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North Dakota Icelanders A small community celebrating heritage in a big way

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Clearwater Communications 10/31/2016 3:27:58 PM

In the northeast corner of the state, a small group of North Dakotans is celebrating its heritage in a big way. Icelanders are not as large in numbers as those of Norwegian or German descent in the state. But what they lack in size, they make up for in pride in their history, heritage and homeland. 


North Dakota Icelanders also boast an impressively thorough genealogical record, a strong connection to the homeland of their ancestors, and the largest Icelandic festival in the United States, The Deuce of August also known as The 2nd of August. 


 “The Icelandic community is small, but the people are very proud of their Icelandic roots,” says Pam Olafson Furstenau, an active researcher and presenter of the history and heritage of North Dakota Icelandic settlers. 


Furstenau is a fourth-generation North Dakota Icelander. She and her uncle, Curtis Olafson, who is president of the Icelandic Communities Association, and George Freeman, an active researcher of North Dakota Icelandic history, share the importance of preserving the history, heritage and celebration of their ancestors.     


A history of hardship


The first Icelanders came to North Dakota on the waves of hardship. “Everyone who left Iceland had their own story, but many left because their future in Iceland was grim,” says Furstenau.


At the time, Iceland had brutal climate conditions. Ice at times blocked fjords, and intermittent volcanoes destroyed farms, which brought many animals and people to their deaths. In addition, there were many financial and societal problems caused by trade monopolization from Denmark and overpopulations of the habitable areas. 


A sharp divide formed between those who believed in staying in Iceland and those who set out in search of a new homeland. “I didn’t know before I started researching Icelandic history just how destitute most of the settlers were when they came to North America and how some friends and family who stayed behind disowned them,” says Furstenau. 


After visiting Iceland, Olafson says he has a better understanding of this struggle. “I have been to the farms in Iceland where my grandfather and grandmother came from and that was a very moving experience,” says Olafson. “I thought about how difficult it must have been for them to leave.”  


Furstenau says that in the late 1800s, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people left Iceland, approximately one-fourth of the country’s population. “They felt like they had to go, but it wasn’t accepted by the people who stayed. Some of them never talked again.”    


However, the struggles that began in their homeland followed the Icelanders to North America. A large number of immigrants settled in Canada, but eventually decided to set out in search of land for a new settlement.


In 1878 Pastor Páll Thorláksson, known as “The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota,” set out from the Gimli settlement in Manitoba, Canada, to find a new location for an Icelandic settlement. He traveled with 20 men on a steamboat to Winnipeg and then on to Dakota in search of land in Pembina County. 


One of the first explorers of Pembina County was Jóhann Pétur Hallson. He, along with his son, Gunnar, built the first Icelandic home in the new settlement. Today, an Icelandic church housed in Icelandic State Park and a cemetery at the church’s original site nearby are named in his honor.   


The new settlement in the northeast corner of the state grew quickly. “The immigration was fast and most of the settlers came to the area until between 1878 and 1883,” says Freeman. “At this time almost all of the homestead land was taken and the settlers began to move in 1886 to near Upham, north of Minot, and Roseau County in Minnesota. From 1900 to 1910 many Icelanders left Pembina County for unsettled areas in the Canadian provinces of  Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.” 


Adversity follows the settlers


Despite the prospect of a new life, the settlers struggled in their new land. “When the Icelanders came to North America, they suffered greatly,” says Furstenau. “They worked and worked to make it. We have no clue how hard it was for them to change from herdsmen and fishermen to farmers.” 


Olafson’s grandfather, and Furstenau’s great-grandfather, Ólafur Ólafsson, arrived in North Dakota with very little to begin a new life. “My grandfather’s family arrived in 1883 and began homesteading in Thingvalla Township in Pembina County,” he says. “When they arrived they had a small wooden trunk, the clothes on their backs and 65 cents in their pocket.”


North Dakota was very different from Iceland, which made survival difficult in the first years of the settlement. “The immigrants didn’t know how to farm, and this was an extreme climate compared to Iceland,” says Olafson. “The winter cold and summer heat were extremes they were not used to. There also are few insects in Iceland.” 


Although the settlers struggled, they remained rooted in their faith and made it a priority to build places of worship. Nine Icelandic churches were built in northeast North Dakota. “Until a church was built religious services were held in private homes, and most homes had the custom of reading sermons, Bible verses, praying and singing hymns every day,” says Furstenau.


Pastor Thorláksson died before the Icelandic churches were built, but his vision remained with the settlers. “He envisioned the legacy of the Icelandic prosperity in America and the potential the Dakota Settlement could bring,” says Furstenau. “This helped to ensure the success of the Dakota Icelandic pioneers.” Pastor Thorláksson’s brother, Níels Steingrímur Thorláksson, took over duties as pastor, followed by their cousin, Hans Thorgrímsen.


The churches carried the settlers through the struggles of their early years in North Dakota and formed the cornerstone of many Icelandic communities like Pembina, Mountain, Gardar, Akra and Upham. Today the remaining churches continue to preserve the heritage of the settlers and their descendents.


The oldest Icelandic Church in North America, Vikur, built in 1884, remains an important part of the community of Mountain. Thingvalla, an Icelandic church built in 1892, was lost in a fire in 2003. In its place, south of Mountain, stands a bronze Christus statue, native prairie garden and panels telling the story of the Icelandic pioneers. The other seven Icelandic churches built by the settlers still remain in the area.    


“We respect our Icelandic ancestors for their courage and determination to leave their beloved homeland, friends and relatives to move to an unknown land,” says Furstenau. “They worked hard to build a life and a community based on strong moral values, faith in God, devotion to family and the importance of a good education.”   


Immersed in their heritage


Both Olafson and Furstenau were raised immersed in the Icelandic culture on their family’s homestead farms near Mountain. 


“Three of my four grandparents came from Iceland and the other was born to Icelandic settlers in the United States,” says Olafson.  The families of his grandfather and grandmother homesteaded on neighboring farms, which still remain in the family. 


Olafson is a member of the North Dakota Senate and he lives and farms the family land along with his two brothers. He met his wife, Björk Eiríksdóttir, in Iceland while visiting the country’s president. “She answered the door at the President’s home and the rest is history,” he says.  


Furstenau says she took for granted her strong Icelandic roots and family traditions while growing up. “We sang Icelandic songs in church and our grandparents spoke Icelandic. I didn’t realize until I went away how entrenched in the culture we were and that it was a part of who we were.” 


Freeman’s grandfather, Lárus Frímann Björnsson, left Iceland in 1874. He first settled in Ontario and then moved to Elk Rapids, Michigan, followed by Akra in Pembina County, where he raised his family, and finally to Upham. Freeman didn’t begin researching his Icelandic heritage until the early 1990s, but has since taken on the task full-time.


He has compiled a three-volume set of handwritten histories of more than 1,000 women who settled in the area called The Pembina County Pioneer Daughter Biographies, and he is currently working to preserve the stories of the Icelandic settlement at Upham in a book titled The Mouse River Saga (1886-1937). He says the materials available for research are due in large part to the careful record keeping of his ancestors. 


“Most of the preservation of materials has been done by people in Iceland,” says Freeman. “In addition, many of the counties and areas in North Dakota and Canada have also created books to recount the biographies of their settlers.” 


He says this careful record keeping by Icelanders has been key to his success in uncovering and connecting his ancestry. “Icelanders are a small community, but it is unique in that it comes from an isolated island with a history of excellent data keeping,” says Freeman, adding Iceland’s genealogical databases are often used for genetic research. 


Cousins Across the Ocean


In 2003, Freeman and Furstenau teamed up to create the Genealogy Center at The Deuce of August, and they began to connect North American Icelanders with their relatives in Iceland. By 2007, this project was named Cousins Across the Ocean for its success in connecting many distant cousins on the two continents. The pair works with Hálfdan Helgason, a researcher based in Iceland, to match those making requests with their relatives, often arranging the meetings at the annual Deuce of August celebration in Mountain.


“We find a lot of relatives in Canada and it is so exciting when we find someone from North Dakota or Minnesota,” says Furstenau. “The people from Iceland are so excited and appreciative to meet with their families. It’s very rewarding.”


“When they introduce the cousins at The Deuce of August celebration, some people cry,” says Freeman. “It’s really touching.”


The connections between Iceland and North America continue to grow with projects such as Cousins Across the Ocean and the efforts of the Icelandic National Leagues of Iceland and North America. The Icelandic National League organizations also offer unique Snorri Programs in which participants travel to Iceland to experience the country’s nation, culture, and nature.


Furstenau adds the historic records provide many ties between families. “When you start to research Icelandic genealogy, you find a lot of people you are distantly related to who have stories about your family. When you start to put all those pieces together, it’s amazing.”  


The pair also recently began a new project to map the 10 Icelandic cemeteries in North Dakota. “We pour over church records, family records, tombstones and study thousands of obituaries,” say Furstenau. “There are a lot of graves that are getting marked because of this project.”


Furstenau has taken an active role on the state, regional and international levels to preserve and celebrate Icelandic heritage. She belongs to three Icelandic clubs, the Icelandic Communities Association, the Fargo-Moorhead Icelandic Club, and Hekla, an 85-year-old, all-women’s Icelandic organization. 


In addition she serves on the board of directors for the Heritage Education Commission, a division of Minnesota State University Moorhead; on the board of directors of the Icelandic National League of North America; and as the first-ever United States representative on the board of directors for the Icelandic National League of Iceland.


Furstenau also created and maintains websites and Facebook pages for many of these organizations, all on a volunteer basis.


“This is a story of our history and of our families,” says Furstenau. “It brings our ancestors stories to life and helps us to understand our roots.”  


The Northeast North Dakota Heritage Association, Pembina Historical Museum, and   


Icelandic Communities Association also play a vital role in preserving the heritage of the North Dakota Icelanders, including continuing the strong tradition of celebrating the Icelandic community.


The Deuce of August Celebration Brings Thousands to Mountain

Each year the town of Mountain and the surrounding communities commemorate Icelandic heritage with The Deuce of August or The 2nd of August celebration. This marks the day in 1874 when Jón Sigurðsson convinced the Danish government to give Iceland its freedom. A new constitution was created and all Icelandic churches held a special service on the evening of August 2, 1874, to celebrate the country’s freedom.

This summer marks the 112th celebration, scheduled for July 29-31. The celebration is coordinated by the Icelandic Communities Association and brings the town to life with visitors from across the world.

“The event has changed and evolved over the decades,” says Olafson, president of the Icelandic Communities Association. “But if you went back 100 years, you’d find events similar to today. We tried to retain activities that have been the base of the celebration and retain our ethnic character.”

The three-day event includes a parade, heritage program and tours, genealogy center, Old Time dances, the Vikur Church luncheon and services, and traditional Icelandic food courtesy of the Abrahamson family’s Akra Snack Shack. Also scheduled are a car show, bingo, entertainment, street dance and the North Dakota State Tractor, Pickup and ATV Pull.

“It’s a combination of a focus on our ethnic heritage, history and culture and events that appeal to a broader range of people,” says Olafson.  

The event draws between 8,000 and 10,000 people over the weekend, which includes between 200 and 300 visitors from Iceland. “The biggest attraction is coming into this little town and seeing wall-to-wall people on Main Street,” say Olafson.

The event has also been host to the President of Iceland, three Icelandic Prime Ministers, several Icelandic Ambassadors and Cabinet Ministers, and the Governor of North Dakota. Also in attendance at the event each summer is Mountain resident Loretta Thorfinnson Bernhoft, the Honorary Counsel to Iceland from North Dakota, and 1999 Recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon and Gardar native, Sir Magnus Olafson.

This year’s celebration will also dedicate the newly completed $1.65 million Mountain Community Center. A project eight years in the making, it was completed at the end of April. “This facility has everything the community needs under one roof, a banquet hall, cafe, fire hall and offices,” says Olafson, adding during the annual celebration many events can now be held in the Community Center.

The celebration and its many events are supported by a large volunteer effort spreading throughout Mountain and the surrounding communities, and volunteers play a key role in the success and longevity of The Deuce of August.

Olafson says The Deuce of August celebration is often people’s connection to their Icelandic heritage. “For people who have their roots in this area of the state, or at one time had family members living here, this is their annual pilgrimage home.”

But he says the connection with his own Icelandic heritage is most strongly felt when visiting Iceland itself, a trip he has made six times. “The minute I step off the plane, I get this feeling I am home,” Olafson says. “It’s something I can’t explain, but I never feel as good as I do when I am in Iceland.”

For more information on The Deuce of August celebration, the Cousins Across the Ocean project, the Icelandic Communities Association or the history of North Dakota Icelanders visit

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Editor, North Dakota Horizons
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