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A Roots Road Trip

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

When most people visit Iceland they head to Reykjavik and take day trips to the Golden Circle and the South Coast as far as Breiðamerkursandur (known by tourists as "Diamond Beach").

However, if you are North American and of Icelandic descent, chances are that few, if any, of your recent ancestors lived in those places since most Westerners left North and East Iceland. The North and East were places that experienced unusually cold conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—weather that led thousands to move to North America and as far away as Brazil.

Like South Iceland, North and East Iceland are majestic, rugged, and beautiful places worth visiting. For most, a "Roots road trip" will take you off the beaten path frequented by tourists. You can think of a Roots road trip as a route that touches on all the locations of your recent ancestors, those who immigrated to North America.

In 2022, my family planned a Roots road trip in Iceland. The Icelandic Roots website is the fastest and most accurate way to plan a Roots road trip as I will discuss in this article. In our case, those who emigrated came from two distinct regions: Skagafjörður and Vopnafjörður (and some surrounding areas). So, after landing in Keflavik, we were going to make our way north and east.

Map showing the Locations of the farms from which our family left for America.
Locations of the farms from which our family left for America.

We landed in early June and took a day to relax in Reykjavík. We wandered around the city visiting museums and shops including The Handknitting Association of Iceland, a cooperative that outsources lopapeysa production to locals who learned from their parents and grandparents how to knit. You can take a tour here. My wife got a day pass at World Class Gym to recharge after the long trip. We met up with her in the lobby and watched droves of Icelanders of all ages pour into this gym talking on their cell phones before starting their daily workout.

The gym sits next to the sports stadium in an otherwise sleepy part of town with a mid-century architecture called Laugardalur. This neighborhood has good ice cream and hot dog shops (two staples of Iceland), a public pool, and an outdoor recreation area. With its pitted concrete sidewalks, mature trees, older homes, and common areas, the Laugardalur district feels well-worn and comfortable.

The next day we traveled north to visit a friend and Icelandic Roots volunteer Þórdís Edda Guðjónsdóttir. Edda has always had a fascination with Western Icelanders, conducted her Master's thesis on the topic, and has visited North America several times. She also has a great aunt, her namesake, who went West to live in California. Her aunt is buried in a cemetery a few miles from where I work.

"I've never been to California; someday I'd like to see her grave," Edda said.

I tried to persuade her to visit.

"Edda, you should visit. we can take you to see where your aunt is buried. And there are lots of things to do in Los Angeles."

I hope she takes me up on that offer.

We met Edda at a beautiful vacation summer house her stepfather renovated outside of Borðeyri. Her stepfather passed away 8 years ago, but he'd be very happy to see his project has kept the family close as they all gather there each summer.

After a nice visit, Edda took us over to Borðeyri, a deep water fjord in Northwest Iceland. Many people left for North America from here, and Edda gave us a detailed and highly informative tour. The place is also known for whale watching as the whales can enter a great distance into the fjord because of the fjord's natural depth. The trip to Borðeyri was a great start to our trip and Edda was a gracious host.

Edda teaching us about the history of Borðeyri.

Getting to the Roots Road

We continued north to Skagafjörður, our first stop along the Roots Road. We visited one of our ancestral farms. I found this farm by tracing my family tree through Next to each ancestor's name is the farm at which the ancestor was born, emigrated, and died and geocoordinates (numeric latitude and longitude) so you can easily plug the coordinates into a navigation program like Google or Apple Maps. A special thanks to Icelandic Roots volunteer Doug Hanson, who mapped every farm in Iceland into the Icelandic Roots database, this data makes navigating the Roots road trip easy.

The ancestral farm for many centuries was called Úlfsstaðakot (Wolf's Lair) but later was changed to Sunnuhvol (Sunny Hill). Both my great aunt and uncle were born there. The farm was small and sat up against the mountains with a small waterfall and creek winding down to the river down below. We went to talk to the owner but they were not home. So we lingered in the fields and walked around.

View from the farmhouse at Sunnuhvol looking down to the Ring Road.

There is a literary record of my ancestors leaving the Sunnuhvol farm. The poet Bólu-Hjálmar, a frail old man at the time of my ancestors' departure, lived a few farms down from Sunnuhvol at a very beautiful farm called Bóla. However, he spent most of his life in severe poverty, and not knowing when he would get his next meal, he wrote poems about the injustices of Icelandic society in the 19th century. Many of his poems are taught in Icelandic schools today. Although known to be rather cranky, Bólu-Hjálmar was also a friend of my emigrating relatives. I suspect they treated him well or at least respectfully. As a gift, Bólu-Hjálmar wrote a poem for them on the day of their departure to North America called "BurtfararKveðja" (A Farewell). The only library copy of BurtfararKveðja in the United States is at the Harvard University Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts—3,000 miles from my house and too far for me to go easily borrow the book. There are copies, however, at the many used bookstores here in Iceland. Used bookstore owners in Iceland are often real aficionados of Icelandic poetry and are remarkably helpful.

The poem laments the young Icelanders leaving their country for a better life in the West. Bólu-Hjálmar blesses the young couple on their voyage and states that the upbringing and spirit of the Icelanders ensure that the "The Children of Iceland will never die" no matter where they go on Earth. He also tells them that their story and their children's will now be "woven on worldwide strings." That our story stretches far over the ocean as described in the poem, made Sunnuhvol and the surrounding area a special place to us. It was a real privilege to visit it.

No trip to Skagafjördur would be complete without a stop at Hólar Cathedral. This is where the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason presided. He and his sons (Icelandic priests ignored the celibacy edict) Ari and Björn were called "The last Icelanders" for refusing by order of the Danish King to convert to Lutheranism—a last act of defiance of Danish colonial rule. In the early morning hours of November 7th, 1550, the three men were beheaded at the episcopal seat of Skálholt in South Iceland. Later the bodies were retrieved and brought to Hólar.

Jón Arason also has the distinction of being the most recent Icelander that is a direct ancestor of all living Icelanders and Western Icelanders. You heard that correctly: If you are of Icelandic descent, Jón Arason, born in 1484, is one of your great-grandfathers.

Hólar sits in the back of a long, wide, forested valley. On the property is a red stone cathedral. Inside are a carved alabaster triptych, a Greenland soapstone baptism bowl, and a painted altarpiece in Gothic style. The altarpiece is called Hólabrík and is thought to have mystical powers as it resisted looting by the King's Danish soldiers after Jón Arason's death. Folklore has it that the horses of the Danish soldiers could carry it only so far away from Hólar before collapsing because it became heavy, but it was easily returned to Hólar by locals.

The red stone cathedral at Skálar.

Under glass, at the red stone cathedral rests the first printed book in Icelandic: the Bible. Under the floor rests Bishop Jón Arason's remains.

There is a lot to absorb here and though I am typically a rather calm person, this place had so much Icelandic history it was overwhelming. As I walked in, to the left was a docent, Vigdís Hermannsdóttir. She, I thought, could answer all my burning questions. I barraged her with inquiries trying to fill the gaps from the fragments of information I had gathered over the years.

"So when did Bishop Arason try to takeover Skálholt in the South? The Danish King was not the one who planned Arason's killing, right? Is true that the Bishop's daughter had almost every Dane in the country killed in revenge for her father's death?" I eagerly asked.

Some of my questions she answered, others caused her to feverishly type into the Google search engine on her computer. I asked her if I could leave some Icelandic Roots brochures.

"You are a Western Icelander?" she asked.

And then, surprisingly, she returned rapid-fire questions back at me.

"Do Westerners practice Icelandic naming conventions? Do you celebrate Icelandic holidays? Do you prepare Icelandic food? I find it so interesting that the earliest settlers interacted with the Native Americans", she said.

I gave complicated answers about Jon Sigurðsson and August the 2nd, Vínarterta, women with the last name "Magnusson", and John and Betsey Ramsay. She nodded approvingly and seemed to follow along, mostly. Then I suggested, "You should fill out a Cousins Across the Ocean form for Icelandic Roots", which she did. It was nice to connect with her and share information.

After visiting Hólar, we explored the hiking trails and forest that extends behind it. You could spend several hours hiking in this area. Then we went to Hófsos for lunch and for a visit to the museum devoted to Vesturfarar, the people who fared West. The fjörd is one of the most beautiful in Iceland. The fjord faces north, so the sun moving east to west causes the light to play endlessly on the water producing beautiful and changing patterns. It is also the location where much of Grettis Saga took place. Grettir was exiled to Drangey a tiny island with sheer cliffs. Drangey tours offer boat trips there.

A photo stop in Skagafjörður with Drangey Island in the distance.

Next, we'd head up to the northeast corner of Iceland to visit Úlfhildur Helgadóttir. On the way, we took in the sites at Goðafoss, a waterfall of significance to the transition to Christianity in Iceland, and Hverir, a geothermal area.

The family at Goðafoss

Úlfhildur has a business called North Iceland Trail Running. She takes runners out to run on the abandoned farms common in the northeast. She and her husband Ragnar are also farmers at Ytra-Álandi. A distant great-grandfather of ours, Jón Guðmundsson, was born and worked on their farm. She planned to take us out to Skálar, an old fishing village on the Langanes Peninsula, another place to which we had family ties. Langanes is shaped like a duck's head and points north. It is well above 66 degrees north latitude. A cold East Icelandic Ocean Current, an off-shoot of the East Greenland Current hugs the coast here, keeping the water ice cold.

We ended up doing only a little running and a lot of touring. Langanes is a fascinating place out at the end of the Earth. To the north is only sea ice and the North Pole. In 1918 and again in 2008 two different polar bears made landfall on Langanes, swimming from sea ice hundreds of miles away. The first polar bear killed 2 people. The second, in 2008, killed 2 dogs that bravely protected nearby inhabitants. The dogs held off the bear until it could be killed.

The peninsula also acts as a sweep. The coast is littered with driftwood caught on its shores from Russian logging operations a thousand miles away. There are also mounds of fishing nets and buoys. It is a place of many tragic shipwrecks that have occurred. The fog here gets thick, blinding boat crews who fail to see the steep rocky cliffs nearby.

The coastline at Skálar

The land, not great for farming, is rock and peat moss with only grassy sections right next to the coast. There were farms though at Eiði, Sauðanes, Skálar, and a few other places. The Icelandic Roots database reveals that lives were short and life here hard, but like all of Iceland, there was a love of literature, poetry, and folklore. There are also good ghost stories and Úlfhildur told us one:

Sometime in the early 1800s, a body without limbs was found by the beach at Skálar and buried. It haunts Skálar, teasing the farmers by blocking sheep from entering their corral. One farmer even left in frustration over the ghost in 1889.

As the farm system collapsed in the early 20th Century, and large fishing took over, Skálar became a place to pack ice for fish. The ice was simply moved from the ground to crates, loaded onto boats, and shipped to fish processing plants. Arctic birds of all varieties live here now and human activity is minimal. We spotted an arctic fox in this area too. Because of its unique location and geography, you can expect something different when you visit Langanes.

That evening, we had dinner at Ytra-Álandi with our hosts Ragnar and Úlfhildur. On the menu was svið. To make svið, a sheep's head is cut in half, the brain is removed, and the cook singes the outside to remove the fur. Then the chef boils the head for an hour or more and serves it with mashed potatoes. Ragnar, perhaps sensing our reluctance, cut some bite-sized slices of meat and put them on a separate plate for those who wanted to try it. You probably want to know how it tastes. Well, you'll have to try it to find out.

Svið is an Icelandic dish.

Once you've tried shark and svið, you are well-prepared for Þorrablót, the annual sacrificial midwinter festival offered to the gods of the past in Pagan Iceland. After dinner with Úlfhildur, Ragnar, and our families, we headed back for the night.

Next we would travel to our final Roots Road stop, Vopnafjörður, and visit with Cathy Josephson. The bay of Vopnafjörður was first settled by Vikings in the late 9th century. The name Vopnafjörður means "Weapon Bay" in reference to an early settler Eyvindur Vopni who tried to escape the oppressive King Harald of Norway. According to Heimskringla, a dragon protects Vopnafjörður from harm and so the town emblem is that of a dragon. The dragon is displayed on official documents and street signs.

Several of our emigrating family left this port for the United States. They came from a few areas near the town. Two are called Viðvík and Strandhöfn. These are of the "Strandbæjir" (coastal villages) as they say in Vopnafjörður and were as much part of the Vopnafjörður community as the other farms “á ströndinni” (on the beach) which included Ljósaland and Hámundastaðir. By the end of our relatives' time in Iceland, they had been separated from each other and placed on most of these farms. This was a sad but common practice when there was no summer thaw and a farm would altogether fail.

Going to visit Cathy was one of the highlights of the trip. Cathy's family immigrated to the same U.S. town as ours, Minneota, Minnesota. She also grew up there. Cathy moved back to Iceland in 1994 on the 100th anniversary of her grandparent's emigration from Iceland. She compiles histories and genealogies of both Minneota and Vopnafjörður.

As it turns out, Cathy's family and ours were intertwined in Iceland too. Older couples often fostered young children when there were too many mouths to feed. Cathy's 2nd great-grandparents, Oddný Sigurðardóttir and Sigurbjörn Kristjánsson, had fostered a great-uncle of mine Bergvin Jónsson (Hoff) when times were tough. My uncle, as an adult, was also one of the 300 people to leave for Minneota from Vopnafjörður. He would join my great-grandmother's family who left a few years earlier. Bergvin was also one of the signers on the charter of St. Paul's Icelandic Luthern Church in Minneota, MN.

Interestingly, Cathy's 2nd great-grandfather Sigurbjörn, was the grandson of Júdith frá Ljósavatn Sigurðardóttir. Along with her sister Rut, Júdit was a gifted, sharp-tongued poet. So offensive were some of their poems that the husbands of these women were forced to pay compensation to "the victims." As a gift for Cathy, I purchased Sögusafn Ísafoldar Volume 4, which reprints some of judit's, her 4th great-grandmother's, poetry and describes some of her life events. We had a long way to drive to deliver this gift.

Getting to Cathy's place takes you through many beautiful locations in Iceland. If you take the route from Skagafjörður, there are several different landscapes along the way. First, you pass through a craggy mountain pass to Akureyri, the "Capitol of the North," which is surrounded by verdant mountains and a long deep-cut and narrow fjord. Then you make your way to Mývatn, a large lake surrounded by lava fields. Following this, you enter a black desert that seems to stretch as far as the Mojave. Long sequences of large cairns are equally spaced across the desert next to the road. These are historical markers for mail delivery and navigation. Once you make it through the desert, you get off the ring road and descend over a series of mountains into Vopnajfjörd. The fjörd is beautiful, green with a salmon river running through it. The salmon are protected by a catch and release program and the current price for a one-day fishing license with a guide is about $1,000 US dollars. At the bottom, is a beautiful bay with a black sand beach. The bay is surrounded by mountains and captures the sunset in the evening. To the east are the high steep flat-top mountains of the Eastern fjords. To the west are rolling foothills that extend over the Strandbæjir and eventually lead up to Langanes and Þorshöfn.

We stayed on a farm at Síreksstaðir, thought to be the place where the goði (chieftains) held meetings in ancient times, according to the sagas of this area. Using the "Close Saga Places" feature, you will see Síreksstaðir mentioned in Vopnfirðinga Saga chapters 1, 14, 15, and 18. At Síreksstaðir, a cold wind whistles down the fjörd from the southwest highlands where there are high mountain glaciers.

Arctic birds rule the soundscape of Vopnafjörður with the songs, chirps, and calls of their pure voices all day and through the midnight sun of summer. With birds far outnumbering people, it is easy to listen in on and be humbled by the honest conversations the birds have.

The Nobel Laureate and Icelander Halldór Laxness visited the Vopnafjörður area and his novel "Independent People" is believed by some to be inspired by it. He once said, "It's a pity we don't whistle at one another, like birds. Words are misleading." I can't help but think this place inspired that insight from him.

Cathy Josephson had spent some time researching my family's history before and during our visit. We met her at the East Iceland Emigration Center, a project Cathy started several years ago and for which she has received grant funding to connect Western Icelanders of Vopnafjörður to their history. Walking up to the second floor of the building, Cathy was sitting at her desk and looked up, happy to see us. She had been immersed in ancestry files all morning and had also been planning a day trip for all of us. Running to grab her coat, she said excitedly, "I know all your relatives in Minneota!".

Skeptical, I asked, "Oh yeah? Who do you know?".

She stopped, turned around raising her eyebrow as she looked at me, and said resolutely, "Sam the bus driver."

How could I argue with that?

Then she said, “Let’s call your cousin Jobbi and head down to Skeggjastaðarkirkja, the oldest wooden church in East Iceland. This is where all your family was married and where their children were christened. It is locked but I can get you in."

So we picked up Jobbi and drove down there. I had already heard of Jobbi from a number of people, including a fellow academic, who is from Vopnafjöður and now lives in Australia.

Little did I know, Jobbi was a close cousin.

Jobbi, Jósep Jósepsson, is a local historian and intellectual who is the "go-to" person for information on the thousand-year history of this place. Jobbi's house is on a hill overlooking the bay. From the street, I could see the walls of his house were covered in wall-to-wall bookcases filled with Icelandic and foreign books. Jobbi got in the car and handed me a gift, a two-volume compendium called "The Handbook of Iceland."

"Thanks," I replied. I was sincerely grateful.

Cathy who has a long-term memory for nearly every family tree in Vopnafjördur turned to Jobbi and said, "Jason is your cousin on your grandmother's side."

Jobbi nodded approvingly.


After a 30 or so minute drive down the coast, we arrived at Skeggjastaðarkirkja. Skeggjastaðarkirkja is a cemetery and a parish by Bakkafjörður. The church's current modern structure was built in 1845. It is the oldest wooden church in the East.

The church is first mentioned in Bishop Pál Jónsson's church register from 1200 AD, but a continuous record starts in the 16th century. Ólafur Briem, master carpenter at Grund in Eyjafjörður built the church that stands. The church is made of driftwood that was brought from Skálar in Langanesi, the place we last visited. Weddings and other special occasions are often held here. The interior is decorated with beautifully painted wood and images in muted blue, red, and brown colors. For those interested, the book "Skeggjastaðir: Kirkja og Prestar (1591-1995)" by Sigmar I. Torfason documents the history of this place and the church leaders who served this community.

The interior of Skeggjastaðarkirkja

Nothing pleased me more than to see this church well-preserved and still in use.

Being at Skeggjastaðarkirkja, I thought also about the priest who served the people who went west, Bergvin Þorbergsson (IR# I13081). Bergvin was here at Skeggjastaðarkirkja starting in1858 until his death. Not only was my uncle named after him but many other Westerners were as well. He must have been a well-liked priest because so many families at Skeggjastaðir named their children "Bergvin." The name lives on to this day in towns in the U.S. and Canada. I have living cousins named "Bergvin".

Icelanders now regulate their names and can only select a baby's name from a list of traditional names. Bergvin made the cut and is gaining some popularity in Reykjavik, probably because there are so few names to choose from and "Bergvin" is somewhat unique. The irony is that it is not a traditional Icelandic name; it is Norwegian. Bergvin Þorbergsson was the first "Bergvin" in Iceland (according to, and he lived less than 150 years ago. Few in Reykjavik who have chosen to name their child "Bergvin" have any idea it was promoted by folks in this small community eager to honor their religious leader, or that the name lives on in North America. It is in unusual ways like this that Westerners and Icelanders are still almost imperceptibly connected.

That evening back at Sírekstaðir, we took Cathy Josephson out to dinner at the farmhouse restaurant. We talked about Minneota and how many Icelanders sold their farms and moved to Minneapolis.

"Icelanders were not accustomed to tilling the soil. They wanted to let the sheep out, then go read books, and write poetry," she said.

Children of these highly literate parents were encouraged to go to college and the Icelanders would then retire in Minneapolis. My own grandfather followed this path, his Icelandic mother spent hours in the evening helping him to sharpen his academic skills for college. Like the Icelandic cultural practice "Kvöldvaka", evenings in her house were for parents to help their children learn.

Dinner with Cathy at Sírekstaðir.

My kids loved Cathy and spent the evening really engaged and interested in their family's past. After dinner they each gave her a hug goodbye. It was our last night in Vopnafjörður. The next day we'd start a long two-day journey back to Reykjavik and our flight home.

That evening, my daughter said, "Cathy reminded me of Grandma. They both have the same eyes."

I had noticed that too. Their similar eyes are a living vestige of the people who lived here once. Those people have long been gone but their descendants sometimes come back, spend time together, visit this place, or even decide to stay.

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