"Icelanders and their Connection to Utah and the West" 2015 Conference

By Angel Johnson-Nelson


On September 9-13, 2015, an educational conference was held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah to commemorate the first permanent Icelandic settlers in North America. These settlers lived in Spanish Fork, Utah 160 years ago beginning in September of 1855. Sponsors of the conference were: Icelandic National League of North America, Icelandic National League of Iceland, Icelandair, Icelandic Roots, Icelandic Association of Utah, BYU Religious Education’s Religious Studies Center, and the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation.

The surrounding Wasatch Front Mountains were covered with fall foliage, adding color to the dramatic views, and welcoming convention attendees from many parts of North America and Iceland.

Many of the native Icelanders that attended flew into Denver, Colorado via Icelandair, and enjoyed the scenic drive from Colorado to Utah. A few of the groups stopped to admire the red rock landscape that greeted them in Moab, Utah; while others enjoyed visiting several southern Utah locations on their way back to Denver, after the convention had ended.

The convention began with a meet-and-greet the first evening, with many old friends saying hello, and many new friends being introduced. The first official day of the convention had several different speakers from the Icelandic community presenting 30 minute papers of various Icelandic related topics. Convention attendee, and INL of NA club member from Seattle, as well as a member of the INL of NA’s Icelandic Online Club, David Johnson, had this to say about the speakers, and his experience at the convention:

“While the weather, food, new friends, and International Folk Dancers' performance at the final banquet was terrific, on a more academic note, two speakers were especially interesting.

“Icelandic author Halldór Guðmunðsson, dissected the allegory that is at the heart of Halldór Laxness' novel, Paradise Reclaimed. The story that plays out on the pages of this wonderful novel reflects Laxness' own life searching for idealism through his interest in Communist Russia, only to realize later in life that idealism is often elusive and often found where you started the journey...at home.

“Another interesting and relevant talk was by Markús Þ. Þórhallson, graduate student at the University of Iceland who spoke about the first civil marriage in Iceland.  Interestingly enough it was in the 1870s where a Mormon couple searched for a way to "legitimize" their love when a religious marriage was not an option for them. Their union was ultimately sanctioned by a new form of civil marriage so the couple could remain together, without compromising their personal values of having to marry in the Lutheran religion as was the only possibility then.  In light of today's social and legal debate about marriage, this was a very interesting analysis of similar issues and questions at play 140+ years ago.”

There were many different speakers of various Icelandic topics, including early migration to Utah, and it was a very educational experience for everyone.

The second day of the convention begun with a whirlwind bus tour in downtown Salt Lake City of various Latter Day Saint historic locations, such as the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum, the Church History Library, Temple Square, as well as a stop at the Family History Library to meet with their Icelandic specialist. Later that evening a presentation of Andy Geslison’s documentary “Of Icelandic Ancestry,” and also the film “Fire on Ice: The Saints of Iceland,” which explains the migration of Icelanders to Utah after being converted to the Mormon faith was shown.

The third day and the highlight of the convention, was a bus tour of the first permanent Icelandic settlement in North America; Spanish Fork, Utah, hosted by the city of Spanish Fork, and the Icelandic Association of Utah. The tour featured various homes of the early settlers, including a recreated dug-out home which many Icelanders first built when they arrived in Spanish Fork, pioneer antiques, cemeteries, early historic locations, and the lighthouse monument that is dedicated to the first Icelandic settlers of Spanish Fork. The monument was rededicated a few years ago with a visit from the then president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, with a rock from Vestmannaeyjar, which is also known as the Westmann Islands which is situated approximately 20 miles off the coast of mainland Iceland, was added to the location. Being a “Sister City” to Spanish Fork a monument was also erected in Vestmannaeyjar to honor those Icelanders that had left to live in Spanish Fork, Utah. The mayor of the Westmann Islands Elliði Vignisson, and the mayor of Spanish Fork, Jack Leifson who is an Icelandic descendant of the early settlers, joined the group for the tour and luncheon. Later that evening a banquet featuring the BYU International Folk Dancers was enjoyed by everyone who had attended the conference.

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 nurtures 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 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.

To wrap up the conference on the final day, attendees were taken to view a taping of the broadcast “The Spoken Word” featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With the conference being over, new friends, and old were sad to say goodbye.  But, everyone in attendance agreed, “A short visit with friends and family is always better than no visit at all.”  A great time was had by all that attended.




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