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Down the Rabbit Hole ... to San Francisco and Brazil!

Written by Dave Jonasson

Edited by Natalie Guttormsson

When you hear the term rabbit hole, many of you are likely to think of Alice chasing the white rabbit into Wonderland.

Many of you can probably relate to your own versions of rabbit holes, interesting and captivating distractions, keeping you from completing the task at hand. But what does a rabbit hole look like for a genealogist? I'll give you a hint: it is not Netflix or Social Media, it's far nerdier!

To illustrate what a rabbit hole situation for a genealogist looks like, here is one story about Lüder Höpken, a sailing captain who lost his ship in the Pacific in 1871 and ended up as captain of the Elwood Cooper, a brig that transported 32 Icelandic Emigrants to Brazil in 1873!

David Johnson is an Icelandic Roots volunteer who has been researching the 14,268 emigrants who left Iceland from 1870 to 1914 and are documented in the Vesturfaraskrá. For nearly 5 years, he has been identifying these people in our database, adding them in when necessary and attaching their emigration information to their pages, including the farms they left from, dates of emigration and the ships that took them away. These details are crucial information for those of us searching for our ancestors and their emigration stories. As well as a huge task to undertake.

Dave Jonasson is another Icelandic Roots volunteer who has recently started documenting those ships (with pictures and dimensions). When passenger lists are located, and it is amazing tosee how many do exist from that period, they are cross-referenced to both the ship and the emigrating Icelanders. This means not only can you find your ancestor in the database, see the date and place they emigrated from, as well as see the name of the ship they travelled on, you can also click on the ship and see an image of what that ship looked like, as well as read the list of names of the fellow passengers who were aboard that ship with your ancestor.

Many people know about the conditions in Iceland during the mid 1800s that contributed to roughly 20% of the population emigrating, but they may not know that there were several "experiments" before large numbers of people started moving to Manitoba and North Dakota in the late 1870's. Those experiments included places like Utah in the 1850's; Washington Island, Wisconsin; Kinmount, Ontario; and Markland, Nova Scotia in the early 1870s.

One of the more interesting stories is a group of 4 Icelanders who left for Brazil in 1864, followed by a larger group of 32 in 1873.

black and white image of the Elwood cooper ship in an unidentified port
the Elwood Cooper

David Johnson has been working with Icelandic Roots member Ricardo Cesar Elias who is a descendant of those Icelanders that came to Brazil. Ricardo is gradually helping find information about this group. He recently found a passenger manifest that documents the 32 Icelanders who left Iceland on various ships, but who gathered in Hamburg and joined a group of German immigrants who were destined for Colônia Dona Francisca, which is now Joinville, Brazil.

They left on the "Elwood Cooper", a three masted brig that sailed from Hamburg on October 10, 1873 and arrived in Brazil on December 29, 1873. The spelling of the ship in the manifest and the spelling on the ship registries differed slightly, so Dave Jonasson searched to prove the ship information and pictures that he had found were the correct vessel. When he did this, he was able to show that the captain listed on the passenger manifest and the ship’s captain on the registration were both Lüder Höpken.

Now here comes the rabbit hole.

Portrait of Lüder Höpken around the year 1865
Lüder Höpken circa 1865

The search for Lüder Höpken found another interesting ship reference. Lüder Höpken was captain of the American brig the "Schelhoff ", a 213 ton register, of San Francisco. The Schelhoff left San Francisco on June 22, 1871 bound for Callao, Peru with a cargo of lumber, on what would be it's last voyage. On July 3rd, it encountered a cyclone about 500 miles SW of Cabo San Lucas. The ship was listing so badly that the crew cutaway the main mast in order to stop her from sinking. The ship was wrecked, waterlogged with the crew on the fore-top while the rest of the ship was under water.

The voyage had started out with 12 passengers and crew. Six days after the cyclone the first mate died. By the end of September, after being wrecked for 89 days, four souls had perished. By October 15th only the captain and one passenger remained. All others had died of thirst or exposure.

Help did not arrive until October 19th at 8:00 am, when the steamer Moses Taylor sighted the Schelhoff, now 113 days since it's departure from San Francisco and 109 days after it was wrecked. The ship appeared to be deserted and only after a search, was Captain Höpken found. He was an emaciated skeleton who weighted less than 120 pounds. His survival may have been due to the fact he started the voyage at 235 pounds! The ship was located about 600 miles NE of Hawaii and had drifted more than 2,000 miles. (Click here to read a more detailed description of the incident).

And only two years later, Lüder Höpken is back at sea, Captain of the Elwood Cooper taking German and Icelandic Immigrants from Germany to Brazil - a 72-day voyage.

And that is sometimes how our volunteers end up spending their time. Not working on what they started on, but thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Thank you to Ricardo for his help in exploring this relatively unknown chapter of the Icelandic Emigration Story. And thank you to David Johnson and Dave Jonasson for their continued dedicated and efforts to make the Icelandic Roots Database an ever-growing source of invaluable and interesting information.

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

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