History Is All Around...


Icelandic River Roast Coffee

PDF Print E-mail
Nes Historic Cemetery

Over 130 years ago, in the spring of 1876, the first settlers on the Icelandic River landed near what is now Riverton. They had arrived in the new settlement from Ontario on October 21, 1875, with plans to establish the settlement’s principal town where Riverton now stands, but their journey down Lake Winnipeg on barges had been terminated off Willow Island due to rough sailing, and so Gimli came into being - by accident.

Upon arrival at the river, known to that time as the Whitemud River, these first settlers at Riverton encountered a small, semi-nomadic group of aboriginal fishers and trappers known as the Sandy Bar Band. Among them was the now-legendary John Ramsay, who after an initial confrontation became a friend to the settlers.

In the late summer of 1876, a large contingent of settlers arrived at the river, having come directly from Iceland via Scotland and Quebec. A boy in this group had apparently been exposed to smallpox at the immigration sheds in Quebec, and a virulent strain of this illness broke out at the river in September of 1876 and spread through the entire settlement like wildfire during the winter of 1876-77.

The names of 102 smallpox victims were recorded by administrators of the settlement, but many more also died of other illnesses during the first years. At least 20 of the immigrants died at Icelandic River, and the sickness also decimated the Sandy Bar Band. Conditions in the settlement were horrific during that winter, and most if not all the smallpox victims at Icelandic River – Icelandic and native - were buried in shallow graves in a meadow along the east bank of the river, just north of the new townsite. This site became known as Graftarnes, meaning Grave Point – Nes for short.

This cemetery, the resting place of between 70-100 individuals, remained in use as the community cemetery until sometime after 1880. According to an eyewitness, the graves were surrounded with logs (presumably set on end), and there is some evidence that some of the native graves were housed over with poles leaned together to form gables. These were marked with small totems on which small bags of tobacco were left for the dead.

The reasons for the abandonment of this site are unclear – but possibly its low elevation and the severe flooding of the late fall of 1880 made this seem an unsuitable site. Possibly it was the site’s tragic association with the epidemic. The local congregation also became inactive around that time, due to the exodus of settlers from the settlement.

In any case, around 1883 this riverlot was homesteaded by a settler from Hecla Island, who apparently levelled over the graves and built his house in the midst of the cemetery. Needless to say, this individual did not thrive at Nes, and following his untimely and gruesome death in 1890 his widow and sons abandoned the house. Others tried to occupy it, but none stayed, and numerous stories of paranormal phenomena circulated for decades.
For a few years after Nes was appropriated as a homestead, the community at Icelandic River had no community cemetery, so home burials were the only option. Several of these are known, but only one is still marked by a picket fence. The current Riverton Cemetery was not taken into use until about 1885 when the local congregation was reorganized.

The site at Nes, which is now Crown land, has been utterly neglected for years and is marked only by a lone sign that was donated and erected by students from Arborg Collegiate about 10 years ago. It was for many years used as pasture by Gilbert Guttormsson, who faithfully collected the skeletal remains exposed each year by erosion to the riverbank and reburied them.

Erosion is an ongoing problem, and following the discovery of a skull and numerous other bones last summer, Manitoba Historic Resources attended the site and collected all the exposed remains. These are now in storage both in Winnipeg and in the Lutheran church in Riverton, awaiting analysis and reburial. Late last fall Historic Resources staff exhumed two shallow graves that had been partly eroded and were in immediate jeopardy. They were the graves of an adult woman and a child, both buried in coffins lying east and west at a depth of about 2 ½ feet.

The names of all 20 Icelandic smallpox victims are known, including those of five adults – two men and three women. The rest are children ranging in age from 13 years to a few weeks.

This remarkable and unique site not only warrants preservation, but ranks among the area’s most significant historic sites for commemoration. Our plans include not only riverbank protection, but site enhancement in the form of landscaping and tree planting, a semi-circular concrete monument sheltering a bronze sculpture of a mother and child, annual commemorative programming, ambitious fund raising, and the involvement of community members of all ages, including relatives from both far and near.