Icelanders in Minneota and Unknown Photos

Updated: Jul 11, 2019


Sveinn Magnússon was a talented photographer in Minneota, which is a large Icelandic settlement in southwest Minnesota. His photography studio was in the The Big Store building and he took many of the oldest and most beautiful photographs from this area. In this unknown photo, you can see his signature was S. Magnus and he was known as Swen or Swain Magnus. Let us know if you have the name of this beautiful young woman. We have other unknown photographs from this photographer and the Minneota area. Please help us if you could possibly identify them and work with our team on unknown photos. Email us here.


Sveinn emigrated in 1879 at the age of 14 from Vopnafjörður aboard the ship Camoens. This ship brought many of the emigrants away from their beloved homeland when they left for their long journey to a settlement in North America. Sveinn's wife, Guðrún Salína Jónsdóttir, is a sister of Bjarni Jónsson. She went by the name Lena Jones before her marriage to Sveinn and was a registered nurse in Minneapolis before her marriage to Sveinn in 1897. Bjarni went by the name Barney Jones in Minneota and was also an early immigrant to Minneota. He was the town butcher and in 1892 opened the B. Jones Meat Market in a brand-new building.

The following historical facts are selected from the books, An Illustrated History of Lyon County, Minnesota by Arthur P. Rose published in 1912 and The First One Hundred Years of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church 1887-1987. Many stories about the Icelandic settlers are found in these wonderful books.

The Icelandic settlement in Lyon County and the village of Minneota was formed by fifty Icelandic immigrants in August of 1877 who came directly from Iceland. A few Icelanders had settled here earlier including Gunnlaugur Pétursson, who emigrated in 1873 from Vopnafjörður. He first went to Wisconsin, and moved to Lyon County, Minnesota in 1875. He named his farm, Hákonarstaðir, after the farm of his birth and that of many generations of his ancestors.


About 200 Icelanders came to this same area in 1879 and many others came in the years that followed. By 1890, Minneota had a population of 325 people and in 1895, the community had grown to 512 people. By 1900, the population was 800 people. The book quotes, “Others joined the colony later, giving to Lyon county a very desirable class of citizens.” The Icelanders mostly lived in Lyon, Lincoln, and Yellow Medicine Counties.


Continuing quotes from the book, An Illustrated History of Lyon County, Minnesota: “Rev. Pall Thorinksson (sic – Rev. Páll Þorláksson) led a party of colonists from Manitoba in 1879 and located them in Pembina county, North Dakota, where they grew in numbers and wealth until now they form the next largest Icelandic colony in the New World.” Beginning in 1880, many people from the Minneota area settlement came to Pembina County.

Of the Lyon county Icelanders, the Marshall News-Messenger of May 24, 1904, said: ‘The colony in this section of Minnesota has flourished, though, in a measure, through affiliation with other nationalities, the semblance of colonization has been lost. One noticeable characteristic of the Icelanders is their appreciation of the public school system of their adopted country and their thirst for knowledge and English education. During several years past the graduating classes of the Marshall High School have included students of Icelandic birth and descent, and most of these have continued their education at the University of Minnesota, at normal schools, and other institutions, and subsequently engaged in the professions.”


An Icelandic Lutheran society was organized by 1880. St. Paul’s church was founded October 27, 1887. Today, visitors can see the beautiful St. Paul’s church and the Icelandic cemeteries of the area.


Last fall, three IR team members visited the Minneota historic sites and learned more. They were Cathy Josephson, who was our tour leader, Edda Guðjónsdóttir, and me (Sunna). Cathy was born and raised in the Minneota area and is a magnificent historian. In 1995, she moved to Iceland and has lived in Vopnafjörður since that time working at the East Iceland Emigration Center since it was founded in 2004. She has been a volunteer genealogist and the Membership Director of Icelandic Roots since 2014.

Edda joined the IR team in 2018 as the IR Librarian, translator, and a member of the documentary team. Read more about her summer work here.


The IR Database continues to grow as we work on preserving all people of Icelandic ancestry, their stories, photos, graves, places, and much more. Our people moved around and families were split off from each other between Iceland, Canada, and the USA. Today, people of Icelandic descent live all around the world. If you would like to learn more about your Icelandic Roots, the history of certain areas, and how you fit into the story, see the website at Icelandic Roots. If you do not want to join the database, please make sure your family is preserved by filling out the “Cousins Across the Ocean” form. If you have family photos, send them to us. We will connect them into their individual pages. Thanks so very much for helping to preserve our shared Icelandic story!

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Icelandic Roots is a non-profit, educational, heritage organization specializing in genealogy, history & traditions of our Icelandic ancestors.

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