Icelandic Migration to Salt Lake City

When I was at the INL convention in Seattle, I heard Prof. Fred E. Woods give a talk on the emigration of Icelanders to Utah in the 1800s. I was fascinated because I had read Laxness’s novel Paradise Reclaimed in which an Icelandic farmer starts out on a journey to Denmark but ends up in Utah. He then returns to his farm in Iceland only to find it in ruins.

In his talk for the Richard and Margret Beck Trust on September 21st, Prof. Woods said people know about Steinar of Hlidar and his journey but they don’t know about the people who went to Utah and remained.

It is Prof. Woods plan to collect all the information possible about the people who stayed and to that end he has been gathering letters, diaries, photographs, articles both in North America and in Iceland. In Utah, he has been borrowing material, copying it and returning it to the owners. His photographs showed what were family treasure troves. He emphasized that Mormon culture encouraged the keeping of diaries. Mormon beliefs included the idea that everyone in the human race was connected, that family was the primary building block of society and, so, the keeping of family histories has been encouraged.

In Iceland, he is working with Kári Bjarnason, director of the library in Vestmannaeyjar. The connection is important because more than half of the emigrants came from Vestmannaeyar. Dr. Woods became interested in the migration of Icelandic Mormons in 1999. Although he has no Icelandic background, he began to work with the Icelandic Association of Utah.

In emigration there are always push pull factors. For example, emigration from Iceland to North America was nearly impossible because there was no regular transport to England and Scotland which, in turn, would allow emigrants to board ships for North America. Sailing ships only came to Iceland from Denmark during the summer months. The difficulty of reaching North America was such that it was surprising that as many took a chance on emigrating as they did. At the same time, conditions in Iceland, always harsh, had been deteriorating with cold weather, volcanic eruptions and no opportunities since Iceland was still rural and the small amount of grazing land was owned by wealthier farmers or by the church. Prof. Woods, in his lecture, emphasized the pull factor in the appearance of Mormon converts who spread both knowledge of and belief in the Mormon faith.

As with all religious movements, this one had to start with someone who was converted and who returned to spread the word of both religion and opportunity. That one person, Gudmunder Gudmundsson had moved to Denmark to become a goldsmith. He and a childhood friend who was in Denmark, Þórarinn Hafliðason, became the first Mormon missionaries to proselytize in Iceland. Prof. Wood mentioned, a number of times, how through his research he’s been able to document the truth of the early missionary’s accounts of their experience in Iceland. They were met with a great deal of hostility which isn’t surprising. Iceland’s state religion was Lutheranism. Rooted in Catholicism and, before that, paganism, in which religious and secular power were inextricably linked, the preaching of a new religion with new loyalties and ideas—Luther wanted to graft new branches on the church tree; Mormonism thought the tree dead and wanted to grow a new one—threatened the age-old order. Also, Iceland was a homogeneous country with a tiny population so that new lines of authority were a threat in a way that they wouldn’t be in a country with a large population.

Part of Mormon tradition is the persecution of its proselytizers. Evidence of such persecution is dramatized in Paradise Reclaimed. The Mormon bishop is treated badly. Icelandic documents confirm officialdom was hostile. In spite of that hostility and the tremendous difficulty of travel, a few people emigrated anyway. From the material Prof. Woods presented, I would be inclined to believe that the small number of people who left for Utah in spite of local conditions in Iceland was the result of a variety of conditions. In the 1850s, little was known of America, the beliefs preached by the Mormons was very different from Icelandic Lutheranism, and Iceland’s small population shared a history and culture built on personal family ties. By the 1870s, when conditions had deteriorated even more, the migration of twenty percent of the population for economic reasons to North America also was met with tremendous hostility by those who stayed behind. That hostility didn’t stop people from emigrating. However, the push effect had become much greater as economic conditions had deteriorated and the pull factor had become greater with the possibility of taking ships to England and Scotland and from there to Quebec.

The Mormon migration, because it involved such small numbers (only 16 Icelanders emigrated to Utah between 1855-60), and because there had been such hostility toward those who left, was largely forgotten. Ultimately, slightly less than four hundred Icelanders converted and moved to Utah. Although the descendants of the Mormon emigrants kept up their Icelandic traditions and treasured their family histories, and in spite of the fact that a group moved to Alberta, I heard nothing of them in New Iceland. This part of the emigration story had been forgotten. It was only with the advent of the internet and, particularly, Facebook, that I began to hear from individuals wanting to know if we were related because we shared the same last name

I welcome and applaud Prof. Woods research and publications about these “lost” Icelanders. Because he is making his materials available on the internet, knowledge about this part of our history is now available. Prof. Woods material can be accessed at Or you can simply Google Icelandic immigration Utah.
Prof. Woods is an entertaining and informative lecturer. His talk was well attended.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 3

I’ve never been to an INL convention like it. It’s been all over the place re types of speakers and topics. I think people are discombobulated in a good way. They’ve had their conceptions un-concepted, they’ve heard and seen things that have left them puzzled, curious, excited. It is hard to capture the excitement that has been generated. I am so grateful, happy, that I decided to come to this convention. I’m not a great enthusiast but I’ve found myself being amazed, amused, bewildered.

David Johnson is the Co-Chair of this Convention. He has been everywhere, checking on everything, making sure that we all stay on time.

David is Mormon and he introduced the first speaker, Prof. Fred E. Woods. Fred is highly personable, an experienced teacher and public speaker. He presented a slide show with commentary. Some of his slides were pictures of Icelanders who went to Utah in the early years. Other slides were of documents from that time, often letters, that have been translated into English.
I have read quite a bit about the Icelandic Mormons but Fred’s lecture made me aware of how much more material there is that I did not know about. I, and I expect, many others, will be going online to read the work that has been translated.

He is working with the Icelandic scholar Kári Bjarnason, head of the Vestmannæyjar Folk Museum. Together, they are collecting and publishing Icelandic materials which are in Utah. You can read much of this material on the “Mormon Migration“ website hosted by BYU.

We went from this rather conservative individual who describes happy things as “sweet“ to Donald Gislason. Now, I have to confess that I‘m a great fan of Donald. That‘s because when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskingla, Donald provided marvelous interviews about the music and cultural scene in Iceland. I remember telling him at the time that he was the best interviewer I‘d ever worked with.

He has a Ph.D in Music History from UBC. He‘s made six trips to Iceland but given his knowledge of the music and cultural scene, you‘d think he‘d spent a lifetime there. I certainly did. He says he is a hopeless “miðbærritta“, that is a guy who thinks the whole world revolves around 101 Reykjavik.

It would be impossible to do justice to Donald‘s lecture, slide show without writing like Hunter S. Thompson.

We saw bands of every kind. And, in Iceland, there are bands of every kind. I‘ve always wondered where Bjork, Monsters and Men, Siguros, etc. Etc. Etc. came from. How come, with a population of less than 320,000 that there are musicians of very kind, playing multiple instruments, old instruments, space age electronic instruments, playing multiple styles?

Donald provided the answer. The system in Iceland provides funding for every child to have music lessons. The child in Reykjavik and the child on the most isolated farm. The cost is split between parents and state. I wish I could have hauled all those people into the auditorium with us, those people who want to fund nothing in the education system unless it leads directly to a job, to a trade, who think things like music lessons are a waste of the taxpayer‘s money.

Donald told us about Icelandic music culture. About the Airwaves festival which he describes as the hippest event on the planet. Five days of musical mayhem. He credits some things that Iceland doesn‘t have for the creativity and productivity of musicians and, remember, everyone is a musician.

What don‘t Icelanders have? They don‘t have the powerful influence of marketing companies. They don‘t have corporations telling them how they ought to be. They don‘t have fear of failure. They are playing among friends for themselves and their friends instead of for paid audiences of strangers.

Everyone, no matter what age, listens to the same music. Parents, teenagers, kids listen to the same music. Part of that has to do with demographics. Iceland‘s population is young. There is a lot of support for young parents and young children. Parents take kids to rock concerts. Musical events, a lot of the time, are family events.

I saw this when I watched a video about Of Monsters and Men. Crowds were streaming into an open area to listen to them. There were young parents with babes in arms, kids in strollers, kids holding their parents’ hands. There were even some people who might have been grandparents in the crowd.

What a contrast this morning, from Fred who is dedicated to preserving Mormon history to Donald with Reykjavik 101, party, party, dance all night, drink all night, listen to music all night, and then eat Subway type sandwiches for breakfast.

It’s all Iceland. It’s all part of our history. I know that I’ll be looking up those Mormon sources. Some of the letters we got to read were surprising, even shocking. I know that I now understand more about the Iceland of our ancestors. I also know more about the Iceland of the present.

Before I forget, did I tell you about breakfast? Before we listened to these lectures, about the scrambled eggs, the bacon, the scones, the jams, the fruit, the yogurt, the coffee black as the devil’s soul but, I’m sure, much better tasting?

Did I tell you that next year this party is going to be in Winnipeg?

Did I tell you…? Never mind. Later. I’ve got to get dolled up for the banquet tonight. Comb my hair, try to look respectable. More food, more talks. More surprises. I’m glad the Clipper doesn’t charge passengers by weight. It would cost more to go home than to come to Seattle.