Saturday, June 15, 2013


Archivist Janet Berggren (L) and volunteer Kirby Foss (R) assisted
Jonas Thor and his wife, Anna, at the Island Archives.
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

Jonas and Anna Thor of Reykjavik, Iceland, recently visited Washington Island for one week as our guests.  The Thors have traveled here before. Jonas led three tours of Icelanders as they traced the route of Icelandic immigration in the midwest.   On those tours, Hannes Andersen was their step-on Island guide, imparting local knowledge of settlement here.  Hannes himself had visited Iceland several times, and he maintained contact with cousins there.

I began email correspondence with Jonas Thor in the late spring of 2012, when he planned another tour of Washington Island (although that tour didn't materialize).  At one point in our exchanges, I referred to letters in Mary Jo’s possession that had been mailed to her great-grandfather, Arni Gudmundsen, between the years 1880 and 1930.   Jonas offered to translate them.  This “exchange” of old letters for translation is ongoing, and we both realized there could be more such letters on Washington Island, in attics or trunks, that would describe in fair detail the life and times of those who lived then in Iceland, as the family members corresponded  back-and-forth with one another over the years.

Icelandic immigration is a topic of longstanding interest of Jonas Thor’s.   He taught for ten years at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, wrote several books about Icelanders as they settled across North America, and more recently, through his historian's background he helps set up tours, both for tourists in Iceland, and for Icelanders who visit North America or Europe.

The tour company with which he is associated is Icelandic Farm Holidays, a cooperative of rural farm owners who provide lodging and meals for their guests.  These farms - like our B & Bs - are found at various locations rimming the coastline of Iceland.  There, tourism has been on the rise, with many visitors from European nations, but also from Japan and China.  Tours for Icelanders who travel abroad are with historical connections in mind, but they may also be simply traveler holidays.

Thor is eager to learn more about Washington Island’s Icelandic settlers:  family names; family stories; the location of individual family home sites; and even the whereabouts of individual Icelandic settler burial plots.  These sorts of things, he says, are of great interest to Icelanders, knowing where family members dispersed to and their history upon arrival in the new continent.  From our talks, it appears 
that Jonas already knows more than many of us do about our Island's early history.

Arni Gudmundsen (immigrated from
Iceland in 1873), wife Haldora,
 daughters Gudney Anna, Johanna Andrea,
Margaret Sigridur (mother of
Arni Richter.) Year unknown. 
It comes as no surprise, then, that in addition to speaking on this same topic at the Archives program Sunday afternoon, June 9th, Thor also spent a great deal of time at the Island Archives.  For a start, Archivist Janet Berggren provided Thor with an Index of Washington Island Icelandic immigrant family names. 

The Washington Island Archives intends to assist him in his research by encouraging Islanders to bring in Icelandic settler family photos, and letters sent to them by Icelandic relatives that need to be translated.  Because this topic is a big one, Thor has narrowed his interest for correspondence and photos to ones that date roughly 1870 - 1914, an era when over 16,000 Icelanders (equivalent to about 20% of the population) left Iceland for North America.  

Archives staff will scan old letters and family photos (with the owner retaining the originals), and then forward them by email to Jonas Thor.  In this way, both Icelandic files and the Island Archives will have copies. 

If this process can be streamlined and continued, Jonas Thor’s dream may be realized:  to eventually organize such available information on a website, so that interested people everywhere can benefit from those connections.

(Note:   I have a number of booklets that describe the various tour offerings of the Icelandic Farm Holidays company.  Ask me for one when you see me, if you’d like a copy. Otherwise, on the web go to:  )

-  Dick Purinton


ZEP said...


My wie is today setting foot on he island To attend a conference sponsored by THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY on the emergent church. She's in he company of ev. Brittany Barber and they're staying in a rented house through Friday.

For a picture of Dee see the current raccoon.


David Dix

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