Photo: Fred E. Woods Kári Bjarnason at Brigham Young University
Kári Bjarnason from Vestmannaeyjar Iceland visited Utah August 5-19, 2012 as part of an ongoing unique project. Dr. Fred E. Woods, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah and Kári Bjarnason, Director of Library in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, are working on the history of Icelanders who immigrated to Utah from 1854 to 1914. Fred and Kári have a project of gathering Icelandic images and documents funded by the Charles Redd Center, BYU, the Utah Humanities Council and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation. They are gathering documents in Utah and Iceland that pertain to the early Icelandic immigrants to Utah. They are also working on a book, Icelanders Gather to Utah; it will be co-authored by Fred Woods, Kári Bjarnason, and David A. Ashby. This book will be published in Icelandic and English.
The goal of the project is to, first, understand why so many Icelanders left their homeland to go to Utah and secondly to bridge the gap between those who are living and their ancestors. People want to know more about their own people. They may have different reasons for it, perhaps religion, family ties or just curiosity. Another goal of this large project is to bring those nearly 400 Icelandic emigrants to Utah back to life, to tell their stories with their own words, so their descendants can come to know them better. Icelanders have always been interested in their own history.
Between 1854 and 1914, nearly four hundred Icelanders immigrated to Utah. Many were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of these emigrants settled in or near Spanish Fork, Utah, making Spanish Fork, Utah the first permanent Icelandic settlement in North America.
Fred and Kári are visiting the descendants of early Icelandic emigrants to Utah to collect photos, letters, diaries and other historic documents. Some of these descendants have old family letters they have not been able to read because they are in Icelandic. During their visit, Kári has been translating many letters and other documents from Icelandic to English. This has turned out to be a very emotional experience for all involved. The important records of our ancestors are disappearing fast, so we must preserve them now. It’s important to know about our heritage, to get to know about our ancestors and their lives.
“It’s been an incredible opportunity to go into the homes of these people. They get tears in their eyes, and we can see the knitting of their hearts back to their ancestors in Iceland. They are learning about relatives they knew nothing about and it is very rewarding to reunite these families.” Fred Woods, Brigham Young University.
“The people who went to Utah are our brothers and sisters. They may be of another faith, but we want to understand and come closer to these people.” Kári Bjarnason, Vestmannaeyjar Folk Museum.
These pioneers are now remembered in a permanent museum exhibit at the Vestmannaeyjar Folk Museum on the island of Heimay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. The exhibit, Icelandic Heritage Among the Mormons, tells the story of early Icelandic Mormons, and includes pictures of many of the emigrants. A result of the work of Fred and Kári, the exhibit opened July 16, 2011. The exhibit celebrates the experience of a group of LDS converts who preserved their native identity and did so in a new homeland that was far away from and quite different than the land of their birth.
For an exhibit that was in Hofsós and then in Reykjavík, the Icelandic Association of Utah had found many pictures of the early Icelandic emigrants to Utah. There were only images of about half of the emigrants and some of these are poor quality. One of the purposes of visiting and interviewing the descendants of Icelandic pioneers to Utah is to find more and better quality images. Kári brings addition skills and knowledge to this research. He has been searching through records in Iceland where there has been very little in-depth research in Iceland about these people before they left for Utah. Kári has been able to find information that is not in the Utah records.
This is a unique combination of scholars, Dr. Fred E. Woods, Professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, a Mormon, with no Icelandic ancestors and Kári Bjarnason, director of the library in Vestmannaeyjar, and a Catholic, are studying and researching the Mormon emigrants from Iceland to Utah. Fred and Kári met when Fred was visiting the library in Vestmannaeyjar.
The next opportunity for these two to get together will be in February of 2013 when Kári returns to Utah. Kári chose February so he could attend þorrablót in Utah. After that the two have planed a conference in Vestmannaeyjar in early June of 2013 to celebrate the organization of the first Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Fred E. Woods was born and raised in Southern California. He is married to JoAnna Merrill and they are the parents of five children and two granddaughters. Fred graduated from Brigham Young University (BYU) with his B.S. degree in Psychology and his M.A. degree in International Relations. In 1991 he completed his PhD at the University of Utah in the field of Middle East Studies with an emphasis in Biblical Hebrew. Since the completion of his dissertation, Fred expanded his scholarly interests to include a serious study of Mormon History in the context of American Studies. He has authored several works in the areas of ancient studies and Latter-day Saint history and is the compiler and editor of the “Mormon Immigration Index” CD released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2000. His primary area of research is Mormon migration. Professor Woods is also very active in promoting interfaith collaboration. Dr. Woods has been a visiting professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, University of Iceland, several times at BYU-Hawaii and a research professor at Durham University and Australia Catholic University (Melbourne, Australia). Professor Woods has also lectured extensively in America and internationally.
Fred has no known Icelandic ancestors; his only claim to any Icelandic connection would be his birthday, June 17. He became interested in the Icelandic Mormon migration in 1999. The Icelandic Association of Utah was raising funds for the exhibit at Hofsós and a monument to be placed in Vestmannaeyjar in the year 2000, when a local newspaper article caught the attention of his wife, JoAnna. She told Fred this was something that he should be interested in. Fred made contact with the Icelandic Association of Utah and has been doing research and writing about the Icelandic pioneers that came to Utah since that time. Some of his Icelandic works include: a paper on The Conversion and Life of Guðmundur Guðmundsson published by BYU Studies in 2000; the book Fire on Ice published in 2005 in English and 2007 in Icelandic; a paper on Halldór Laxness and the Latter-day Saints, published by BYU studies in 2010; and Jon Jonsson: Icelandic Mormon Poet and Translator by Dr. Woods and Kári Bjarnason, published in Mormon Historical Studies Fall 2011.
Kári Bjarnason, born in Reykjavík, Iceland, received a BA in philosophy, a BA in Icelandic literature, and an MA in old Icelandic literature all from the University of Iceland. From 1989–2006 he was a manuscript specialist at Iceland’s National and University Library. Since 2007 he has been the director of the library in Vestmannaeyjar. In 2011–2012, he was a visiting scholar at BYU, where he was sponsored by the Charles Redd Center. Kári is married to Ágústína Gunnarsdóttir and they have two daughters, six and fourteen.