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Vesturfaraskrá – An Index Chronicling Icelandic Emigration

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Our Icelandic Roots database pivots around the over 20,000 people who emigrated from Iceland. Our goal is to detail the lives of every emigrant, their ancestors in Iceland and their many descendants all over the world today.

Vesturfaraskrá is a book indexing 14,268 emigrants who left between 1870 and 1914. It was created by Júníus H. Kristinsson and published in Iceland in 1983. Built by examining emigration records of various types Júníus gathered, it often lists the farm or house from which the person or family departed, the year of emigration, the port of departure, the name of the ship on which they departed and often their intended destination.

The core of the book is arranged by geographic area and farm, broken down from there by who emigrated in each year from these locations. The back of the book contains an index of all emigrants arranged in alphabetical order by their first name, followed by last name, location from which they departed, year of departure, and page in the core of the book on which that entry is detailed. There is also a section in the book that lists people who emigrated but the underlying emigration record does not indicate a farm or geographic area of Iceland from which left.

For the past two years, I have been systematically working through Vesturfaraskrá from the first page forward to reconcile each and every person therein with the corresponding person in Icelandic Roots database. When a match is positively made, an emigration note is entered in Icelandic Roots detailing the entry in Vesturfaraskrá. This creates a special Emigration Report. What I thought would be a year-long project has become quite a longer mission. The project is so fun and has opened my eyes to a great many things about the emigrants and Vesturfaraskrá itself as a resource. Here are a few of my observations and some of the work we do to correctly document the lives of these people:

  • Although an emigration record may be recorded in Vesturfaraskrá, some individuals had a change of circumstances or changed their mind at the last minute and did not actually emigrate.

  • A number of Icelanders who emigrated decided at some later point to return to Iceland to live out their lives.

  • Some individuals or families have two emigration records noted in Vesturfaraskrá, either indicating they returned (less likely) or they didn’t go as anticipated in the earlier record but left as shown in the latter record.

  • Ages of emigrants as listed in Vesturfaraskrá or the spelling of their name can be off. Any index always runs a risk of error. Even original records run a risk of error as the person making the record could have heard something incorrectly or simply made a scrivener’s error. Furthermore, the process of transcribing data from an original record to an index again runs a risk of error. Sometimes, as researchers, we deploy logic, process of elimination, careful analysis of other sources, and even artful intuition to find the best possible answer … if one can be found.

  • Approximately 10% of individuals in Vesturfaraskrá were not in our Icelandic Roots database. This was particularly true with people who emigrated as unattached or single workers who died soon after arriving or left no descendants to carry on the legacy of their life. These are people who are particularly intriguing to me as a researcher. It is an honor to be their voice and preserve their life in this database when it can be accurately constructed.

  • Approximately 10% of the individuals in Vesturfaraskrá need deeper research to confirm their true identity. This is particularly true for individuals with very common names (e.g. Jón Jónsson or Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir) who emigrated from port “cities” like Reykjavík or Seyðisfjörður who were actually from other parts of the country. Tracking them through Icelandic birth, parish, and census records is so fun. But sometimes, even after hours of analysis, the information is not conclusive enough to make solid decisions about the person in Vesturfaraskrá.

Obviously, emigration wasn’t just limited to the 1870 – 1914 period. A handful of Icelanders emigrated as early as the 1850s and many others of course emigrated after 1914. So other sources like arriving passenger lists, census records, newspaper obituaries, family biographies, and published books and periodicals can help us pin down emigration details.

All of us on the research team here at Icelandic Roots are available for questions. If deeper exploration of a particular line is desired, members of the team can do that work with an added donation to Icelandic Roots. Just ask us what you’d like to know and we’ll try to oblige as our time allows!

If you have an emigrant ancestor in Icelandic Roots without an emigration note on her/his page, please let me know. Or if you’d like me to look someone up in Vesturfaraskrá that you might be interested in, do so as well. If you have a family emigration story, please send those to us, also.

You can reach me at In the subject line write: 'David - RE: Emigration.'

From Sunna:

This book may occasionally be found at Used Book sites and stores. However, the last time I tried to buy one in Iceland, they were asking $300 USD. I said, 'No Thanks!' With the work David and the other team members are doing, there is so much more information available at the IR Database site.

The database is available to all. The membership fees are for scholarships, education, and the mission of Icelandic Roots. All genealogists and historians are volunteers so more of the membership money can go to 'Pay It Forward.'

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