Vesturfarinn   -     

(From: Austurland, vol. I, 1947; translated by: Cathy Josephson)

Jökuldalsheiði and its settlement

by Halldór Stefánsson

old farm1. Háreksstaðir

The first land settled was Háreksstaðir in the northern part of the area. It may be that the first farm site was placed in an area that seemed most likely to provide a good return; but it may also be that the site was chosen because it was known that there had been a farm there in past times. Whatever the reason, Háreksstaðir was certainly considered one of the best farms in the highlands, with many people, plus the grazing lands there were both nearby and extensive.

The first settlers at Háreksstaðir were Jón Sölvason (b.8 July 1803) the farmer at Víkingsstaðir in Skógum, Bessason and his wife Katrín Þorleifsdóttir (b.1 Sept.1809), Þorleifsson from Stóru-Breiðuvík in Reyðarfirði. They moved to Háreksstaðir and began farming there in the spring of 1841. Previously they had farmed at various places in Fljótsdalshérað, Ási in Fellum – were married there in the spring of 1831 – at Hafursá in Skógum, Skeggjastöðum in Fellum and at Eiðum. Their residences during this time were clearly on rather loose footing, as they lived on four farms in just ten years. From Eiðum they moved with their three daughters and two others working for their board. That Jón Sölvason had been a well-accomplished man is certain, as he was for a time hreppstjóri (local chairman) of Jökuldalshreppur before Kristján Kroyer of Hvanná (which at that time was called Hvammá) took over the position.

Jón Sölvason lived at Háreksstaðir until his death on 16 Mar.1864, and Katrín, his widow, lived there for some years after with her daughters and sons-in-law, who will be written of later.

In his first years there, Jón Sölvason became involved in a dispute over tenant rights.

When Jón moved to Háreksstaðir from Eiðum, also moving from Eiðum was Sólveig Eiríksdóttir, (b.4 Mar. 1806), who did housework for shelter and food.

Sólveig was the daughter of Eiríkur, the farmer at Arnaldsstöðum in Fljótsdal, Eiríksson. She had married at Víðivallagerði in 1926 [must be 1826] to Pétur (b.1796) Bjarnason, Pétursson from Norðurkoti in Andakílshreppur. They lived there until 1831, and their sons Vigfús (1829) and Páll (1830) were born there. From Víðivallagerði they moved to Eiðum, and from there in 1835 to Stórabakka, then to Fljótsbakka (1837). In 1840 they separated, Pétur moved south to his native area in Borgarfjarðarsýsla, Sólveig and three of their children to Eiðum again where she worked for their lodging, but their sons Vigfús and Páll were boarded elsewhere. Later they moved to Háreksstaðir to their mother.

Pétur came east again after many years, but he and Sólveig did not resume housekeeping. He was soon charged and found guilty of adultery, Sólveig sued for divorce, and received a settlement.

Benedikt, a son of Sólveig and Pétur, and some of the children of Vigfús later emigrated to America.

Later, the children of Jón and Sólveig married. Vigfús married Anna Sigríður (b.1831) Jónsdóttir on 14 Sept. 1851, and Páll Pétursson married Vilhelmína Friðrikka (b.1833) Jónsdóttir on 17 Sept. the next year. For the next few years there were four separate families at Háreksstaðir. Some years later, Vigfús and his family moved away from Háreksstaðir, and in their place came Jón Stefánsson and Guðrún L. Þórðardóttir, who had been the settlers at Hlíðarendi.

Two years after the death of Jón Sölvason, Páll, the husband of Vilhelmína, died (11 Feb.1866). Vilhelmína lived on there with their children until she married again (12 Oct.1867) to Björn Árnason, who had been farming at Háls in Heiði, elsewhere written about, but he died very shortly after they married. Vilhelmína stayed on at Háreksstaðir until the spring of 1869, when she moved with her children and her mother south to Berufjarðarströnd. Sólveig Eiríksdóttir was then alone on the farm, and lived there until the spring of 1871. She moved then to the next farm in the highlands, Mel (more about her written later).

2. Sænautasel

turf house Sænautasel was the next land that was settled in Heiði, in the spring of 1843, two years later than Háreksstaðir.

The settlers were Sigurður (b.22 May 1805) Einarsson, the farmer at Brú (in the farm listings called Brún) and Kristrún (b.1818) Bjarnadóttir, farmer at Staffelli in Fellum, Jónsson. They had married two years before (25 Sept.1841) and lived at Brú until the new farm was built, along with Jón’s father and brothers, Einar and Þorsteinn. Clearly the farm was overcrowded in spite of extensive hay fields, and nothing nearby was free to settle, and the decision was made to build up a new farm in grass-grown Heiði to relieve the crowding at Brú.

The land chosen was part of Hákonarstaða land, where two new farms were built later, not Brú. Also,they knew about a farm before in the valley inland from Brú, as well as at least two abandoned farms on former Brú land (Múlasel and Netsel).This indicated that the Sænautasel land was the better choice, first because of the fishing in the lake, and also the grasslands were ample and well-watered.

3. Rangárlón

Rangárlón was settled in 1844 at the north end of Sænauta Lake, the year after Sænautasel on the south end. Likely the location was chosen for the same reasons as Sænautaseli; also, the farm was along the trail over the highlands and farms were on both sides, though the way was longer to Háreksstaðir. This land was part of the Möðrudal land, and Sigurður and Metúsalem, the farmers at Möðrudalur, granted the permit to build.

The settlers were Pétur (b.1797) Guðmundsson and Þorgerður (b.1817) Bjarnadóttir. Pétur was the son of “Story-Guðmundur” Magnússon from Bessastöðum, and Þorgerður was the sister of Kristrún at Sænautasel. They married the year before (20 June 1843) at Brunahvammi in Vopnafirði; in the years prior to that, they were working at separate farms in the Hérað area, though had likely decided to marry as their first child was born four years before they married while Þorgerður was still living with her parents and Pétur working on the next farm. Rangárlón must have been the first and best land there, and when Jökuldalsheiði began to be settled, the closed doors began to open like the magic cave of Sesame. Pétur had been married before to Ólöf Pétursdóttir from Hákonarstöðum, but she had died some time before then. Þorgerður moved from her parents home at Brunahvammi in Spring, 1842, and Pétur also that spring, east in the Hérað. Probably they had decided to take land in Heiði, and therefore moved into the area with the intention of planning for the new farm.

Pétur and Þorgerður farmed at Rangárlón until his death, 3 Feb.1851. Þorgerður lived on there for four years, until she married again, 1 July 1855, her foreman, Guðmundur (b.1818) Kolbeinsson, from Reyðarfirði. They farmed at Rangárlón until they divorced (1867) and Guðmundur moved to Grunnavatn, which had been built up. Þorgerður farmed still with the help of her sons from the first marriage, Sigurður and Bjarni, until Sigurður took over the farm in 1873 and married that summer Þorbjörgu Eiríksdóttir, Sigurðsson, farmer at Ármótasel. After a year, Sigurður and his family moved to Lýtingsstöðum in Vopnafirði and from there to America in 1876, as did his brother, Bjarni.

The farmer after Sigurður was Kristján Friðfinnsson from Sænautasel.

4. Gestreiðarstaðir

Gestreiðarstaða-farm rose from the land the same year as Rangárlón [1844]. The settlers there were Andrés (b.1812) Andrésson, the farmer at Hallfreðarstaðahjáleigu, Sturluson and Una (b.1820) Jensdóttir, the farmer at Hrjót, Árnason. They had both grown up in some part along a road of trouble, and lived yet in unsettled circumstances after they reached adulthood. In 1837 their roads met at Skeggjastöðum in Jökuldal, where their common courage and affections brought them together. Two years later their first child was born.

Their problem was whether it was advisable for a young man and young woman, caring for each other but penniless and powerless to obtain land, to marry or not. It could be more difficult to find a place together, with a child or children, than if they were each working at separate farms. The decision was based on many reasons. It isn’t easy to judge their reasons so long after. But the choice that Andrés and Una made was to not marry before they could be certain of obtaining their own land. They saw their chance when the lands in Jökuldalsheiði were available: the only option was to start a new farm. For this, they chose Gestreiðarstaða valley. There had likely been some traces of an old settlement, as has been said elsewhere. Permission to settle there was obtained from Metúsalem and Sigurður of Möðrudalur, without any objections, and Gestreiðarstaðir was considered part of Möðrudalur for a long time and also part of that parish. Certainly it was difficult for them to begin a new farm, poor as they were, compared to earlier pioneers, because of a very restrictive law passed in 1776 concerning settling new lands. No records can be found now about the support the pioneers of Jökuldalsheiði had received from other landowners, but it is said that the Möðrudal farmers were for along time very helpful to poor settlers.

When Andrés and Una had obtained permission and were on their land, they married that same year on 14 July [1844]. By then they had two children. For over twenty years they farmed at Gestreiðarstöðum. They had many children and were clearly poor, because the children were boarded elsewhere as soon as they were old enough.

Una Jensdóttir died 18 July 1866. After her death Andrés lost his love for in the highlands. The next spring he moved to Einarsstöðum in Vopnafirði, but didn’t want to be there either and moved back to the highlands, to Fagrakinn, in the spring of 1868. He died there unexpectedly on Dec. 10 that year. The truth was clearly that he loved the highlands deeply, but no longer loved life after he lost his wife.

From 1845-1847, Vigfús Jósepsson and Rósa Jónsdóttir were at Gestreiðarstöðum, and later they settled at Víðihólum.

The highland farms were unchanged for the next three years. The next two farms, Veturhús and Víðihólar, were taken from part of the farm Hákonarstaða. The owners and farmers at Hákonarstaða were then Pétur, deputy representative in local politics, Pétursson and his brothers.

turf shed5. Veturhús.

At Veturhúsum the first settlers were Benjamín (b.1799) Þorgrímsson, Suður-Þingeyingur by background, and Guðrún (b.14 June 1806) Gísladóttir, the farmer at Arnórsstöðum in Jökuldal, Jónsson. They were married at Arnórsstöðum in 1825. Benjamín was manager there for her father, who was very decrepit due to old age. These two households lived at Arnórsstöðum until 1834, when Benjamín and Guðrún moved to Skeggjastöðum in the same area, also a two-family farm, and were there for about five years. From there, they moved to Bakkagerði in Jökulsárhlíð and were there until they settled on land in Hákonarstaðaheiði. This farm they first called Barði and later Veturhús.

They were there only six years. In the spring of 1853 they moved to Eskifjörður, then after a year back as workers at Hvanná; then the next year at Víðihólum to the household of Vigfús Jósepsson, the settler there (written of later), and there Benjamín died that fall (c.1855) on 8 October. Guðrún stayed there until the next spring, and after that lived with her children until she died at her son, Jón’s, at Fagrakinn, 17 Apr.1868. Jón was later at Háreksstöðum, farming there for many years. Benjamín and Guðrún’s situation was always unsettled, for various reasons.

6. Víðihólar

At Víðihólum in 1847 were the settlers Vigfús (b.1790) Jósepsson from Hömrum in the Reykdæla area and Rósa (b.1796) Jónsdóttir from Öxnadal. They had moved in 1832 with their daughter Lilja from Svíra in Hörgárdal to work for board at Hvanná. They were at various places in Jökuldal and working at Gestreiðarstöðum the two years before they began on their new land. They were at Víðihólum until the spring of 1855, when they stopped farming, as they were both rather elderly, and moved to their daughter, Lilja, who was then housewife at Hneflaseli. Rósa died there 8 Dec. 1860, and Vigfús six years later on 7 April.

Also there at Víðihólum from 1852 was Jón Guðlaugsson, later the settler at Ármótasel.

About mid-century the number of farms increased, with Hneflasel on Eiríksstaðaland and Melur on Skjöldólfsstaða and Hof Church lands.

7. Hneflasel

The first settler at Hneflaseli was Oddur (b.1798) Sæbjörnsson, whose family was from Jökuldal. He was unmarried and lived with his housekeeper, Helga (b.1804) Guðmundsdóttir, also from Jökuldal. They must have lived together, unmarried, all the time Oddur was at Hneflaseli and afterward. Previously, Oddur had been for a long time the shepherd at an outlying sheep shelter belonging to Eiríksstöðum, likely on Háls, and also as a fox hunter. He probably obtained permission to build up a farm in return for long and faithful service. The farmer at Eiríksstöðum was then Gunnlaugur Þorkelsson and his son-in-law Jón Jónsson from Möðrudal.

Oddur and Helga farmed at Hneflaseli until 1860, when they moved back to Eiríksstöðum. They left their property to the owner of Eiríksstöðum, and in return received lodging for the rest of their lives, as was often done in those times. They both lived past 1878, because they both moved with the housewife there, Guðrún Gunnlaugsdóttir, the widow of Jón from Möðrudal, to Fremrihlíð in Vopnafirði after the ashfall in 1875, and then back to Eiríksstaður in 1878.

8. Melur

old farmThe new farm at Melur was certainly settled as a privately-owned farm from public lands, but the priest at Hof in Vopnafirði made a demand for the land on behalf of the church, and there was nothing to be done against this, it was later said.

The first settlers at Mel (first called Melum) in 1848 were Jón (b.1807) Guðmundsson from Mývatn and Steinunn (b.20 Oct.1821) Torfadóttir from Arnkelsgerði, Torfason. They had been working at Háreksstöðum and married there in the fall of 1847. Needing their own land, they decided to begin a new farm. They lived at Mel until Spring, 1863, and moved from there to Vopnafjörður. Jón died, destitute, on 10 Oct. 1865.

In 1851, Jón Guðmundsson had taken in with him a man from Þingeyjarsýsla, Jón Guðlaugsson (b.1810), married to Guðrún Þorsteinsdóttir from Fljótsdalshéraði. They left there a few years later, going to Sænautasel to farm with Guðmundur Kolbeinsson and Þorgerður. From there they moved in the spring of 1860 to Hvammsgerði in Vopnafirði.

By 1855, there for four additional farms in the highlands: Ármótasel, Fagrakinn, Grunnavatn and Hlíðarendi. They were all in the northern part except for Grunnavatn.

9. Ármótasel

At Ármótasel the first settlers were Jón (b.5 July 1816) Guðlaugsson, farmer at Mjóadal in Bárðardal and elsewhere, Pálsson, and Sigríður (b. 15 Aug. 1823) Jónsdóttir the farmer at Ljótsstöðum in Fnjóskadal Jónsson. Guðlaugur, Jón’s father, was the brother of Þórður of Kjarna in Eyjafirði. Jón and Sigríður had moved from the north in Spring, 1851, east to Hróarstungu, and from there the next year as tenant farmers at Víðihólum. Next they moved to their new farm at Ármótaseli in Gilsársveit. The farmer then at Arnórsstöðum was Benedikt Gunnarsson, the brother of séra Sigurður at Hallormsstað.

Whether Sigríður, Jón’s wife, had died or they were divorced cannot be determined from the priest’s records, but after five years he is alone, working at Hneflasel, and two years later he married again at Víðihólum (14 Apr. 1862) Steinunn (b. 1830) Símonardóttir, the farmer at Hvammi in Lóni Halldórsson. Some time later they moved east to the Hérað, but some time later they appear again in the settlement history of the highlands.

10. Fagrakinn

old farmFagrakinn was taken from Möðrudal’s land, according to what has been said. The settlers there were Jón (b.1807) Ólafsson who was born at Völlum in Fljótsdalshérað and lived there until he was confirmed [about 14 yrs.], and Guðríður (b.1799) Vigfúsdóttir from Stöðvarfirði. They had been workers at various farms in the Hérað until they married in Kirkjubæjar parish in 1843. The next year they were tenant farmers at Surtsstöðum in Jökulsárhlíð. In 1845 they moved to Arnórsstöðum in Jökuldal as farm workers, and later to Möðrudal. By 1855 they had settled and were farming at Fagrakinn. Jón was buried there on 18 June 1862. Guðríður lived there for some years in joint occupancy with some others.

Jónas 11. Grunnavatn

This farm was built from Brú land. The settlers were Jónas (b.12 Nov. 1825) Bergsson (Money-Bergs) Halldórsson from Eiðaþinghá and Arndís (b.1821) Magnúsdóttir from the same area. They married at Sænautasel in midsummer (18 July) the year before they began the new farm, and lodged there until they built Grunnavatn.

Jónas and Arndís farmed at Grunnavatn continuously for twelve years and had many children. In 1865 they moved to Rjúpnafell in Vopnafirði, and later to Leifsstöðum in the same area. They went to America in 1880 with their children.

12. Hlíðarendi

At Hlíðarendi the settlers were Jón (b. 17 Dec. 1817) Stefánsson and Guðrún Lára (b. 22 Sept. 1827) Þórðardóttir. Jón was the son of Stefán, the farmer at Eyvindará and later at Berg in Vallahreppur, Jónsson, and Guðrún Lára the daughter of Katrín Þorleifsdóttir, the wife of Jón Sölvason of Háreksstöðum, and Þórður the farmer at Staffell, Guðmundsson, born at Ási in Fellum before either of her parents were married.

Jón and Guðrún Lára married at Eiðum on 10 Oct. 1845. In the spring they moved to Háreksstaður and must have been there or in the area until they began the new farm at Hlíðarenda, likely just after 1850. They were there until 1860, and must have moved down into Jökuldal.

In another five years (1860) two new farms were added in the southern part of Heiði, Háls and Heiðarsel.

13. Háls

At Háls in Eiríksstaðaheiði in 1859 were the settlers Magnús (b. 27 July 1826) Jónsson farmer at Mjóanesi in Skógum, Ormsson and Aðalbjörg (b. 28 Aug.1822) Jóhannesdóttir farmer at Fjallsel, half-brother of Jón (younger) from Möðrudal. In 1854 they had been workers at Eiríksstöðum and married there in the fall (5 Oct.). The next spring they were workers at Víðihólum, were there until 1859, and then built the new farm at Háls. But they were only there one year before they moved to Sleðbrjót in Jökulsárhlíð. Magnús died soon after, but Aðalbjörg survived him by many years. Their daughter’s son was Jón the doctor Nikulásson in Reykjavík.

14. Heiðarsel

At the same time as Háls, the farm Heiðarsel was built. The settlers were Jón (b. 4 Nov. 1824) Þorsteinsson, farmer at Brú, Einarsson and Kristín (b. 6 Feb. 1823) Jónsdóttir, farmer at Aðalból, Pétursson of Hákonarstöðum. They married at her home parish church, Valþjófsstað, 12 Sept. 1846 and lived at Brú until Heiðarsel was built up from Brú lands. The reason for this choice was undoubtedly that this was the homeland. They farmed at the new farm until 1863, and then moved to Ormarsstöðum in Fellum. Their son was Jóhann Frímann, later foreman of wool workers at Ormarsstöðum.

The two farms in the Heiði which were built last were Hólmavatn in Skjöldólfsstaðaheiði and Lindasel in Arnórsstaðaheiði. Neither was worked for more than one year, in spite of the costs of making the land farmable. These lands must have returned the least on their investment, although the cause was not due to their location, but rather the willingness of the settlers to be there.

15. Hólmavatn

This was the only farm in the northeastern part of the highlands built in 1861, and was settled by Jóhannes (b. 15 Jan. 1829) Friðriksson, farmer at Foss, Árnason and Kristbjörg (b. 1822) Guðlaugsdóttir, sister of Jón at Ármótasel. She moved north to work at Möðrudal, from there as housekeeper to Jóhannes. They married at Foss on 30 Oct. 1850 and lived there first. It must have been crowded there, and so it was decided to settle on new land. They must not have liked the work of a new farm, because the next year they moved to Hraunfellssel, the inmost farm in Hraunfellsdal, which had been farmed for some years. They didn’t like that either, and began a new farm at Tungusel on Steinvarartungu, but were there just three years. While they were there, their son Friðrik died in an avalanche in the Tungu river canyon. They then moved to Teigi in Vopnafirði and from there the next year to Þorbrandsstöðum, where Jóhannes died 4 Aug. 1869. Their son was J. Baldvin, hreppstjóri at Stakkahlíð.

16. Lindasel

Lindasel was the last farm that was built in Jökuldalsheiði. The year was 1862. It was settled by Guðmundur (b. 6 Mar. 1840) Hallgrímsson, farmer at Skörðum in Reykjahverfi and Lovísa Dorotea (b. 26 Mar. 1822) Jörgensdóttir, doctor, Kjerulf at Brekku. Guðmundur had moved east with Sigurgeir from Reykjahlíð Jónsson in 1852 when Sigurgeir (who raised him) moved to Galtastöðum in Tungu. He must have been related to Ólöf, Sigurgeir’s wife.

Lovísa Dorotea’s father died when she was young. Her mother, Arnbjörg Bjarnadóttir, had to leave Brekka when the new doctor (Beldring) came, and at many places and for many reasons the mother and daughter were not always together. Before she was 20, Lovísa Dorotea went to study in Reykjavík. After she came east again she was housekeeper for two years (1844-1846) for Einar ‘the rich’ Einarsson at Hrafnkelsstöðum. (It was the fashion to call those farmers this, who were comfortably situated.) A few years later she went to Copenhagen to learn handcrafts, and returned with the first knitting machine brought to East Iceland. She was in many places until in 1861 she was with her mother, who was lodging with Kristján Sigurðsson, her son of her first marriage, at Fossvöllum. Lovísa Dorotea and Guðmundur married there that fall (26 Sept.) and the next spring built their new farm at Lindasel. On 4 Aug. 1862 their daughter, Ólöf Dorotea, was born at Lindasel, but 17 Feb. 1863 her mother died. After his wife’s death, Guðmundur was unsettled and at many places. Among others, in the summer of 1867 he was working for American whalers at Vestdalseyri in Seyðisfjörð. Later he worked as a sailor.

Ólöf Dorotea, their daughter, went after her mother’s death to Arnbjörg, her grandmother, who was then lodging at Brú. Later, they moved to her mother’s sister, Jóhanna, and her husband Sigfús Stefánsson, and she grew up there.

Ólöf Dorotea married Páll Guðmundsson, farmer at Firði in Seyðisfirði. They went to America.


This concludes the history of the settlement of Jökuldalsheiði. The main reason for settling the land was a shortage of other farms. Areas that were already settled, were completely full. Courage and trust in the future were still necessary to move , even if crowded conditions were the reason, from settled country up into the wilderness of the highlands.Most of the first settlers took the risk without knowing the outcome, but their own experience convinced them it would be at least the same, or even better, than to continue working for board in a fully settled area. Settlers had come from far and wide, but they were first workers on the farms nearby before they taking land in the highlands.

As may be seen, there was great variation in the lengths of time the settlers spent on their new lands. Some gave up after a short time, or they were not began as a homestead; some lived on their land the rest of their lives and their descendents as well; lifespans are naturally varied, and some were already old when they settled the new lands. There were also more reasons. Other opportunities came up, perhaps more promising.

It may be said that the settlement took about fifteen years, and that the number of farms was thirteen or fourteen, not considering those farms (Háls, Hólmavatn and Lindasel) which were only lived on a few years, or even one year.

An attempt has been made to report on the original inhabitants of Jökuldalsheiði so that their descendents might have a thread in hand by which to unravel the story and have some idea about the lives and circumstances of their not-long-gone forefathers and foremothers who thought it their best option to build their homes and live with their families in an unsettled and uncertain place, choosing the highlands of Iceland.

It cannot be proven or even argued that the pioneers in Jökuldalsheiði, nor later residents, had to deal with especially hard times or hard choices equal to, for example, the difficulties and trials the pioneers of New Iceland had to struggle and live with, both people who moved there from the highlands and others, during the first settlement years in New Iceland.
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