Spanish Fork celebrates 160 years of Icelandic heritage

Visitors from across North America and Iceland gathered on Saturday in Spanish Fork to commemorate 160 years since the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Utah Valley.

According to Fred E Woods, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, the five-day celebration (that was hosted by BYU) attracted approximately 130 participants whose commonality resides in their Icelandic heritage.

“These are Icelanders and they’re all connected because of their same ancestry. Some are connected to people in Utah, some are not. But they want to see where their people went,” Woods said.

Woods explained that in late 1854 Samúel Bjarnason and his wife, Margrét Gìsladóttir, were the first Icelandic couple to emigrate from Iceland to Utah as a result of their conversion to Mormonism. They came from the tiny, fishing island of Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands), which is situated approximately 20 miles off the coast of mainland Iceland.

They, accompanied by friend Helga Jónsdottir, were the first three Icelanders to settle in Spanish Fork. From 1855 to 1914, approximately 400 of their fellow countrymen and women followed in their footsteps, Woods said.

Emphasizing the importance of the event, Woods said the very first Icelanders to come to America settled in Utah, and specifically, in Spanish Fork.

“They didn’t come because of economics [or] because of politics … they came because of religion,” said Wood, adding that the “vast majority” of Icelanders that settled in Spanish Fork were Mormon.

Saturday’s portion of the conference, which was hosted by the city of Spanish Fork and the Icelandic Association of Utah, included a tour of Spanish Fork.

Participants visited early Icelandic historical sites, such as where the old Icelanders once lived, as well as the cemetery where many of the early Icelandic settlers are buried.

Throughout the conference’s duration participants heard lectures on topics such as the first Icelandic settlers in Utah and the history of the Mormon Church in Iceland. They also toured various church history sites in Salt Lake City.

Stefán Jóhannesson, permanent secretary of state for Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said it has touched his heart to see how the descendants of the pioneers that came from Iceland cherish and nurture their Icelandic heritage.

“It’s been really eye-opening for me to see … how much … ambition and determination they put into honoring this heritage,” he added.

In the same line of thought, Elliði Vignisson, mayor of Vestmannaeyjar said, “To come here after 160 years and to see how fond [Spanish Fork residents] still are of their homeland, that’s something to be amazed by.”

Spanish Fork Mayor Steve Leifson — of Icelandic heritage himself — said he was excited to have all of the conference participants in Spanish Fork, and that he wants to have similar opportunities in the future.

“We want to continue that close relationship between Iceland and the United States, and specifically Iceland and Spanish Fork,” he said.

Lacey Nielson, President of the Icelandic Association of Utah, and great-great-great-granddaughter of Samúel Bjarnason, said the event was ultimately about unity and the shared bond of culture, and “feeling like a big family and sharing that connection [was] wonderful.”

Danielle Downs DAILY HERALD
September 13, 2015