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Gone West – Vesturfarinn

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

There is a wonderful place that is often overlooked by visitors to Iceland. The northeast coast and the town of Vopnafjörður are very important. Vopnafjörður was a main port of Icelandic emigration to America and many of us can trace our families to East Iceland.

They have the wonderful East Iceland Emigration Center. WEBSITE and FACEBOOK links. They are located in the Kaupvangur, which was built in 1882. Many emigrants made their departure arrangements in this building and boarded ships in the harbor just outside the windows.

My special friends in Vopnafjörður are Cathy Josephson with me in this picture and the man behind the camera, Jobbi Jósepsson. Kolla Baldwinson helps with this Facebook page and many others including the INL of NA page. All three (and many others) are helping to preserve our shared Icelandic story. Some of the following information is from their brochure and information from Cathy, who manages the Emigration Center.

The focus of the Center is the entire east side of Iceland and it is managed by a great group of volunteers. They are a registered non-profit organization in Iceland and take donations to help continue their work on reuniting families and keeping the history of the Icelanders in East Iceland alive.

From 1873 – 1911, over 4,000 Icelanders left northeast Iceland for North America. From the port of Vopnafjörður, over 2,500 individuals left for America.

Young men and women had no money, no way to rent a small farm, to marry. Only a life of working for food and shelter, as had their fathers and mothers. Children of poor parents raised in foster care.

Early in 1875, a fiery eruption began in Askja Volcano ….. followed by another in the Mývatn wastelands. Then, in March there was an incredible eruption in Askja. Pumice and ash rained over East Iceland. Farms in the highlands and other places were abandoned, some permanently.

The ash fell deep. Farm workers went to the fields to rake and shovel it into piles, trying to save the hay crop. With the help of winds, much of the ash blew away. In the end, the mild weather that year, the winds, and the workers with their shovels helped to save some of the hay harvest. In the next years, the sea ice, cold weather, and a poor fish catch took their turns, and hopelessness increased in the hearts of these hardy people.

In 1881, the earth did not thaw. 18,000 lambs died in a terrible snowstorm on June 5th. Sea ice continued in 1882. In 1888, sea ice surrounded the island, even to the Westmann Islands, until the end of July. Agents of passenger ship companies came, telling of free land in North America. Icelanders of all ages looked at what they had, thought of what the MIGHT gain by the work of their hands ….

The population of Iceland in 1860 was about 60,000; from 1870 – 1914 more than 15,000 people left for America. Determined on a better life, or even just looking for adventure, new lands with new opportunities seemed the only way; most of them knew this was permanent. Only a few ever saw their homeland again.

According to the Vesturfaraskrá book on emigrants from Iceland, 5,740 people left northeast Iceland. We know that this number is much higher because many emigrants are not listed in this fabulous book. The numbers from northeast Iceland in the Vesturfaraskrá are:

N.-Múlasýsla 2,738 Þingeyjarsýsla 1,945 S.-Múlasýsla 1,057

The Vopnafjörður area coastline is characterized by the Tangi peninsula, coastal rocks, islets, coves, river mouths, and black sand beaches. It is truly amazing to be in East Iceland and to stand at the emigration port of our great-grandparents and to see the same sites that they did over 100 years ago. There are the same rivers, waterfalls, beautiful valleys, and giant mountains. The pure arctic air fills your lungs and reaches deep into your body.

The Hof Church near the city of Vopnafjörður is shown in the photo below. Hof was the home of the chieftan, Helgi, one of the main characters in the Saga of the people from Vopnafjörður.

The people of the area got together and studied this saga and now offer guided tours explaining the saga people and places. They designed a new map to show how the area may have looked at the time of the saga and a saga brochure is available for all who take the guided tour.

Hof Church Vopnafjordur

There is a partially excavated site that is an old Viking Longhouse but the money ran out so the dig was abandoned in 2006. Maybe someday, they will start to explore this again. Cathy from the Emigration Center is so knowledgeable about the East Iceland story of the Saga ages up until today. She and others in that group have done an excellent job and I hope that you can visit the East Iceland Emigration Center and see all the great work they are doing to keep our shared story alive.

Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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