Discovering My Icelanders


The term Icelander has a special meaning in the immediate area of Spanish Fork, Utah. The “Icelanders,” as they are affectionately known, came to Utah as converts in the late 1800s from the Westman Islands just off the coast of Iceland. They settled in the southeast corner of Spanish Fork, which was known as the “bench,” and they had such an impact upon the other settlers that the area rapidly became known as “Little Iceland.”

Both of my father’s parents were born in Iceland, and my father taught me that being an “Icelander” was akin to being one of noble birth and heritage. I have always believed that and have held a special place in my heart for anyone with a heritage common to mine.

My father died when I was just a child, and my grandparents died shortly after; so when it came time for me to search out the information for my four-generation sheets, I had to turn to records that were either incorrect or incomplete. Family records were almost nonexistent, and church and community archives contained so many inaccuracies that I became frustrated. After hundreds of exasperating hours at the Brigham Young University branch library as well as the Church genealogical library in Salt Lake City, and even with assistance from skilled genealogists, I still had not been able to complete the four-generation sheets as asked by the Church. But I never gave up, and I regularly enrolled in genealogy classes in hopes that someday there would be a breakthrough.

About two years ago, as I sat in a ward genealogy class, I raised my hand and gave vent to my consternation, explaining that I had done all I could but was unable to complete the task required. I still remember the teacher’s reply: “Brother Thorstenson, if you have done everything possible that you know how to do and still can’t complete the worksheets, the Lord will open the way for you.”

Her words were stated so firmly and in such a positive way that I felt she was right and I would be helped.

Some two weeks later I received a telephone call telling me that a man from Iceland who was visiting in Spanish Fork thought he might possibly be a relative of mine. In just a moment of conversation with Marino Gudmundsson, I learned that his grandfather and my grandfather were first cousins and that Dr. Thorstein Jonsson (former mayor of the Westman Islands) was a common great-grandfather! Marino was a nonmember, but missionaries who had just opened Iceland for missionary work, after our having no missionaries there for almost one hundred years, had contacted him. During their conversation he remembered that he had heard of Mormon relatives who had gone to Utah. His curiosity about Utah and the possibility of relatives being there led him to make a special trip just to get acquainted with them.

The words, “The Lord will open the way” were literally ringing in my ears as I conversed with this intelligent and intriguing relative who seemed to have all the missing genealogical information I needed. I felt I had known him all my life, and soon we became close personal friends.

About three weeks after he and his wife, Gudrun, returned to Iceland, I received a package in the mail containing five generations of names on my father’s side, a photograph of my great-grandfather, and clippings from books and articles about my family. He also said I had a large number of living relatives in Iceland and that a visit by me would open all the records I needed for genealogy.

I had always dreamed of going to Iceland, but in three trips to Europe I had never been able to arrange to go that far north. This past spring, however, an assignment to the Nordic countries opened the way, and almost before my wife and I realized it, our airplane was landing at Keflavik Airport in Iceland.

To our dismay, no one met us at the airport, even though we had written to Marino more than a month prior to our departure informing him of our flight plan and requesting that he meet our plane if possible, since we knew no one else in the country. After a short wait, we boarded a bus for a forty-five-minute ride into Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, and were delighted to see two missionaries in the crowd looking for us. They informed us that Marino was in The Netherlands and would be unable to return during our short stay. Imagine my disappointment! I could feel my opportunity for genealogy work slipping away.

The elders took us to our hotel and then told us of the church meeting schedule and the opportunities they had arranged for us to speak. After they left, I looked out the window at the gray clouds, the dark seas, and the recently fallen snow and felt despair. In spite of the opportunity to be of service to the Saints, I felt I was about to lose my one great chance to serve my kindred dead.

About that time the phone rang and a pleasant female voice asked for me by my first name. She said her name was Valborg, that she was a cousin of mine, and that Marino had told her I would be in Iceland. She wondered if I could arrange my schedule to meet with her and other family members the following day. “The Lord will open the way” rang again in my ears.

My spirits soared. On Sunday we spoke to the missionaries, in Sunday School, in sacrament meeting, and at a fireside to the forty or so members and investigators who were eager to hear someone from Church headquarters.

Between church meetings, Valborg came to our hotel and took us to a fine, large home where we found a dozen elderly and middle-aged relatives who were just as anxious to meet us as we were to meet them. As soon as we were introduced, I pulled family group sheets from my briefcase and asked them to help me fill in information I was missing, which they were pleased to do. Most of them were children of my grandfather’s brothers, and they related many stories about my family that spiritually buoyed me up. They were warm and friendly and seemed delighted that we could be with them. They were even more expressive when I told them they were the only direct relatives I had ever met on my Icelandic side of the family. Afterwards, I could have floated back to the hotel, I was so happy.

The next day they arranged for us to fly to the birthplace of my grandparents, the Westman Islands. Mechanical problems delayed the flight two hours, but when we landed, another cousin was there to greet us. He showed us the home where my grandfather was born and then took us to the cemetery, where we were able to obtain vital information from family headstones. He even took us to a nursing home to see his mother, who could remember my grandfather when she was a small child.

Again, miracles seemed to be continuously forthcoming. The Westman Islands were almost destroyed by a small volcano several years ago. The lava destroyed over four hundred homes and came within half a block of where my grandfather was born. Volcanic ash buried the cemetery, but international student volunteers joined natives and hauled away the ten feet of ash that covered the headstones. Despite the natural disasters, the genealogical data I needed was there waiting for me. Even my cousin, Bogi Sigurdsson, turned out to be a miracle. He could verify all the data I received because as a youth he had memorized his ancestral line for six generations.

Because the flight to the Westman Islands was so late arriving, we only had three hours on the island before we had to return to Reykjavik. With much emotion and love, we departed. My ancestors were now real, personal, and, I felt, nearby.

On our third and final day in Iceland, my cousin Valborg came to the hotel and took us shopping. And then, as a last-minute gesture, she invited us to her home for light refreshments before we departed for the airport. Her husband, Sighvatur, and their child were there to greet us, and we enjoyed being together.

Then another miracle occurred. Just before we were to leave, Sighvatur said he wanted to show us his den and collection of Icelandic books. Time was short, but to be courteous we went upstairs to see them. To my amazement, he pulled a book from the shelf which contained the biography of my great-grandfather, Thorstein Jonsson. A cursory glance told me immediately that it contained further family records and information of considerable value. I had started copying feverishly when he, almost casually, pulled out an ancient handwritten document and said, “You might be interested in this. It’s the genealogy of Thorstein Jonsson.”

I literally trembled as he handed it to me and I leafed through the pages—thirty-two in all—handwritten. It provided a complete record of Thorstein Jonsson’s family back to A.D. 1124! It even included a paragraph in Thorstein Jonsson’s own handwriting saying he had read it, reviewed it, and could unequivocally state that it was accurate! Again I could have floated away. Then Sighvatur told me that he was going to give the original document to a museum for preservation, but that he had photocopied it and would like to present a copy to me.

As we left for the airport, I thought to myself, “If Marino had been here, I probably would never have gone to the home where the only copy of this document was to be found, and consequently I wouldn’t have received it.”

I don’t remember much more. The flight home was smooth, the food was good, the people were pleasant. All I remember is the words, “The Lord will open the way for you.”

[photo] This scene of people on horseback near Akureyri shows a common Iceland landscape—steep mountains, lakes, and green hills without trees. (Photography by K. Dibble, courtesy FPG, New York, NY.)

[photo] A panorama view of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. (Photography by U. Sjöstedt, courtesy FPG, New York, NY.)

[photo] A town in the Westman Islands. Volcanic ash covers many of the homes in the foreground. (Photography by U. Sjöstedt, courtesy FPG, New York, NY.)

[photo] Traditional homes at Skogar, Iceland, with sod-covered roofs. (Photography by M. B. Rosalsky, courtesy FPG, New York, NY.)

Clark T. Thorstenson, professor of recreation management and youth leadership at Brigham Young University, serves on the General Activities Committee of the Church.