Five Hundred Babies

Aug 8, 2018

After enjoying a church-basement luncheon at Vikur Lutheran Church, during the August the Deuce celebration in Mountain, and before heading over to the community hall to hear Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, we had a wander through the Vikur Lutheran Cemetery. The most prominent grave marker there, topped with a cross, contains the following inscription:

Aldis Laxdal

Born Aug. 10, 1837, Died Oct. 30, 1899

Aged 62 Yrs. 2 Mos. 20 Dys.

Ladies, whom she nursed raised this monument to her memory.

Intrigued by this women’s monument to a little-known woman, on return home I commenced searching for historical information on Aldis Laxdal. I was finding the documentation a little thin until, here in our NDSU Archives, I paged through the Pioneer Mother Biographies compiled and published by the Pioneer Daughters of Pembina County. Here I found a good, one-page sketch of the life of Mrs. Laxdal. Its final paragraph reads:

The large monument in her memory in Mountain, N.D. by the women whom she nursed is an emblem of true appreciation. Without a doctor in attendance she delivered over 500 babies and many more assisting a Dr.

Five hundred babies! The woman was a midwife. From this sketch and other scattered sources I pieced together her story.

Begin with the backstory of Icelandic immigration to the prairies. Here I rely on the classic work by Thorstina Walters, Modern Sagas. Updating and revising this I have the new work by Ryan Eyford, White Settler Reserve: New Iceland and the Colonization of the Canadian West. From these we learn that the initial impetus for Icelandic settlement on the prairies was generated by Canadian recruitment. When conditions in the Icelandic Reserve of Manitoba proved disappointing to the immigrants, many of them streamed south to resettle in Pembina County, Dakota Territory.

Aldis Jónasdóttir was born the child of a member of the venerable Icelandic parliament. In 1863 she married Grímur Laxdal. She bore him two children, but then he died in 1866. Here we see the reason Aldis Laxdal turned to midwifery: she was a widow with two children to support.

When Canada offered the Icelanders land in Manitoba, Mrs. Laxdal made her way west via steamship, railroad, and flatboat to Manitoba, by way of Grand Forks. Immediately on arrival alongside Lake Winnipeg the colonists were struck by a smallpox epidemic. Mrs. Laxdal had had her children vaccinated in Iceland. She nursed the sick and earned praise for walking overland sixty miles to Winnipeg for supplies.

Subsequently the midwife joined emigrants going to Pembina County and practiced her profession there to great satisfaction of her fellow settlers. She acquired land in her own name. The Bismarck Tribune noted on her passing in 1899 that she was “among the earliest settlers of this section” and had “endeared herself to her people throughout the entire community, in which she has been one of the most useful members--tenderly and skillfully caring for the sick . . . widely known and universally beloved.”

The studio portrait of Aldis Jónasdóttir Laxdal, taken by the renowned Icelandic photographer Jon Blondal in 1892, depicts a handsome woman with steely eyes and a firm-set mouth. Her story deserves deeper research and wider telling.

~Tom Isern