Manitoba

Lonely grave in Riverton field that of former Danish princess, family says

On a lonely hill outside of Riverton, Man., sits a single grave surrounded by a dilapidated white picket fence where some in Manitoba's Icelandic community believe a member of the Danish royal family was laid to rest decades ago. Now, there's an effort to recognize and properly mark the burial site.

Project to raise money for proper Interlake burial site of Friðrika Bjornsdottir underway

Frith Rika (Friðrika) Bjornsdottir died Aug. 8, 1884, and was buried in a field in Riverton, Man. Some believe she is a descendent of Denmark's King Frederick VI and are currently raising money to make her grave more fit for royalty. (Supplied)
On a lonely hill outside of Riverton, Man., sits a single grave surrounded by a dilapidated white picket fence where some in Manitoba's Icelandic community believe a member of the Danish royal family was laid to rest decades ago. Now, there's an effort to recognize and properly mark the burial site.

"She was long gone before I was brought into this world but her story has always circulated through my life," says Robbie Rousseau, president of Islendingadagurinn (The Icelandic Festival). "I remember hearing stories of this possible royal family [connection]."

Frith Rika (Friðrika) Bjornsdottir died Aug. 8, 1884, at the age of 35, just two weeks after the birth of her eighth and final child. That child was Rousseau's great-grandmother, making him Friðrika's great-great-grandson.

The Riverton Cemetery was closed at the time of her death, so the family buried Friðrika in the field near their home, so the story goes.

Tracing Friðrika's journey to that exact spot in that ordinary Prairie field takes us back a few hundred years into Denmark's royal chambers. Angela Chalmers, owner of the film company As It Happened Productions, is currently making a documentary about Friðrika's family's long voyage to the Interlake region in Manitoba.

'Royal soap opera'

"It's a royal soap opera," Chalmers says. "King Frederick VI was trying to have a male heir. His wife kept giving him daughters so he looked outside his marriage, is the way of saying it I guess, and ended up having relations with a woman outside his marriage."

A baby boy named Samuel was born after his Icelandic mother, and the Danish king, did the royal deed, Chalmers says.

There is potentially a new Icelandic princess in the middle of a field with a bunch of cows.- Angela Chalmers

Samuel was raised in Denmark, secretly on the king's dime, but he was never formally recognized as the rightful descendent and heir to the throne allegedly due to his extramarital conception story, Chalmers says. He eventually made his way back to Iceland, where his wife gave birth to a daughter named Lovísa. 

Lovísa later gave birth to Friðrika, making her King Frederick VI's great-granddaughter, Chalmers says.

"As interesting as Friðrika's story is, her husband's early-life story is just as amazing," Rousseau says. 

"When he was a young child, eight years old, both of his parents died. Two weeks after his father's death, his mother, and his sisters and his uncle went to a wedding at the parish church. They were crossing a stream; the ice had formed over the river on the fjord and he made it across with his uncle. His uncle went across to get everyone else and they went through with his sister. And his mother was on the side of the river with him and his uncle was calling out to save his sister. His mother went out and they all went down and all lives were lost."

Except, that is, for the boy who would later become Friðrika's husband.

He grew up and eventually met Friðrika on a Danish fishing boat, Chalmers says. They had children and moved to North America in 1876 along with thousands of Icelanders, settling in Sandy Bar just south of Riverton. After losing three kids to small pox, the couple went on to have another five kids.

And that fifth child, Rousseau's great-grandmother, was raised without her mother.

Resting in a 'lonely field'

"Right now she is literally in a bit of a lonely field," Chalmer says of Friðrika's burial site.
Frith Rika (Friðrika) Bjornsdottir's current grave site in Riverton, Man. The Friðrika) Bjornsdottir memorial project is raising money to install a new tombstone and plaque here and fix the white picket fence.

A weather-worn picket fence marks the spot of her final resting place, which is routinely visited and grazed by local cattle, Chalmers says.

"There is potentially a new Icelandic princess in the middle of a field with a bunch of cows," Chalmers says. "What the family would like to do is provide her with a proper burial."

Chalmers and others are raising money and working with the family to do just that. A pillar has been created locally with a plaque commemorating Friðrika's life and lineage.

Owners of the property where Friðrika is buried have welcomed the installation of the pillar, but volunteers are still in need of more donations to bring the project to completion. As for the beaten up picket fence, it's slated to get a face lift and remain in that lonely field with Friðrika, Chalmers adds.

More information on the Friðrika Björnsdóttir memorial project, including how to donate, is available online here and here.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now