Some History on Gimli Manitoba

In 1875, when the first Icelandic settlers arrived in the Canadian West, Manitoba was a tiny "postage stamp" province approximately 33,280 square kilometres (13,000 square miles). To the north of Manitoba's boundaries lay the vast unsettled wilderness of the North-West Territories, an area that originally included most of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Into this area the newcomers from Iceland went to found a colony on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Called "New Iceland", the colony was one of the earliest group settlements in the West. Today , the reserve of land originally homesteaded by the Icelandic pioneers is part of Manitoba's Interlake region.
Harsh winters, Danish trade restrictions and an epidemic that carried away 200,000 sheep crippled Iceland's economy during the 1860's. The prospect of destitution made many consider leaving as an alternative, and from 1863-1873, a small but growing emigration movement developed. Initially Brazil was favoured as a likely destination, with over 40 Icelanders immigrating to that country, and many more prepared to go when transportation difficulties blocked the movement. Attention then turned to North America. Inspired by enthusiastic letters from a Danish store clerk in Milwaukee, four adventurous young men left Iceland in May 1870. They followed to North America by six people in 1871 and 22 in 1872. Among them was Sigtryggur Jonasson, a young government official who became the first Icelander to arrive in Canada.
A group of 115 Icelandic settlers joined Jonasson in Canada in 1873, taking up land in the Rosseau district of Ontario ---- a veritable wilderness of timber and rocks. In 1874 a second and larger group of 365 Icelanders arrived to homestead in Kinmount, Ontario. Suitable land for a large Icelandic colony in Ontario's Free Grant area was limited, and in the spring of 1875, the newcomers' search for a colony site resumed. Many of the Kinmount group were attracted to Nova Scotia, while those who remained were persuaded by a Scottish missionary, John Taylor, to seek land in Manitoba or the North West Territories.
Three emissaries, Taylor, Sigtryggur Jonasson, and Einar Jonasson, were elected to search for the new colony site in the West. The delegation was joined by several Icelandic settlers from Wisconsin and arrived at the frontier town of Winnipeg, Manitoba on July 20, 1875. The young province had suffered a grasshopper plague that summer, but the Icelandic delegation was impressed with land they inspected immediately north of Manitoba's boundaries.
Equipped with York boat and guide, the delegation traveled along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg to the White Mud River. In this wilderness territory, the fertile soil, evident by the lush tall grass, the abundance of fish, and the impressive stand of forest extending to the lakeshore, greatly attracted the delegates. The region had escaped the grasshopper plague; it promised suitable grazing for livestock, prosperous fishing and plentiful fuel and building wood, so lacking in their homeland. Prospects of a continental railway line being constructed to the south at Selkirk, and the likelihood of greater accessibility to the area added to the potential value of the land.
The delegates selected an area extending 57.9 kilometres (36 miles) along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, from Manitoba's northern boundary at Boundary Creek, near present-day Winnipeg Beach, to north of the White Mud River, which was renamed "Icelander's River (now the Icelandic River). The reserve, which also included Big Island, now Hecla Island, was proudly designated "New Iceland."
Upon the delegation's return to Kinmount, the settlers quickly voted to move west that autumn. After a vigorous recruitment campaign in Ontario, 270 settlers led by John Taylor left the colony on September 25, 1875. Joined by more settlers in Toronto, the group proceeded from Sarnia to Duluth on a steamer that was filled with people, luggage and a consignment of hogs. Thirteen of the Wisconsin Icelanders joined them at Duluth, and the enlarged group travelled by train to the end of the line at Fisher's Landing, Minnesota. From Fisher's Landing they proceeded north to Winnipeg with the steamer International, most of the settlers being towed on rafts behind the boat.
Great curiosity and excitement greeted the weary newcomers when they arrived in Winnipeg, on October 11, 1875. A large crowd had gathered at the steamboat landing to catch a glimpse of them and the next day, the Manitoba Free Press commented, "They are a smart-looking, intelligent and excellent people and a most valuable acquisition to the population..."
With winter fast approaching, the settlers decided to move immediately to the colony site. All those who could obtain employment in Winnipeg were advised to remain behind, and about 50 of the group mainly young women who received employment as domestic servants, did so. The majority, however, left Winnipeg on October 16, travelling down the Red River on six flat boats and a York boat to the St. Andrew's Rapids. From that point, aided by the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Colville, they were escorted to Willow Point, where their long, arduous journey came to an end on October 21, 1875.
The arrival at Willow Point, near present day Gimli, so late in the season ruled out proceeding to the Icelandic River, 32 kilometres (20 miles) further north, as the settlers had originally planned. Instead they chose to pitch tents quickly at Willow Point and set to work building shelters for the winter. Thirty shanties, 3.7 metres by 4.9 metres (12 feet by 16 feet) soon arose in the clearing, with two or three families sharing each house. Farm buildings were constructed and by January 1876, a school housing 30 pupils, was established.
During the first winter at Willow Point daily administration of the colony was virtually in the hands of the settlers themselves. A council of five members, elected by the settlers on January 4, 1876, supervised health and sanitation of the colony, recorded applications for land pending the land survey, and distributed government supplies to the pioneers. The council functioned as the colony's first government, communicating the progress and problems of the settlers to authorities in Manitoba and Ottawa.
With the arrival of spring, half of the population dispersed to Winnipeg and rural farms to find work. Fishing on the lake improved and ducks and rabbits were abundant. Most of the settlers had already cleared .8 to 1.2 hectares (two or three acres) of land and the arduous work of farming started.
In the summer, with the arrival of 1,200 new immigrants from Iceland, the life of the settlement blossomed. The "large group" left Iceland after volcanic eruptions of the Dyngja Mountains had laid waste to 6,474.5 square kilometres (2,500 square miles) of land. Unlike the first group, the "large group" was unfamiliar with pioneer life, but they proved hardy, settling New Iceland up to the Icelandic River, near present-day Riverton, including Big (Hecla) Island. The prospect of a well-populate, prosperous community certainly appeared bright in the summer of 1876, and all energies were turned to making the vision a thriving reality.
Clearing the land for cultivation, working on the government road, and fishing dominated the early life of the colony. Although the Icelanders were experienced deep-sea fishermen, their first attempts at fishing on Lake Winnipeg were not successful. The mesh of their nets was either too small or too large for the lake's fish species and suitable nets were not readily available. When they tried ice fishing, the nets were lowered into shallow water, becoming embedded in ice. A five dollar reward was offered to the man who caught the first fish; the winner caught a goldeye -- a species unknown to the Icelanders. Initially, as they were unable to find game or fish in any large numbers, the group's supplies ran dangerously low until replenished with dried moose meat and milk from neighbouring Aboriginals. As the settlers adapted to the new conditions, supplemented their diet. Fish continued to be the colony's staple, however, and many individuals complained that even their milk tasted of fish.
Preparing the land for cultivation proved difficult. Without adequate clothing for the harsh winter, settlers frequently cleared forest growth bare-handed. On the farms, often situated on poor, rocky soil, work was slow and laborious. Forests had to be cleared by hand, while hay was cut with a scythe, piled in heaps with a fork and carried on the settlers' backs to an enclosed storage area. The colony's first two cows were acquired during the spring of 1876, and shortly thereafter 20 more were added. While the Icelanders were overjoyed to have livestock, on woman tearfully lamented that she would "never be able to really love a foreign cow". Later, when sheep were brought to the colony, the women spent their evenings carding and spinning wool or knitting socks and mittens. Undoubtedly the greatest hardship suffered by the settlers in the first few years was the smallpox epidemic of 1876-1877. The dreaded disease first appeared in September, shortly after the arrival of the "large group," but it was thought to be chicken pox and not considered serious. When the danger was recognized in early November, physicians and medical supplies for the colony were urgently requested.
The Manitoba government responded by sending Drs. David Young, James S. Lynch, and A. Baldwin to curb the spread of the disease. New Iceland was placed under quarantine on November 27, 1876. A makeshift hospital in a government storehouse was organized in Gimli and a quarantine station established at Netley Creek.
Abetted by severe weather conditions, overcrowding due to the large influx of settlers that summer, and inadequate provisions, the epidemic spread throughout the colony. Over one-third of the settlers contracted the disease and 100 people died. Sandy River, a nearby Native village, was decimated. Fortunately, the makeshift hospital was successful, saving all but one of its 64 patients.
By April 1877, the epidemic had subsided, but the quarantine remained in effect until June 20. Growing restless over their imposed isolation, the colonists led a peaceful demonstration to Netley Creek to ask authorities to end the restrictions. When they arrived, the discovered that the restrictions had been lifted the previous night.
To meet hardship and unexpected disaster, an effective form of local government for New Iceland was imperative. The local council, which had been elected in January 1876, during the first winter at Willow Point, was short-lived and had been dissolved in the spring of 1876, when New Iceland was officially transferred to the newly created District of Keewatin by the federal government. Established under North West Territories Act, April 12,1876, the new district extended from Manitoba's northern boundary at Boundary Creek, near the present day Winnipeg Beach, to the northern limits of Canada. It was to be governed by a council of five to ten appointed members, with the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba as exofficio Lieutenant Governor of the district. The council for Keewatin however, was not organized in time to meet the pressing needs created by the large influx of settlers in the summer of 1876 and the horrors of a smallpox epidemic that fall and winter. To alleviate the situation during the interim, the settlers held their own meeting in January 1877, despite the epidemic, to discuss colony government as well as other matters of concern. After a series of public meetings, a provisional constitution outlining a democratic system of government for New Iceland was drafted. Elections were held on February 14, 1877.