by Susan Bearnson Huff
15 February 2023
Spanish Fork, Utah is the oldest continuous Icelandic settlement in North America. The history of Spanish Fork is personal because it's my story, as well as the story of thousands of Western Icelanders like me who are descendants of 410 people who emigrated from Iceland and came to Spanish Fork between 1854 and 1914.
Our story begins in Iceland at Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands. Two young Icelandic men left their homes in Iceland and went to Copenhagen, Denmark to refine their skills. Guðmundur Guðmundson left Iceland in 1845 to apprentice as a goldsmith, and Þórarinn Hafliðason studied cabinet-making in Copenhagen. Þorarinn first heard missionaries preach from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then he told his friend, Guðmundur, about the Church. They both listened to the missionaries, studied their messages, became converted, and early in 1851, they were each baptized members of the Church.
About this experience, Guðmundur wrote:
"I had only a few acquaintances and hardly any friends, neither had I many possessions. I was finally able to become a goldsmith apprentice for five years with the promise that if I satisfied my master, I would get a half-year's reduction, which I honestly received, and was discharged with a good recommendation. In the meantime, I lodged with my good friend, Þórarinn Hafliðason, who had recently become a journeyman cabinet maker. He was the first to talk to me about the wonderful sect called the Mormons. I promised I would come and hear them, which I did the following Sabbath.
Brother Erastus Snow spoke. Even though his preaching was very hard to understand, his honest face radiated a fatherly love which made a deep impression on me. I decided right then that I would search their teachings. I prayed with a sincere heart and quickly became convinced of the truth and desired baptism." (Vincent, 2006)
 Mormon was a nickname for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that came from a book of scripture, The Book of Mormon, a companion to the Bible and an additional witness of Jesus Christ.
Þórarinn returned first to Vestmannaeyjar and Guðmundur followed shortly thereafter, arriving on 12 May 1851. Guðmundur then went to his hometown on the mainland to share the message of the gospel with his family. His parents had died and his family there was not receptive to his message. Upon returning to Vestmannaeyjar, Guðmundur, and Þórarinn were excited to tell their friends and neighbors about their newfound faith. They fully expected that everyone would be just as excited as they were about this new religion. But that was not the case.
"Immediately as we set our feet upon the land, we noticed that we were not as welcome as we normally would have been if we hadn't been Mormons. Our arrival was already announced over the whole land and lies were made public in the country's newspapers. The people were strongly commanded not to receive us or listen to us speak." (Vincent, 2006)
Even though the Vestmannaeyjar people were strongly recommended not to listen to them, it was just two weeks after their arrival that the first baptisms occurred. Outraged, the local sheriff, J. N. Abel, sent a letter to the governor of Iceland, informing him that Guðmundur and Þórarinn were turning the island upside down and that many were congregating in secret.
As Þórarinn and Guðmundur experienced more success, persecution on the island increased. They were forbidden by local authorities to preach or to try to obtain any more converts, so they had to be much more cautious and teach people privately. One of the strongest forces of opposition was Þórarinn's own wife, who burned his religious books and papers and threatened to drown herself if he would not denounce the Mormon faith. Þórarinn then stopped his missionary efforts but remained a faithful Church member until he drowned in a tragic fishing accident in December 1851. Guðmundur carried on proselytizing without him. (Vincent, 2006)
Guðmundur notified the church in Copenhagen about the tragic death of Þórarinn, and in 1853, Johan Lorentzen came from Copenhagen to assist Guðmundur in his missionary work. A small branch of the church was organized at Vestmannaeyjar on 19 June 1853. Many of the converts were baptized in the sheltered tidepools on the shore of Vestmannaeyjar, out of public view.
Immigration to Spanish Fork
The church continued to grow in Vestmannaeyjar, but there was much opposition and persecution. And so the first of many Icelandic converts to the Church left Vestmannaey, headed for what is now Utah in the United States. Samúel Bjarnason, his wife Margrét Gísladóttir, and their friend, Helga Jónsdóttir, who were some of the early converts, left Vestmannaeyjar together.
[They] sailed from Iceland in the fall of 1854 to Liverpool, England on the ship James Nesmith. From England, they continued on to New Orleans, where they boarded a riverboat headed to St. Louis, Missouri. Traveling up the Mississippi, they joined the Noah T. Guymon Company and walked the remaining 1400 miles, reaching the Salt Lake Valley on 7 September 1855, 300 days after their departure from Iceland. Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, directed Samúel, Margrét, and Helga to settle in Spanish Fork, Utah. With a foundation of 16 Icelandic pioneers, the first permanent Icelandic settlement in the United States was established in Spanish Fork. (Ashby, 2008, p. 1)
Between 1854 and 1914, a total of 410 Icelanders immigrated to Utah and were directed by Brigham Young to Spanish Fork, 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. Interestingly, 204 of those Icelanders were from Vestmannaeyjar--about half of the total converts in the whole country, as well as a substantial number of people from one small community--Vestmannaeyjar. The first wave of immigrants came to Utah by sailing on ships, traveling in wagon trains, and pulling handcarts. After the transcontinental railroad was completed linking east to west in 1869, immigrants traveled to Utah by steamship and train.
A brief historical background of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps explain how these Icelanders ended up in Spanish Fork. The Church was first organized in upstate New York in 1830. As people were converted to this new religion, they congregated together to strengthen and support each other, but that caused resistance and persecution from the local population. After several moves from New York to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois where Church founder, Joseph Smith, was killed by an angry mob, Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith as Prophet and Church President, ultimately led these converts to the Salt Lake Valley, a barren desert outside the boundaries of the United States where they thought they would be left alone to practice their religion without interference. When
Brigham Young, along with several hundred Latter-day Saints arrived in Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, the Mormon Prophet declared it a new gathering place--a new Zion. As Church missionary efforts spread to the British Isles and Scandinavia, thousands of early Church converts were encouraged to gather to Zion--to what is now Utah.
The beginning of the Mormon migration to Utah preceded other Icelandic emigrations that began in the 1870s. Eric Jonasson (1975) described the reasons for Icelandic emigration: "Economic factors resulting from adverse weather conditions, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters in the late 19th century were all very important in triggering the emigrations to North America" (p. 3). There were also reports about opportunities for land in North America, as well as independence and freedom. Immigration to Spanish Fork was different from the other groups who emigrated because the primary purpose was religious freedom--to escape persecution, to gather with others who shared the same religious beliefs, and to answer Brigham Young's call to gather to Zion. But those harsh economic conditions in Iceland also gave Church converts a nudge to leave; they had the hope of a better life in Utah, one with economic opportunities.
Icelanders in Spanish Fork
Upon arrival in Utah, Brigham Young directed immigrants to settle in various locations. Most immigrant groups were scattered throughout Utah, except those from Iceland, who were all sent to Spanish Fork. Some Icelanders left from Spanish Fork to settle in other locations throughout Utah. My great-grandfather, Peter Valgardson, along with his sons, left Spanish Fork with other Icelanders to homestead large tracts of land near Taber, Alberta, Canada. But throughout the years, a strong Icelandic community remained in Spanish Fork.
The southeast part of Spanish Fork was called Little Iceland or the Iceland Bench because so many Icelanders settled in that part of town. Icelanders had to learn new ways to support themselves, where they had previously been farmers and fishermen. There was no fishing industry in Utah. Farming was very different from Iceland where the primary crop was grass. Early Icelandic immigrants had humble homes, some mere dugouts. They congregated together to help and support each other, to worship together where they could speak Icelandic until they could learn English, and to maintain their Icelandic culture. Because it was difficult to learn English, the Icelandic members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built a meetinghouse in 1887, where they conducted church services in Icelandic.
Not every Icelander who came to Spanish Fork was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some, like the family of my great-grandmother, Guðrún Soffia Jónsdóttir--who left Vestmannaeyjar on 29 May 1874 and came to Spanish Fork with her mother, stepfather, and siblings--waited to be baptized after they left Vestmannaeyjar. If you were Mormon it was difficult to sell property in Vestmannaeyjar--life, in general, was more difficult for Church members. And so Guðrún Soffia, her sister, and her mother were all baptized on 30 August 1874 after they arrived in Utah.
Later, Guðrún, Soffia's mother and stepfather returned to the Lutheran Church, while she and her brother remained Mormon. Some Lutheran family members emigrated along with their Mormon convert relatives. Thus, there was a congregation of Lutherans in Spanish Fork. "In 1892 the Icelandic Lutherans of Spanish Fork built a small frame church where the sermons were taught in Icelandic and English. Runolfur Runolfsson, who had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Iceland and immigrated to Spanish Fork, converted back to Lutheranism and led this congregation." (Ashby 2008 p.1)
My great-grandmother, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, left Iceland in 1883 on the same ship with her cousin, Sigríður Jónsdóttir, along with Sigríður´s husband, Þorsteinn Jónsson, and their adopted son, Stefán. Sigríður created much excitement in Reykjavík when she and two other women were baptized on 22 March 1880, the first to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Reykjavík. Jón Eyvindsson and Jakob B. Jónsson had emigrated from Iceland to Spanish Fork when they were called in 1879 to return to Iceland as missionaries for the Church. A total of 22 Latter-day Saint Icelandic converts were called to leave Utah and return to Iceland as missionaries before World War I.
Þorsteinn Jónsson, husband of Sigríður, was a policeman in Reykjavík, with his dear friend, Jón Jónsson Borgfirðingur. These two policemen were ordered by the sheriff to arrest the missionaries who had baptized Þorsteinn´s wife. Less than a month after the arrest, Þorsteinn Jónsson himself was baptized on 16 April 1881 by Jakob B. Jónsson. Þorsteinn eventually quit his job as a policeman and immigrated to Spanish Fork in 1883, but he continued his friendship through letters with Jón Jónsson Borgfirðingur, who remained in Iceland. They had promised to write to each other as long as they lived. And so the two of them wrote letters back and forth for many years.
Þorsteinn's last known letter to his friend was on 10 August 1896, written by Sigríður because Þorsteinn was now almost blind. Þorsteinn's letters to his dear friend in Iceland are windows into the life of Icelandic emigrants in Spanish Fork. Fred Woods (2005) collected and printed these letters from Þorsteinn in his seminal work, Fire on Ice. Here are a few nuggets from Þorsteinn to his friend. Þorsteinn wrote on 4 November 1883:
"Apart from our seasickness, our trip went exceptionally well, but since we arrived here every day has been better than the other. Everyone has been good to us, both English and Danish, and whomever we have gotten to know. We now have most of what we need of tools to use outdoors as well as in, and overall we feel as good as we did at home when we were at our best . . . My Sigríður worked for a week harvesting potatoes and got 3 barrels in return as payment . . . She has 7 chickens and 2 pigs. I had worked for a month doing construction and gotten about a dollar and a half per day. For some time, I have been threshing wheat with a threshing machine and got half a barrel of wheat per day. I wish all poor laborers were come hereto, to this town, Spanish Fork . . . I am much better off and am more at peace walking these streets than I was in Reykjavík . . . I have stopped longing to be back in Iceland again." (pp. 53-54)
And on 19 November 1883 Þorsteinn wrote to Jón:
". . . I could have cried thinking of you at home, where you make so little and where the pay is so low. Our daily sustenances are wheat-bread, potatoes, pork, meat, butter, pork lard and all sorts of fruits from the trees . . . Nobody has a laborer, no matter how rich he is, whether he is superior or inferior, rather they let the horse teams work for them, machines, plows and other things like it . . . Now I am better off here than I was in Reykjavík." (pp. 54-55)
In Early 1886, Þorsteinn wrote more about Spanish Fork:
"There are close to four thousand inhabitants in this little town . . . now there are 150 Icelandic persons and a few children half native. There are 12 threshing machines, 2 mills, 3 grocers, 1 butcher, no liquor store, 2 shoe stores, 3 stores that make harnesses, 2 lumber markets, and 6-7 sawmills." (p. 61)
Although Þorsteinn Jónsson asked his friend, Jón Borgfirðingur, to join him in Spanish Fork, Jón remained in Iceland. Þorsteinn and Sigríður later moved from Spanish Fork with other Icelanders to Cleveland, Utah where land was cheaper.
The Iceland Bench of Spanish Fork was my neighborhood as a child, and then later where my husband and I reared our children. I grew up living in the same house my father lived in as a child--a house my immigrant great-grandfather, Peter Valgardson, built in 1900. Most of my neighbors were Icelandic, and we were like family in this very close-knit neighborhood. My dad told me that when he was a little boy, it was his job to deliver coal for heating and cooking to the Icelandic widows who lived near them. He also said that after his mother made soup, she would pass on the soup bone to another Icelandic family to use. The Icelanders were poor and helped each other out. As exemplified by my grandfather's story, the Icelandic immigrants began to prosper in their new homeland through hard work and determination.
My grandfather, Gisle Bearnson, emigrated from Iceland in 1883 as a 3-year-old child with his mother. Gisle had a very hard life; he only had one week of formal schooling. At age 15 he went to work for the Rio Grande Railroad. He worked in a coal mine at Scofield for three years and earned $805 in gold which he used to pay for his first 10 acres of land. He sheared sheep for others for 55 years, shearing as many as 226 head in one day. Through hard work, Gisle purchased additional parcels of farmland and eventually had a large farming and cattle operation with his son, Sherman. Like so many other immigrants, Gisle started with nothing and eventually achieved prosperity in his new homeland.
Spanish Fork is an Icelandic settlement with a rich Icelandic heritage. Although some of the original Icelandic settlers left Spanish Fork and settled in other places, their ties to Spanish Fork remained. Descendants of those 410 Icelandic emigrants are spread across Utah, the United States, and the world. But Spanish Fork still has a large number of people who identify as Icelandic and remain committed to their Icelandic heritage. Part II explores how the work of the Icelandic Association of Utah has helped maintain the identity of Spanish Fork as an Icelandic community.
Ashby, David A. (2008). Icelanders Gather to Utah 1854-1914: From Iceland to Spanish Fork, Utah. Spanish Fork, Utah: Icelandic Association of Utah Inc., pp. 1-2.
Carter, Kate B. (1964). "The First Icelandic Settlement in America," Our Pioneer Heritage, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Lesson for April, 1964.
Floyd, Lin (2008). "Our Icelandic Ancestors: Vilborg Thordardottir (1831-1924) Immigrant to Spanish Fork, Utah in 1874," FamilySearch.
Geslison, Andy (2012). Of Icelandic Ancestry. A documentary about the history of the Icelandic settlers in Spanish Fork.
Jonasson, Eric (1975). Tracing Your Icelandic Family Tree. Wheatfield Press; Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Vincent, Ethan (2006). Fire on Ice: The Saints of Iceland. A documentary film produced by LDS Motion Picture Studio, distributed by Brigham Young University.
Woods, Fred E. (2000). "Fire on Ice: The Conversion and Life of Guðmundur Guðmundsson," BYU Studies. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, pp. 56-72.
Woods, Fred E. (2005). Fire on Ice: The Story of Icelandic Latter-day Saints at Home and Abroad. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.
Woods, Fred E. (2003). "Icelandic Conversion and Emigration: A Sesquicentennial Sketch," Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Europe. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, pp. 1-21.
Woods, Fred E. & Bjarnason, Kári (2019). "Conversions, Arrests, and Friendships: A Story of Two Icelandic Policemen," Religious Educator, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 138-163