By Dick Purinton
Modern day marketing sometimes states that Washington Island is the “oldest Icelandic settlement,” or the “largest,” of any in North America.
There is truth to each claim, but such statements must also be clarified. What happened on Washington Island, it appears, was the beginning of an emigration movement, whereby family members and other fellow Icelanders were encouraged through first-hand communications such as letters, to consider North America as their future home.
There was a group of Icelanders who followed a Mormon leader to Spanish Fork, Utah. Initially three in number in 1854, they soon added new pilgrims to their ranks. They were recruited on Vestmannaeyjer (or Westman Island), and gradually, between 1854 and 1914, over 400 fellow Icelanders settled in Spanish Fork. This community certainly qualified as an Icelandic settlement, but as a religious community it seemed to be downplayed as a true emigration movement.
“They were followed to Utah in later years by other converts, but the early Icelandic Mormon’s status as lost sheep probably denied them any chance to inspire a general migration to America,” wrote Washington Island author Conan Eaton in his book “Washington Island 1836-1896.”
So, it is with an asterisk, then, that we must qualify the statement that Washington Island was the first settlement of Icelanders in the U. S, or that they alone began the trend in emigration that eventually encouraged some 20,000 fellow countrymen to follow.
Noting Icelandic emigrant numbers on Washington Island, Eaton wrote that the community here may have numbered between 150 and 200 Icelanders, at most. And of those, some came and found disappointment, then moved on.
This we do know, through copies of letters held in our Island Archives and elsewhere: the generally positive experience of Washington Island’s four young men made an impact in Iceland. Their words of encouragement led directly to a greater emigration movement.
For that we take note, and in 2020 we choose to remember the contribution made by the arrival of those first four young Icelanders.
What drove them to emigrate?
By Conan Eaton’s account, it was William Wickmann, the Danish clerk who worked in the Eyrarbakki trading center, who encouraged his Icelandic friends to come to Milwaukee. Then, from Milwaukee, Wickmann further encouraged them to join him on Washington Island.
Once here, their hard work seemed to pay off, and their future looked better. Letters home encouraged others to follow, and, by 1872, another group numbering 17 were prepared to embark on their journey. This time, Washington Island was their geographic goal, not Milwaukee.
One young woman learned before sailing that she was pregnant and chose to remain in Iceland along with her husband. As a result, only 15—and not 17—made the journey.
During our 2015 family trip to Eyrarbakki, we were met by Audur Hildur Hakkonardottir, one of our hosts. She had created an exhibit in the museum there, the former home of the Danish consul in Eyrarbakki in the latter 1800s. Her exhibit depicted the early emigration to Washington Island, and her research revealed 17 names of Icelanders intending to emigrate in 1872.
But, in fact, only 15 arrived in North America. What happened to the remaining two, she wondered?
On a plane trip with a friend she explained her predicament, wondering who the two missing emigrants might have been. Her travel companion, Holmfridur Arnasdottir, recalled a story she learned as a child, that her great-grandmother decided not to travel to North America when she discovered that she was pregnant. Although Holmfridur could not remember the year this happened, it was apparent that Hildur had an answer, and that a piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
In a further coincidence, through conversation between the Island’s Sally Schweikert and Principal Flutist of the Chicago Symphony, Stefan Ragnar Hoskulldsson, Sally spoke of Icelandic heritage on Washington Island. Stefan said that one of his forebears had withdrawn her name from the list of emigres, and for the same reason as stated in the above story: she found that she was pregnant and chose not to travel overseas on what would be an arduous journey. Could each story be of the same woman, the same prospective traveler to America? We hope to learn more about this story in the future.
From letters and records referred to by Eaton in his book about Washington Island’s Icelandic settlement, William Wickmann was the man most responsible for arrival of the first four young men.
But it was not a one-time activity. He then continued as the go-between for other Icelanders, helping with travel arrangements for those who followed, for making introductions and easing their cultural assimilation.
It is no wonder that Eyrarbakki Museum director Lydur Palsson stands in awe of William Wickmann, for all he did on behalf of Icelandic immigrants. His role was critical and needs to be remembered, as much as the lives of the four young Icelanders in 1870 who took a leap of faith by following him.
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