Written by Kolbeinn Tumi Daðason
(News Director of Stöðvar 2, Vísir, og Bylgjan) Visir.is - Link to the Article in Icelandic September 18th, 2021
Translated by Bryndís Víglundsdóttir
Sunna Furstenau standing in front of the map of Iceland, the land she has visited twenty-one times and enjoyed all the visits. (photo: Vísir/Vilhelm)
Sunna Pamela Olafson-Furstenau's roots are in Skagafjörður, Eyjafjörður and
Langanes. She has however lived all her life in the United States. The same is true about
a great many descendants of the Icelanders in N-America.
Most likely there are, however, few as proud of their roots as Sunna. For the last eight
years she has shed “blood, sweat and tears” working at the organization, Icelandic Roots. One more visit to Iceland this summer proved to be of a very special value as the grave of her great grandfather was identified in the cemetery of Sauðárkrókur. Sunna had been looking for the grave and researching the church books for years with the help of a local historian and cemetery warden.
Sunna has just returned to her home having been in Iceland for over three weeks visiting the land of her ancestors. She traces her mother's family to Ireland, Scotland, and Norway but her soul feels connected to Iceland. Every single day. She is so closely
connected to Iceland that she sometimes is emotionally overwhelmed.
Sunna is the mother of two grown children and as for grandchildren, she is simply
wealthy. They total eight.
They call me amma, says Sunna proudly. They use the Icelandic word for me! They follow several Icelandic traditions, such as placing their shoe in the window when
the thirteen yule lads are coming from the mountains, one each night, and leave small
presents for the child in the shoe.
Has made 21 visits to Iceland
Sunna's visit this time is her twenty-first visit to the land of her ancestors. On her
travels around the country, she has given numerous presentations. Sunna's goal for this visit was for the most part seeing her relatives and friends and just enjoying the stay.
Sunna established icelandicroots.com in 2012 and has been the director from the very beginning. Icelandic Roots is a public nonprofit foundation concerned with Icelandic genealogy, heritage, and keeping the connections strong. About sixty persons dedicate their time as volunteers working on various tasks including a genealogy database. People may buy admission to the database and the profits are given to various causes, such as the Snorri Program, educational grants to individuals and institutions concerned with Icelandic cultural affairs in Iceland and N-America. Here we can mention the Hofsós
Icelandic Emigration / Vesturfarasetrið and the East Iceland Emigration Center /
Vesturfaramiðstöð in Vopnafjörður.
About 650 persons have bought a membership to icelandicroots.com. The membership
for three months is $45- but for a year $150. “Over the past seven years, the memberships have helped us by awarding over $102,500 USD in scholarships and heritage grants!” And this does not include 2021 numbers. And Sunna continues: “Some people become members and only want limited information. Then there are those who are not interested in information but want to support the cause. Others have been members of icelandicroots.com from the very beginning”.
This is a picture of Sunna's genealogy path as it appears on icelandicroots.com
Hoping for a better life
The strong feelings are clearly evident when Sunna is talking about her great-grandfather who emigrated in the year 1905. Her grandfather was from Skagafjörður and was one of those who left Iceland and went west, over the ocean, looking for a better life.
She talks about the bottomless poverty and hardships and in the end, people saw only
one possible solution which meant leaving and crossing the ocean over to America.
Sunna was very close to her great-grandfather when she was growing up. He passed away in 1982. He talked with much love about beautiful Iceland and there was Skagafjörður, his home, over and above everything else.
Of course, Sunna had a close look at the eruption site in Geldingadalur during her visit.
(photo: from a private source)
“My great-grandfather described the beauty and told me how he missed and loved Iceland”, says Sunna. Great many of those who left did not wish to leave their homeland but had no choice. In fact, this often was a question of life or death.
Found grandfather's grave having searched for years
The climax of Sunna's visit this time was a remarkable find in Sauðárkrókur. This was
not an item found to be removed but something found, recognized, and remaining there from now on. The find is the grave of Jónas Jónasson, the ferryman from Tjörn, Sunna's great grandfather. He is not as widely known as Jón Ósmann, the famous ferryman from Sauðárkrókur but he is mentioned in many books. Jónas was the ferryman for nine years.
Photo by Paolo Bignami via Twitter
“I have on many of my previous visits to Iceland been looking for the grave and have
been after Hjalti Pálsson, the editor and chief scholar researching and writing the
Byggðasaga Skagafjarðar (the historical all-inclusive account of the district
Skagafjörður) constantly asking him if he has yet found the grave.” Last winter. things really began to happen when Ingimar Jónsson who knows most everything about and on Sauðárkrókur located the grave.
“Hjalti and Ingimar walked me to a place in the graveyard and said: Here he is.” “I was just so overjoyed!”
Hjalti had also located a beautiful piece of columnar basalt that he is going to have
placed on Jónas's grave. A copper plate will be fastened to the stone.
The following words will be engraved on the plate:
“Jónas Jónasson. Ferryman from Tjörn”.
Baggalútur and Káinn
Next Sunna mentions Káinn, or K.N.; Kristján Níels Júlíus Jónsson, the West-Icelandic
poet, best known for his bitter but more often humorous verses. Káinn immigrated to
Canada from Eyjafjörður in the year 1877. He lived a few years in Winnipeg and later in
North Dakota where Sunna was brought up and is still living.
In the year 2009 Baggalútur released a CD “The Sunshine in Dakota” with their music to
nine of eleven songs set to verses by Káinn. And that is not all. Last year they released
the CD “Greetings” with thirteen new tunes set to poems by K.N.
Sunna standing by the monument of Káinn in Akureyri (photo from a private source)
Sunna mentions that Baggalútur mentions Icelandic Roots in one of their CDs. She talks about the day when Káinn returned home- if we can say so- to Akureyri in 2017. Icelandic Roots and local North Dakota people gave Akureyri a copy of the monument that stands in the Thingvalla church cemetery in North Dakota.
“I am just a country girl from North Dakota,” says Sunna who for years sat on the board of the Icelandic National League in Iceland and helped to bring the monument of Káinn to Iceland. On the occasion, there was a seminar in Akureyri, August 2017, honoring the poet and Sunna gave a presentation there.
Traces the roots of one family after the other
Sunna was brought up on a farm in North Dakota where her extended family lived on two farms, established by immigrants in her family. They brought the traditions with them over the ocean and she knew from an early age about her Icelandic roots.
Sunna gets by quite well in Icelandic although the interview has been conducted in English. In the year 2003 Sunna published a book where she traces the families of her mother following a line to Norway and Scotland and another line of her mother-in-law to Hungary and France. Then she turned to Iceland- to put it mildly.
Playing within the Arctic Henge by Raufarhöfn. (from a private source)
Sunna made contact with Hálfdán Helgason, a genealogist who managed an Icelandic database. That database was the encouragement needed to establish the Icelandic Roots Database, which Sunna and her husband, Jeff Furstenau, created in 2013. Since then, people who possess various expertise such as genealogists, computer programmers, data specialists, translators, you even meet a cartographer on the team of 60 volunteers using their skill to constantly improve icelandicroots.com
Cried with her sisters on Bessastaðir
Sunna mentions her visit to Iceland in 2017 and the tears begin to flow. This is when she was awarded the Order of the Falcon by the president of Iceland, Guðni Jóhannesson for her work on Icelandic Roots and for building bridges between Iceland and N-America. A special ceremony for Sunna and her friends was held at Bessastaðir as she couldn't be there on the traditional days when orders are awarded, June 17th and New Year's Day.
Normally, I come alone to Iceland but that year both my sisters were with me. They were with me at Bessastaðir. In fact, I was crying the whole day with joy, says Sunna and her eyes are brimming with tears.
Sunna with president Guðni and her sisters. (photo: Kent Lárus Björnsson)
Sunna speaks with great affection about Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the president of Iceland. She had in fact made his acquaintance before he became the president and there were plans that the historian would visit North Dakota and stay with Sunna and her family. Then she got a message that Guðni would run for president and the visit was called off for the time being. Sunna smiles and says she understood the turn of events very well. Since this was being planned Guðni has been the president for a period of five years.
Genealogical trees, blogs, and podcasts
More about Icelandic Roots. During the last eight years, 420 blogs have been written on the page. The journalist writing this interview wrote an article about ammas and Bryndís Víglunsdóttir translated it for the Icelandic Roots page. Icelandic Roots has a YouTube channel and recently the first podcast was put on the page.
There are all kinds of interesting information on the page although most people visit the web looking for their family. Sunna says that there are many who think the majority of those who emigrated to N-America made their home in Canada. People often ask about the connection between Iceland and Canada. We cannot and must not forget the Icelanders in the United States. There are Icelanders- people whose ancestors immigrated all over the United States.
Home page of icelandicroots.com (photo from a private source)
Sunna mentions the poet Stephan G. Stephansson as an example of an Icelander who left his mark on the United States as well as on Canada. Stephan came from Skagafjörður, immigrated to Wisconsin, and later to Gardar in North Dakota. Finally, he moved to Canada and lived in Alberta to the end.
One of the projects Sunna and now Icelandic Roots have been working on for a long time is establishing the connection between Icelanders in Iceland and N-America. The name of the project is “Cousins across the ocean”. Icelandic Roots publishes a newsletter. This journalist is stunned at learning about the energy and enthusiasm surrounding what he is learning about, 100% volunteer work.
There are many contributing
The people contributing to Icelandic Roots live in the United States, Canada, and Iceland. Cathy Josephson from Minnesota is one of the great contributors to Icelandic Roots. She moved to Iceland in 1994 and created and maintains the East Iceland Immigration Center / Vesturfaramiðstöð in Vopnafjörður.
Sunna and Cathy enjoying themselves at the restaurant Snaps this September (photo from a private source)
Sunna says that Cathy is an extraordinary genealogist. Her forte is the Minneota area where she was brought up and where she knows the people. She is one of the great leaders of Icelandic Roots. Many give of the time and knowledge writing, translating, or working on social media. You find experts in technology working for Icelandic Roots, there are professors in the group but being a volunteer is the commonality.
Among the volunteers is a woman from Australia who moved from Australia to Iceland so her children would learn Icelandic. Then Sunna mentions Almar Grímsson who connected her to the Icelandic National League.
Bryndís Víglundsdóttir has been such a good friend in Iceland, says Sunna and mentions that the sweater she is wearing is designed and knit by her.
Sunna with Bryndís Víglundsdóttir, a dear friend and one of the volunteers for icelandicroots.com (photo: from a private source)
“Bryndís is one of my best friends in Iceland, has helped me and managed some good tasks for Icelandic Roots”. She mentions that Bryndís is finishing a book for children to be published in the near future.
Mostly interested in the famous people
Finally, it is interesting to ask what or who the people in N-America browsing on the Icelandic Roots web are primarily looking for. The story turns to the Vikings which is not strange as the Vikings are quite prominent in popular TV series and films.
People want to know if they are related to Ragnar Loðbrók (Ragnar Lothbrok), Auður djúpúðga (Aud the deep minded), Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, and Leifur heppni, (Leif the Lucky). People find this exciting and interesting.
Sunna emphasizes that she watches closely how the database is used as it is important that people are using the information there for the sole purpose of finding their own cousins, their own family.
Part of the Icelandic Roots team dining at the golf club in Hafnafjörður during Sunna's visit (photo from a private source)
Sunna encourages everyone to look at the icelandicroots.com page and find out about the numerous grants given each year. This summer the historic house, Riis house on Borðeyri got a grant to support the work there. About three hundred Icelanders left the harbor of Borðeyri sailing to N-America, hoping for a better life there.
Sunna will next visit Iceland no later than 2023 when Icelandic Roots will celebrate its 10th anniversary. The plan for the celebration is to bring the volunteer team to Iceland,” says Sunna.