I was fortunate enough to have the incredible experience of spending Christmas in Iceland. It was an absolutely otherworldly vacation, from the decorated streets of Reykjavik to the snow-swept valleys of the South Coast. To cap it all off, I was lucky to see the Northern Lights two nights in a row, for over an hour each time. The trip crossed a host of new experiences off of my bucket list and is near the top of the list of my favorite trips of all time.
Northern Lights over Jokulsarlon, the iceberg lagoon.
Part of what makes Iceland so beautiful is the desolation of it all. The scenery certainly helps; the stark peaks and monochromatic colors of the landscape make it seem like you’re in a wintry Mordor. But the one factor that really set Iceland apart for me was that, even with all the tourists, it seemed incredibly isolated. You could easily wander just a few steps off of the beaten path and find yourself utterly alone in nature.
This isn’t particularly surprising; after all, Iceland has a total population of just over 330,000, and has the 4th lowest population density in the world. The diminutive population of this island nation got me thinking about Iceland’s influence on America. Of course, the USA is the Goliath to Iceland’s David, with over 1,000 times the population; the entirety of the island’s population could fit into Tampa or Cleveland. The number of Icelandic Americans is even smaller; at 42,000, it’s barely enough to qualify as a city. Still, there are pockets of the US where Icelandic heritage is celebrated. Let’s take a look at these Icelandic corners of the country.
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Spanish Fork, UT
Spanish Fork (see map) is the oldest Icelandic settlement in the US, and perhaps the most unusual. The origins of the Icelandic community here can be traced back to a single man: Gudmundur Gudmundsson. Gudmundsson was an Icelandic goldsmith who, upon traveling to Denmark to train, converted to Mormonism and became a missionary. He returned to the remote Westmann Islands off of Iceland’s southern coast to spread the gospel, and found a surprising number of willing converts. However, the established Lutheran Church was less than pleased at Gudmundsson’s antics, and both he and his fellow converts were harshly persecuted. This harassment became the driving force for Gudmundsson and several other Icelandic Mormons to emigrate to the US, heading towards Brigham Young’s Zion in Utah.
Gudmundur Gudmundsson. Via Ralph A. Train.
The group arrived in 1854 and began to search for a permanent home. Rumor has it that Brigham Young himself suggested they live in Spanish Fork, where there was already an established Danish population. In any case, life in the new homestead proved to be fairly suitable and more Icelanders arrived as the good news spread. In total, 410 Icelandic immigrants grew to call Spanish Fork home. For a detailed history of Icelandic immigration to Utah, I highly recommend the book Fire on Ice. It offers a wealth of knowledge and is a surprisingly easy read for a history book.
Of course, generations now separate the present population of Spanish Fork with their Icelandic ancestors. However, the town still shows plenty of pride in its heritage. The town boasts a small park that has several monuments, including a replica of an Icelandic lighthouse with a Viking ship on top and a stone brought all the way from the Westmann Islands. Spanish Fork also holds Iceland Days at the end of June each year, where you can learn about the town’s history, meet Icelandic horses, and even try some traditional Icelandic food (most of it is quite good, but stay far away from the fermented shark)!
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Washington Island, WI
The majority of Icelandic emigrants left not because of religious fervor, but rather for a more promising and stable future. The largest waves of emigration occurred from 1870 to 1900, mostly caused by poor harvests, political unrest, and several devastating volcanic eruptions (for a more complete history of emigration, check out this article). However, the arrival of Icelanders at Lake Michigan’s Washington Island (see map) was once again put in motion by one man: William Wickman, a Dane.
Wickman had worked for a time in a shop in the Icelandic town of Eyrarbakki. Upon arriving at Washington Island, Wickman wrote to his old boss about the loveliness of his Wisconsin home. This correspondence was shared amongst regulars in the shop, and in 1870 four men decided to make the journey to join Wickman (interestingly, one of these men was also named Gudmundur Gudmundsson). The new settlers found the land plentiful and the people welcoming, and their letters of praise back home were published in Icelandic newspapers. By 1900, over 100 new immigrants had arrived.
Washington Island’s Icelandic ferry. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Today, Washington Island’s Door County is a popular summer destination for tourists and locals alike. The island itself remains quiet, however, due to its isolation. This isolation has also allowed the island to retain many descendants of its original Icelandic settlers. The Icelandic influences can be seen throughout the island, from its businesses (such as the Viking Hotel) to the ferry that services it, the Eyrarbakki.
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Icelandic immigrants to America didn’t always take the most direct path. This is evidenced clearly by the story behind the small town of Mountain, North Dakota (see map). At first glance, this place seems like an insignificant map dot. Upon further inspection, however, the influences become clear. Mountain is part of the larger township of Thingvalla, named for Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park. It is home to the Icelandic Communities Association, has an Icelandic church, and has a street named Borg (Icelandic for town). The town of less than 100 is absolutely drenched in Icelandic heritage, and yet its history is very different than its sister towns in Utah and Wisconsin.
Icelandic Flags in Mountain, ND. Via the Grand Forks Herald.
The story of this small pocket of Iceland takes us through the USA’s northern neighbor, Canada. From 1870 onwards, Canada struggled to attract immigrants from Europe, as most chose the more temperate climate of America. However, they had a disproportional amount of success when it came to Iceland; there are more Icelandic Canadians than Icelandic Americans to this day. One of the largest settlements in Canada was New Iceland, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Established in 1875, this town remains the largest Icelandic settlement in North America. However, several immigrants remained unhappy with the limited opportunity in Canada, and became insistent on moving to America. This small group headed south to Pembina County, North Dakota, just across the border. They were welcomed with open arms by the USA, which quickly took steps to recognize the legitimacy of these new settlements. By 1882, Thingvalla township and its center of Mountain were born.
Like its counterpart in Utah, Mountain takes pride in its heritage. Each year, the town celebrates The Deuce (2nd) of August, when Iceland adopted its constitution to become independent from Denmark. The festival attracts up to 10 times the number of the town’s actual population, and is a hallmark of northeastern North Dakota. The celebration has also garnered international attention in the past; in 2013 Icelandic Prime Minister David Gunnlaugsson paid a visit!
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Honorable Mention: Kodiak Island, Alaska
While researching the previous three towns, I found a hidden gem of information. As it turns out, America’s last frontier nearly became Iceland 2.0! As the flow of Icelanders increased in the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant was approached by a small group of Icelanders, led by Jon Olafsson, based in Milwaukee. This group had a grand idea to start a new colony at Kodiak Island, Alaska (see map). The group truly believed that with enough support from the US government, most if not all of the Icelandic population would relocate to the colony (while this sounds crazy now, it was a commonly held belief by Icelanders at the time). The Icelandic group believed that Kodiak Island was the perfect place to settle, as its conditions were very close to those of their homeland.
Grant loved the idea for two reasons. First, Icelandic immigrants were seen as extremely desirable due to their perceived work ethic and hardy nature. Second, Grant had just purchased Alaska and was struggling to prove its worth; any kind of settlement there would be a political victory for him – you can read about Grant’s reasoning in his personal papers. Grant set plans for the colony in motion, and by 1875 several visits to Kodiak Island had been made. However, a contrarian Congress nixed the idea to fund a colony with federal dollars, and the project was reluctantly abandoned. A fascinating look into what could have been!