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Eyeing Iceland

Iceland is small in size but it is very well organized. You could find a treasure trove of information about your family if they were from Iceland.


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As winter approaches, it seems appropriate to look at another northern land that had many emigrants to the New World. In this installment we will look at the country of Iceland.

It is an island nation in the North Atlantic, and has about 300,000 residents (less than half the amount of people who live in the county where I do), and it is about 40,000 square miles in size. That makes it roughly the size of Kentucky or Tennessee. Iceland is approximately 300 miles wide and 200 miles north to south (somewhat different than the two states just mentioned which are much wider, and only a little narrower). Wyoming and Vermont are the two states closest in population, and even they have about twice the population of Iceland. Most of the population lives in the southwestern area of the country. Today there are about 300,000 residents, as I have mentioned, but the population was as low as 50,000 in the recent past. The language, Icelandic, has 32 letters using the Roman alphabet, and is related to (but distinct from) German and other Scandinavian languages.

The point to be gleaned from this is that Iceland is a small country and very lightly populated. Because of its location in the middle of the north Atlantic it has had less change than many other European countries. Standard histories state that "Iceland was an independent republic from 930 to 1262, when it joined with Norway. Denmark incorporated Norway in 1380, and with it Iceland. Direct Danish rule lasted until 1918, when Iceland was granted autonomy under the Danish king" ("Icelandic Immigration"). And in looking at censuses, oftentimes Icelanders were counted as Danish, since Denmark administered the island nation until 1918.

Of course, that would be oversimplifying. It has had a Parliament since around 1000 AD. The Black Death killed enormous numbers of people in the 1300s, taking away almost 50 percent of the population. Industrially, fishing accounts for about 40 per cent of the Icelandic economy. This is not surprising given the short growing season found there.

Since the capital, Reykjavík, has about 120,000 people and the 10th largest city ( F j a r o a b y g go) has only 4700, we are certainly talking about a small population. There are advantages to this. With not much warfare taking place (from the outside), a stable, small population, and a strong sense of community, genealogical research is perhaps easier than in places of more turmoil. And since there is a smaller population, instead of the millions of people from England, Germany, and Italy, there were a far smaller amount of people who came from Iceland.

One other thing - names are often indexed by first names in directories and censuses, so do be advised of this when you start out on your research.

Immigrants from Iceland usually (though not exclusively) went to the same areas as other Scandinavian immigrants, that is the Upper Midwest in the U.S. and the prairie provinces of Canada. Facts I have found state that about 20,000 persons from Iceland went to Canada in the 19th century, with almost 7,000 being found in Winnipeg alone. A current PhD thesis (see links) states "It has been estimated that around 20,000 individuals emigrated from Iceland to North America in the late 19th century in the period from 1870-1914. The emigration amounted to an exodus from Iceland, which at the time was a sparsely populated colony of Denmark. Around one in five people left the country, an estimated 20% of the nation, with the majority settling in Manitoba."

There exist an unusually complete set of family records in Iceland (over 80% of all Icelandic people who ever lived can be placed genealogically on a computerized database). About 95 percent of the population is Icelandic, and of those about 90-plus percent are Lutheran. One of the sources I consulted said that "almost all Icelandic immigrants came through the port of Quebec on Allan Line steamships from Glasgow."

It was also one of the few countries whose emigration virtually ceased by 1910. According to the U.S. census in 2000; and the Canadian census in 2001, 42,716 Americans and 75,090 Canadians claimed Icelandic origins. California and Washington State had the largest number of descendants of Icelandic settlers in the United States, while Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia had the largest populations in Canada. It is impossible to say exactly how many Icelanders came to North America during the 19th century, as they were usually counted as Danes. It is estimated conservatively that about 10,000 immigrated to Canada and about half that number to the United States. As conditions improved in Iceland after 1900, immigration declined dramatically ("Icelandic Immigration").

So, where can you look for family data on Icelanders?

Well, if you are lucky enough to be Icelandic, or have "connections," as it were, you could try the Islendingabõk. It contains genealogical information about the inhabitants of Iceland, dating more than 1,200 years back. Islendingabõk is a collaboration project between deCODE genetics, a research company in the field of medical genetics, and Fridrik Sklason, an anti-virus software entrepreneur. The project's goal is to trace all known family connections between Icelanders from the time of the settlement of Iceland to present times and register the genealogical information in a database.

As the web site for it says, in the creation of the Islendingabõk database there were used various sources and both unpublished and published documents. Most of the genealogical information comes from sources such as church records, national censuses, inhabitants registers and other public documents, but in addition to these sources there are chronicles, books of convictions, various publications on genealogy, books about individuals within specific occupations, lists of descendants and ancestral records as well as memorial articles. The database is in Icelandic and is unfortunately not available in other languages. Access to the Islendingabõk is currently limited to Icelandic citizens and legal residents of Iceland who have been issued an Icelandic ID number.

In doing the research for this I found several stories of young folks who woke up after a brief romantic encounter and madly checked it to make sure they were not falling for a "cousin"! ('The Book Of Icelanders' Tracks Lovers' Ancestry'). A cute newspaper article recently published, "The Iceland Family Tree, references the Islendingabõk website.

These days it is very handy to have a larger number of sources to check for information. To that end I have included many sites which themselves contain longer descriptions of all the links that they enumerate.

Other web sites include: - the Familysearch research wiki for Iceland (a work in progress). - contains a clickable link to the National Archives of Iceland Census Database, Individual search - another very useful list of links - the Surname Navigator, which searches 9 databases and gives you results in separate windows. Free! - contains a booklist of useful titles

The Emigration from Iceland to America - an individual's site, which says "the main purpose of this site is to help people of Icelandic origin to search for their roots in Iceland and their ancestors" - explains how Icelanders derive their family names, similar to other Scandinavian countries. - Iceland on the Web, a list of useful research links - short list of links for Icelandic research - the WorldGenWeb page for Iceland - my fallback site for many links to Icelandic libraries, newspapers, mailing lists message boards cemeteries etc. - North American Bicultural Organization, Agusta Edwald's current PhD research project at the Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen.

NOTE: FamilySearch is rewriting the Research Outlines that will no longer appear in print. Use the FamilySearch Wiki for the latest in research instruction.


Printed materials can be found in small numbers. Consider that items written more than 20 years ago usually do not have references to online research. Locations of these titles can usually be found for free in

"Major Genealogical Record Sources in Iceland," by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Genealogical Dept. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1977.

"Finding Records of Your Ancestors. Part A, Iceland, 1835 to 1900," by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, 2001.

"Tracing Your Icelandic Family Tree," by Eric Jonasson. Winnipeg, Man., ©1975.

"Finding Your Scandinavian Ancestors," by Penelope Christensen. Heritage Productions. Toronto, 2001.

"Scandinavian-American Genealogical Resources," by Charles Dickson. Heritage Books, Inc. Westminster, Md., 2007, ©2001.

(Other titles dealing with Scandinavian research may have a few pages devoted to Iceland.)

"Vesturfaraskrá, 1870-1914 A record of emigrants from Iceland to America, 1870-1914," by Júníus H. Kristinsson. Institute of History, University of Iceland. Reykjavík, 1983. - Emigrants are indexed by first and last name. Records are organized by farm and year of emigration.

"Vestur-Íslenzkar Æviskrár," by Benjamín Kristjánsson and Jónas Thordarson, published in 6 volumes by Prentverk O. Björnssonar and Bókaútgáfan Skjaldborg [1961-1992]. - This is a collection of family histories of Icelandic immigrants to North America in Icelandic.

"G a n g i thÈ r v e l m e o ae t t f raeo i l e i t a thi n n" - Good luck with your genealogical searching!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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