This week, writer and publisher Karl Birgisson traveled from Reykjavik, Iceland to Starkville, Mississippi in pursuit of materials that will help him finish his forthcoming book, First, We Take Alaska.
Birgisson arrived in the U.S. Tuesday night, September 10, and drove from Orlando, Florida to Starkville, arriving Thursday. He spent two days at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State and planned to move on to the Library of Congress and then Cornell University before returning home.
His book explores how Alaska almost became an "Icelandic state" within the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, due to the efforts of self-exiled Icelandic newspaper editor and poet Jon Olafsson and President Ulysses S. Grant, along with Wall Street lawyer Marston Niles. According to the story, Olafsson was seeking land that he and other Icelandic immigrants in the United States could permanently settle.
This story has, to this day, only been told in parts in Icelandic and based only on Icelandic sources. Birgisson aims to fill in the story's gaps with American sources. The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, Birgisson discovered in his research, contains documents that cannot be found in any other public institution and materials that would help clarify President Grant's role in this Icelandic mission to colonize Alaska.
Both the content and the tone of the private letters in the Grant Collection have been particularly helpful to Birgisson. "They're more interesting than official announcements,"; he said.
While Olafsson offered President Grant a gleaming report of Alaska as an ideal Icelandic colony, and Grant had his own reasons for desiring to forfeit the territory, these plans clearly never materialized. Birgisson hopes that his research in the U.S. will lead to a full explanation of the story's end.
Assistant Archivist Ryan Semmes commented, "Mr. Birgisson's work is another example of the many research possibilities available at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. The Grant collection contains numerous stories just waiting to be told."
Karl Birgisson has worked in the media for more than twenty years, mostly as an editor and radio producer. In the past few years, he has worked as an independent writer and publisher, including editing and publishing a quarterly magazine on politics and society, Herdubreid. He has written two books on Icelandic politics and just published his first children's book.
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