Updated: Nov 13
By Rob Olason
In September 2023 a group of Icelandic Roots volunteers traveled to Iceland to dedicate four monuments in four emigration ports. The monuments honor the communities and the emigrants who left Iceland for North America and other places unknown.
The dedication ceremonies were a mixture of joy in celebrating with the living members of each community, and also an underlying somberness in recognition of the ache those departures embedded in the hearts of those who left and those who remained. That loss was felt in the living community that gathered to honor the ancestors from that era.
One Icelandic Roots volunteer, Cathy Josephson, spent six months working with the emigration port communities to find a park or other suitable location for the monuments.
She also spent a great deal of that six-month period researching each port and the circumstances that caused the people of that area to emigrate. The words she summoned for each monument are brief but paint a stark and powerful picture of the harsh conditions the people faced. She describes bitter winters followed by summers that didn’t arrive. She describes the decades-long periods when districts emptied out into the departing ships, filled with both livestock and people who would never return.
Cathy also found poets from each region, living during these migration years. She incorporated their poems into the monuments to deepen the understanding of what it was like to live through this era. One who witnessed the departures from the seashore with immense sadness and heartache. Another who booked passage to America and years later realized that fateful decision left them with an unending sorrow for their homeland and friends. And yet another who saw Iceland as a false home, to be replaced by a better home to come.
Each plaque tells a profound story that played out over a century ago along the shores of these four ports.
What follows is the text Cathy Josephson created for each port. Taken together, the four presentations leave a profound impression of the extreme choices the people of that time faced.
Text of the Seyðisfjörður Plaque:
Seyðisfjörður 1876 - 1914
About 2,700 emigrants bound for North America left from the largest port in East Iceland. Left sea ice, Askja and memories of ash darkening the skies. Spring 1876 was cold, but summer fields were green.
Still they left.
Ash did not fall here in Seyðisfjörður; still 700 of their own said farewell.
Farmers, children, aged people, workers. Students, midwives, seamstresses, a goldsmith, a cobbler, a factor‘s son. Sailors, a mason, carpenters, a printer‘s apprentice, a postman, – good workers that didn‘t return.
And a few very poor children were given a ticket and sent away into an uncertain future.
The poem selection for the Seyðisfjörður Plaque:
“Greet all at home there,
greet all whom I knew,
whom I loved in my youth,
when no sorrow filled my heart.”
-Kristján „Fjallaskáld“ (IR 309246)
Text of the Vopnafjörður Plaque:
Vopnafjörður 1873 – 1911
The 1873 winter was bitterly cold.
A cold spring with much sea ice. The hay crop was poor. In the fall, winter came early and stayed long. Many thought of emigrating.
Vopnafjörður‘s first emigrants left that year: one family left for Brazil, a childless couple and young men on their way to North America.
From 1873-1911 more than 1400 emigrants left from Vopnafjörður and nearby areas for the Americas. We know their names.
Our neighbors, our families, our farmers, our workers, our tradesmen. Young men and women whose bright hopes called them away from us.
Gone, leaving sadness in the ship's wake.
The poem selection for the Vopnafjörður Plaque:
“I stand on a fateful strand
staring at the vessel floating,
taking you away from me
into the hidden mist...
Desolate, I stare at the sea.”
-“Erla” ( Guðfinna Þorsteinsdóttir IR I68900)
Text of the Sauðárkrókur Plaque:
Sauðárkrókur 1873 - 1914
Ships sailed in past Drangey and Málmey in the pink light reflected from Tindastóll with Mælifell rising inland.
Between Reykjastrand and Hegranes was Sauðárkrókur, a new market town with two businesses and a good harbor.
Winters brought fierce storms.
Sea ice filled Húnaflói and Skagafjörður. Hard times for all, increased poverty and even death to men and animals.
Poor or prosperous, young or old - all came to wait and sailed away on the next ship.
More than 2,700 emigrants left for North America. Tindastóll, Drangey and Málmey stayed.
The poem selection for the Sauðárkrókur Plaque:
“I set to sea from home,
for home I will go.
With fatherland before me
I leave fosterland behind...”
-Stephan G. Stephansson (IR I187678)
Text of the Borðeyri Plaque:
Borðeyri 1876 - 1883
In the 1800s, this peaceful place was one of four harbors in North Iceland. Mailships came with supplies for farms and homes and returned to England with sheep and horses.
From Easter, 1876 until the first day of summer, winter storms battered the land, men and animals. Sea ice was all across North, East and South Iceland as far as Ingólfshöfði in Öræfi.
Nearly 400 emigrants left from Borðeyri. Most from Dalasýsla, but also from Strandasýsla and Húnavatnssýsla.
The same ships which took sheep and horses now took emigrants to North America.
The poem selection for the Borðeyri Plaque:
“Whether your journey lies
on land or sea,
may you have always summer
and sunshine as gifts.”
-Þorsteinn Þ. Þorsteinsson (IR I142194)
Each plaque concludes with these short sentences:
In memory of emigrants to North America.
Icelandic Roots honors our shared ancestors. Strong is the bond.