Artesia Island

A newspaper column queried how such a beautiful place could have such a terrible climate or how an island with so much to offer could only have the bad luck to be placed where it was. The writer was stating the obvious.

A big island, Artesia, as the name implies, is a land of waterfalls, springs (including a few hot springs), ponds and tiny streams. Her mountains are rocky and seemingly inaccessible, yet her valleys are well drained and enjoy a good soil due to eons of runoff from the peaks above.

Even those who have been stranded there found wild goats a plenty to provide needed food and sheltered valleys from the stiff breeze. That is presuming the hapless crew found the one small cove that allows access to the island and there were venturesome people who bothered to set out to the interior valleys.

Artesia seemed bleak and destitute from the sea but only those who would venture forth would see the pearl well hidden by Artesia’s outer shell. As a result, Artesia is dubbed ‘The Pearl of the North’.

Covering some 692 square miles, Artesia has never been much of a success in human habitation, but some argue her golden days have come. We use that term with caution because the easy life is not found on Artesia unless you are of a certain mindset.

Peering at records, a handful of folks tried to settle on the island by 1900. The only record was finding 8 people living there at this time. By about 1910, the island had 647 people. It was some sort of population boom and many had come. We understand a town was built, a church, police, doctor, school and stores were found at the cove.

The scant information and assorted thoughts require the researcher to connect the dots to pinpoint a conclusion on the period from 1910 to 1930. We suspect four events led to the incredible population drop of 647 to 80 in a mere twenty years: First, we assume fishing was the primary attraction to the island leading to the population increase and, if we are correct, the local waters may have been over fished with such a population increase, leading to the population decline. World War I was the cause of many small communities to diminish in population as they were relocated to population hubs on the mainland. The Spanish flu raged through the world during this period and decimated some areas. Last, we know the town burned. These are the facts but fitting these loose facts in an accurate storyline is muddied with differing accounts.

One account says the island was attacked from the sea in a pre-dawn attack that destroyed the town, leaving a handful of survivors who escaped to the interior valleys. This is a plausible storyline but without more detail, we presume it might be more legend than fact.

Another writing claims Artesia was decimated by the Spanish flu transmitted by sick fishermen seeking medical attention on the island. This certainly makes sense. Artesia offered the only doctor and medical help for many, many miles and a sick crew member or two would have logically been brought to the island. This account states the youthful community suffered so severely, as a desperate measure, they burned the town and escaped to the interior valleys, living in isolation until the epidemic subsided. This is a very logical storyline in my opinion and likely true.

Another account states a ship transported the islanders to the mainland during World War I and few returned. Again a lack of details calls this account into question.

The final account says the island was cursed. Most children became sick and died. There were stories of evil spirits and a constant barrage of what we might term ‘bad luck’ plaguing the island. What we would term devastating ‘freak incidents’ were commonplace and the islanders feared that Artesia was under demonic control, leaving most to quit the island. This sounds more like a concocted story to ward off newcomers than fact.

As you can tell, there is no good storyline to fit the situation, leaving this writer to draw conclusions based on the limited information. We, therefore, believe the likely fate of the 567 people who were no longer found on Artesia twenty years later likely were casualties of the Spanish Influenza epidemic. The transient nature of the community, the fact most were young families and young fishermen and the subsequent fire destroying the community which was never rebuilt lead me to think this is the most likely scenario. The account in 1930 showed a huge percentage of the population being under 30 years of age with very few others except elderly. The Spanish Influenza was especially fatal for teens and young adults. In 1930 the population was 80.

Moving ahead to our next record just prior to the outbreak of World War II, shows the population declining further to a mere 42. No reasons are given for a population decrease of almost 50% in a decade so we must assume some families felt the island was in decline and found a way off.

By 1950, the population was 52, mostly due to childbirth. By this point in history, we get a clearer picture. There were 8 families living on the island. Each lived miles apart. The island was entirely rural and visiting a neighbor meant ‘riding cross country for some time’. A visitor was typically put up for the night. There were no schools, churches or stores. There was no medical care, post office, police or government.

By 1952, the population was 23. The population drop is not explained but we draw a conclusion based on number of families and the education level of the population to assume the youth were sent to school off the island as the population included very young and adults only.

We must move ahead almost fifty years before more details surface around they year 2000. Now we have a more accurate account of Artesia. In 2009 the population was reported at 292.

The beauty of Artesia Island is unmistakable. The green valleys and rocky mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, bubbling springs, tiny streams and plentiful ponds make for an inviting scenery but it is located in the harsh North Atlantic climate with stiff winds, cool to cold temperatures, generally cloudy and rainy conditions and an infrequent calm and sunny day.

The coastline is mostly sheer cliff or steep jagged mountains and only one tiny cove that offers some protection in winter storms. The island’s exterior effectively hides the true charms and beauty the island offers.

The island is well populated in wild goats who far outnumber the human population. Somre have estimated as many as 20,000 goats on the island but nobody is quite sure. The goats do rule the majority of the island as the deeded properties only account for 1% of the land area.  The remaining 99% is considered public land.

The 292 people live in the interior valleys much as they did in earlier times. They homestead on tiny parcels of land, growing gardens, a few trees and raise a few livestock animals. They live in simple homes made from wood and stone and tend to have larger than average families. In fact, there are 44 families. There are no towns.

The striking thing about the community is the lack of typical buildings found in most communities. There are no school buildings or churches. There are no community buildings and the storefront business is quite rare. For the most part, a large barn and perhaps a couple of workshops are found on a parcel with a modest home. Most people earn a living doing several things. Most are fairly self-sufficient.

By appearances, the community is unorganized but this is in appearance only. There is a government, yet no government buildings. The 5 person government is volunteer, working from home, and elected by popular vote. There are four council members, one from each valley, that act on the will of the community during their monthly business meeting. The fifth is the Clerk who is the one that makes it all happen. Working from home, the Clerk hold all deeds to property, coordinates the collection of revenue and coordinates the various elements that make the community work as it does. Even with this workload, the clerk says she spends only about an hour a week on the job. The Government motto is “Where every person matters”.

The Government is minimal and has been called ‘Libertarian-leaning’. It intrudes only when forced to do so and even then in the most minimal way. In their opinion, a law for all is not needed when only a very few see a need for the law. Thus, they prefer work through the issues with the very few and not force restrictions on the general populace. Residents are encouraged to settle matters themselves without intervention of the government who refuses to establish courts. It is encouraged that two parties settle disagreements through a third party who makes a decision, again without government interaction. This seems to work here with very, very few exceptions. There seems to be an unwritten demand for all families to work together, compromise and attempt to live in harmony. When someone tugs on this concept, neighbors typically urge both parties to get things resolved before bitter emotions set in.

The true function of the Artesia Island government is to act as a collective for the whole community. This means maintaining the twice a year vessel that brings supplies to the island. It means keeping track of exports and trying to bring money to the island. The government sees itself as being there to gain the benefits needed that a single family or small group cannot establish but that the whole island could realize. The government is a community service versus lawmaker on Artesia, although when reluctantly forced to do so, will ‘lay down the law’.

The government has a minimal budget of about 60,000 Euros per year. Most all of the money is spent to secure shipping services, promotion of the island and other related items. An annual head tax of 3 Euros per year is collected from each family. Other sources of income include a small tax paid on each exported item (8 Euro Cents per item in 2009), a camping fee tourist pay for each day they spend on the island: 15 Euro per person per day (and most of these funds go to insure the twice a week summer passenger boat calls on the island). A small boat is owned by the government and is used to ferry supplies from the shipping vessel to the shore. A government purchased marine radio transmitter/receiver is located at the doctor’s residence and kept in working order by the government. We understand some pharmaceutical supplies are purchased to allow needed inventory for the pharmacist.

This brings us to the economy. There is a good deal of commerce even though stores are rare. Needed services and products are bought and sold person to person usually from homes. For the most part, most food is grown locally, most clothing is made locally and many other items are produced on the island in much the same way pioneer life would have been in a previous centuries in places such as the United States of America. It is what cannot be provided and some scant luxuries that come to the island by ship. Imports are substantial enough to require each family to devote substantial time to creating exports.

During the long winter months, the artistic people who live here create various arts and crafts that are sent off the island to a company that markets the products and deposits proceeds into mainland bank accounts held by island families. In short, you make it on the island, send it to the company who sells it and after taking a commission, puts the remaining money into your offshore bank account.

That offshore bank account is a very important feature for the families. As you might suspect, you will need plenty of supplies on the twice a year shipping service. You place your order but you need to pay for the supplies. The offshore bank account means you can wire the money to the proper merchant send your order out on the ship.

That leaves us with local commerce. The government encourages cash versus trade as it allows more flexibility in obtaining what your family might need and it discourages any disagreements or renegotiating trades. A local currency circulates. We shall explain under the MONEY section.

As far as prosperity goes, some speculate the community enjoys a standard of living not unlike that of Norway in real money. Although the real income does not indicate such, the analysis deducted taxes, adjusted housing expenses and food expenses, plus a few other factors (such as transportation) to indicate that the typical Artesia Island family’s per capita income would be almost on par with Norway. Since homes on Artesia are built by the family with local raw materials and the fact most food is grown locally, mostly on the homestead itself, and only a very minimal tax, the real income, dollar to dollar, so to speak, might equate to that of Norway. This would mean Artesia Island would be near the top in per capita income in theory.

In more recent years, the government has recruited a medical doctor and a pharmacist for the islanders. The doctor’s home has an area with a four bed medical facility. Although very poorly equipped, it does have its place. Surgeries or broken bones would have to be done off the island meaning a call to any nearby vessel to pick up a medical emergency. The doctor makes house calls.

Schooling is well advanced although all children are home schooled. An extensive network has been created where video recordings on various subjects are circulated. Many of the more advanced lessons are taught by those one might term experts on the subject. The level of education is equal to and sometimes superior to public education in mainland Europe. Some have claimed the lack or media (TV, cell phones, etc.) has led to the quality of education and certainly this is a factor but the main reason might very well be the love of knowledge in the community’s culture. The community places a great importance on obtaining knowledge to the point it is almost on the same level of importance as food, water and a roof over your head.

The absence of a post office might seem strange to some but mail is distributed in a grassroots fashion. As mail comes only a few times a year, it is typical for someone to sort the mail for those in their valley and take it to each home on their return trip from the cove to their house.

Off island transportation is provided by ship in late spring and early fall. In two months at the height of summer, a small boat can bring a limited number of passengers to and from the island. Tourists, in limited numbers, come by this vessel.

Homes have indoor plumbing and septic systems. Homes have their own wells that pipe water into homes. Homes have their own generators or use wind power to provide electricity. The homes are not much different from those found in more prosperous nations except the island’s isolation gives them more of a rural homestead quality. Deeded property is fenced to keep out the goats that roam freely.

There are no church buildings on the island but services are typically held in homes our outbuildings. The population is Christian but there are no clergy found on the island. The closest Christian denominations might be the Plymouth Brethren and the House Church movement in the USA. There is an absence of clergy and established doctrine. Men conduct the services and consider attendees to be members of the fellowship or fellow believers even though some views many differ person to person. About a dozen services are held weekly with about 150 in attendance any given week. An absence of religious artifacts and hymnals is common.

Socially the island is very community oriented. Neighbors interact and help one another frequently. Gatherings are generally small and more impromptu, usually revolving around a ‘pot luck’ style meal and socializing, much like the worship services that typically include a meal.

Transportation is generally by horse or bicycle and carriage along the tire tracks that connect the ends of the island and all the valleys. Gravel is added at spots that tend to be wet or tend to become rutted. There are a few tractors on the island but these are typically used to transport large items.

There are no telephones on the island. The only form of media is a weekly newspaper, barely more than a 5 minute read.

One visitor remarked the islanders were in many ways like the Amish or traditional Mennonite without separating themselves due to religious beliefs. Perhaps they are simply resourceful and worth with what is available to carve out an uneventful yet full life on Artesia.

Another comment on Artesia from the captain of the vessel that calls on the island twice a year is offered: “They are a remarkable people. They have learned to farm the island and make use of her resources. On their own, they have educated their children and their level of education likely exceeds the public school. They have learned to make their situation work for them. They are clever in business. What weather and lack of transport dealt them they have conquered in stride. I think they have developed a great community model.”

Artesia Island is seemingly unclaimed by any recognized government. One might only speculate why this might be. We can only presume the decision is purely economic. The natural resources in the nearby waters and on the island are not substantial enough to draw attention from outside sources. The small population and economic output in real money would likely cause any government choosing to exercise jurisdiction over the island to spend far more money than it can derive from the island. Militarily, the island is insignificant in location and climate. So, Artesia, with its 692 square miles, is the unwanted orphan of recognized governments. And the people of Artesia seem to not care either way, content with their lot and almost sheepishly grinning, knowing the hapless appearing isle is their ‘Pearl of the North’. We hope it stays that way.



It might just be the no-nonsense attitude toward life or the well thought plan that led to a local currency not recognized off the island. The locally struck coinage is a one gram pure silver coin valued at the previous month’s average London Silver spot price. The number of coins minted and in circulation is thought to be around 3,000, barely more than 10 per person.

With silver’s increase in price against international currencies in recent years, the government voted to make the local coinage available off the island and now permits tourists to leave with a few grams of silver, something that was not permitted in previous years.

By Bill Turner, 2011

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