The Royal Grave in New Iceland

What I love most about being part-Icelandic is our people’s obsession with stories and genealogy. For such a small country, Iceland’s detailed and preserved historical records are incomparable. Although there were many reasons for, and reactions to, the great migration of 1875-1915 from Iceland to North America, today there is a collective enthusiasm to revive the connections between the Western-Icelanders and ancestral homeland of Iceland. As a volunteer genealogist for Icelandic Roots and a descendant of Friðrika Björnsdóttir, who is the woman at the centre of the “Friðrika Björnsdóttir Memorial Restoration Project”, I am both excited and proud to share her story.
The heart of the Royal Grave Memorial project has been to preserve and mark the grave of Friðrika Björnsdóttir, which was a site known only to select family members until a few years ago. Friðrika died in 1884 and was buried on her homestead, Árskógur, in what is now the Municipality of Bifrost-Riverton in Manitoba. Until the fall of 2016, her grave consisted of a worn picket fence surrounding a lone chokecherry tree in a patch of earth overgrown with weeds in the middle of a field at Árskógur. There was no visible marker to indicate that a remarkable woman with ties to the Danish Crown was laid to rest there.
The preservation project began ten years ago in 2007, when a local history enthusiast, Nelson Gerrard approached a descendant with the idea. This descendant gave a generous donation which led to the formation of a committee made up of several of Friðrika’s descendants. The purpose of the committee was to create a plan and raise money to commemorate the gravesite of their ancestor. The project stalled many times over the years due to committee members being spread out across Canada and a lack of funding. Eventually it picked up momentum and enthusiasm in early 2016 as a plan came together with a final goal in mind and a timeline was determined. Family members have repaired and restored the original picket fence, have pruned the chokecherry tree and culled the weeds as best as they could, despite a case of poison ivy!
In the spring of 2016 a simple plaque marking Friðrika’s  name and dates of birth and death, along with her husband’s name was installed with a triangular limestone pillar meant to represent the past, present and future, to permanently mark her grave. Then in the fall of 2016 a historic homestead sign was installed at the Árskógur farm, which is currently privately owned. Additionally, in the Riverton Memorial Centennial Park an interpretive panel was erected to tell the life story of Friðrika Björnsdóttir, explain her Royal connection and share some history of home burials in the New Iceland region.
Friðrika’s Royal connection has been the focus of the campaign because it makes her story of survival and perseverance all the more interesting, even though she did not enjoy any glory in being a descendant of Danish Royalty. Friðrika’s maternal grandfather, Samúel, was the son of a woman known as Soffía María, the daughter of a Danish merchant in Copenhagen. His father, as stated in Danish church records, was the Crown Prince Frederick, later to be King Frederick VI of Denmark. Samúel was raised at royal expense by a foster family in Copenhagen. In his early twenties, he emigrated to the trading port of Eskifjörður in East Iceland, where he stayed working as a carpenter and craftsman. He then married an Icelandic woman, settled in the region of Fáskruðsfjörður, and had several children.
Samúel’s eldest child was Lovísa María, Friðrika’s mother. While working on farms in the area, Lovísa met a man named Björn, and together they had Friðrika in 1849. But, as it was for many of Iceland’s lower class, Björn and Lovísa were never able to marry (if they had wanted to) because they did not own their own land. At the age of ten, Friðrika was fostered to a new family and her parents split to work on different farms. Friðrika was very lucky because the man who took her in as a foster child was the town Doctor in Eskifjörður, Bjarni Thorlacíus. Bjarni and his wife, Gytte Elín, had no children and treated Friðrika as their own until she met and married her husband Pétur. Even though Royal blood was in her veins, Friðrika did not receive any special treatment. She still had to work to survive, like any other Icelander of her stature.
Friðrika, along with her husband and their three children, as well as her mother Lovísa, emigrated to Canada in 1876 to start a new life. Their life in Canada is better known, as the emigration story of Icelanders has been told many times over. Friðrika and Pétur spent the first winter at Sandy Bar where their first three children all died of smallpox. After such a devasting  loss, the couple went on to have five more children, all daughters, and to settle at the homestead they named Árskógur, where they lived a decent life. It was shortly after the arrival of their last child that Friðrika died from complications after birth. The year was 1884. The original community cemetery had been closed and a new site had not yet been decided. For this reason, Friðrika and many others now forgotten, were buried at their homesteads.
Of Friðrika’s five daughters, four went on to have families of their own. Here in North America, Friðrika’s descendants number in the hundreds and are scattered across both Canada and the United States. Through the “Friðrika Björnsdóttir Memorial Restoration Project”, we have been able to reach out and connect with some of these descendants of Friðrika. The four family names of those four daughters are: Magnússon, Guttormsson, Vídalín, and Jónsson. We’ve also been able to connect with descendants of Samúel’s other children who are still living in Iceland and telling the same story of Samúel’s royal blood that we in North America have heard.
The “Friðrika Björnsdóttir Memorial Restoration Project” has also led the committee of family members to make new and stronger connections within the Icelandic-North American community. Media support has been led by the team at As It Happened Productions, who also created a documentary about the project that debuted at the Riverton Reunion Days/Canada 150 Celebrations (June 30-July 2).
The project has been covered in local media, national media, as well as in articles in Iceland and Denmark. A full list of all the media coverage the project has received can be found on the project webpage under “media”. The project has also helped us maintain and/or create ties with the Icelandic River Heritage Sites Inc., Icelandic Roots, the Scandinavian Cultural Centre, the Danish Consulate in Winnipeg, as well as other Icelandic groups both in North America and Iceland.
The project committee is also very grateful for the donations and grants received from family members, the community, Icelandic Roots and the Manitoba Government Heritage Grants program. Fundraising efforts have been successful, but donations are still needed to reach the final goal to cover the costs of the project. Full details of the memorial and how to donate can be found on the project website: http://tindratales.wixsite.com/fridrikamemorial
Friðrika Björnsdóttir also has her own Facebook page. Email inquiries can be made to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Further information can be found through the following sites:
Canada Alliance 150 page: https://alliance150.ca/author/the_fririka_bjrnsdttir_memorial_restoration_projec/
Canada 150 Passport page:
https://passport2017.ca/events/fridrika-bjornsdottir-memorial-restoration-project-dedicationunveiling-ceremony