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Icelandic Roots Database FAQs

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Welcome to the Icelandic Roots Database FAQ! Perhaps you are not a member but are thinking about becoming one. Here you will find answers to common questions about the Icelandic Roots database. From understanding Iceland's historical records to tips for tracing your family tree using our services, this FAQ aims to provide a beginner's guide to genealogy in Iceland. Whether you're just starting your research or have hit a roadblock, we hope this resource will be helpful in your journey to uncover your Icelandic heritage.

Who settled Iceland and when? The country was settled between 870 and 1100 AD by immigrants from Norway, Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, and the Hebrides.

How is the Icelandic Roots database different than popular genealogy websites such as Ancestry or MyHeritage?

Iceland is unique in that it is the only country in Europe that knows its origin, the named people who settled it, and many of their descendants. Most ancestry sites cater to people with ancestry that is not as well documented. This means that sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage will encourage each member to "build a tree" of their own that starts with themselves and reaches back into the past several generations. Icelandic Roots is able to take a different approach. We maintain one comprehensive tree called an "ætt" (family history) that begins with the earliest settlers in the 9th century. If you are of Icelandic descent, then the tree has branches that reach all the way to you.

What are the origins of the database? How did it come to be? The first digital Icelandic genealogy database was called Espólin after genealogist Jón Espólín and was developed by Friðdrik Skúlason. About 3000 individuals were registered from previous centuries. Espólín was distributed to the public in 1988. Users were allowed to add their own data to improve upon the project. An Icelander, Hálfdan Helgason was one of these users. Hálfdan’s long-term goal was to include data on Icelandic emigrants, including those of the major settlements in the United States and Canada. Over many years he compiled the best Icelandic genealogy database available. His site contained over 512,000 names and genealogy information such as place of birth, marriage, death, occupation, emigration information, relationship calculations, and much more. When Hálfdan retired, Sunna Fastenau and other genealogists saw the tremendous value of Hálfdan's work and formed Icelandic Roots, an official nonprofit, charitable organization on November 12, 2013. The database has grown much since then and is the gateway to a deeper understanding of your Icelandic heritage, as it also contains pictures, maps locations, is connected to the Icelandic sagas, and provides biographical information about individuals. The Icelandic Roots database is now curated by over 40 volunteer genealogists.

Can I make my own changes to the database?

You cannot make direct changes to the database. You can, however, submit requests for modifications to the database if you believe you see missing or erroneous information. All information in the database is curated by trained genealogists and suggested changes are verified before they are made by consulting available sources.

Why is so much known about the genealogy of Iceland compared to the genealogy in other nations?

There are a number of reasons Icelandic genealogy is so comprehensive. First, due to famines, plagues and volcanic eruptions, the population of Iceland has always been sparse making an effort toward a complete understanding of the genealogy possible. Second, most of the names and the farms of the original settlers were recorded and much is known about their descendants. Third, genealogy is culturally important to Icelanders and, over the ages, many books have been written documenting genealogies in different parts of the country. Fourth, by the 18th century, Iceland began conducting a regular census and maintained complete church parish records of births, confirmations, marriages, and deaths.

How far back will the "ætt" (family history) of my ancestors extend? Most people of Icelandic descent will have a complete family tree at least to the early 1700s. About 10% of these early 18th-century ancestors will have recorded ancestors that extend all the way back to the settlement period of Iceland. This may not sound like a lot, but it is. For example, if you have a single ancestor who immigrated to North America in the year 1900 (a grandparent or great-grandparent), then on average that ancestor will have 256 Icelandic ancestors born in 1700. About 26 of these 256 will have records in the Icelandic Roots database that extend all the way back to 870 AD or earlier.

Are all Icelanders related? Most Icelanders are related. For any two people of Icelandic descent alive today, they are on average 8th cousins. The most recent person alive to whom all Icelanders are related is Bishop Jón Arason. He was the last Catholic bishop (Iceland was too remote for the Vatican to enforce priestly celibacy) and died heroically in defense of the faith in 1550 AD.

What is the "Cousins Across the Ocean Project"? The "Cousins Across the Ocean" project is our way of linking you to your ancestors in the Icelandic Roots Database. By filling out a form with information about your parents and grandparents, our team of genealogists will identify your emigrating ancestors and make you part of the "ætt" (family history). Upon becoming a member of Icelandic Roots you will have full access to the database and may enjoy all of its advanced functions.

Is Icelandic Roots for everyone or just those of Icelandic descent?

The Icelandic Roots website, newsletter, and public events provide information and resources related to Icelandic genealogy and culture that are open to everyone. However, access to the full database of genealogical records and other membership benefits is reserved for individuals of Icelandic ancestry. This is because the focus of this aspect of the organization is to connect people of Icelandic descent and help them research their heritage.

What if I know very little about my emigrating ancestor, but just have been told that s/he was Icelandic?

Our team has expertise in linking people in North America to their emigrating ancestors. Using birth and death records in North America of your parents or grandparents we are typically able to connect you to your emigrating ancestor(s) even if you know very little about them.

Is Icelandic Roots just a database? No. The core aims of Icelandic Roots are to educate, promote and preserve interest and knowledge in the history of Iceland and its people; to strengthen the links between Icelanders and those of Icelandic descent in North America; to broaden access to historical documents and records for Icelandic genealogy and history; and to inspire pride in Icelandic heritage, traditions, language, literature, and culture. By becoming a member you will have access to not only to the database, but also to webinars, social gatherings, book clubs, and other events. Our aim is to support you in learning about your Icelandic heritage.

See FAQs also at our website:


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

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