Tips for Beginning Icelandic Research

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This article will provide tips for people who are beginning Icelandic research.

  • The first steps are to gather and record. Write down what you remember from family stories. Talk to relatives who are still living. Ask them what they remember about names, places, approximate dates of life events, relationships, and any other thing they want to tell you. Make sure you then give them time to think about it before jumping in with another question! Sometimes if you ask for an exact date, that memory flies away. If you ask rather, "Did you celebrate Grandpa's birthday in the spring, summer, fall or winter," information may be remembered more easily. If they can't give you anything right then, just ask them to jot down what they might remember later.
  • Look for and ask relatives for copies of documents, letters, postcards, newspaper announcements, bible pages, certificates, pictures with writing on the back and/or the photographer's name and address on the front, birthday cards, calendars which have been written on, diaries, journals, and so forth. These items may be in an old trunk in the attic, or, in the pocket of old pictures. Important documents were sometimes placed in those portrait pockets for safekeeping.
  • Organize the information you have gathered about your Icelandic ancestors on family tree chart (aka pedigree charts) and family group record forms.  This will allow you to see where gaps exist in terms of dates and places.  This is very important, since you will eventually need to find the name of a place where your Icelandic ancestor(s) was born, christened, married, or died to take the next step in your research.  That is because life events take place and are recorded within defined, legal jurisdictions.  In Iceland the lawful record keepers were the Lutheran ministers.   Their records will contain your ancestor's information.  However, you need to be aware of the following:    
  • In Iceland, as in all Scandinavian countries, the patronymic naming system is used.  That means, from the time records began to be kept, up through today if you are a native Icelander, your surname (family name) is formed by taking your natural father's first name and add adding "-sson" or "-dottir" to it.  If you are an American with Icelandic ancestry surnamed "Peterson," and you discover your great grandfather, "John Peterson" was the immigrant ancestor - that means his natural father's first name was "Petter/Peder/Peter."  If you have Icelandic ancestry and do not have a surname which ends in "-son/sen" it is possible the immigrant ancestor, or the next generation down might have taken the name of the farm or village they came from in Iceland to be known by.  A search of an Icelandic gazetteer, such as this, could help you find that name and the jurisdiction to which it belongs. 
  • Because of the use of the patronymic system there could be many people by the same name living in the same place, who are totally unrelated.  Use available census records to try and find family groupings, relationships, ages. Then, use the church records to find actual birth/christening, marriage and death dates as you put together your Icelandic family tree.   
  • Iceland is somewhat unique among the countries of the world in that it is building a national family tree.  A native Icelander has the privilege of accessing this through a special program and code.  If you are an American with Icelandic ancestors, and still have ties to someone in Iceland, they might be able to access your common family tree.  If not, then research in original records may be needed to put together your family tree.