Vopnafjörður: Keeping Our Shared Story Alive

Updated: Jul 26

The last few days have been in northeast Iceland. Vopnafjörður was a main port of Icelandic emigration to America and many of us can trace our families to this area.

Vopnafjörður Map

The East Iceland Emigration Center is located in a building called 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.

Vopnafjörður - SS Camoens

Vopnafjörður - SS Camoens

The following information is from their brochure and information from Cathy Josephson, who manages the Emigration Center, gives tours, and also is a genealogist for Icelandic Roots Database.

The focus of the Center is the entire northeast and east Iceland and they have 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 alive.

From 1873 – 1911, over 5,740 Icelanders left northeast Iceland for North America. From the port of Vopnafjörður, over 1,500 individuals emigrated. 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. Some were more fortunate and lived in locations such as Bustarfell, with the oldest part of the house dated at about 1770.



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.

Vopnafjörður Sea Ice

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 they 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 and east Iceland. We know that this number is much higher b