Early History

The Icelandic story begins with the Vikings, prominent in Norway, Denmark and Southern Sweden between 790 and 1090 A.D. At the start of the Viking age, there were many raids into England, Ireland, Scotland and France.  At the beginning of this period, the Viking kingdoms were small with many "kings" but over time, as in Europe, they became less numerous with larger territories.  As the kingdoms consolidated, the raids became larger and more coordinated, allowing for a major assault of Paris in 834 and a full scale assault of England with a large Viking Army in 865. In fact the Vikings ruled large portions of England for 30 years.

While the Danish Vikings were busy in England and France, the Norwegian Vikings were focused on Scotland and Ireland. They accidentally discovered Iceland as a result of a navigation error. Irish monks were already living there, but they soon left as they did not want to reside with pagans. The main Icelandic settlement occurred between 870 and 930 - fueled in part by of the lure of free land (with no indigenous population to deal with) and also because many of the minor kings and nobility relocated rather than submit to Harold the Fairhair,  the first major king of Norway. 

The settlers of Iceland soon became farmers and fishermen and lost the ability to trade directly with the rest of Europe.  Icelandic society consisted of largely independent farm units, with no centralized administration. There were no towns or cities - only farms.  Disputes were settled and issues discussed by meetings of the land holders who met in one of four geographic assemblies called þings. After 930, representatives from these þings met together at the Alþing, an outdoor assembly on the plains of Þingvellir. The Alþhing met annually and was the main social event of the year drawing large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. The Althing is celebrated as being one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world.

Eirík the Red (Eirík "Rauði" Þorvaldsson) was banished from Iceland in 982 and founded the first settlement in Greenland. According to the Icelandic sagas, his son Leif the Lucky (Leifur "Heppni" Eiríksson) discovered America and lived for a while in Vinland, likely  L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada.

In  999 or 1000 the Alþing adopted  Christianity as the official religion of Iceland although pagan beliefs continued alongside Christianity for several generations. In 1262, Icelanders voluntarily submitted to Norwegian rule in part to save their independent society from several powerful families that had emerged. Norway, Sweden and Denmark were consolidated in the late 13th century as a result of royal marriages and Iceland remained in Danish control until their independence in June, 1944.

Estimates of initial settlement migration vary from 5,000 to 15,000 people. By the year 1000 the population had reached 70,000 - about the most that the country could sustain - and a population which was not exceeded until the 19th century.  Population was periodically reduced - sometimes dramatically -  because of volcanic eruptions (the ash covered the ground and  destroyed crops and then the  livestock), famine,  the black death, small pox and weather.

 

Emigration - The land that they left

"The Iceland that faded from view and disappeared below the horizon as shipload after shipload of our forefathers charted their course for "Ameríka" during the last quarter of the 19th century was a place of austere beauty - a land of green valleys and shining fjords, snowcrowned mountains and blue mists. It was a strangely mystical place, that claimed for its own all its native sons and daughters, and retained over them a powerful hold no matter where their fates would lead them down through the years. It was a majestic land of proud traditions, and it was their home.​

But 19th century Iceland was also a bleak and forbidding land shrouded by hardship and suffering - a place of gnawing hunger, bitter cold, grim pestilence, and baleful oppression. These were largely the results of a harsh environment, characterized by intermittent sieges of polar ice and fiery volcanic eruptions - but there were deeply-rooted social and economic problems as well, including overpopulation, disparity, underdevelopment, and trade monopolization - all of which contributed to a general state of disillusionment and misery for large segments of the population.


Those who left Iceland during these years did so for a multitude of reasons - personal, economic, social, political, and religious - all of them considerations most of us can scarcely understand a hundred and more years later in our land of plenty and our society of personal freedom above all else. Each emigrant had his or her own story, and as those of us who are the descendants of these people from another land and another age have a rich heritage in the past which shaped these stories, this history begins with an account of the conditions and customs prevalent in the land they left."

Nelson S. Gerrard: Icelandic River Saga

 

Emigration from Iceland - Where they came from

The map below shows the counties in Iceland during the years of Emigration along with the recorded number of emigrants who left each county. Due to incomplete or lost records the data can never be complete, but these numbers paint a picture of each region in an attempt to provide some statistical, geographical, and genealogical information. 

Icelandic Roots is a non-profit, educational, heritage organization

specializing in genealogy, history & traditions of our Icelandic ancestors.

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