An Icelandic Mormon Family in the early 20th Century

A couple months ago, Brother J. Stapley wrote some thoughts on the Cardston temple. After enjoying them, I considered that Alberta is a significant branch of our Church’s history with which I have no personal connection. Pondering it further, though, I remembered that I do. Thanks to Canada, I’m a Nevadan.

This is a story of my great-grandmother Victora Winsor, born Sigridur Tobiasdottir. It has a personal interest for me, but others may find some value in considering what it may add to understanding families in the Church. My source on most of this is my grandfather, LaVar Winsor, and some of the wording I am copying from him. In the spring of 1883, Tobias Tobiasson and Elinborg Petursdottir began living together. The only legitimate marriage available in Iceland was that provided by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the state church, and that was too expensive. Iceland of the 19th Century was ahead of the Scandinavian countries in routinizing co-habitation. Tobias listened to Elder Halldor Jonsson of Spanish Fork preach on both his missions and was baptized in 1887. Spanish Fork was the first gathering place in North America for Icelanders and the largest one in the United States with 410 Icelanders migrating to Utah between 1855 and 1914.

Originally a shoemaker, Tobias became an invalid confined to bed through the winter. Missionaries promised that if he went to Utah, he would be cured, so he decided to leave in June of 1900 with his nine-year-old daughter Sigridur and seven-year-old son Njall. He financed the trip in part by selling hundreds of woolen mittens he had knitted while in bed. (In Liverpool, Sigridur’s name was changed to Victora: like, but not identical to, the Queen. Njall became Neils.) Left behind were his wife and three other children. He never saw his wife again. Tobias’ brother, Magnus, showed Elinborg a picture of Eagle Gate in Salt Lake City and told her that was where the Mormons locked up their wives. She did not want to come to Utah and used that as an excuse not to. In 1903, Elinborg and Magnus had a daughter.

Arriving in Utah by train, Tobias found work in Emery County with barracks to live in. He could take a boy with him, but not a girl, so Victora went to live with an Icelandic family, then a second , non-Icelandic one. The second couple divorced, so she went back to the first one, which was big and crowded. She was moved around a couple more times and ended up with a childless couple in Enterprise, Effie and Frank Winsor. (Enterprise is north of St. George, west of Cedar City, and about 30 miles from Nevada.) She would live happily with them until her 23rd birthday, when she married Frank’s nephew, Walter Winsor. A few years late, they would move to the Moapa Valley in Nevada.

Sometime before 1904, Tobias was called to settle in Canada. He tied a tag around his son Neils’ neck, and put enough stamps on it to pay for a parcel post package of that weight. On the tag was written THIS BOY IS GOING TO LIVE WITH FRANK WINSOR IN ENTERPRISE, UTAH. PLEASE FEED HIM. Neils helped Frank Winsor put in a crop. A short time later he went to help his father in Canada.

In Canada in 1904, Tobias Tobiasson married Gudfinna Saemundsdottir, widow of Erickur Olsen. In 1909, Elinborg died back in Iceland. All Tobias’ and Elinborg’s children in Iceland, save the oldest daughter Lena, came to live near their father in Alberta. In 1911, Tobias took his family to the Salt Lake Temple and was sealed to Elinborg and their children. Victora was not present and would be sealed to her parents in the Cardston Temple in 1939.

Like his father before him, Walter Winsor had a brother with no children, and my grandfather, Victora’s oldest child, was sent to live with Uncle Andy for some of his older childhood for the benefit of both families.

Finally, Victora Winsor visited Iceland once seventy-five years after leaving it and saw again her oldest sister Lena.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

8 thoughts on “An Icelandic Mormon Family in the early 20th Century

  1. This is fascinating; thanks for sharing. (There’s virtually nothing interesting about my ancestors except that at one point we owned 1/3 of Martha’s Vineyard and my great-whatever-parents were fined 16 shillings for quarrelling on the sabbath.)

  2. Thank you very much, John. There is a poignancy in their mundanity that is simply overwhelming to me. Can you imaging having to mail your son off? Can you imagine having a community that would receive such a son?

  3. Reminds me a little of a book I read years ago — Paradise Regained, by the Icelandic nobel prize winner, Halldor Laxness, the story involving conversion and emigration to Utah.

  4. Thanks for that wonderful story, John. And, don’t forget, Icelandic Days here in Spanish Fork is in coming–the fourth Saturday in June! (I don’t have any Icelandic ancestry, but I live right across the street from the city park, so I get to participate in all the festivities.)

  5. I have wanted to read Paradise Regained. I would suppose that Halldor Laxness is the only Nobel winner to write a book on Mormon converts.

    Here is a very interesting letter by David Timmins concerning his experiences as a member of the Church in Morocco (1975-77) and Iceland (1958-60) while serving in U.S. diplomatic service. I can only access it through the Google cache. From the letter:

    Sometime during this process, we found ourselves invited to the country home of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate for Literature Hjaldor Kiljian Laxness for a most entertaining evening with some of Iceland’s elite. Towards the end of the evening Mr. Laxness invited me into his library for a tete a tete. It turned out that he was considering a Mormon theme for his next novel and had been put on to me by our mutual acquaintance the [Lutheran] Bishop. We talked history and doctrine for about three hours, and at the end of the evening he asked my assistance in arranging contacts and interviews for his intended visit to Utah to gather background for his novel.

    I thereupon wrote my father, W. Mont Timmins, a bishop, patriarch, and historian, who agreed to make further appointments and escort Mr. Laxness during his visit to Utah. I also wrote a couple of General Authority acquaintances, though after more than thirty years, I can no longer remember with precision just who they were.

    In any event, Mr. Laxness made his trip, later informing me how courteously he’d been received and how delighted he was with his trip. While I’d by that time left Iceland for Harvard University, Mr. Laxness sent me an English language copy of his new book which he called Paradise Regained. It is the story of an early Icelandic convert who emigrated from Iceland to Utah, married (multiple times as was the custom), reared a family, became a Bishop, and was then called on a mission to Iceland. Returning to his homeland and finding his countrymen stiffnecked and stubborn (the subject of Laxness’ Nobel Prize-winning novel Independent People) he decides to take a few days off from proselyting to return to his family farmstead in the hinterlands.

    Finding the home abandoned and the fieldstone fence in disrepair, Bishop Whosit mechanically and offhandedly begins piling stone on stone as he’d been taught to do as a boy. Thus ends the novel. Laxness, while painting a quite favorable picture of the Church, its doctrines, and its magnificent accomplishments in the desert of the American West, is led to find his protagonist caught up in the primitive and compelling beauty of Iceland and its stubborn, independent people, and thus unable to complete his proselyting mission or to return to his wives and family in Utah. Or at least so one is left to imagine as the novel ends with the Bishop still piling stone on stone at the family homestead which it had occupied since the arrival of Ingolfur Arnason and his Nordic compatriots who had fled Norway for the freedom of Iceland during the consolidation of the realm of Harold the Fairhaired in Norway in 960 A.D. Perhaps a rather bleak and forbidding “Paradise”, but nevertheless Paradise Regained.

  6. John,

    I have the story about Victora and Neils from Great Uncle Franks perspective on our Winsor family site here. Read down the history until after he gets married and then Victora and Neils come in.

    Your cousin,
    Eric Winsor

  7. I just found your story. I am also related to Njall tobiasson. He is my great grandfather. One of his children was Delbert Niels Tobiasson, His son is Delbert Corwin Tobiasson, I am his son. I have heard this story about mailing him with the tag stating ‘to feed this boy.’ Great story. I am living in Boise and have for 15 years. I am also trying to learn Icelandic. Very difficult language indeed.

  8. Grandmother Tobiasson nee Olifsson died from the flu epidemic 1918 so the family history was some what lost.
    This was in Fort Macleod Alberta Canada.

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