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Icelandic genealogy

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Author I have just returned from a two-week visit to Iceland...
Posted Saturday, August 06, 2016 - Post #37293
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Gamma
GenoPro version: 3.0.0.7

Last Login: Wednesday, August 16, 2017
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...in part to research my maternal grandmother's ancestors, and was incredibly successful in that regard (and had a great vacation in every other respect). My mom had been wanting to go back, but didn't want to travel alone, so she offered to pay my way. This was by far the most rewarding vacation I have ever taken. Nearly everybody in Iceland, except for a few of the elders, speaks English as well as Icelandic now, but I have mixed feelings about the booming tourism industry there. Things have changed greatly just in the decade or so since my mom's first visit.

For those who may not be aware, Icelanders are one of the most tightly-knit societies in the world with respect to genealogy, in large part because of the nation's isolation. An article from The New Yorker by Michael Specter (linked to here) is mostly concerned with the scientific side of genetics, but it makes a very interesting observation: "It takes an amateur genealogist with a five-hundred-dollar computer about three minutes to show how any two Icelanders are related."

This is mostly true. The problem is that the genealogist must have full access to islendingabok.is, which means that said genealogist must be an Icelandic citizen. I can fully appreciate the privacy concerns, but this lack of access makes it nearly impossible for descendants of Icelandic emigrants to trace their ancestry unless the family kept detailed records of their own, and in the case of my Icelandic great-grandparents, particularly my great-grandmother, they were leaving a hard life for something they hoped to be better in a new country. As a result, my great-grandmother passed along nothing of her past (likely because the records that I found suggest that she may have been illegitimate), and both of my great-grandparents refused to teach their daughters Icelandic ("we are in Canada now; our children will speak English"; this was common among many immigrants to both Canada and the U.S. in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I believe to the detriment of both nations); this is probably the greatest loss, as Icelandic is an extremely difficult language for adults to learn from scratch; I am, however, intending to persevere in this.

I began my search at the Icelandic Emigration Centre in Hofsós, a small town (even by Icelandic standards) on the northern coast of Iceland, but it was complicated by the fact that my great-grandmother had been fostered (a common practice in Norse society for centuries, but in her case it was closer to a full adoption, and such things were traditionally rarely formalized) and I had nothing more than her name, patronymic (Icelanders still do not have surnames, except for a few families, and the practice of taking a family surname has now been banned), and a pair of names that I *suspected* were those of her birth parents. The Emigration Centre came up empty, probably mostly because we didn't know even the year of her emigration, let alone the exact date. The director of the Centre suggested that I try the National Archives (as we were headed south to the capital Reykjavík for the remainder of our vacation anyway).

At the National Archives, I was assisted by a very helpful young woman who was able to confirm the names of my great-grandmother's birth parents and birthdate from the church records (in most cases, the records are photocopies bound into books, as the original documents are in very poor condition), trace their ancestors back several generations in the archives, and provide me with copies of those documents. From my earlier work and existing documentation on my great-grandfather's line, she was able to establish a common ancestor between us on my great-grandfather's side, whose ancestry I *was* able to trace back to the original settlers and earlier in many branches before leaving North America (and to confirm this work at both the Emigration Centre and the National Archives). Using this, she was able to use islendingabok.is to trace my great-grandmother's ancestors back to the twelfth century. I have not yet integrated this into my existing family tree; I just got back home eighteen hours ago, and I slept for more than half of that, but I wanted to share my story while it was still fresh in my mind. Hopefully this will help other researchers. I urge them to try the Emigration Centre first, as my ancestral circumstances were somewhat unusual in that my great-grandmother had cut off all ties to her biological ancestors at an early age, and the people at the Emigration Centre are very knowledgeable and helpful.

(Minor edits made for clarity after re-reading the post four days later.)


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Edited: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 by Jakk
Posted Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - Post #37306
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GenoPro version: 3.0.0.7

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So... I have now finished adding the new data to the tree, and I have a few more "dead ends" than I had before... but I have now traced both of my Icelandic great-grandparents back to the original settlers in several lines of ancestry, and I am seeing a real need in GenoPro for a relationship calculator; I know my great-grandparents are related, I just don't know how closely (and it's obviously not all that closely, or I'd be able to calculate it manually with minimal effort). The aforementioned Icelandic genealogy database that can't be accessed by just anybody (with good reason, as I've already mentioned) has a companion smartphone app to help people determine how closely related they are to their date. Yes, that's how isolated the gene pool has been... and probably part of why Iceland has recently opened immigration opportunities substantially wider than they had been before (although I think that membership in the EU has had an effect there as well).

I'm just guessing that there aren't any resident Icelanders frequenting this site, primarily because Icelandic genealogy research is so much easier than for other nations... as long as you live there... but if there are, I would like to hear your feelings on allowing the descendants of expatriate Icelanders to access islendingabok.is... with limitations, of course. I would be content to be able to access direct ancestors and their siblings, although I would love to be able to see if I have any close relatives still living in Iceland... I know that I have relatives in Denmark, as one of my great-grandfather's younger brothers was adopted by a Danish family at the time of his family's emigration (Iceland was a territory of the Danish crown at that time). I'm still not clear on the details, but I have his name and his son's name; he commissioned the research into my great-grandfather's ancestry that formed the basis for my own research, and his son was kind enough to track down my grandmother and her sisters and ensure that they had copies of the document (which is how I came to acquire it). If, by chance, any descendants of Arni Riis are reading this, you have my most heartfelt thanks for your ancestor's hard work.


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Edited: Sunday, August 28, 2016 by Jakk


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