Icelandic americans

by Lolly Ockerstrom


Iceland is the most westerly nation of Europe, the least populated, and was the last to be settled. A volcanic island, it touches the Arctic circle with its northernmost edge. Located between Greenland and Norway, the Gulf Stream brings mild temperatures to Iceland's otherwise inhospitable climate. Of its 103,000 square kilometers, only 1,000 are cultivated, with glaciers and lava taking up 23,000 square kilometers. It is often referred to as "the Land of Fire and Ice" because of its glaciers and volcanoes. In 1993, 264,000 persons lived in Iceland, residing mainly in towns located on its 5,000 kilometer coastline. The capitol city is Reykjavik, where almost half of the total population lives.

Iceland's fishing industry provides more than 70 percent of Icelandic exports. Aluminum accounts for about 11 percent. Ninety-three percent of Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Church of Iceland. The national language is Icelandic, a northern Germanic language with some resemblance to Middle English. It has changed very little since it was brought to Iceland by the first Icelandic settlers in the twelfth century. Iceland's Althingi, or parliament, was established in the year 930 A.D. It is believed to be the oldest national assembly in the world. Iceland has one of the highest standards of living in Europe, with an especially high quality of housing. Education, including university, is provided free for all of its citizens, as are health care and retirement pensions. Its rich literary heritage dates to the thirteenth century Icelandic Sagas of Snorri Sturluson, which are among the world's classics. Iceland's monetary unit is the Icelandic crown, or kroner (ISK).


The earliest account of settlers on Iceland was written in the year 825 A.D. by the Irish monk Dicuil. He recorded first-hand accounts of Irish people who lived on the island of Thule, which became known as Iceland. Sometime between 850 and 875, a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson is thought to have arrived on the island, and his arrival was followed by an influx of pagan Norse during the period of 874-930. The first man to settle in Iceland was Ingolfur Arnarson. According to the Landnamabok, or Book of Settlements, written in the twelfth century, Arnarson was a chieftain from Norway. Bringing his family and dependents to Iceland, he built a farm in what eventually became the capitol city of Reykjavik. Like many of the first settlers to Iceland, Arnarson had fled Norway to avoid oppression under the tyrannical ruler, Harald the Fairheaded. Harald was attempting to unify the country by conquering all other lords and kings of Norway. Many of the early settlers of this period were seafarers, including Erik the Red (Eirikur Rauthi), who discovered Greenland. In the year 1000 A.D. , his son, Leif Eriksson became the first person to travel to North America, predating Columbus by 500 years.

In the year 930 A.D. , Iceland's central parliament, the Althingi was established, along with a constitutional law code. It is considered to be the oldest parliament in the world. In the tenth century, small numbers of Irish and Scots settled on Iceland, bringing Christianity with them. Christianity was adopted by the parliament in the year 1,000, about 100 years after it made its way to mainland Scandinavia. Bishoprics, or dioceses, were quickly established in the towns of Skalholt in 1056 and Holar in 1106. Both places became centers of learning, typical of medieval universities throughout Europe which were established for training clerics.

Feuds and civil war came to Iceland between 1262 and 1264, and by 1397, Iceland was under the dominion of Denmark. Danish kings took control over the church, forcing Icelanders to abandon Catholicism for Danish Lutheranism.The Danes also established a trade monopoly, devastating the Icelandic economy. By 1662, Denmark had taken total control of Iceland. In 1800 the Althingi was dissolved completely.

Famines, natural disasters, and disease decimated the population during the eighteenth century. The first census in 1703 revealed a population of 50,000. It plunged to a low of 35,000 following a smallpox epidemic between 1707 and 1709. Iceland was further plagued with a series of famines and natural disasters until the end of the century, keeping the population below 40,000. By 1800, the population measured half of what it had been in the year 1100.


Iceland began to move toward a national identity during the nineteenth century. The National Library of Iceland was established in 1818, followed by the Icelandic National Museum in 1863 and the National Archives in 1882. In 1843, the Althingi was reestablished as a consultative assembly. Statesman and Scholar Jon Sigurdsson began to lead the political struggle for national independence, which continued after his death in 1879. By 1904, Iceland acquired home rule, and Hannes Hafstein was appointed as the first Icelandic government minister. In 1918, Iceland gained complete control of almost all its domestic affairs, although the Danish king remained the head of state. In 1940, Iceland was occupied by British forces, and a year later, the United States took over the defense of the North Atlantic island. On June 17, 1944, following a national referendum, the modern Republic of Iceland was established with a 97 per cent voter approval.

Following its independence, the newly formed republic quickly joined four important international organizations, beginning with the United Nations in 1946. In 1947, it became a founding member of what became known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the OECD. It also became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in 1949. In 1950, it joined the Council of Europe. In the same year, Iceland turned its attentions homeward and established a National Theatre and Symphony Orchestra.

Iceland's strategic location in the North Atlantic made the country attractive to western allies. In 1951 a defense agreement was established between Iceland and the United States. This was the beginning of the Iceland Defense Force, based at Keflavik. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Iceland continued to strengthen its position in Europe, joining the Nordic Council in 1952.

In 1973, the Heimaey volcano erupted on the only inhabited island in the Westmann Islands. A year after this disaster, Iceland marked the 1,100th

Many Icelandic Americans work on farms or in rural communities. This woman is picking cranberries.
Many Icelandic Americans work on farms or in rural communities. This woman is picking cranberries.
anniversary of the settlement of Iceland at Thingvellir. In 1986, Reykjavik celebrated its bicentennial and hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit.

During the 1950s, Iceland concentrated on strengthening its fishing industry. Fishery limits were extended to four miles in 1952, and expanded in 1954 to 12 miles. Fishing limits were extended further in 1972 to 50 miles, reaching 200 miles by 1974. Denmark returned ancient Icelandic manuscripts to Iceland in 1971, a final gesture of restoration to Icelandic culture. In 1994 Icelanders celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the modern Icelandic Republic.


The first Icelandic settlers in North America arrived in Utah in 1855 seeking religious freedom to follow Mormonism. Eleven Mormon converts left Iceland for North America between 1854 and 1857. A few years later nine Icelanders settled in the town of Spanish Fork, Utah, along with other Scandinavians. For the next 20 years, small groups of Icelanders joined the settlement from time to time. Thorarinn Haflidason Thorason and Gudmund Gudmundsson, Icelandic apprentices who had converted to Mormonism in Denmark and travelled to America in the 1850s, were typical of Icelandic emigrants coming to Utah. Skilled artisans, trades-persons, or farmers, the Icelandic emigrants brought with them useful skills for the frontier, although it was some time before they could use those skills in gainful employment.

The United States suffered an economic depression in the mid-1870s, and jobs were scarce. For newly arrived Icelanders who knew little, if any English, jobs were even more scarce. The secondary education most Icelanders had received in their homeland did little to help them find jobs in their new country. Many Icelandic men took laboring jobs as unskilled factory workers and woodcutters, or as dockworkers in Milwaukee when they first arrived. Working to build capital and to learn farming techniques suitable for their new land so that they could start farms of their own, early Icelandic immigrant communities were largely agricultural. Drawing from their backgrounds in farming, the new immigrants maintained their ties to their Icelandic heritage.


The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the largest wave of Icelandic immigration. Between 1870 and 1900, about 15,000 of Iceland's population of 75,000 resettled in North America. The majority of these emigrants settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in a colony called New Iceland. Those coming to the United States settled primarily in the upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territories. A sizable Icelandic immigrant community was established in Utah. William Wickmann, a Danish emigrant who had worked for a time in Eyrarbakki on the southern coast of Iceland before coming to Milwaukee in 1856, wrote letters to Iceland describing his new home. His descriptions of the plentiful life in Wisconsin were circulated among his Icelandic friends. In particular, Wickmann's accounts of the abundance of coffee, of which Icelanders were especially fond, proved irresistible to his friends. In 1870 four Icelanders left for Milwaukee, eventually settling on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, just off the Green Bay peninsula. Others settled in Minnesota.

In 1874 a group of Icelandic immigrants proposed a settlement in Alaska, which they felt would provide a climate and terrain similar to that of Iceland. They managed to interest the United States government enough to assist them in visiting the proposed Alaskan site. Although the Icelanders wanted to follow through with the plan, the United States apparently lost interest in the project, and plans for a new colony were abandoned.

By 1878, over a hundred Icelanders from the Canadian colony, New Iceland, were forced to relocate because of severe weather conditions, outbreaks of smallpox, and religious disputes. Moving south to the United States, they joined more recent Icelandic immigrants in the northeastern section of the Dakota Territory. With the help of more established Norwegian and German immigrant groups, they formed what later became the largest Icelandic community in America. Mostly farmers and laborers, second and third generation Icelanders were drawn into journalism. Many entered politics.

By 1900, new immigration from Iceland had almost completely ceased. It is estimated that about 5,000 Icelanders had taken up residency in the United States by 1910. The exact number is difficult to determine, since until 1930, the United States census, unlike the Canadian census, did not differentiate between Icelanders and Danes. In 1910, however, the census reported that 5,105 U.S. residents had grown up in a home where Icelandic was spoken. Not until after the end of the World War II did Icelanders again immigrate the United States in any substantial numbers. This post-World War II immigration wave was made up almost entirely of war brides of American servicemen stationed in Iceland.

By the late twentieth century, Americans of Icelandic descent showed great interest in tracing their ancestors. Early Icelandic settlements in Winnipeg, Canada, and Utah attracted the greatest amount of interest among amateur genealogists of Icelandic heritage. In the late twentieth century several web sites appeared offering help with tracing Icelandic ancestors.


Settlement patterns during the second half of the nineteenth century placed Icelanders mainly in the upper Midwestern states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in the Dakota Territory. However, by the end of the twentieth century, settlement patterns had shifted from rural to urban communities. Early twentieth century industrialization transformed the United States from an agrarian culture into an urban one, affecting traditionally agrarian-based Icelandic communities. By 1970 over half of the second and third generations of Icelandic immigrants had taken up residence in urban areas.

The 1990 Census of the U.S. Department of Commerce revealed a total count of Icelandic-Americans and Icelandic nationals living in the United States as 40,529. Two-thirds of those lived in the West and the Midwest, with 19,891 in the West and 10,904 in the Midwest. Almost 6,000 lived in the South, while 4,140 resided in the Northeast. California, Washington state, and Minnesota were the most heavily populated with Icelanders and Icelandic-Americans. North Dakota was home to the fourth-largest number of persons with Icelandic backgrounds.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Iceland's language, customs, and historical background link it ethnically to Scandinavia, although Icelanders have always perceived themselves as having a distinct culture. These distinctions have seldom been clear to non-Icelanders, who have collapsed Icelandic culture into Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian cultures. Icelanders were not even accounted for as a separate category by the U.S. census until 1930. Few studies in English have concentrated on Icelanders, and many reference books have omitted them altogether from general accounts of ethnic distinctions such as holidays, customs, and dress. Nonetheless, strong in their self-identity, Icelanders have from the beginning eagerly adopted new customs in the United States, learning English, holding public office, and integrating into the general culture. At the same time, they have retained a strong sense of ethnic pride, as evidenced in the large number of Icelandic-American organizations in existence throughout the United States since the founding of the Icelandic National League in 1919. Toward the end of the twentieth century, widespread attention to multiculturalism kindled interest in understanding ethnic differences, spurring many Icelanders to reclaim their heritage.


Icelandic Americans continued to celebrate Icelandic holidays well after they and their families settled into Americanized routines. Early immigrants celebrated August 2, 1874, a date significant on two counts: it marked the millennium of Iceland's first settlement, and the date on which the Danish king granted autonomy to Iceland. By the middle part of the twentieth century, Icelandic Independence Day, June 17, 1944, became the major holiday celebrated by immigrant Icelanders.

As with other Scandinavian countries, Icelanders take great delight in stories of trolls, elves, and fairies. Fairies and elves are thought to exist everywhere, beneath rocks and mushrooms. Although most Icelanders never report actually seeing the fairies and trolls, the presence of such creatures is not denied. Often good luck is attributed to the work of elves. In contrast, prior to the twentieth century, trolls were always associated with danger.. For centuries, the myth of Gryla, a troll who was thought to live in the mountains and to appear in

"[A] round here we're all Icelanders or Norwegians. It's like a little Scandinavian town. I didn't even have to talk English the first few years I was here. Not till I started working in the lumber camps.

Gunner Johanson, cited in American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It, Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky (E.P. Dutton, New York, 1980).

the lowlands at Christmas, was a staple of holiday lore. Icelandic immigrants handed down the story to younger generations, and the myth continued to play an important role in Christmas festivities in their new land. Although the actual character of the main troll, Gryla, changed over the centuries since her first appearance in Icelandic literature in the ninth century, she lives on in Icelandic folklore. Hjorleifur Rafn Jonsson argues in an article in Nord Nytt that the myth changed from period to period according to social and economic developments in Icelandic culture. Like the immigrants themselves, who brought the myth with them to North America, the character of Gryla changed through the generations but remained rooted in Icelandic culture.


Proverbs are common among Icelanders; they are fond of saying that "sometimes we speak only in proverbs." One typical Icelandic saying is "Even though you are small, you can be clever," which speaks to the Icelandic sense of the value of the individual. Another saying,"It is difficult to teach a dog to sit," is a typical response to a request to change, similar to the English saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Used in promoting an Icelandic festival in North Dakota was the slogan, "What is as joyful as a gathering of friends?" written in Icelandic as "Hvad er svo glatt sem godra vina fundur?"


Typical Icelandic fare includes fish, lamb, and dark breads. The many variations of basic recipes suggest regional, as well as individual, differences. Each family treasures its own recipes, and each claims that its mother and grandmother produced the finest version. Women, rather than men, traditionally have done the cooking. Icelandic Americans bring many of these traditional foods to summer festivals and Christmas feasts. Among these foods are vinarterta, a layered cake made with cardamom, cinnamon and ground, boiled prunes and served with whipped cream. Icelandic brown bread, made with molasses and wheat germ differs from Icelandic black bread, which contains rye. Both are staples in the Icelandic diet. Iceland pancakes, or ponnukokur, are similar to the flat, crepe-like Swedish pancakes. They are unsweetened and served with meat fillings. A flat-broud, or rye pancake, is another traditional food.

Dried fish, or hardfiskur ; blood pudding, or slatur ; and smoked lamb, or hangikjot , are all traditional foods associated with the autumn slaughtering season and the limited methods for preserving meat in earlier times. Pastries include kleinur, or Icelandic donuts, made of sour cream, buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg. Astarbollur, or raisin donut balls, are rolled in granulated sugar and cinnamon. Icelandic fruit cake is served at Christmas, and eating it is perceived as a special holiday ritual.

Popular in Iceland during the latter part of the twentieth century were pylsa, Icelandic hot dogs. Similar to American hot dogs, although longer and skinnier, they are eaten in Iceland with ketchup, onions, and mustard. In addition, Icelanders insist on a topping called remoladi. Brennivin is the Icelandic national drink. It is a schnapps, without flavor, with the consistency of syrup. Often drunk with herring or shark, it is consumed in small quantities in much the same way as the Danish drink, Aqvavit.


Choral singing is among the most popular arts of Iceland. It was cultivated on the American frontier in all areas of life—religious, social, and domestic. Particularly at Christmas, Icelanders participated in choirs and bands. Iceland's most prominent musical

These Icelandic American women are teaching others how to use the Icelandic spindle.
These Icelandic American women are teaching others how to use the Icelandic spindle.
genre is the rimur, an epic song form. The form dates from the thirteenth century. Because the Icelandic language has changed little since that time, some of the oldest songs are still performed and enjoyed by Icelanders in their original form. Iceland's National Hymn, written by Matthias Jochumsson (1835-1920), is sung at the opening of state and national events.


Traditional Icelandic women's costumes include several distinct garments, usually of fine material which has been embroidered. A sweater suit, or peysufot, was used for everyday wear well into the twentieth century, particularly in the countryside. More formal wear included a headdress, or faldbuningur, which was used from the late eighteenth century until about 1860. The name comes from the Icelandic word for headdress, faldur. The faldur is a white scarf-like head piece which covered the hair. It was fastened with a scarf or scarves wrapped around the head. Other elements of the headdress included a skotthufa, or tail cap. The tail was made of numerous small strands of material. Just below the top of the tail was a sleeve, richly ornamented in gold or silver threads.

An ornamental vest was worn on special days. Called the upphlutur, or upper part, the vest was abundantly embroidered with gold thread. It was worn with a skirt and apron, both of which were sewn of very good material. While some dresses were worn only for certain festivities, other costumes were worn on Sundays and for travelling.

Special dresses and headgear were worn for confirmation in the Lutheran Church. Children were confirmed at the age of 14. The headdress worn by young girls was called skautbuningur, a small white cap with a veil trailing down the back. A golden coronet was positioned at the forehead. Like the cap, the dress of the young girl to be confirmed was also white. Its traditional style was called Kyrtill. Older women wore a black skirt with a bodice embroidered in silver thread. The skirt was appliqued with velvet. Both younger and older women wore a special belt. The belt for the older woman was embroidered with a buckle of filigree; the belt of the young girl was completely handmade of filigree. Confirmation marked one's transition into adulthood, which included wearing adult attire. In writing of her confirmation day, Holmforidur Arnadottir exclaimed in her autobiography, "How grand, that from that day I should be dressed as the grown-up women!"


Icelanders are fond of music and poetry. Iceland's National Hymn, written by Matthias Jochumsson, expresses a national sentiment of submission to God. The song celebrates "Our Country's God" and "Iceland's thousand years." The final lines defer to a deity that can offer guidance: "O, prosper our people, diminish our tears/And guide, in Thy wisdom, through life!" Jochumsson, a clergyman, was also a journalist, dramatist, and Iceland's national poet. Included among his other work are translations into Icelandic of Shakespearean tragedies.

Christmas and New Year's holidays are marked by much singing and dancing around bonfires. Some celebrants dress up as elves. As Holmfridur Arnadottir described Twelfth Night dances in her autobiography, When I Was a Girl in Iceland, white and black fairies "with all kinds of head-dresses" come down from high cliffs carrying torches. A procession of celebrants parades to a bonfire, where the fairies sing and dance in a circle and also recite poetry. When the bonfire has burned out, all move to a dance hall, where they continue dancing.


Iceland's holidays are typical of those celebrated in other western, Christian nations, though with a whimsical twist. The Christmas season lasts several days and is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, dancing, and stories of elves and trolls. On New Year's Eve, it was the custom to invite the elves into one's home. Lights, or candles, would be lit throughout the house in order to drive out the shadows. The mistress of the house would walk around the outside of the house three times, chanting an invitation to the elves to come, stay, or go. At least one light would remain burning throughout the night.

Also on New Year's Eve, the pantry window would be left open to receive the hoarfrost, the frozen dew that forms a white coating on surfaces. It does not accumulate, and it fades quickly. A pot would be placed on the pantry floor in an attempt to capture it, and the house mistress would remain in the pantry all night. In the morning a cross-tree would be placed over the pot to keep the hoarfrost in. Known as the "pantry drift," capturing it in this way was thought to bring prosperity to the household.

Twelfth Night, celebrated 12 days after Christmas on January 5, is often called the "Great Night of Dreams" in Iceland. This refers to the night when the Kings of the Orient are thought to have dreamed of the birth of Jesus. In some parts of Iceland, Twelfth Night was referred to as "The Old Christmas," or "The Old Christmas Eve." Twelfth Day is celebrated on January 6 with bonfires and dancing.

Lent is traditionally the six-week period before Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar, and it is observed in Iceland with festive games during the first three days of the holiday. Lenten, or Shrove, Monday is known in Icelandic as Bolludagur, or Flengingardagur, and means, respectively, the day of muffins or the day of whipping. It is also known as "Bun Day." This holiday is believed to have been transported to Iceland by Danish and Norwegian bakers who immigrated to Iceland in the late nineteenth century. The day begins with early risers "beating" those who are still in bed with small whips or wands made of colored paper by the children of the household. Those who are whipped provide the children with a bun or muffin. The whipping is done mainly by the children, and is done good naturedly. Bolludagur is usually a school holiday that allows for visiting friends and neighbors, and it is a day when muffins are served with coffee wherever one goes.

In earlier times, Tuesday was a day of meat-eating, a custom handed down from Iceland's Catholic days. A game called ad sitja i fastunni, or to sit in the fast, was played. It consisted of word play in which common terms for meat, drippings, or gravy were substituted with other words. Not all Icelanders played this game; sometimes only household servants did. Children tried to see if they could get through the entire day without being tricked into using the usual language for meats, even as they were trying to get others to slip into using the forbidden words.

Ash Wednesday, or Oskudagur, was celebrated by playing a game of ash bag teasing. It was directly related to the tradition of repentance. On the days prior to Ash Wednesday, women and girls made small bags into which ashes or small stones or pebbles were placed. Constructed with drawstrings, the bags were fastened to someone's back with pins. Bags containing ashes were intended for men and boys; bags with stones were intended for women and girls. It is thought that stones were selected because of the old punishment of tying bags of stones around the necks of adulterous women in order to drown them. The person was made to carry a bag on his or her back a certain distance, sometimes three steps or across three thresholds. In Reykjavik, children began to attach ash bags to the backs of adults, who often did not appreciate the joke. At times, as many as thirty bags might be attached to back of a person's clothing. A more recent variation of this game was to sew some symbol of love on the bag and leave it empty. The recipient then had to guess who had sent it. This was particularly popular around the early part of the twentieth century.

As in other Nordic countries, Icelanders view the First Day of Summer as the most significant holiday of the year with the exception of Christmas. As early as 1545, gifts were exchanged among family members on this holiday, and food played a prominent role in the festivities. Although food was scarce after the long winter, Icelanders saved all they could so they could serve their best food and drink during First Day of Summer festivals. Often the amount of food saved indicated the degree of wealth one had. In the western fjords, many Icelanders stored food in a special barrel during the autumn; this was not to be opened until the following summer.

Special summer-day cakes made of rye were served to each person. The large cakes measured one foot in diameter and were three-quarters of an inch thick. Each cake was topped with one day's portion of food, which included hangiket, or butter; lundabaggar, or flanks; hard fish, halibut fins, and the like. First Day of Summer celebrations included a domestic service in which special hymns were sung and a sermon was given. Later, children played such games as blindman's bluff. After a hard winter, Icelanders kept themselves out of doors for most of the day celebrating the coming of long days filled with sunlight. Prior to 1900, the First Day of Summer was a day to socialize among family and friends, eat, and mark the end of winter. Public performances gradually became more integrated into the holiday. Young people in particular began to give speeches and poetry readings. Sports, singing, and dancing became important activities, as well as plays and theatrical productions.

Two holidays are unique to Iceland: Krossmessa, or Crossmas ; and St. Thorlak's Day. Although celebrated more in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than in the late twentieth century, Krossmessa was observed on May 14. It was the day when domestic servants moved. Servants were usually hired for a one-year period; many stayed with their employers for several years before moving on. St. Thorlak's Day is celebrated on December 23 to honor Thorlak Thorhalli, who became the Bishop of Skalholt in 1177. On this day, the Christmas hangiket, or smoked mutton is cooked, clothes are washed, and the house is cleaned. Throughout the western fjords, a hash of skate is cooked. With a smell similar to ammonia, the skate hash symbolized that the house had been cleaned and Christmas had arrived.

The 1960s brought the revival of another holiday specific to Iceland, an ancient pagan festival called the Thorrablot. It was originally observed in mid-winter, when sacrifices to the Norse god, Thorri, were made. The holiday predated Christian Iceland but died out when Christianity was adopted. It first regained popularity when revived in 1873 by some Icelandic students in Copenhagen, and again in 1881 by a group of archaeologists in Reykjavik, who toasted each other using Viking horns.


The average life expectancy in Iceland is 80.9 years for women and 75.7 years for men. Icelanders are known to be in generally good physical health. There do not appear to be medical conditions specific to Icelandic Americans.


Icelandic is the national language of Iceland, although both English and Danish are understood and spoken by many Icelanders as well. There are no indigenous linguistic minorities in Iceland. Icelandic is a Germanic language and it is a member of the Scandinavian language family. It is thought to have changed very little in the 1,000 years since the first Nordic settlers arrived on Iceland. Many songs and epic poetry dating from the twelfth century are still read and appreciated in their original forms today by Icelandic speakers. The relative purity of the language is largely the result of Iceland's isolation as an island nation. Two letters of the Icelandic alphabet resemble Old English, the "þ," pronounced like the "th" in "thing," and "ð," pronounced like the "th" in "them." Icelandic pride in its language has resulted in legislation regulating the adoption of foreign names for public establishments. In 1959, a bill was passed in the Althingi barring the adoption of names not Icelandic in origin. Only one vote was cast in opposition to the bill.


Typical Icelandic greetings and expressions, and their approximate pronunciations are ð an dag (gothan dag)—good day; gott kvöld (goht kwvold)— good evening; Komi ð pér saelie (komith pearr sauleuh)—How do you do; Hallo, hva ð er um a ð vera? (Hallo, kwath aer uem ath verra)-Hi, what's going on?; Hva ð heitir pú? (kwath hayterr peu)— What is your name?; Ég heiti (ag haete)—My name is...; Sjáumst (syoymst)-bye; ð a nótt (gotha noht)—good night; Gle ð ur mig a ð kynnast pér (glathur may ad kednast pear)—glad to meet you; Já e ð a nei? (Yaah aytha nay)—Yes or no?; Ég skil ekki (Ag skeel ahhki)—I don't understand; Gle ð ileg jól (glathelay yawl)—Merry Christmas; and Gle ð ilegńyár (glathelay nyarr)—Happy New Year.

Family and Community Dynamics

The 1992 Icelandic census showed that families in Iceland generally consisted of three persons per family, presumably two parents and a child. This trend toward smaller family units mirrors those in other western nations. The sizes of Icelandic American families, like families of many other immigrant groups, reflect national and even international trends. Icelanders show strong familial and ethnic identification. Although perceived by non-Icelanders as serious and quiet, the people of Iceland and Icelandic Americans often show a sense of humor that includes joking at their own expense. They are the first to laugh at themselves.


Education in Iceland was provided for all its citizens, and literacy among Icelanders has been universal since the end of the eighteenth century. Immigrant Icelanders in the Dakota Territory set up their first school district in 1881, and more districts soon followed. The value Icelanders placed on education on the American frontier had been instilled in them in their native land. School attendance in Iceland was made obligatory in 1907 for all children between the ages of ten and 14 years. Children younger than ten years of age were usually taught at home. In 1946, the age for compulsory attendance was extended, and by the 1990s, the age of compulsory attendance covered all children between the ages of 7 and 17 years.

A theological seminary, the first institution of higher learning in Iceland, was founded in 1847. A medical school followed in 1876 and a school of law in 1908. In 1911, all three merged and became the University of Iceland. Later a fourth division was added, the Faculty of Philosophy, which offered study in philology, history, and literature.

Among the household goods brought with them to America, Icelandic emigrants brought books. Many had books sent to them from Iceland once they were settled in their new homes. With an unbroken literary history dating from the thirteenth century, the new immigrants continued to cherish literary activity. New immigrant communities organized reading circles, and newspapers were quickly established in Icelandic communities. Until the middle part of the twentieth century Icelandic books continued to be published in the new land. Three presses publishing books in the Icelandic language were located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, and one in Minnesota.


Iceland is largely egalitarian, with an economy more evenly distributed by gender when compared to many countries. Nonetheless, as in other industrialized countries, women earn significantly less money than their male counterparts, even when performing similar tasks. Well represented in the labor force, women are underrepresented on the faculty of the University of Iceland, and in leadership and management positions. Women often occupy the less prestigious and lower-paid positions in such industries as fish processing plants. Women in Iceland tend to remain employed outside the home following marriage.

The institution of marriage does not carry the same importance for Icelanders as it does for inhabitants of other cultures. One result is that motherhood outside of marriage has never carried a stigma for Icelandic women. Women in Iceland, moreover, do not change their names after marriage. The rate of births by unmarried mothers has varied from 13 percent in the nineteenth century to 36 percent in 1977. One result of single parenthood is that many women work fewer hours outside of the home than men. Coupled with the already lower pay scales for women, the fewer number of hours worked further limits single mothers' income levels.

During the 1980s, a national political party known as the Women's List succeeded in winning some parliamentary elections. In 1987, the Women's Party claimed six seats in the Althingi, or Parliament, and 10.1 percent of the total vote. In 1991, the Women's Party won five parliamentary seats with 8.3 percent of the vote.


Babies are christened according to the principles set down by the Lutheran Church of Iceland. The parents of the child choose godparents, and the baby is brought to the christening font, usually at the age of two or three months. A celebration follows. Christening gowns are treasured items, often handed down to other generations. Icelandic-Americans who remain in the Lutheran Church continue the practice as a form of a spiritual, as well as a community, expression of welcome to the new baby.


Icelandic weddings generally follow the forms set down by the Icelandic Lutheran Church, although Icelandic tradition of handing down family names is unique. Icelandic family names generally follow the ancient patriarchal tradition of taking the last name from the first name of the father. In other words, if a man's name is Leifur Eirikur, his last name, Eiriksson, indicates that he is the son of Eirik. The last name of Leifur's son would be Leifursson, or son of Leifur. Maria, the daughter of Hermann Jakobsson, would be called Maria Hermannsdottir. Following her marriage to Haraldur Jonsson, her name would not change, although her daughter Margret would be known as Margret Haraldursdottir. Family members living in the same household, therefore, do not share a common family name. Directories in Iceland are organized alphabetically by first names.

Legislation dating to 1925 regulates Icelandic names and preserves the Icelandic naming tradition. Members of the clergy are vested with veto power over names of infants. The Faculty of Arts at the University of Iceland serves as the court of appeal. A 1958 case brought before the Faculty by a German immigrant upheld the Icelandic tradition. When he became a citizen of Iceland, the man changed his name from the German Lorenz to the Icelandic Larus. When his son was born, he wanted his son to be known as Lorenz. When the pastor of his church refused to conduct the christening, the case went to the Faculty of Arts, which supported the minister.


Because of the relatively small numbers of Icelanders in America, Icelandic immigrants interacted with those of other ethnic backgrounds. As a matter of survival, early immigrants were eager to learn from the experiences of other immigrants, particularly the Norwegians, with whom they felt a kinship. In areas inhabited by few other persons of Icelandic descent, Icelanders gladly worked with Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns to develop their communities. Although many Icelandic-American societies exist throughout the United States and Canada, many Icelanders join Scandinavian Clubs, which are broader in scope and include those with heritage from all the Scandinavian countries.


According to the Icelandic 1992 census report, 92.2 percent of Icelanders belonged to the Church of Iceland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Early Icelandic immigrants did not remain dogmatically Lutheran when they came to North America. They were happy to be relieved of the heavy tax burden imposed by the Icelandic Lutheran Church. However, churches continued to fill important social, spiritual, and community functions for Icelanders as they established settlements in their new land. Two early immigrants, Pall Thorlaksson and Jon Bjarnason, were leaders among Icelandic Lutherans in North America. Both trained in the ministry, but they represented different philosophies, and this led to a temporary split in the Icelandic-American Lutheran Church. In the 1880s, the Unitarian movement drew a number of Icelanders, but the competition only strengthened Lutheran commitment. The Icelandic Lutheran Synod was established in 1885. Some of the early Icelandic immigrants settling in Utah rejected Lutheranism altogether, instead seeking freedom to follow Mormonism.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Icelandic immigrants to North America brought with them skills and trades learned in Iceland, including agriculture and building. They were also skilled artisans. Fishing has always played a major role in sustaining the Icelandic economy. As an island economy with a short growing season, Iceland has always depended heavily on trade. Livestock production was among the most important industries, particularly during the period of Danish colonial rule of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Fishing and hunting provided major additional support. Icelanders practiced codfishing for centuries, and it is believed that cod has been traded commercially since medieval times. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as Danish rule weakened, fishing communities developed along the coasts as local economies based on foreign trade grew into place.

The economic base of modern Iceland lies in the fishing industry. Fish and fish products account for more than 70 percent of Iceland's exports. Icelandic fishing techniques, using the most up-to-date computer and other technologies, are among most innovative and advanced in the world. The waters around Iceland are rich fishing grounds. The Gulf Stream and cold nutrient currents of the Arctic meet at the continental shelf that surrounds Iceland. These conditions are favorable for many kinds of marine life. While Iceland exports fish and fish products, it imports almost all of its consumer items. Sheep and dairy cattle are the main livestock in Iceland; agricultural land is used mostly for growing grass to feed the livestock. Other exports include aluminum, which accounts for about 11 percent of the country's exports. Given Iceland's heritage in fishing, farming, and engineering, it is not surprising that many Icelandic Americans have often continued in such pursuits.

Politics and Government

Iceland is an independent, democratic republic. It has a multi-party system with an elected president. The parliament, or Althingi, is a legislative body with 63 members who are elected by popular vote. They serve for terms of four years, as does the president. There is no term limit. Any eligible voter can run for a seat in the Althingi, except the President and the judges of the Supreme Court. The President chooses a cabinet following the election of a new parliament. Leaders of the political parties are called for discussions, and a cabinet is formed. Cabinet ministers remain in power until the next general election. All cabinet members are members of parliament.

The three largest political parties are the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, and the Social Democrats. Together, these parties represented 73 percent of the vote in the 1991 elections. The remaining 27 per cent of the vote was taken by the People's Alliance and the Women's Party, as well as the Citizens/Liberal Party and others.

As developed in the twentieth century, Iceland's political structure resembles the governments of western Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. Icelandic Americans adapted easily to the system of democracy as it is practiced in the United States. A number of Icelandic Americans have entered local and state politics. In North Dakota alone, three state attorneys general have been of Icelandic heritage, as well as three state supreme court judges and 12 state legislators.


Iceland entered into a defense agreement with the United States in 1951, and it does not maintain its own army or navy. The Icelandic Defense Force, located at the Keflavik base, is maintained by members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as military personnel from the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. Icelandic civilians also work at the base. By the late 1990s, twenty-five different commands of various sizes were attached to the Icelandic Defense Force. The base published an online newsletter in the late 1990s called The White Falconline and also maintained a webpage.


Icelandic Americans take pride in their heritage, as Kate Bearnson Carter illustrated when she sponsored the building of a lighthouse monument in honor of the first Icelandic settlers in Spanish Fork, Utah. As the daughter of Icelanders, Carter wanted to commemorate her ethnic heritage and honor her parents. A three-day festival in Spanish Fork was observed in 1955 to to mark the centennial of Icelandic immigration. The two original Icelandic newspapers in North America, the Logberg and the Heimskingla merged in 1959 to become the Logberg-Heimskringla. The paper continues to be published in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, more than 100 years after the founding of its parent publications. News from Iceland and Icelandic communities across North America are carried in the paper. Each issue of the weekly publication includes articles in both Icelandic and English.

Several important scholarly collections of Icelandic work attest to an active pride in Icelandic culture. The Willard Fiske collection is located at Cornell University in New York and is the largest. Important collections are also found at Brigham Young University in Utah, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Dakota.

In the 1990s, the New Iceland Heritage Museum was founded in Gimli, Manitoba, Canada with the mandate "to foster the preservation, understanding and appreciation of the Icelandic culture in North America." It was scheduled to open in the summer of the year 2000, to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the arrival of Icelandic immigrants in Manitoba.

Individual and Group Contributions

Although comprising far less than ten per cent of the population, Icelanders continue to contribute individually and collectively to American culture. There are a number of important Icelandic American artists, journalists, and literary figures. The Icelandic culture has also contributed to scientific and social service sectors in America.


The abstract painter Nina Tryggvadottir came to New York from Iceland in 1942 to study with the premier painters of the period, Hans Hoffman and Fernand Leger. She had two major shows in New York, one in 1945 and one in 1948. Her work was reviewed favorably by critic Elaine de Kooning in the influential publication Art News. Tryggvadottir also designed scenery and costumes for a production of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, conducted in New York by Dmitri Mitropolous. Again her work received very favorable reviews. She developed friendships with two major artists of the time, Wilhelm de Kooning and Alexander Calder, and with critic Meyer Schapiro. By 1949, her painting style had matured and her future looked very promising. Her work had broad appeal to both Icelandic and American critics.

Tryggvadottir married the American art critic A.L. Copley, who also moved in New York art circles, and had intended to remain in the United States. However, she became blacklisted during the McCarthy era and was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. She was not allowed to return to the United States following a 1949 visit to her family in Iceland. It was not until December 1959 that she finally returned to New York. By then, the New York art world had lost touch with her work, which she had continued to develop while living in Paris and London. Despite her considerable artistic accomplishments, she never reclaimed her position as an abstractionist in the New York art world. Only one of her paintings, donated in 1961, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She nonetheless made a name for herself as an Icelandic artist in America. She is best known for the nature abstractions she produced between 1957 and 1967.

Another successful Icelandic-American in the art world was Harvard Arnason, an art historian associated with the Guggenheim Museum during the 1940s. Charles Thorson also worked with Disney and Warner Brothers animation.


Jon Olafsson served as founding editor of the first Icelandic newspaper in North America, Heimskringla. The name comes from the work of medieval Icelandic writer, Snorri Sturleson. The word heimer in Icelandic means the world, and kringla means a globe. Started in September 1886 in Winnepeg, the paper was published completely in Icelandic except for some advertisements written wholly or partially in English. Other Icelandic-Americans known for their work in journalism include Stephan G. Stephanson, Kristjan Niels Julius, and Richard Beck.


The ancient sagas of Snorri Sturluson are well-known among medieval literary scholars. Less well known is work written by immigrant Icelandic women. A Canadian scholar at the Department of Icelandic Studies at the University of Manitoba, Kirsten Wolf, was among the first to edit and translate writing by immigrant Icelanders. Referring to Icelandic communities of North America as "Western Iceland," Wolf edited a collection entitled Writings by Western Icelandic Women in 1997. The anthology revived long-forgotten pieces of writing by early Icelandic immigrant women, including Undina, a poet, and Laura Goodman Salverson, winner of the Governor General Award. The book covers 75 years of writing, from the first significant wave of Icelandic immigration in the 1870s to the 1950s. The collection includes short stories and poems, many of which were translated for the first time from the original Icelandic. Offering insight into the experiences of pioneer Icelandic writers, the text brings forth women's voices of the Icelandic immigrant experience, about which very little is known. Other literary figures of Icelandic descent are the Canadian poets Stephan Geir Stephansson and Guttormur Guttormsson.


Icelandic immigrants Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1979-1962, became known for his Arctic explorations. Chester Hjortur Thordarson, 1867-1945, made a name as an inventor and entrepeneur in the electrical field.


Although little known, Icelandic immigrant Emily Long was one of the first qualified nurses on the Canadian prairies. She helped to found several Saskatchewan hospitals. Having trained as nurse in Iceland, she immigrated to Canada prior to 1910 to join relatives when her family in Iceland died of tuberculosis. In Neepawa, Manitoba, Long repeated her nurses' training. When World War I began in 1914, she went to England for the Canadian Red Cross. Before departing from England in 1919, she received honors for her wartime service from Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother. Back in Canada, Long took a series of nursing positions before retiring to Gimli, Manitoba, in 1953. Before her death, she received honors from the Crown and the Canadian Legion for her service in the Red Cross during the First World War. Tireless and spirited, according to a brief memoir by Darrell Gudmundson, Emily Long represents one of the many ways in which early Icelandic immigrants contributed to social welfare in her new land.



Annual publication begun in 1908. Irregular. Furnishes bibliographical information.

Address: Cornell University, Kroch Library, Willard J. Fiske Islandic Collection, Ithaca, New York 14853.

Telephone: (607) 255-3530.

Organizations and Associations

Embassy of the Republic of Iceland.

Contact: Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson, Ambassador.

Address: 1156 15th Street, N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 265-6653.

Fax: (202) 265-6656.

Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce (IALL).

Founded in 1986, the Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce has eighty members. The Board of Directors meets three or four times a year at a triennial conference. Individual dues are $60.00 a year; corporate annual dues are $200.00. It is a multinational organization and publishes a monthly newsletter.

Contact: Magnus Bjarnason, Executive Director.

Address: c/o Consulate General of Iceland 800 Third Avenue, 36th Floor, New York, New York 10022-7604.

Telephone: (212) 593-2700.

Fax: (212) 593-6269.

Icelandic-American Veterans.

Founded 1950.

Contact: Dave Zinkoff.

Address: 2101 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103.

Telephone: (215) 568-1234.

Icelandic National League of the United States, Inc.

Formed in 1919 for the purposes of promoting Icelandic culture, customs, and traditions.

Contact: Mr. Jon Sig. Gudmundsson, Sr.

Address: P.O. Box 265, LaGrange, KY 40031.

Telephone: (502) 222-1441.

Fax: (502) 222-1445.

Museums and Research Centers

Fiske Icelandic Collection.

A division of the Rare Manuscript Collections in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. Holdings include books, journals, and other serial literature on Islandica with emphasis on Icelandic language, literature, and history.

Contact : Patrick Stevens.

Address: Ithaca, New York 14853.

Telephone: (607) 255-3530.

Sources for Additional Study

Arnason, David, and Michael Olito. The Icelanders. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1981.

Bjornson, Valdimar. "Icelanders in the United States." Scandinavian Review 64 (1976): 39-41.

Bjornsson, Arni. Icelandic Feasts and Holidays: Celebrations, Past and Present. Translated by May and Hallberg Hallmundson. Reykjavik: Iceland Review History Series, 1980.

Embassy of Iceland. Basic Statistics. Web site: .

Gudjonsson, Elsa E. The National Costume of Women in Iceland. 3rd edition. Reykjavik, 1978.

Houser, George J. Pioneer Icelandic Pastor: The Life of The Reverend Paul Thorlaksson, edited by Paul A. Sigurdson. Winnipeg, Manitoba, CA: Manitoba Historical Society, 1990.

Jonsson, Hjorleifur Rafn. "Trolls, Chiefs and Children: Changing Perspectives on an Icelandic Christmas Myth." Nord Nytt: Nordisk Tidsskrift for Folkelivsforskning. 41 (1990): 55-63.

Walters, Thorstina Jackson. Modern Sagas: The Story of Icelanders in North America. Fargo, ND: Institute for Regional Studies, 1953.

User Contributions:

this article is extremely useful to me. i'm doing a project on iceland and it has almost all the information i need. thanks!
Darrell Gudmundson
I'm delighted that you found my article on Emily Long, my grandmother's cousin, useful.
Iceland is a small place, and since it was not subject to the wars which swept back and forth across Europe, genealogies have been recorded and kept for centuries. Hence Icelanders are linked closely to ancient and medieval times, thanks in part to my own ancestor, Snorri Sturluson. Scholar Richard Beck was another cousin of my grandmother's, and my mother used to tell me of spending quality time in his office and even visiting his classes.
Joyce Moul
I hope to visit Iceland and wanted to learn more about it. This article was wonderful and helped me to better understand the country and people. I was wondering if "outsiders" ever move to Iceland?
joe simms
does keflavik iceland publish a phone book. I am looking for an icelandic girl I knew back in 1973
while stationed at rockville iceland. her name was margret(maggie) agustdottier(augustdottier?)
Já.is is the internet (online) phone book for iceland
Natalie Guier
My name is Natlalie, im a student looking for the icelandic passport color.
I'm a desendant of some of those people who left Iceland in the mid to late 1800's to seek freedom to follow Mormonisim. I'm grateful everyday for my Icelandic ancestors and appreciate their dedication and sacrifices. Six generations later, I am now teaching my grandchildren to always stand for truth and goodness, to follow their heart, and live a life that will leave a wonderful legacy.

I have visited Iceand seven times, and planning a large tour in June, 2013. It's wonderful to take Western Icelanders back to their roots, let them walk where their ancestors lived, see the things they saw, and feel of their love and spirits there.

Bless bless to all,
Lil Shepherd
Spanish Fork, Utah

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: