo-Scandinavian state on American soil since Leif Eriksson s brief transatlantic adventure.

Mostly farmers and laborers, second and third generation Icelanders were drawn into journalism. Many entered politics. Jon Olafsson served as founding editor of the first Icelandic newspaper in North America, Heimskringla. The name comes from the work of medieval Icelandic writer, Snorri Sturleson. The word heimer in Icelandic means the world, and kringla means a globe. Started in September 1886 in Winnepeg, the paper was published completely in Icelandic except for some advertisements written wholly or partially in English. Other Icelandic-Americans known for their work in journalism include Stephan G. Stephanson, Kristjan Niels Julius, and Richard Beck.

July 31, 1879, Winnipeg Free Presss, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Arrival of a Party.

There arrived this afternoon by the steamer Manitoba a party of fifty-seven Icelanders direct from their native country, which they left on 1st July last. The immigrants, who shipped at three different ports of Iceland, were originally 247 in number 140 of whom set out for Minnesota, and the remainder for Canada. They left Iceland in a sailing vessel for Glasgow, where they took the steamship Waldensa for Quebec, reaching that city on the 10th inst. Toronto was reached on the 21st inst., and there they were met by Mr. Jonasson of New Iceland who had gone down from here to accompany them to their new home. At Toronto about fifty of the new comers remained, and the others putting themselves in charge of Mr. Jonasson


reaching here in safety this afternoon. The trip from Iceland to Winnipeg was a very pleasant one, no accidents occurring nor sickness prevailing in the party.


Mr. Freclerickson had tents erected near No. 6 warehouse, and these are to be utilized during their short stay in the city. Some of the huts at Fort Osborne liad been prepared for their use by Mrv Hespeler, the immigration agent, but it was decided not to occupy them : while the fact that there were a couple of cases of measles at the immigrant sheds prevented them from going to that institution.


is made up of farmers and their wives and children, there being about twenty of the latter. Some of them have a little spare money, and others of the party are not so well fixed; but nearly all have friends in the New Iceland, who will doubtless materially assist them in making a new start in life. All the party paid their own passage out, no assistance having been given by the Government. Amongst them was Mr. John. Olafson, who was amongst last year's arrivals and who returned to the old country for his family.

Buffalo Bill Cody with American Indian Chiefs.

Buffalo Bill Cody
with American Indian Chiefs

Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917) lived several years in Canada before his family moved to the Kansas Territory. Buffalo Bill received the Medal of Honor in 1872 for service to the US Army as a scout.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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