Reference Entry

Cahill, Holger

in American National Biography Online


Published online February 2000 | e-ISBN: 9780198606697

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author and curator, was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson, in Snifellsnessyslu, Iceland, the son of Björn Bjarnarson, a laborer, and Vigdis Bjarnadóttir. Cahill, however, later claimed he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1893. In the 1890s the Bjarnarsons emigrated to North Dakota, where they hoped to obtain land. Unable to purchase property, Björn worked as a hired hand. Vigdis, whom Cahill later described as a stern “peasant woman” with a poetic streak, and Björn, “a failure in almost everything he did,” quarreled frequently, separating when Cahill was eleven. Struggling to support her son and his younger sister after Björn departed, Vigdis sent the boy to live with an Icelandic family on a nearby farm. After the family removed him from school, put him to work in the fields, and pressured him to be confirmed in the Lutheran church, he ran away. Settled with another family, Cahill finished high school and then set off for Canada, where he worked as a farm laborer and cowherder. By 1907 he was back in the United States, holding a job as a railroad clerk in St. Paul. While there, he later recalled that he read “Tolstoi by the acre” and took a correspondence course in journalism. This was followed by short stints as a watchman on a Great Lakes steamer and as an insurance salesman in Cleveland.

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