Updated: Dec 1, 2021
by Susan Bearnson Huff
Have you ever been sucked into a family history vortex? You get drawn in deeper and deeper into a project from which there is no escape--until you figure it out. Perhaps you can relate to my latest family history vortex. Here goes . . .
Icelandic Roots has been a great resource for me to learn more about my Icelandic ancestors. Dave Jonasson and David Johnson are doing amazing work adding emigration information to Icelandic Roots. I noticed there was no emigration information yet on my grandfather and his mother, so I decided to see what I could find.
In the collection, Saints by Sea, on the Brigham Young University Library website, I found a passenger list with my grandfather listed. He left Liverpool, England on the SS Wisconsin on 14 July 1883 and arrived in New York on 25 July 1883.
I recognized the names of six people from my family on the passenger list.
my grandfather, Gísli Bjarnason (Icelandic Roots ID # I522259)
his mother, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir (I25983)
her brother, Júlíus Jónsson (I259840)
a sister of Bjarni Jónsson, Sigríður Jónsdóttir (I400050), along with her husband and their adopted son, Stefán Stefánsson. Sigríður was also the first cousin of Jóhanna and Júlíus.
Gísli's father, Bjarni Jónsson (I400052), immigrated to Utah in 1881 with his sister, Guðrún (I69076) and her husband, Halldór (I69203). Gísli's parents were first cousins (their mothers were sisters).
So who were the rest of the Icelanders on the passenger list? I set out to find the identity of each person and to connect them to each other in both Icelandic Roots and FamilySearch. This is where I got sucked into the family history vortex!
Because of my own strong sense of community, growing up in an Icelandic neighborhood, I imagined that this group of emigrants became close-knit during their journey from Iceland to Utah. I grew up living next door to my Icelandic grandfather. One story he shared was that on their journey across the ocean, they were in a turbulent storm. Grandpa said a man tied him to the ship so that he wouldn't go overboard when the waves washed over the deck of the ship. Who was this man? Was it his uncle, Júlíus! Or perhaps it was 30-year-old Tómas Ingjaldsson. It most likely was not Þórarinn Bjarnason because he had his own three children and wife to safeguard. When I'm doing family history work, I love putting myself in the story, imagining what life was like.
So, now I'm imagining myself on the ship. There are six people from my family, but there are 12 other Icelanders. There's a young family of five--father, mother, and three young children Þórarinn Bjarnason, the father, age 34 ( I252028); Brynhildur Jónsdóttir, the mother, age 34 (I252002); Rannveig age 8, Gunnar age 2, Brynhildur infant daughter.
I imagine 8-year-old Rannveig helping her mother with the other two children. Rannveig
probably had to keep a close watch over her little brother, because there would be lots of danger for a 2-year-old on a steamship. Did the baby girl often cry? Were the children excited for the journey or were they scared? If I had been there, I imagine that I would have offered to help with the baby, to hold and comfort her, and give the mom a rest from time to time.
I imagine Jóhanna Jónsdóttir telling her little 3.5-year-old they were going to America to be with his father. Could Gísli even remember his father (Bjarni Jónsson)? He had gone to America two years previously. I imagine Jóhanna and her brother, Júlíus, were filled with hope for a new life in America. They had always stayed close as siblings. Their mother died when Jóhanna was 9 years old and Júlíus was 4. They had lived at Langholt, Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla on the same farm as their maternal grandmother, Margrét Jónsdóttir, along with their mother, Steinunn Jónsdóttir. The local reverend, Jón Bjarnason, was Jóhanna's birth father. She was born on 10 Mar 1856. Because Reverend Jón was not married to Steinunn, to avoid scandal, he recorded her father as Árni Oddsson in the church ministerial book.
In September 1856, the Reverend Jón Bjarnason married Helga Árnadóttir, and she gave
birth to their first child 2 months later. Jón obviously continued his relationship with Steinunn because he fathered Júlíus four years later while he was still married to Helga. Again, as the priest, the Reverend Jón recorded a poor unsuspecting farm boy, Ólafur Sigurðsson, as the father of Júlíus, but Steinunn told the children who their real father was.
Jóhanna and Júlíus longed to be acknowledged by their father and have his name, but he did not acknowledge them as his children or support them in any way. After their mother died in 1865, the children continued living at Langholt with their grandmother. Their grandmother died in 1876 when Jóhanna was 20 and Júlíus was 15. Eventually, both ended up in Reykjavík. Jóhanna was living at Stöðlakot in Reykjavík with her first cousin, Bjarni Jónsson, and Júlíus was living close by at Sölvhóll with a foster family. According to our family oral tradition, Bjarni and Jóhanna wanted to marry, but Bjarni's family did not approve of the marriage.
In the fall of 1879, while Bjarni and Jóhanna were living together at Stöðlakot in Reykjavík, they received a visitor. It was the Reverend Jón Bjarnason - her father! Much had transpired in the Reverend's life since he had last seen the children of his mistress, Steinunn. Jón's continuing infidelity resulted in transfers to several different parishes until eventually he was fired as a priest after he fathered a child with another woman. He was fired and then divorced his wife. After only two years, he was re-hired as a priest in a different location. As recorded in the published memoir of his son, Reverend Magnús Blöndal Jónsson, Jón Bjarnason had traveled from his home at Nípur, Dalasýsla to Reykjavík in 1879 with his two young sons to bring his eldest daughter, Elín, to attend the women's school in Reykjavik. He came several times to Stöðlakot for coffee with Jóhanna and Bjarni, and Júlíus was also there.
Júlíus invited the Reverend Jón's son, Magnús Blöndal, who was the same age as Júlíus, to come to the home of his foster family at Sölvhóll. While there, Júlíus confided in Magnús Blöndal that both he and Jóhanna were his siblings.
During one of the visits to Stöðlakot, Bjarni Jónsson persuaded the Reverend Jón Bjarnason to finally acknowledge his children, Jóhanna and Júlíus, which he agreed to do. But there is no record that Reverend Jón formally or legally acknowledged them as his children. Not long after the visit of Reverend Jón and his two sons, a baby boy was born on 10 October 1879 to Jóhanna Jónsdóttir (she used her real father's name) and Bjarni Jónsson at Stöðlakot in Reykjavík, whom they named Gísli Bjarnason (later known as Gisle Bearnson in the United States--my grandfather).
As Magnús Blöndal Jónsson recorded in his memoirs, in the autumn of 1880 Jóhanna went to Nípur at her father’s request with her son, Gísli, and they stayed with her father, Jón Bjarnason, for a year. Jóhanna was the housekeeper for her father, and he was very pleased with her work. Magnús Blöndal recalled that Jóhanna got a message from her relatives in Reykjavík saying that they planned to immigrate to America. She decided to go with them, but her father was not pleased with her decision. She explained her reasons to her half-brothers, Magnús Blöndal and Bjarni, and they took her on a sailboat to Stykkishólmur. From there, she went to Reykjavík by ship. The two brothers did not ask their father's permission.
Here is where some history is missing. Gísli's father, Bjarni Jónsson, immigrated to Utah in 1881. But it is not known why Jóhanna did not go with him. Perhaps she arrived in Reykjavík too late after leaving her father or didn't have money for the fare. Bjarni went on to Spanish Fork, Utah without her. Then two years later--in 1883--Jóhanna and her other relatives emigrated. When they emigrated from Iceland, Jóhanna and Júlíus are listed on the ship's passenger list as Jóhanna Jónsdóttir and Júlíus Jónsson (the child of Jón), whereas on previous records they were Jóhanna Árnadóttir and Júlíus Ólafsson. They safely arrived in Spanish Fork, Utah.
I had the information for the six people from my family on the 1883 passenger list. However, I wanted to learn about the others. I used FamilySearch and Icelandic parish records to identify the people on the passenger list in Icelandic Roots so that Dave Jonasson could link them all to the passenger list. Neither of us could find a woman named Krístin Jónsdóttir. She was the only person neither Dave nor I could find. I became absolutely obsessed with finding her. Now I was even deeper into the family history vortex--when you get sucked into a family history mystery that you just can't leave alone.
According to the passenger list, Kristín Jónsdóttir, age 42, was traveling with Ásmundur
Gissurarson, age 10, on the SS Wisconsin. I learned from the publication "Icelanders Gather to Utah" by David Ashby some information about Ásmundur. He emigrated from Iceland on 14 July 1883 with Kristin Jónsdóttir on the SS Wisconsin. In a letter written by Þorsteinn Jónsson in November 1883, he reported that Ásmundur Gissurarson had been to visit him frequently [after they arrived in Spanish Fork], coming to dinner every Sunday. According to his birth record, he was 12 but the ship registry had his age as 10 and he had come to Utah without his family. Þorsteinn wrote, "Asmundur gets along very well and everyone likes him. Asmundur said he did not want to go back to Iceland and wished his family would come here since he has good earnings and good health." Ásmundur emigrated on the same ship as Þorsteinn Jónsson, his wife, and their adopted son.
Based on her age on the passenger list, I calculated that Krístin Jónsdóttir was born about 1835. What I knew about her from the passenger list did not match what is listed in Icelanders Gather to Utah. I couldn't find her in Icelandic Roots, FamilySearch, or Íslendingbók. Who was she and why was she traveling with Ásmundur Gissurarsson?
Through FamilySearch, I found where Ásmundur was born and his parents' names. So, I decided to find out all I could about him, and then perhaps I could find a connection to Kristín Jónsdóttir. I used all the resources available: Ministerial books, Parish Census, and more. This is laborious work, paging through the parish census records, trying to read the handwriting, looking for a specific person or family group. But I love these Icelandic records! My husband and I served as missionaries in Iceland for FamilySearch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from April 2017 to September 2018. We were volunteers at The National Archives of Iceland in Reykjavík, where we scanned the Icelandic records for FamilySearch and for the Archives. I held these amazing parish census and ministerial books in my hands. I carefully turned each page and scanned each page to upload to The National Archives of Iceland website for anyone in the whole world to view. And now as I view these records from the comfort of my home in Utah, I continue to be awestruck that these amazing records were preserved by our Icelandic forefathers for us to learn about them.
I found Ásmundur on the parish census at Litlibær with his parents. I never tire of the adrenaline rush and excitement I feel when I find someone I am looking for in a record. Often when Icelandic parents could not provide for their children, they were fostered out to other families to care for. Such a child is designated niðursetningur on Icelandic census records. I learned the meaning of the word from the Icelandic Roots genealogy word list: Niðursetningur is a pauper of the government. The people that take them in to their farm or home get paid a small amount from the government. The lowest bidder would take the child on for a fee. These niðursetningur were expected to work hard, and it was a very sad life for them in many instances.
Perhaps Ásmundur had been placed with a foster family. In the 1879 parish census, I found him at age 8, as a niðursetningur or pauper, living with Stefán Jóhannesson and Kristín Jónsdóttir at Kasthús, which is near Litlibær where his family lived. There was the connection I was searching for. Kristín and Ásmundur together! The couple was married on 24 November 1877, when each was 41 years old. Stefán died on 27 November 1881, and Ásmundur was still living with Kristín in 1881 and 1882. In 1883 they emigrated together to Spanish Fork, Utah.
My story about Kristín Jónsdóttir was now taking shape. I knew who she was in Iceland and what her relationship was to Ásmundur--she was his foster mom. But I couldn't find her in Utah. I went back to Íslendingbók to look for her. I saw a Kristín Jónsdóttir who died in Santaquin, Utah, and her husband's name was listed. I thought this must be her. When I clicked on her name, because I am related to her, her family tree connecting the two of us was displayed in Íslendingbók. Now I knew her mother's name, her husband's name in Utah, as well as her birth date.