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I Have Emerged From My Rabbit Hole

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

by Cathy Josephson

As part of the Icelandic Roots Rabbit Hole Team, I am in very good company. We decide

to answer a "this will be easy" question, and head blindly down a rabbit hole. If you wonder where we are, look for the nearest...

More than 300 Icelanders left Hofssókn (and more from other places in Iceland) and

settled in southwest Minnesota. There they organized four churches, and over time buried their family and friends nearby.

This particular Rabbit Hole began as a simple list of names, ages, and death dates of people in the southwest Minnesota cemeteries. This was totally unacceptable! Who were these people? Their parents, children, spouses? What were their stories? There were mysteries in the cemeteries, too. Why are four children sharing the same stone - and who are the youngsters on the next identical stone? Did ALL the children die? Incomplete inscriptions assume that no one will forget. But questions remain from the living: “Where are my people buried? I'm going to visit the area - where should I go? What should I see?”

So I headed into the past and discovered that the names on all the stones in all the

cemeteries are MY people. My own relatives. People I knew as a child. Many of whom I only knew because their families told me about them. (Yes, nearly all came from Vopnafjörður - and I knew how to say it - even as a child.)

I moved to Iceland in 1995 and back to the area of my ancestors – Vopnafjörður. Visitors

from North America began coming and asking, “Do you know about my people? Can you

help me learn more?” I heard a knock on my door. On opening, there stood a small woman with a handful of papers. She said, "My grandfather was Árni Sigvaldason who died in Lincoln County. Did you know him?"

Without hesitating, I answered, "Yes! Come in!" Árni Sigvaldason died in 1901, 50 years before I was born. But yes, I “know” him.

I began to sort through my memories, write down names, connect ancestors and their descendants, work through the many name changes and fit the puzzle pieces together. I learned Icelandic by listening and reading genealogies. Below are some snippets of people who live in my memories. Their IR#s will be listed at the end.

The Isfeld families were mostly in Lincoln County. In 2004 four of them visited us in Vopnafjörður, and we drove them to their family farm of Grundarhóll.

Albert and Una settled in Westerheim - I met their granddaughter and her daughter in Iceland. Una Marie grinned every day, all day, for ten days. This was her one and only trip to Iceland. This is a photo of Una Marie.

Gunnlaugur and his children left Hjaltastaðasókn, settled in Swede Prairie, and attended

the Westerheim church. Family members like Angie smiled in the sunshine at Hofteigur.

Mike and his wife grinned through a week of cloudbursts as we visited farms where his ancestors lived. We knocked on a door and were invited in for coffee. These are good memories.

The Þorkelssons became Gudmundsons. Or Johnsons. The Ingimundsons decided

Johnson was easier. Some Jonssons chose Wopnford - and they have also come to see

me... Um, their descendants. (You can tell I'm living in the past.) Ríkharður’s children were either Richards or Johnsons, depending.

The Josephsons - there were lots of them in all the cemeteries. Four brothers left Vopnafjörður and settled in SW Minnesota. Vigfús is buried in Lincoln county. Sigfús and Ásbjörn and their families lie in St. Paul's cemetery. Jósep is in Westerheim and is buried in his own cemetery - The Josephson Cemetery.

Name changes were common and even within the same family. So, the last names can become quite confusing. The Westdals from Vesturárdalur were in the "East Settlement" called Westerheim. One brother decided to take the name Austdal and headed west to Lincoln county. The Westdals moved into Minneota and the Austdals decided to become Gudmundsons.

A lady named Jórunn from Vopnafjörður married and had 18 children. She was in charge of the Sunday School (many were her own children). Jórunn dozed in church. No one bothered her. She had all those kids and she needed the rest. At the last, she lived across the street from my Afi and invited a handful of "old Icelanders" to play cards now and again.

And then there was Sarah. She and her brothers moved to Minneota from Lincoln county. My best memories of Sarah are that she had a fox stole - the fox had shiny eyes and she handed out Life-Savers in church. We were fascinated.

Stanley, Pete, and Anna moved from Lincoln County with their parents to just north of

Minneota in 1903. Anna always explained, "We're not from here, you know." All three were in the nursing home at the last. Anna huffed that Pete had finished his macaroni & cheese hotdish before she could tell him that he didn't like it. Always together, three

abreast in a pickup - and they are still together in the Lincoln cemetery.

When I next visit southwestern Minnesota, I will again walk through peaceful places,

reconnecting with my past and remembering many good times I shared with these people - and their descendants.

This Rabbit Hole journey has come to a close. The burials in Lincoln-Lyon-Yellow Medicine Icelandic community cemeteries have been confirmed and entered into

the IR Database. There are now nearly a thousand new stories. New family connections have been made and many questions from the simple list of names are now answered.

Along with my fellow IR volunteers, we have added notes, obituaries, biographies,

documents, headstones, interactive maps, emigration information, photos, and more on

each person - all preserved in the Icelandic Roots Database. The IR Team has many

special projects going on with talented and dedicated volunteers - but we also encourage our members to share their family stories and strengthen our common connections.

Another Rabbit Hole is waiting for me. On to my next project!


IR numbers for a few of the people mentioned: Vigfús 3444620 Sigfús 965958 Jósep 3444621 Ásbjörn 2674 Gunnlaugur 28998 (ancestor of the Gunlogsons) Jórunn 353665 Una Marie 27982106 Sarah 558552 (with the fox stole) Pete 671108 Stanley 671110 Anna 671112


Cathy Josephson is one of the eight IR Team Leaders. She leads the team of genealogists who live in Iceland, is the Director of IR Memberships, helps with translations, plots Iceland farms on our interactive maps, assists with education for our members and for the public, and is the in-house expert on Minnesota Icelanders.

Cathy was born and raised in the area around Minneota, Minnesota. After living all over the U.S., Cathy collected her cousins together and they traveled around Iceland in 1994. The following year, she returned to Iceland to stay and made her home in Vopnafjörður. Since 2004, she has lived on the same farm where one of her great-grandmothers was born.

In 2002, the East Iceland Emigration Center was formed, and Cathy was literally assigned to be a member of the governing committee. Icelandic Roots is in cooperation with the East Iceland Emigration Center at Vopnafjörður as well as the Hofsós Emigration Center.

In addition to her genealogy work, Cathy is an accomplished artist as you can see in the painting above.


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

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