Do you have some Icelandic heritage? Icelanders were the original European settlers of North America. The first North American settler, Thorfinnur Karlsefni, sailed from Hofsós, one of the oldest trading ports in Iceland, to North America–actually, to Vinland, which is now Newfoundland. Thorfinnur Karlsefni lived in Vinland from 1004 A.D. to 1006 A.D. and during his stay there he had a son, Snorri Thorfinnsson. Snorri was the first person to born of immigrant parents in North America.

The 19th century in Iceland wasn’t easy. There was harsh weather, failed crops and natural disasters. When the volcano Askja erupted in 1875, it led to almost 20,000 Icelanders leaving for North America by 1914. To put that in perspective, there was 70,000 people in Iceland at the time. Reykjavík and Akureyri had a population of 3000 each. Most of those who emigrated were from the North or the East of Iceland and 80 percent of them were under the age of 40.

A Little Place Called Gimlí, Manitoba

The first Icelandic emigrants were a group of Mormons from the Westman Islands. They first settled in Kinmount, Ontario in Canada, but on September 25, 1875 they moved to Gimli, Manitoba on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. The area was deemed “New Iceland” and if the conditions in Iceland after the eruption of Askja didn’t improve there were talks about moving the entire population of Iceland there.

The winter of 1875-1876 was one of the coldest in Manitoba’s recorded history, which is no small task, with temperatures reaching -40.0°C every winter. For those of you more familiar with °F…it’s the same -40.0 °F. That’s the point these two systems of measurement meet. To make things worse, one of the key reasons the Icelanders moved from Kinmount to Gilmi was for the fish–only Icelanders didn’t know how to ice fish.

Eventually, the icelanders settled in to their new home. In 1908, Gimli was declared a village and not just a settled area. It still was in the region of “New Iceland” which wasn’t separate from Canada, but did govern itself outside the boundaries of the provincial government of Manitoba. It was called the “Icelandic Reserve” by some, but Icelanders were very aware of their new duties to Canada and Britain.

The Winnipeg Falcons 1920 Olympic Gold medal winners

The First Gold Medal In Olympic Hockey 

Manitoba is still the largest settlement of Icelanders outside of Iceland. You can even take Iceland Studies and Icelandic Literature at the University of Manitoba. Canadian Icelanders won the first ever Olympic Hockey Gold Medal in Antwerp in 1920. The team was called the “Winnipeg Falcons.” They found it hard to get on established teams, as they didn’t have a tradition of hockey from Iceland, and many of them didn’t speak English until going to school. There was also quite a bit of racial prejudice against Icelanders who seemed strange to other Canadians due to the Icelandic naming system and strange beliefs in elves and trolls.

Frank Fredrickson, Hockey Hall of Famer and Canadian Icelander

Hockey Hall of Famer, Sigurdur Franklin “Frank” Fredrickson, said “…fighting for acceptance in school was as hard as Manitoba’s winters.”

Connect with your roots

There are only records for 14,268 of the Icelanders who moved west to North America. They know the number was likely closer to 20,000 but the records have been lost. Today if you visit Hofsós in northern Iceland you can visit the Icelandic Emigration Centre (Vesturfararsetrið) and learn about the people who left Iceland.

If you already know you have Icelandic heritage or you’re just extremely interested in Icelandic settlement history you can join the Snorri Program which connects the people and stories of Western Icelanders back to Iceland.