Updated: May 27, 2020
Recently, we’ve been sharing stories about people who discovered their Icelandic roots – or connected to them more deeply – later in life. One of the common threads running through
all these stories is the importance of connection. Connecting with a distant family member, a DNA match, or a knowledgeable expert, like the volunteer genealogists at Icelandic Roots, can be like getting the key to a treasure chest full of information.
In this article, we shift gears and talk to Icelandic Roots volunteer Doreen Kristjanson Marston, better known as Kristy, about some of the challenges genealogists face in helping people piece together their family histories. If you haven’t already, check out the first three stories in this series about Lee and Rhea Marcellus, Andrew Bendin, and Kevin Johnson.
People searching for their roots usually start out eager and full of energy, poring over family photos and census records, undergoing DNA testing and contacting matches, and gathering as much information as they can about ancestors and living relatives. Some have good success on their own, but many eventually hit a dead end in their own research. That’s where Icelandic Roots comes in. “Our database is so phenomenal,” says Kristy, the Icelandic Roots volunteer who assisted brother and sister Lee and Rhea Marcellus in their search for information about their grandfather Charles. Kristy inherited her love of genealogy from her father. Long before the days of online genealogy databases, email, and instant messaging, he spent hours making phone calls and writing letters to strangers to piece together family trees. His passion was contagious, and Kristy developed a keen interest in genealogy herself. “I just got hooked,” she says. Working with Icelandic Roots since 2014, Kristy too has been like a genealogical detective, searching for clues and helping people like the Marcelluses solve mysteries about their family histories. These days, life is a lot easier for Kristy and her fellow genealogists than it was for her father back in his day, but there are still plenty of challenges.
Name changes can present a problem, for instance, though few changes are as dramatic as Andrew Bendin’s great-great-grandmother, who changed her name from Kristjana Ingibjörg Bergvinsdóttir to Jennie Emma Isman. A number of factors contributed to an Icelandic immigrant’s decision to change their name, says Kristy. Those who lived outside of large Icelandic communities may have felt compelled to change their names so they’d be easier for foreigners to pronounce. On the other hand, Kristy tells the story of a man who lived in an Icelandic community but ended up changing his name from Guðmundsson to Goodman because there were so many Guðmundssons that his mail was rarely delivered to the right person! In other cases, immigrant names were unintentionally misspelled in legal documents, such as federal census records, especially when the people writing those records didn’t understand Icelandic. This seems to have been the case for Lee and Rhea’s grandfather. Because Charlie was adopted at birth and raised apart from an Icelandic community, his surname, Thordarson, morphed into Thordeson over time, which complicated Lee and Rhea’s search for answers nearly 150 years later.
DNA testing has completely transformed the genealogy world, turning it into an expansive and lucrative industry. DNA testing can be extremely useful, says Kristy, but she cautions that it is an imperfect tool and does not guarantee a simple answer. Each company is a bit different, and the quality of your results depends on several factors, such as how many samples from a given country or region are already contained in the database. Kristy also points out that being matched with 100 cousins does little good if none of them respond to your messages, something she says is surprisingly common.
Searching for answers about one’s ancestry is almost always a formidable task that requires a variety of resources and a healthy dose of determination and creative problem-solving skills. Guiding people through the process of piecing together their family histories is a big part of why Kristy and her fellow volunteers do what they do. Each mystery solved strengthens the database and just might make the next one a bit easier to solve. If you need help unraveling a genealogy mystery, visit icelandicroots.com to become a member and connect with knowledgeable volunteers.
If you would like to share the story of how Icelandic Roots helped you connect to your heritage, please contact us here.