Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The East Iceland Emigration Center is located in a building called Kaupvangur, which was built in 1882. Many emigrants made their departure arrangements in this building and boarded ships in the harbor just outside the windows.
The focus of the Center is the entire northeast and east Iceland and they have a great group of volunteers. This is a registered non-profit organization in Iceland and takes donations to help continue the work on reuniting families and keeping the history of the Icelanders alive.
From 1873 – 1911, over 5,740 Icelanders left northeast Iceland for North America. From the port of Vopnafjörður, over 1,500 individuals emigrated. Young men and women had no money, no way to rent a small farm, to marry. Only a life of working for food and shelter, as had their fathers and mothers. Children of poor parents were raised in foster care.
At Easter in 1875, a fiery eruption began in Askja, located in the highlands. Pumice and ash rained over East Iceland. Farms in the highlands and other places were abandoned, some permanently.
The ash fell deep. Farmworkers went to the fields to rake and shovel it into piles, trying to save the hay crop. With the help of winds, much of the ash blew away. In the end, the mild weather that year, the winds, and the workers with their shovels helped to save some of the hay harvests. In the next years, the sea ice, cold weather, and a poor fish catch took their turns, and hopelessness increased in the hearts of these hardy people.
In 1881, the earth did not thaw. 18,000 lambs died in a terrible snowstorm on June 5th. Sea ice continued in 1882. In 1888, sea ice surrounded the island, even to the Westmann Islands, until the end of July. Agents of passenger ship companies came, telling of free land in North America. Icelanders of all ages looked at what they had, thought of what they MIGHT gain by the work of their hands ….
The population of Iceland in 1860 was about 60,000; from 1870 – 1914 more than 15,000 people left for America. Determined on a better life, or even just looking for adventure, new lands with new opportunities seemed the only way; most of them knew this was permanent. Only a few ever saw their homeland again.
Vopnafjörður - SS Camoens
According to the Vesturfaraskrá book on emigrants from Iceland, 5,740 people left northeast and east Iceland. Icelandic Roots has a specific team working to verify all people who emigrated from Iceland. They have been working on this for years to make sure it includes those who went to Utah in 1855, Brazil in 1863, Milwaukee in 1870, to present-day Icelanders who emigrate. The numbers from northeast Iceland in the Vesturfaraskrá (1870-1914) are:
N.-Múlasýsla 2,738 Þingeyjarsýsla 1,945 S.-Múlasýsla 1,057
However, the IR Emigration Team and genealogists have discovered many who emigrated but returned to Iceland, duplicated people, and many who emigrated but are not in the Vesturfaraskrá. This has been a big project and they have it all documented in the IR Database. They have added so much more to our shared story such as images of Passenger Lists, Ship Descriptions and Photos, Ports, and Emigration Stories. Their work has been so very valuable to tell the story of the Icelandic people.
The Vopnafjörður area coastline is characterized by the Tangi peninsula, coastal rocks, islets, coves, river mouths, and black sand beaches. It is truly amazing to be in East Iceland and to stand at the emigration port of our ancestors and see the same sites that they did. There are the same rivers, waterfalls, beautiful valleys, and giant mountains. The pure arctic air fills your lungs and reaches deep into your body.
The farms still have the same names as during Saga times. The people of this area studied their saga and now they offer guided tours explaining the saga story of Vopnafjörður. They designed a new map to show how the area may have looked at the time of the saga and a saga brochure is available for all who take the guided tour.
There are walking tours in Hofsborgartunga to see trees, wildflowers, berries, birds, and even a hidden waterfall. A successful reforestation project is on the Tungunni, too. There are various places for lodging, campgrounds, handicrafts, highland tours, historic sites, great food along with the peace and adventure of the open highlands while you walk through Iceland's past. There is something for everyone.
My favorite, of course, is the East Iceland Emigration Center located in the Kaupvangur, which was built in 1882. Our ancestors who left from Vopnafjörður left from this exact place. Come for a visit, see the area, and experience northeast Iceland!
A huge thanks to Cathy for her wonderful work in Vopnafjörður. But we at IR are especially thankful for the teamwork with Icelandic Roots. She is on the Leadership Team, takes care of Memberships, s the director for the Iceland Genealogy Team, helps with Translations, plots Places and Cemeteries, is a fabulous genealogist discovering many gems along the way, and much more.
Thanks to all the IR Volunteers! Together, we are achieving so much for the people of today and those to come in our future.