Vesturfaramiðstöð Austurlands / East Iceland Emigration Center began in May, 2002. At the annual meeting, it was decided that a birthday open house would be best. We were offered the use of Kaupvangskaffi, downstairs in the Kaupvangur in Vopnafjörður, and there we have tables with a good number of the resources we use in searching for relatives. Also are a good handful of maps of North America, a slideshow of last summer’s visit to Manitoba and North Dakota, and an extra computer or two for those who might want to delve into the past when they stop in. Of course, goes without saying that the coffee/tea pots are well stocked!!
And as is rather necessary these days, the donation jar is handy to the guestbook – and even small change is very welcome!! Our guests today were very kind to us – in addition to being very interesting folks to chat with.
Vopnafjörður was the largest port of Icelandic emigration to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of North Americans have ancestors who lived in Vopnafjörður. Due to harsh environmental and economic conditions in Iceland, including the eruption of Mount Askja, some 20,000 Icelanders left their homeland between 1870 and 1915 – roughly a quarter of the population of Iceland. These Icelandic settlers, known in their native language as Vestur-Íslendingar (meaning Icelanders in the West; initially many Icelanders did not see emigration as a change of country, and there was some discussion of moving the entire population), called their settlement “New Iceland”, and the region remains a symbolic centre of the Icelandic heritage in Canada today.
Iceland in the 19th Century
Poor weather and natural disaster are often pointed out as the main reasons people decided to move to the west. There were other reasons as welll, although undeniably these were the decisive motivating factors. Although conditions were difficult, it was not possible to leave on a moment’s notice. Time was needed to complete preparations after the decision to leave was made: to sell farmland, livestock and other property, and there was still no certainty of calm sailing because of the dangers presented by the sea ice. Also, not all parts of the country experienced the same problems at the same time. A good example of a natural disaster leading to emigration is the eruption of Askja in 1875. In combination with an unusually hard winter the year before, in 1874, this led to a flood of emigration in 1876 when 1,190 people left their homeland for the west, in contrast to just 59 people in 1875 and 391 in 1874.
The vigorous efforts of the agents for the Canadian government had their own effect. These “Emigration Agents” made bright promises to people, describing a prosperous land across the sea. Conditions generally in Iceland in these years were not exactly wonderful. It seemed that the land could not support more than 50,000 inhabitants. After the afflictions of the 18th century, the population did not again reach that number until between 1820 and 1830.
The success of the vaccine against smallpox, the increase in breastfeeding of infants, better training for midwives and the arrival of doctors, however few, were able to lower the infant mortality rate. It cannot be said that people were dying of starvation after 1820, although some were “thin-cheeked” during the latter months of winter and sometimes children went to a happier home due to insufficient or poor food.
About 1860 there began a shortage of available farms; the land could not bear an increase of farmers with the methods then in use. The population was then around 65,000 and there were still no villages to take care of foreseeable increases.
The law concerning farm laborers, which bound people without their own land to stay with a specific farmer from year to year, was quite controversial after 1870. In spite of its decreasing significance by 1863, this law which had its origin in the “Grágás” from the 10th century still had a great effect on emigration, and no real changes were made until 1907. Landless people found it almost impossible to begin a family and no options appeared except as a farm worker, or on a too-small farm, or in a fisherman’s hut. Was it any wonder that people heard when an offer came for a new life?
The weather during the late 19th century was increasingly stormy and rainy. Hard times were the norm with short, uneven breaks from 1859 until the end of the century. The bad weather years of 1865 and 1866 were especially difficult, and were the worst of the century. From 1867 to 1869, difficulties increased due to hard weather and a poor hay harvest. For more information about the years from 1870-1914, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org