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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

The Icelanders

Oddrun Sigurasson

Emigration from Iceland began later than any other Scandinavian country, due in part to the small island nation's extreme isolation. Icelandic immigration is also difficult to track, as many Icelandic immigrants to the U.S. were counted as citizens of Denmark, which controlled Iceland at the time.

However, it is clear that in the late decades of the 19th century between 10,000 and 15,000 emigrants set out from Iceland to the U.S.—a total that approached one-fifth of the entire Icelandic population. Early emigrants included new converts to Mormonism who joined the Danish exodus to the Utah territory, as well as a few adventurers who founded a colony in Wisconsin in the 1860s.

The main emigration began in the 1870s, when families and groups of families began moving to the Great Lakes states, seeking to escape the famine and overcrowding that had struck Iceland just as they had other Scandinavian lands. At first, the Icelanders did not arrive in sufficient numbers to start their own communities, and so tended to attach themselves to Norwegian or Swedish farm settlements, or to go to work for established farmers. Within a few decades, though, Icelandic towns had been founded in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Icelandic schools established.

Icelandic immigrant Thodur Einarson, 1939

As with other Scandinavian immigrants, the Icelanders began to move west as the century drew to a close, seeking more available land in the Dakotas, and even moving across the Rockies to the West Coast. Many Icelanders found the Pacific Coast more agreeable that the windswept Dakotas, and settled in the farm country of Washington, Oregon, and California. The Dakotas remained the heart of Icelandic America, however, even after Icelandic immigration tapered off at the turn of the century. After Iceland gained its independence and new immigration all but ceased, Icelandic American culture intermingled to a certain degree with that of other Scandinavian immigrants, particularly the Norwegians'. However, Icelandic identity is still strong among the descendants of immigrants, and in the 2000 census more than 42,000 Americans claimed to be descendants of Icelandic immigrants.

To listen to a selection of Icelandic songs brought by immigrants to California, search the collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.