The following article is written by IR Volunteer, Hjördís Hilmarsdóttir. She has included personal stories, a few photos, a video, and a listing of all the inhabitants of Sænautasel over the years. As you will see in the listing, many of those who lived here moved to North America. Their IR#s are at the end of the article.
Hjördís lives near Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Her interests include traveling, hiking, dog breeding, and genealogy. She has a particular interest and knowledge of the East Iceland Highland Farms. Hjördís will be giving a Public Webinar about the area surrounding Egilsstaðir on March 27th. See Jody's article for more information: Destination Egilsstaðir.
by Hjördís Hilmarsdóttir
The area roughly located between Egilsstaðir and Vopnafjörður, known as Jökuldalsheiði (literally glacial valley grassland), is a unique historical and geographical area in East Iceland. The Fljótsdalshérað Touring Club, the municipality of Fljótsdalshérað and Vopnafjörður's cultural and educational center, Kaupvangur, have worked together to highlight exploration of this area by creating organized hiking trails and inviting visits to its abandoned and restored farms.
In the 19th century, the Hákonarstaðir estate was located in this beautiful highlands region of Jökuldalsheiði in East Iceland. This area offered excellent trout fishing in the lakes, a plethora of ducks, geese, and swans to hunt in the summer, along with ptarmigan to hunt in the winter. Additionally, reindeer roamed freely, although they, later on, became a protected species. The farming conditions were favorable as the summer ranges and grassy marshes were used for haying; however, there was often deep snow in the winter and little shelter from the wind.
Starting in 1841, there was a settlement period in the Jökuldalsheiði highlands with 16 farms established between 1841 to 1862. There were 120 residents in the area at its peak.
One of these farms was carved out of the Hákonarstaðir estate in 1843. This was the Sænautasel farm. The first inhabitants of the new farm were Kristrún, daughter of Bjarni, a farmer at Staffell, and Sigurður, son of Einar, farmer at Brú. They had been married on the 25th of September 1841 and lived for two years at Brú with Sigurdur's father and his two brothers, Einar and Þorsteinn. As Brú was rather crowded and no land/farm was available near Brú, they chose to build a new farm in the green and generous highland.
Sænautasel was continually inhabited from 1843 until 1875 when the Askja volcano erupted and many farms, including Sænautasel, were abandoned. The ash had traveled eastward and fell the heaviest in the highlands poisoning the land and killing livestock. This eruption also triggered a significant emigration from Iceland to North America.
In 1880, Sænautasel was again occupied until 1943, when it was finally abandoned for good. People lived there for a total of 95 years – longer than anywhere else on Jökuldalsheiði. Þórður Guðmundur Guðmundsson lived longest at Sænautasel - 36 years - and no one else was as long at any of the highlands farms in Jökuldalsheiði. He lived here with his wife Jónína S. Guðnadóttir from Grunnavatn and after she died, he married Halldóra Eiríksdóttir.
Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness, was inspired by the Jökuldalsheiði highlands for the novel Independent People. He visited Sænautasel in November 1926. He stayed there for one night and wrote that “there were twelve steps down to get into the house, so much snow was there.”
A few years ago, a woman visited Sænautasel. She told us that her grandfather, whose name was Halldór, had written in his diary: “I was sent from Axarfjörður all the way to Sænautasel to get two sheep, a two-year-old and its lamb. I slept upstairs with another Halldór. It was four days each way, but when I came home to Axarfjörður, I had 12 sheep, all from farms in Axarfjörður.”
In 1992, the Jökuldalur parish decided to reconstruct the farm. Auðunn Einarsson and Sveinn Einarsson administered the construction. Sveinn was a descendant of Sigurður and Kristrún, who were the first inhabitants of Sænautasel. The buildings now allow for several activities that emphasize cultural heritage, demonstrating to visitors how rural Icelandic people lived early in the 20th century.
List of inhabitants and all are in the Icelandic Roots Database.
1. 1843-1850: Sigurður Einarsson (I103448) (1805-1850) from Brú and Kristrún Bjarnadóttir (I103449) (b.1821) from Staffell in Fellahreppur. Children: Þorsteinn (1840), Einar J. (b.1844), Jakobína (1846-1858), Elísabet (b.1848), and Anna Björg (b.1849). Kristrún and Einar moved to the Americas with descendants living mostly in Minnesota, South Dakota, and California.
2. 1850-1864: Sigfús Pétursson (I334551) (1813-1870) from Hákonarstaðir and Helga Sigmundsdóttir (I308580) (1822-1899) from Flaga in Skriðdalur. Children: Guðný Ingibjörg (1849-1868), Guðlaug Kristín (1851-1876), Pétur (b.1853), moved to the Americas. Guðrún Hallfríður (1855-1868), Arnbjörn (b.and d.1858), Sigfús (b.and d.1859), Gunnlaugur Árni Björn (1860-1943), Sigurjón (1863-1865), Jónína Stefanía (1865-1879) and Sigfinna Guðrún Hallfríður (b.and d.1868). Children of Sigfús and Ólöf Einarsdóttir, maid at Hákonarstaðir: Þórunn (b.and d.1834) and Jósep (1835-1857). Descendants living in Manitoba, New York, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Ohio, California and across North America.
3. 1864-1867: Gísli Gíslason (I38954) (b.1811) from Eyjafjörður and Steinvör Árnadóttir (I38965) (b.1821) from Vindbelgur in Mývatnssveit.
4. 1867-1875: Kristján Friðfinnsson (I337997) (1830-1879) from Áland in Þistilfjörður and Kristín Árnadóttir (I206804) (1832-1906) from Vindbelgur in Mývatnssveit. Children: Bjarni Brynjólfur, Jónas Helgi, Jakobína Kristín, Baldvin Jóhann, Guðný Sigurlaug (1870-1871), Sigurlaug (b.1873). They all moved to the Americas. Descendants living mostly in North Dakota.
1875-1880: No inhabitants.
5. 1880-1892: Stefán Stefánsson (I386804) (1841-1892) from Eyvindará. His first wife was Guðrún Árnadóttir (I386805) (1843-1874) from Rannveigarstaðir. Child: Pétur (1868-1905). His second wife was Sesselja Magnúsdóttir (I338480) (1851-1913) from Ásgrímsstaðir in Hjaltastaðaþinghá. Children: Guðmundur (1878-1934), Sesselja (b.1879), Ólöf Margrét Ingibjörg (1883-1916), Magnea (1884-1968), housewife at Bakki, Borgarfjörður, Stefán (1886-1973) farmer at Fell, Vopnafjörður, and Níels (1889-1943) farmer at Húsey. Sesselja lived for two years at Sænautasel after Stefán died. Descendants mostly living in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
6. 1894-1904: Guðmundur Þorláksson (I499419) (b.1863) from Berufjarðarströnd and Guðný Þorsteinsdóttir (I525941) (b.1857) from Fjótsdalur. Children: Jón (f.1895), Einar (b.1896). Son of Guðmundur: Þórður Guðmundur (I282412) (1882-1958) farmer at Sænautasel. They all moved to the Americas. Descendants mostly living in North Dakota.
7. 1904-1905: Benjamín Jónsson (I209898) (1861-1925) and Ólafía Jóhanna Hallgrímsd. (I198138) (b.1874) from Fellssel, S.-Þing. Children: Guðný, Jón (1896-1917) he died in the first world war in France, Guðrún and Þórður. Daughter of Benjamín and Margrét Jóhannesd: Ásthildur (I520437) (b.1879). They all moved to the Americas. Descendants mostly lived in Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Colorado.
8. 1905-1907: Torfi Hermannsson (I672201) (1850-1931) from Glúmsstaðasel, Fljótsdalur and Margrét Eiríksdóttir (I672200) (1856-1921) from Reyðarfjörður. Children: Sigvaldi (1885-1954) farmer at Hákonarstaðir, Helga (b.1896) housewife in Hamborg and Guðfinna (b.1899) housewife at Skeggjastaðir. Þórarinn, Sigvaldi, Friðrik, Guðný, Björg, Helga, Guðfinna
9. 1907-1943: Þórður Guðmundur Guðmundsson (I282412) (1882-1958) and Jónína Sigríður Guðnadóttir (I724226) (12.8.1887-1927) from Grunnavatn. Their son: Pétur (1912-1985). Þórður‘s second wife was Guðrún Halldóra Eiríksdóttir (I3198) (1892-1967). Children: Sigurjón (b.1929), Eyþór (b.1931), Ásdís Halldóra (b.1934), Skúli Ármann Sveinn (b.1937). Children of Guðrún Halldóra and Lárus Sigurðsson her first husband: Ingólfur (b.1915), Eiríkur Björgvin (1916-1988), Sigþór (b.1921) and Lára Unnur (b.1924)
Jónína Sigríður 12.8.1887 Kleif, Fljótsdalur
1890: Kleif, Valþjófss.
Guðni Arnbjörnsson 46, f. Eydalasókn
Guðrún Signý Jónsd. 42, f. Hallormsst.sókn
Helga Sigurbjörg 16
Jónína Sigríður 2
Please Save the Date to attend the public webinar by Hjördís on March 27th. The information on all Icelandic Roots events is in our Event Calendar.