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The Emigration of Icelanders and a Request for New Emigrants

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

The emigration/immigration stories of the Icelandic people is fascinating. Whether they left in 1850, 1880, 1940, or 1995, or 2015.

Every day, we are learning more about our shared stories. Reasons for leaving and individual experiences are varied but each must make the decision. They decide whether or not to reconcile their loyalty to the new country. The story of many includes settling in one spot only to pick up and move again and again and again.

Most of the 1850-1914 Icelandic immigrants first settled in Canada and the USA. A small group settled in Brazil. Once in North America, many of the Icelanders had the experience of living in various settlement areas. They crossed back and forth from the United States to Canada and from Canada to the United States.

A very interesting paper, "ESCAPE FROM THE GREAT PLAINS THE ICELANDERS IN NORTH DAKOTA AND ALBERTA," is one of the histories we have preserved. It tells part of the story of our kinsmen. One prominent figure in this story is Stefán Guðmundsson \ Stephan G Stephansson (1853-1927). He was born in Iceland (1853), an immigrant to Wisconsin, USA (1873), moved to North Dakota, USA (1880), and to Alberta, Canada (1889) with a group of 50 people. He had lived 20 years in Iceland, 16 years in USA, and 38 years in Canada.

Stephan G's father who died in 1881 and his little son who died in 1887 are both buried at the Gardar Cemetery in North Dakota. This monument stands on their homestead west of Gardar, ND.

Stephan G Stephansson Monument in Gardar, North Dakota

In the USA and Canada, naturalization is a voluntary act and not required. However, those who became naturalized citizens were required to take an Oath of Allegiance and to renounce all former country loyalties. Naturalization laws changed over the years and required several steps. Here is the Citizenship paper of my great-grandfather.

Ólafur Ólafsson Citizenship Paper

Ólafur Ólafsson Citizenship Paper

Documents and information continue to be uncovered regarding the people who emigrated from Iceland. We continue to add this information into the Icelandic Roots Database.

An invaluable resource, Vesturfaraskrá, was printed listing 14,268 emigrants from 1870-1914. We know this number is much higher with some estimates calculated at 16,000-19,000 people. In this book, you can see their name, age, year of emigration, location they last lived in Iceland, their occupation, the harbor and ship, and their destination.

At our database, we are documenting the information on these people in Vesturfaraskrá and from all the other sources available. We are working on a NEW Vesturfaraskrá to include information on ALL emigrants. Our goal is to document everyone who left Iceland from the early days through today.

Some people who emigrated returned to Iceland. We are documenting this information, also. Some of the interesting milestones of emigration are as follows.

  • 1855: 3 emigrated with a total of 16 in the next few years to Utah, USA. Eventually 410 Icelanders emigrated to Utah.

  • 1863: 39 people from Iceland left for Brazil

  • 1870: 4 young men set off for Wisconsin, USA with a few coming the next year

  • 1872: Sigtryggur Jónasson to Quebec, Canada and 16 people left for Wisconsin, USA including the North Dakota pastors Páll Þorláksson and Hans Thorgrimson. All three of these men were leaders in the Icelandic communities of North America. Many others followed.

  • 1873-1914: 16,000-19,000 Icelanders leave their homeland for various locations in Canada and the USA.

  • 1940-1950: Icelandic women married and emigrated with Canadian and American troops who had been stationed in Iceland. Some sources call them 'War Brides.'

  • 1950-1995: Icelanders continue to emigrate. See chart below.

  • 1995-2015: Approximately 3,000 people continue to emigrate from Iceland each year.

We want to add emigration information on Icelanders since the 1870-1914 Vesturfaraskrá. If you are in this demographic or know someone who has emigrated from Iceland in the past 100 years and especially the past 50 years, please send us their name, date of birth, and year of emigration, location of settlement (any country) so we can add it to the data. If you have a story associated with their emigration, or if they returned to Iceland, this information is very valuable. We ask if you could please share these stories with us.

Thanks so very much! Hope to hear from you!

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

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