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Trying to Identify 13,000 Photos of Unknown People

By Rus Magnusson

Over the years, Icelandic Roots has collected thousands of wonderful old photos submitted by our members. Over 13,000 of these are already linked to names in our database. Still, we have an ever-growing number of photos with unidentified people, literally hundreds and hundreds of them! We hope to identify as many people in these images as possible so they can be linked with their families again. We need your help to do this!

This is one of the 13,000 photos IR needs to find identies of the subjects.
This is one of the 13,000 photos IR needs to find identies of the subjects.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of a long-dreamed-of project becoming a reality, how about some history as to how we got where we are today?

I asked the founder and CEO of Icelandic Roots, Sunna Furstenau, for a bit of history about how many times this ‘dream-only’ project has been discussed over the years and how nothing really ever came of it before now. I know that in the three years, I have been a volunteer, it has come up many times with no conclusion.

Sunna went back through old emails to create a timeline for inclusion in this blog post about the history of the project, and because Sunna always cleverly thinks of good things that we need to do, we can also have the blog archived for future reference!

Here is what I consider a wonderful story and some very interesting facts about Icelandic Roots and the “IR Pioneers” who brought Icelandic Roots to life:

"The idea for an Unknown Photo project came from George Freeman before Icelandic Roots even became an official entity. We had been working together at The Deuce of August at the Genealogy Center that he founded in 2003. We were in cooperation with Halfdán Helgason and worked within his genealogy database that eventually became the base for Icelandic Roots Database.

People would bring us their photos, stories, family trees, etc., not just for safekeeping because 'No one else wants them' but also because they wanted to learn more about their family and the photos they had in old albums. We had an old FB page called, 'Cousins Across the Ocean.'

In the spring of 2012, I started the website Icelandic Roots to document my 'International Visits Program' tour at 12 locations around Iceland, where I was a guest speaker with 'The Love of Iceland in America'.

In November 2013, Icelandic Roots, as an official nonprofit, was approved by the federal government. We had been doing the work for decades, but now we had an official website to educate others and the Icelandic Roots Database, a secure website with privacy policies and terms of use. Each website, government requirements, emails, phone calls, finances, IT, and Facebook page were all done by just me.

David Johnson and Cathy Josephson were the first to join as Editors helping with the database. We still needed someone for IT, website, finances, social media, or the many emails coming to my personal inbox.

In March of 2014, I came down with auto-immune encephalitis and meningitis. After a week in the ICU, I was able to go home.

In my recovery, I asked Doreen 'Kristy' Marston and George to help as editors. They had been members of IR since the very beginning and had been sending in emails of corrections, but after the brain infection, they took off as excellent genealogists and team members. Soon other volunteers came along. The Icelandic Roots Database grew and grew with not only the genealogy information but also the features created and implemented by dedicated and talented volunteers. Doreen 'Kristy' Marston created the folders and the idea of adding more photos and documents to the database in 2014. She became an expert in Database Media, working with Dave Jonasson, the IT Director. He first became an editor of the database on 06 Sep 2014, and Wow, he has accomplished so very much from that day!

Kristy and Dave set up Database Media standards in April of 2015, and again, discussions came up about the Unknown Photos and what to do with them. An official blog post from July 2019 about Unknown Photos is here:

It has been a long time coming to get this project to fruition. I thank you, Dave, and Emmily, for creating a way to accomplish this long-term request. Thank you for all the great work your team is doing and your role as IR Database Media Team Leader."

-Sunna Furstenau

About a year ago, several of us got together to talk about how we could make a project like this work. Dave Jonasson came up with some ideas and got to work using his amazing computer skills to build a system we could embed in the IR website, making viewing by our members easy. He also devised an equally easy way for anyone to respond if they had information leading to a positive outcome. He put his newly built ‘idea’ into a test platform, and we were able to tinker with it and suggest what else might be needed to make it even better. When that was achieved, we now needed someone to lead the project and keep it current going forward. During a Zoom meeting, the word was put out to those attending that we needed someone, and Emmily Olgeirson said that might be something she would like to do with IR. Emmily is an ardent and accomplished Genealogist; we are so lucky to have her as a volunteer. More about Emmily can be found here in her IR Volunteer biography:

Emmily very quickly became familiar with the ins and outs of working with Dave’s newly put-together system for presenting our unidentified photos to our members. When she was ready, the next step was to put it into action.

Late on January 29, Dave added a newly revised Database Menu (blue column to the left of the IR database page) along with the first set of Unidentified Photos on the website. Members can find and access them either from a link on our database home page under “Feature Articles” or by looking under "People" and then "Unknown Photos” in the left menu.

If you have information to share about the image, it is easy to contribute information simply by entering it in the box to the right of the image. An email with the information provided will be sent to Icelandic Roots. We will regularly release a new group of unknown photos in the hopes that we can put some names with the faces of these. Could some of these photos be from your family? Curious to take a glimpse into the past? Please be sure to take a look at this new feature of Icelandic Roots.

The first photo identified in the collection
The first photo identified in the collection

One of the images selected to be a part of the first round of images to be put into the January images was this one:

Quick Success…

The day after the Unknown Photos Project was added to the IR database, we received an email from Susan (Frantz) Woodruff (I525559), a member of Icelandic Roots since January 2017. Susan recognized the image, sure it was her Langafi (Great Grandfather), Sigurjon Eiriksson/Isfeld, a picture she remembers seeing many times at the home of her grandparents on their farm near Gimli. We were so excited to have an identified photo so quickly after the project was made available!

However, after Susan consulted with her family, she conceded that the gentleman in the picture was NOT her Langafi, but his half-brother, Ólafur Steingrimur Þorsteinsson (I183821) and this makes perfect sense when you go to Ólafur’s page and learn that when he went to Winnipeg to apprentice in the building trade, he also took violin lessons and went on to become a musician of note in the Icelandic community.

This image has been uploaded to his page, and it is so gratifying that it has finally found its rightful place in the database! Many, many more deserve the same recognition!

To thank Susan not only for being the first to identify a person in one of the photos from our collections of many, many Unknown Photos but also for her valued membership over the years, a bit of Icelandic Roots “Swag” was sent to her. Thank you Susan, from all of us at Icelandic Roots!

A second identification a few days after the first!

On February 4, we received an email from Halldór Grétarsson (I480595), another long-time member and frequent contributor to Icelandic Roots. He identified the mother and her son in this image.

The lady’s name is Valgerður Friðriksdóttir (I158994) in this portrait taken with her son, Niels Kristján Adolph Kröyger Björnsen (I304343). Halldor found a copy of this photo along with another photo of Niels on Halldor included this information about Valgerður and her son:

For the longest time, Valgerður was a maid for Herdís Guðmundsdóttir Scheving Benedictsen, wife of Brynjólf Bogason Benediktsen, a merchant in Flatey. She followed Herdís after his death in 1870. She is listed in the census as living with her. The picture is available on under Herdís's name with the following text: Valgerður by Mrs. Benediktsen and her son Níels.

And a better picture:

Please take a look at our “Unknown Photos” links on the main page or in the menu under “People” and see if there is someone in a photo that you remember.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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