Iceland in 1776


While I celebrate Independence Day (Fourth of July) here in America, as a descendant of Icelandic pioneers, I wonder what was happening on this historic day in the year 1776 in Iceland? What factors were affecting our Icelandic ancestors during this time in history?

In Iceland, King Christian VII was ruler over Iceland and all Danish held lands and he had been reigning for ten years. He was crowned king when he was still 16 years old after his father died at the young age of 42 in 1766 from alcoholism. Unfortunately, King Christian VII had severe mental illness and was not an effective ruler. The symptoms that have been documented include paranoia, sexual promiscuity, self-mutilation, and hallucinations. He had these severe emotional problems and possibly even schizophrenia as Dr. Viggo Christiansen states in his book, Christian VII’s Mental Illness (1906). Modern-day historians are reluctant to make any solid diagnosis. You can read much more about his antics HERE.

After 1772, even though Christian VII was officially still the King, Denmark was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, his half-brother Frederick, and a Danish politician. Marking the year 1776, this group of people imposed an “Enclosure Law” in Denmark and in Iceland. Fines were levied if fences around personal property was not installed. The Icelanders however, were very non-compliant and the Danish officials called the Icelanders “stubborn.” This makes me laugh …… we always hear that comment, ”Icelanders are so stubborn.” My reply is always, ”Yes, and that is a good thing.”

Also in 1776, the Danish crown issued a decree to establish a postal system in Iceland and regular mail service in Iceland was first established on 13 May 1776. Only about two trips around the island occurred each year and mail from outside of Iceland did not start arriving until 1778. It has been reported that there was one ship each year that brought mail to Iceland. Icelandic stamps were not issued until 1873. My friend and fellow genealogist, Hálfdan Helgason, has an excellent website on Icelandic Postal Stationery. There are interesting articles to read and images of many postal cards and letters. He also is the webmaster and much more for the Icelandic Philatelic Society.


1882 Stamp Iceland

In 1776, a Danish expedition was sent to Iceland to explore the conditions for fishing and harbor-building. Here is a 1776 map from French explorers with Iceland in the center of the map.


Before the year, 1776, our ancestors had oppression from Denmark, volcanic eruptions, epidemics, and natural disasters. Around 1750, a period of extreme cold with pack ice closed the fishing grounds. In 1755, pack ice stayed along the coast by Vopnafjörður and it did not melt the entire year. The pack ice continued to freeze down the southern coast of Iceland and to the Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands) in the following year. Between 1751 and 1758, it is estimated that close to 6,000 people died and dropped the population to about 43,000. Besides the pack ice, the Katla Volcano erupted in 1755.

A book, Imperfect Institutions: Possibilities and Limits of Reform by Thrainn Eggertsson and in the chapter titled, “Why Iceland Starved”, he writes:

“Beginning around 1770, the Crown changed its strategy and took a much firmer position on economic reforms. The virtual collapse of Icelandic society, to which the policy of isolation and monopoly trade had contributed, is a key factor in explaining the new approach. It had become clear in Copenhagen that Iceland, weakened by the policy of isolation and limited engagement, lacked the reserve and resilience to cope with cold spells, natural disasters (particularly volcanic eruptions and epidemics) that savagely plagued the country in the eighteenth century, which saw three major population crises. In Copenhagen, there were discussions about moving all or some of Iceland’s population off the island (A. Kristjansson 1977).”

Bill Valgardson is an award-winning novelist, poet, and writes a wonderful blog called wdvalgardsonkaffihus. Click on the following link to read about travels in Iceland between 1752-1753: http://wdvalgardsonkaffihus.com/blog/2013/05/29/my-oldest-book-1752-1757/. Go to his site and check out all the great stories about our ancestors and the years leading up to more famine, hardship, and death of our Icelandic ancestors. According to Reid Bryson, an atmospheric scientist, geologist, and meteorologist professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, there were thirty-seven famine years in Iceland from 1500-1804.

The religious life was also dictated by the Danish crown. Confirmation was introduced about 1741. Danish and German hymns were translated into the Icelandic language. I found one article that stated, ”Women are now permitted to sing in church.” About this same time, the Danish crown did help the Icelandic people by making a law that everyone learn to read and by 1776, even though there were no schools or official teachers, the people of Iceland were regaining their literacy, which is now one of the best in the world at 99%.

So, while the American colonists were fighting for their freedom from England, my ancestors were living their lives in Iceland with struggles of their own. One of my ancestors was Stefán Lárusson Scheving. He became the pastor at Presthólar in 1776 and stayed there for 14 years until he married his 20-year-old niece. He was almost 40 at the time. This was his second wife. He married wife #3 when he was 74 and she was 34. This 5th Great-Grandfather of mine died the following year. His story is for another day but he is a very interesting character in the history of Iceland and in the history of our family (and many others).

The area where our ancestor, Reverend Stefán Scheving, lived and was pastor is called Presthólar. This means Priest-hills and is located in northeast Iceland. Below you can see a fabulous photo by my friend, Mats Wibe Lund. He has taken aerial photographs of many Icelandic ancestral farms. Check out his wonderful websites and order photos of your ancestral farms or locations that you love around Iceland:

http://mats.photoshelter.com/ and www.mats.is


Presthólar photo by Mats Wibe Lund www.mats.is

Since it is the 4th of July, I will end this post with some 4th of July American Trivia:

This day celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 where a resolution was passed calling for the 13 colonies to be “free and independent states, absolved of all allegiance to the British crown” on July 2. The ceremony to sign the document occurred on July 4th.

Three of America’s first five presidents died on July 4th. John Adams (age 90), the second president, and Thomas Jefferson (age 83), the third president, died hours apart on July 4, 1826. James Monroe, the fifth president, also died 04 Jul 1831 (age 73). The 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, was born on the Fourth of July in 1872.

04 July 1884, France presented the USA with the Statue of Liberty.

In 1911 on the 4th of July, a deadly heat wave killed 380 people in the northeastern part of the United States. In New Hampshire, they recorded temperatures of 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41.1 Celcius) on this day.

In 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars on this day.

In 1776, about 2.5 million people lived in America. Today, there are 316.2 million people.

Here is a great map of the original 13 colonies in 1776, populations of the cities, and other information.


56 people signed the Declaration of Independence including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston who drafted the Declaration but Jefferson wrote most of the document.

So, Happy 4th of July!


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