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Vopnafjörður: Keeping Our Shared Story Alive

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

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 because many emigrants are not listed. We are compiling information on our website to identify all the people who left - from those who went to Utah in 1855 to present day emigrants. The numbers from northeast Iceland in the Vesturfaraskrá (1870-1914) 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 120 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 farms still have the same names as during Saga times. The people of this area studied their saga and now they offer guided tours explaining the saga story of Vopnafjörður. 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.

Cathy from the Emigration Center is so knowledgeable about the East Iceland story of the Saga ages up until today. She and others have done an excellent job. The photo above is from Jósep H Jósepsson and he has taken photos of many farms in the area.

There are walking tours in Hofsborgartunga to see trees, wildflowers, berries, birds, and even a hidden waterfall. A successful reforestation project is on the Tungunni, too. There are various places for lodging, campgrounds, handicrafts, highland tours, historic sites, great food along with the peace and adventure of the open highlands while you walk through Iceland's past. There is something for everyone.

My favorite of course, is the East Iceland Emigration Center located in the Kaupvangur, which was built in 1882. Come for a visit, see the area, and experience northeast Iceland! See all the great work they are doing to keep our shared story alive. They are making connections, educating the visitors, and making family history fun.

The contact information for the East Iceland Emigration Center. WEBSITE and FACEBOOK links.


A huge thanks to Cathy for her wonderful work, for her stories, for guiding me around the area, for being on the Icelandic Roots Team, and also for being my friend. við sjáumst!

Cathy Josephson and Sunna Furstenau 2015

Cathy Josephson and Sunna Furstenau 2015

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

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