top of page

DNA, Genealogy and That Magic Thing That Makes an Icelander an Icelander-Roots of Icelandic Roots

By Rob Olason

Icelandic Roots is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2023. But to arrive at the birthdate of Icelandic Roots in 2013, several decades of activity needed to occur in developing the right circumstances for launching this unique non-profit all-volunteer organization.

But first, we need to explore the question, “Why this all-consuming interest in Icelandic genealogy?”

If you’ve been reading these articles from Icelandic Roots for a while, you probably have a pretty good idea that Icelanders and their descendants across the world are people who strongly self-identify as “Icelanders.” That identity includes a passion for genealogy.

For example, on any given day of the week, most North Americans don’t mention their 24 times great-grandmother in casual conversations. And why would they? The topic would never “naturally” come up because of the inherent absurdity of such a thought. Or so it would seem to the average genealogy-ignoring person.

Yet that ancestral connection surfaces surprisingly often in conversations between Icelandic descendants. However, when conversing with non-Icelanders we must acknowledge that Icelandic descendants can exhibit incredible restraint on this topic, even though they are bursting at the seams to share it. Despite their deliberate, focused restraint…the subject has been known to come up.

Leifur Eiríksson Discovers Vinland
Leifur Eiríksson Discovers Vinland

Icelanders like to remind their Icelandic conversational partners that a little of the hemoglobin of Egill Skallagrímsson (IR# 135557) runs through their veins. Or Njáll of Njáll’s Saga, featuring Njáll Þorgeirsson (IR# I527594). (This offers the opportunity for the speaker to wax eloquently about the revered status of the Icelandic Sagas which are the source for all Nordic history from the first Millennium and even much of European history.)!

While many would like to claim descendency from Leifur "heppni" (The Lucky) Eiríksson (IR# I137643), unfortunately, the genealogical record reveals no descendants beyond his son, Þorgils Leifsson (IR# I137988). Anyone making such a claim should be viewed with genealogical suspicion.

Or they may namedrop Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir (IR# I133852), the mother of Snorri, the first European child born in North America. A very important DNA antecedent that should never go unmentioned in the conversation.

These “I’m connected to some amazingly important ancestors” revelations used to happen over a simple home-brewed cup of kaffí and a kleinur back in the day, but now it often comes up online in an email or maybe in a Zoom room.

While most North Americans couldn’t name their great-grandparents, most Icelandic descendants living in North America make it a point of pride that they can. And they are not afraid to share that knowledge.

It is both a joke and a fact, that DNA is in an Icelander’s genes. Or is it “jeans?”

For those Icelanders living in Iceland, DNA is in their jeans. Pulling out their smartphones, they can quickly consult an app that will verify that the person they are interested in has no close connection to their own DNA, or at least only a distant connection.

This passion for genealogy began early in Iceland’s history starting with Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) describing the early settlements and settlers of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries. The book was written by Ari 'fróði' Þorgilsson who was called Ari the Wise (IR# 133667). Once Ari started the project of documenting Icelandic genealogy, it made perfect sense to keep the project going into its second millennium. And now with nearly a dozen centuries invested in the effort, it’s too late to quit!

Friðrik Skúlason studied computer science and psychology at the University of Iceland. He started his own software company and his second product, released in 1988, was an Icelandic genealogy database program he called “Espólín.” Skúlason named after Jón (Jónsson) Espólín (1769 – 1836) (IR # I33255). Twelve centuries of genealogy condensed onto a few floppy disks.

The name was a fitting choice for this software program. In addition to his career as a county Sherrif, Jón Espólín had a lifelong interest in history and genealogy.

This passion led Espólín to publish 12 volumes of Icelandic history and genealogy from 1262 up to the author’s time, called Espólín’s Yearbooks between 1821 and 1855.

Skúlason distributed his Espólín program with the Icelandic genealogy database to many genealogists via those floppy disks. One person who received a copy was the Iceland-based genealogist Hálfdan Helgason, who was interested in linking the Western Icelanders who emigrated to North America and their subsequent descendants, into this database. He began to add what he knew about the Western Icelanders. In his research, he also began making connections with many North American genealogists.

Those genealogists in North America were working on the same project of documenting the genealogy of the Western Icelanders and their descendants. They were also adopting the computer as an important tool for organizing their genealogy findings. Much of their work was focused on the Icelandic communities of the mid-west in the United States and Canada. While they mostly worked independently, they would also collaborate with one another. This collaboration opened up new opportunities even as it exposed new problems to be solved.

George Freeman at the genealogy center at the Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota.
George Freeman at the genealogy center at the Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota

In 2003, George Freeman of North Dakota began the Genealogy Center at the Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota. He enlisted Sunna Furstenau to join him. Out of that collaboration, the idea for the "Cousins Across the Oceans" project was launched. The project offers Icelandic descendants the opportunity to find their connections to their emigrating ancestors. This proved valuable for descendants who no longer knew their ancestors from Iceland.

A side benefit of the program was identifying local relatives of the visiting Icelandic dignitaries attending the Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota, and Íslendingadagurinn in Gimli, Manitoba.

Other genealogists-Gwen and Russ Lanoway, Kristy Marston, Cathy Josephson, and Dr. Stefan Paul Guttormsson were among the genealogists working independently. Together they were logging countless hours researching and sending their discoveries to Hálfdan who would incorporate the new information into the growing database.

As the database expanded, keeping the information accurate also demanded more time than one person could provide. Eventually, Hálfdan found the task of managing the database, responding to all the email correspondence, and putting out his newsletters, was just too much for one person alone.

In North America, the local genealogists were also finding their workloads becoming unmanageable. To make matters worse, they found they were frequently duplicating each other’s efforts since they worked independently of one another.

Sunna Furstenau and Hálfdan Helgason
Sunna Furstenau and Hálfdan Helgason

Hálfdan was ready to slow down. In mulling his options for how to keep the database functioning, he turned to Sunna Furstenau with the proposal that she take over database management. She saw the importance of continuing the database, but also the impossibility of one person managing it. She turned to the other genealogists with a proposal: if they would be willing to work together on the database, she would take on the management.

Sunna wasn’t sure how to fit all the pieces together when she took on the task, but she relied on her genealogist friends, and with their support, she began a journey of many twists and turns that led to receiving the documents declaring Icelandic Roots a non-profit organization on November 12, 2013.

The following day, Icelandic Roots was open for business.

What sort of business would that be? Sunna was about to discover that running Icelandic Roots was not exactly what she had planned.

Next Time: What kind of learning curve is this?

Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

bottom of page