Twenty-seven years ago, Valgeir Þorvaldsson began working on a dream. In this dream, he would tell the story of a people. He knew it would need to include many other stories to tell this story correctly.
He first began learning these stories as a small child when visitors from Canada and the United States would make a stop at his parent’s farm in Iceland. These visitors would tell the story of their ancestors leaving Iceland to make a new home in North America.
Young Valgeir found those stories fascinating and as he grew older, he began to look more closely at the many stories told by individuals and families who made this journey to North America. The more he learned, the closer he came to his dream: to make a museum about emigration that would collect and chronicle these stories.
Twenty-seven years ago, Valgeir Þorvaldsson brought his carpenter’s tools and the vision of his dream to the small village of Hofsós in Skagafjarðarsýsla, in northern Iceland. The location was perfect, a beautiful harbor snuggled beneath picturesque coastal mountains, the site of a traditional trading village complete with some historic buildings needing repair.
Before beginning this restoration process, he traveled to Halifax, Canada, to learn more about the history of Icelandic emigration to North America. He also traveled to Ireland to understand how this story was told from that country’s perspective.
As he repaired the old co-op building destined to house the first exhibit of Vesturfarasetrið, the Icelandic Emigration Center, he had a vision of a grand opening ceremony to announce this new museum to the world dedicated to telling a significant chapter in the life of Iceland.
Recounting this story during Icelandic Root’s Samtal Hour on 18 April 2022, Valgeir said he had three sleepless nights worrying about the museum’s opening ceremony—would anyone attend? Would Icelanders even notice? Would tourists to Iceland come to visit the center?
On the day of the opening, Valgeir’s worries vanished as the President of Iceland attended. Nearly all government ministers were present, along with one thousand other visitors.
Twenty-seven years after the Icelandic Emigration Center opened, Valgeir says, “I’m in trouble. I’ve been here from the beginning, so I’m also part of the exhibit! If I’m not in sight when visitors arrive, they are always asking, ‘Where’s Valgeir?’”
Joking aside, Valgeir said visitors would often come to the center trying to find out more about their Icelandic ancestors and living relatives. The center tried to help visitors with this search, but developing a database was daunting.
The Emigration Center finally joined hands with Icelandic Roots in 2017. Now visitors can have their genealogical questions answered with the help of the quickly growing IR database with well over 750,000 “cousins” listed.
And if you were to visit the Emigration Center during the summer of 2022, IR volunteer Mallory Swanson is the lead database genealogist at the center. She can help find answers to your questions.
Mallory described her role this way:
“In the summers, when I am working at the Emigration Center, I often am the one to meet with people who have come in to look into their Icelandic family history. I help them research their ancestry with the help of the Icelandic Roots database and the books in the ancestry library.”
She continued, “We get both Icelanders and Western Icelanders coming in for information. Some people come in with a lot of data already and just want to fill in some blanks or find out if we have any additional information.”
Mallory said, “Others barely have the correct names and dates of their ancestors and so it becomes a bit more of a puzzle to figure out who is who and find the correct people in our records.”
“It is so rewarding when we find out some new bits of information that visitors have not heard before. It can be a very emotional experience for some people when they see a photo of their great grandparent that they've never seen before, or we pinpoint the location of a farm where their ancestors once lived," she said. "Now they can actually visit.”
“Sometimes, there are even distant cousins living close to Hofsós and we can set up a meeting or put them in contact.” Mallory added, “During the last two summers with Covid ongoing, there have been far fewer visitors from the US and Canada to the Emigration Center. So overall, there has been less call for research from those coming to the center in person.”
“However, there are still plenty of emails coming in from all over the world from people requesting help with their Icelandic family ancestry research,” she concluded.
Valgeir said the Emigration Center continues to explore new stories to tell. In fact, he has been working for several years to gather the stories of Icelanders who emigrated to the west coast of North America for an exhibit focused on that area of settlement.
Twenty-seven years ago, when he began this project, Valgeir said there was a predominantly negative view among Icelandic citizens of the Icelanders who left Iceland looking for a better future. He said his work to tell the stories of emigration has helped to “correct” that perspective.
The result is that today the view has been revised to a more favorable position, with great help from a visionary with a passion for taking on an epic story.