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Digging Up Icelandic Roots: Solving Genealogy Mysteries, One Volunteer at a Time

By Julie Summers, Reykjavik, Iceland

Many North Americans of Icelandic descent have fond memories of family traditions passed down from generation to generation. They remember eating fresh kleinur, hearing their amma and afi speak Icelandic, and perhaps they still can’t imagine a holiday season without vínarterta. But some don’t really connect to their heritage until later in life, and others – especially when adoption is involved – aren’t even aware of having Icelandic roots until they’re uncovered by DNA results or genealogy research.

While each person’s path is different, discovering one’s Icelandic heritage later in life always begins with a sense of curiosity and some amount of personal research. But in most cases, the key to uncovering the truth about the past lies in making connections: connections with family members who’ve unknowingly been holding on to key information, connections through social media, connections to blood relatives through DNA testing. And for so many people, the most crucial connection they can make is with the volunteer genealogists at Icelandic Roots, who dedicate their time to helping people uncover the truth about their ancestry. We recently spoke with several people who have discovered valuable information about their family histories through the help of Icelandic Roots, and we’re going to share their stories over the next few weeks. First up are brother and sister Lee and Rhea Marcellus of Ontario, Canada.

Growing up, Lee and Rhea were told that their grandfather, Charles Thordeson Marcellus, had been adopted at birth by an older Canadian couple after his Icelandic mother died from complications of childbirth. For almost 40 years, family members had searched for information to confirm this story, but to no avail.

In 2016, still searching for information, Rhea discovered a memorial in Kinmount, Ontario in honor of the hardship experienced by a large group of Icelandic settlers who emigrated there in 1874. But Rhea didn’t see her grandfather’s name etched into the stone. Determined to unravel the mystery, Lee and Rhea both underwent DNA testing, but unfortunately the results were a dead end.

Contacting the Kinmount branch of the Kawartha Public Library, Lee was referred to Don Gislason of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto. Gislason had a theory as to the identity of Charlie’s mother, but a DNA sample from a would-be long-lost relative in Saskatchewan put that theory to rest. At Gislason’s urging, Lee contacted Icelandic Roots volunteer genealogist Doreen Kristjanson Marston, better known as Kristy. She encouraged Lee to take another DNA test, this time from a different company that had a larger international database. The results from this second test, as well as careful research, revealed that Charlie’s mother was Kristín Thorsteinsdóttir. Kristín died of influenza shortly after Charles’ birth. He was adopted by the midwife who delivered him, Maria Lapointe, and her husband, Marcus Horatio Marcellus.

Lee and Rhea point to the name "Thordarson" on the Icelandic Settlement Disaster Memorial in Kinmount, Ontario. Credit: Lee and Rhea Marcellus

For the Marcellus family, the combination of DNA testing and assistance from Kristy allowed them to finally break down the “genealogical brick wall” that had hindered their progress for so long. In June 2018, finally knowing the truth about Charlie’s origins, they traveled to Kinmount, where

Charlie’s name does in fact appear on the Icelandic Settlement Disaster Memorial under the spelling “Thordarson,” and to Tiny, Ontario, where they saw the house Charlie grew up in and met descendants of his adoptive family. Lee and Rhea are eager to continue learning more about their family history.

Thanks to Lee and Rhea for sharing their story with us. Keep your eyes out for the next post in this series, where we’ll share another Icelandic Roots success story. And if you need help unraveling a genealogy mystery, or have your own story to share, contact us here.

Julie Summers

Julie Summers is a translator, Snorri Program alum, and Icelandic Roots volunteer who has been living in Iceland since 2014. Last year, she received an Icelandic Roots scholarship in support of her studies at the University of Iceland. She is currently working toward a master’s in translation studies.


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