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Icelandic

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The isolation of their island homeland equipped early Icelandic settlers well in facing the challenges of settlement in Alberta. The Icelanders who settled in Alberta brought a love of their language, literature and sagas. Of the Icelanders who came to North America, the number settling in Alberta was significantly fewer than those in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Still, the Icelandic settlement at Markerville, established in 1888 to the west of present day Innisfail is a fascinating study in Alberta's cultural history.

The Journey from Iceland

tractor Icelandic settlers to Alberta did not come directly from Iceland. Those who settled in the Markerville area largely came from North Dakota and from Manitoba and Wisconsin before that. It was their third attempt at settlement.

With little arable land and its northern latitude, Iceland's economy was traditionally supported through raising livestock and fishing. In the mid 1800s, under Danish rule, facing livestock epidemics, crop failures and volcanic eruptions, tenant farmers were forced to leave Iceland to survive. The first large group of 170 people left for North America in August 1873. Arriving in Ontario's Muskoka region, adverse conditions as well as unfulfilled promises of support from the Canadian government led to another migration. In the Interlake region of Manitoba, north of Winnipeg, they established 'New Iceland.' A number from the original group moved to Wisconsin.

First Settlements

Mainstreet of Markerville New Iceland was granted the right to manage its own affairs and the bloc settlement was suitable in that it allowed the Icelanders to speak their language and maintain cultural practices. However, a smallpox epidemic, food shortages and malnutrition led to the departure of some New Icelanders in 1878 to reestablish themselves in the city of Winnipeg, or at settlements in present day Saskatchewan and in North Dakota.

The Icelanders who established the Pembina County settlement in North Dakota faced many of the problems as before. Led by a Lutheran clergyman, by the early 1880s the community was well established with community institutions such as churches, schools and post offices.

Stephan Stephansson, who would become a prominent member of the Markerville settlement, was among those at Pembina County. Like other Icelanders, he learned to read not at school but in his family's practice of daily common reading. A poet, pacifist and political radical, he learned some English while in Iceland as well as Danish and Norwegian. At Pembina, he established a cultural society with the objectives of 'Humanity, Research, Freedom.' These goals reflected Stephansson's opposition to the religious thought of the Lutheran Church, the state church in Iceland and predominant church for the immigrant community. This criticism and debate between such cultural societies and the Lutheran Church was common in Icelandic settlements in the United States.

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