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Front Page » December 27, 2011 » Emery County News » Icelandic Immigrants history in Emery County
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Icelandic Immigrants history in Emery County


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Val Payne was given an opportunity to tell about his attending Old Spanish Trail training. He spoke at the Emery County Historical Society. The training was sponsored by the Old Spanish Trail Association and was held in Richfield. This organization would like to start a chapter in Emery County.

Payne handed out brochures about the Old Spanish Trail to those interested in documenting, education, preservation and protection of the Old Spanish Trail. He also reported on the progress at the Buckhorn Well Information Center. Approval has been given to salvage the building and the pump jack and locate them in the center of the fenced enclosure.

Lori Ann Larsen described and read a musical number written about 1874 that became the Iceland National Anthem. Annette Cook played the anthem for the audience.

Bernice Payne introduced Professor Fred E. Woods of Brigham Young University from the Department of Church History. She said, Dr. Woods has lectured nationally, internationally and is the author of several books and articles. He is the editor and compiler of the Mormon migration website, which was modified and upgraded in 2010. Bernice said, "This is a fantastic website and I use it frequently in the research that I do. Some of your ancestors may have diaries and entries that are recorded on that website."

She met Woods when he came to the Emery County Archives last year. He brought with him Perry Bjornsson the Special Collections Librarian from the National Library of Ireland. These two men are working from both sides of the ocean on research about the first Icelandic pioneers to the United States. They were interested in reading about Icelandic descendents living in our county. "We were able to introduce them to three Emery County families that were descendants of Icelanders," said BernicePayne.

Woods thanked the Historical Society for inviting him to share some of his research about immigrants from Iceland to Utah. He then thanked Bernice Payne and Dottie Grimes for helping in his research last year.

Iceland, is an island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean, located between Europe and North America. Though not part of the continental mainland, the country is considered European.

The island has a population of about 300,000 and a total area of 39,769 square?miles. The capital and the largest city is Reykjavik. Iceland is a mountainous island nation, about the size of Virginia or slightly larger than Ireland. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Iceland was first inhabited by Nordic people in the ninth century A.D.

Woods gave the group some background as to how he got started in the Icelandic immigrant research. He stated, "I am not Icelandic. In February of 2000, I got a phone call from my wife Joanna. My main area of research is in Mormon immigration worldwide to the United States in the 19th century. My wife had heard about a group of people meeting together in the Icelandic Association of Utah. They were discussing building a museum exhibit about Icelandic Mormon immigration.

"In the phone call of February 2000 my wife said, 'I think you're supposed to be involved with this.' Eleven years later, and I am still involved in it. This has meant a couple of summers of teaching at the University of Iceland. A wonderful experience. I love the Icelandic people. They have many descendents living here in Spanish Fork and in Cleveland," said Woods.

"Who were the first Icelanders permanently settling in America? Some of you may be surprised to learn that they were Latter-day Saint converts. These people were eager to settle in Utah. How did the message of Mormonism come to Iceland? This is the most unique group I have studied. I have been doing this research seriously since 1995. I do not know of any other group coming from this small place, settling in Spanish Fork and Cleveland.It begins with Gudmundur Gudmundsson. A very interesting person. He is buried in the Draper Cemetery. One of the few cemeteries that the LDS church owned. The very week that they were trying to determine whether or not to shut the cemetery down, they found out that Gudmundur Gudmundsson was buried there. This is a historic cemetery as he was one of the first missionaries to Iceland. He was born in 1825 in Iceland. When he was 19, he left his native land for Denmark, which was a common thing. He lived there for several years until he met the Mormons, was converted and ended up returning to his homeland. He wrote to his good friend Borarinn Halfidason, who was the other missionary. Halfidason had recently become a journeyman cabinetmaker. In Gudmundur's letter to Borarinn, he told him about the wonderful sect called the Mormons. Elder Erastus Snow's preaching made an impression on Gudmundur. Elder Snow was the Latter-day apostle over the preaching of the restored gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Denmark.

"I teach about the international churches in my field. I will be teaching about Latin America tomorrow, then East Germany and then French Polynesia. Next week we will be doing Asia. It is very interesting for me to go back to the 1850s and see the sacrifices of men and women.

"For example Parley P. Pratt went to Chile in 1851. It took him two months to get there by ship. His wife was seven months pregnant. He was vomiting the entire way. A tough, tough mission. They were trying to learn Spanish and there was no religious freedom in the country. These pioneers really get to me.

"In 1851 Borarinn Halfidason and Gudmundur Gudmundsson were called to go back to Iceland by Elder Snow and preach the restored gospel in Reykjavik, Iceland and Vestmanaeyjar on the Vestmann Islands of Iceland. They arrived in the spring of 1851. Gudmundur said in a letter, 'I expected, every person who would hear the message, would believe the message which was so desirable. I felt the fruit of the gospel was so sweet and more desirable than any other fruit. I wished first and foremost that my relatives would partake of the gospel. But, alas, they would not. I preached to my brothers and they would not receive me. My pious parents had died and I felt alone and a failure. Then a short time after I found some friends that were believing and continued to be faithful. Though the laws were hard against us, so were the priests and reports in the press. I was often spit upon and mocked but I was filled with the love of God. I did not feel the least anger toward them. The ministers warned the people not to listen to the missionaries, whom they called false prophets who had come to deceive their countrymen,'" said Woods.

"This was very common treatment of missionaries throughout the world at this time. These were tough times for missionaries anywhere in the world. Things have changed though. I can tell you I am friends with the Lutheran Bishop of Iceland. He generates a lot more light than he does heat.

"Perry Bjornsson and I are collecting Icelandic manuscripts, journals, newspapers and translating and editing them. We are putting these out on the web. We are gathering images and anything we can find to flesh out the history of the immigrants," said Woods.

Last year, while doing research at the Emery County Archives, Woods and Bjornsson visited with some residents in Emery County that have Icelandic heritage such as Frieda Fillmore, Kit Anderson and Larue Lofley.

Nearly 400 Mormon converts between 1851 until 1914 came to Spanish Fork. The most came in 1855. Bishop Borour Didricksson helped these new arrivals. Woods then read a few excerpts from Bishop Borour Didricksson's testimony.

As a result of the missionaries preaching and conversions they were taken before the islands local court and were forbidden to preach. Borarinn's wife strongly opposed her husbands conversion, burned his Mormon literature. She became desperate and threatened to drown herself. It was not his wife that was drowned that year, but Borarinn himself. He lost his life in a fishing accident. Gudmundur informed Copenhagen of this tragedy and that 24 people on the island desired baptism, but no one was authorized to perform the ordinance, because Gudmundur was a teacher, not a priest. By 1853 Elder Thoreson came and the work started to increase again. They held a meeting and before the meeting closed Gudmundur was sustained as the President of the Branch. He was grateful to receive his new companion, who was ordained an Elder and baptized several people.

"The first Icelandic immigration to America, it is interesting to me to see the impact a small group of Icelanders have on Utah. For example the assistant acting vice president for many years at BYU is the great-grandson of Samuel Bjarnasson," said Woods.

"Samuel Bjarnasson the first Latter-day Saint Icelander (the first Mormon and first man) to immigrate to Utah was also the first Icelander to immigrate to America. He came with Margaret Bjarnasson and Hilda Jonsdottir.

"They left from Liverpool and arrived in the Salt Lake valley in 1855. According to tradition Brigham Young directed them to Spanish Fork where he thought they would fit in well with the Danes. However there is absolutely no evidence that there were ever any Danes there at the time. There isn't one Danish name in the records. Spanish Fork had just become a city in 1855. This was passed down as folk lore. They are buried in the Spanish Fork Cemetery.

"Six years ago I wrote a book called "Fire On Ice, The History of Icelandic Latter Day Saints at Home and Abroad". At that time I calculated the number to be 412 that made it to Utah. However, some did not make it to Utah so the number is now 381. This is a small portion of the Scandinavians that came.

"In Utah we have identified 425 families that we are going to try and get the Icelandic manuscripts from for others to enjoy. In my research I use the Sail, Rail and Trail method. I use the sail before the trail or how they missed the boat. This is my primary area of research. I track every voyage that brought Latter Day Saints from anywhere to America. I find the passenger list, the US Customs list and match it with the LDS church list. I have tried for 16 years to find every journal I possibly can. So that even if your great, great grandfather or great, great grandmother did not keep a journal, possibly a dozen people on the ship did. I now have on line moe than 1,000 first person accounts typed word for word. I will continue to add to that record.

"We have finished 1840 to 1890 now we will do 1891 to 1932. This will be coming out on line next year.

We have tried to track down the ships that immigrants came on. From these records we get an idea of what was going on at the time. There were tough times in Iceland and you see this mass immigration from 1872 to 1900. About 16,000 of the total population of 70,000 immigrated mostly came to North America. Today there is a population of less than 300 thousand. This is not a big country but fabulous people.

"Imagine the trip. This is great stuff. This is the actual ship that they took "the Canoens". What a journey it was. Crossing over to Scotland down to Liverpool and then they crossed the Atlantic. Not knowing English, struggling, wanting to come to Zion. As one of the converts said, in his testimony, Notwithstanding the difficulty of the task, the fire of Israel was burning in our bosom, we forsook our homes, for the Gospel's sake," said Woods.

Woods went on and read excerpts from several immigrant letters and journals that told about their lives and the hardships encountered.

As far as Icelandic Missionaries, Magnus Bjarnasson and Luther Jonsson were the first Icelanders to be called as Latter Day Saint missionaries from Utah. They launched the second largest wave of Icelandic immigration to Utah from 1873 to 1914. Magnus wrote, The second of May 1873 we left Salt Lake on our mission to our native land and came to the Vestmann Islands. We began to spread the principles of the Gospel in their homes, which caused the local minister to have us summoned before the magistrate four times. In 1875 two more Icelanders, Samuel Bjarnasson and his son were sent back to Iceland for a year. Although they did not baptize anyone, they did however establish several branches of the church and several Icelanders emigrated to Utah, when they concluded their mission.

Borour Didricksson came back from Iceland thinking he was a failure, not one single convert. He then decided to write a missionary tract 186 pages long, because he wants to make a difference. The title "A Voice of Warning and Truth." That tract became the single most powerful tool for missionary work. The mission was shut down in 1914 due to World War I. From 1914 to 1975 there were no missions in Iceland. In Iceland that tract was still being used in the late 1970's when the mission re-immerges. It was even more important than the Book of Mormon translated into Icelandic, because Didricksson wanted to do something to make a difference. This was the most successful tract ever used in Iceland. The LDS Church now has the original document.

This was similar to Parley P Pratt's experience. When he came back from Chile he started teaching people Spanish, because he wanted a younger group to go to Latin America.

Fred E. Woods then told some facts about his life. By saying, I am the only member of my family that is a member, of course my wife and children are members. My dad went to the 7th Day Adventist Academy. My mother was a staunch member of the Church of Christ. My sister joined the Baptists. I had a grade point average of 1.7 in High School. I was voted the Most Mischievous in High School. The last thing I ever thought I would be is a Mormon, teaching religion at BYU. Long hair and a surfboard, Beach 101 was my style. I did not make many converts on my mission in Australia. I was in my early 20s. I had a lot of fun and I have been back four times through the years. It is sure fun to see the people I met and made friends with there. Doctor Woods thanked the large crowd that came out to the Historical Society meeting and for giving him the privilege of discussing the immigration of Icelandic people to Utah, to Spanish Fork and to Cleveland. Several of those in the group were from ancestors that came from Iceland and they were excited to hear this bit of history.

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