Mapping Iceland

In my last post on the subject I mentioned that portions of Iceland on contemporary maps all the way up to the early 20th century remained blank. The main culprit for explorers, travelers, and cartographers was the great glacial region of Vatnajökull, at 3,139 sq. mi (8,130 sq. km) the largest glacier in Europe, and now a national park in southeast Iceland. Terrible snowstorms, heavy rains, unreliable ice, and poor local knowledge of the frigid plateau contributed to the failure of multiple expeditions by many men into the interior of the “Glacier of Rivers,” and during the late 1800s it became clear that there was frequent volcanic activity in the area as well.

1906 geological map by Icelandic geographer/geologist Þorvaldur Thoroddsen, who is credited with being the first to map the interior of the Icelandic Highlands in 1901, which is when this map was first published. The different colors represent different compositions of the island, such as basalt, liparite, volcanic ash, etc.

The intrepid Englishman William Watts, after a couple attempts, was able to traverse portions of Vatna Jökull, as it was then known, and shared his experiences in two books that I have recently read, the first being Snioland; or, Iceland, its Jökulls and Fjalls, in which his expedition party had to turn back due to lack of provisions and severely inclement weather (though they didn’t leave until the Union Jack was firmly planted near Mount Paul in the west of the jökull, whose namesake Paul Paulsen was one of Watts’ helpful Icelandic guides). Watts’ second book, Across the Vatna Jökull; or, Scenes in Iceland; Being a Description of Hitherto Unknown Regions, describes a more successful venture into the area, but only after he and his few Icelandic guides have each worn through at least four pairs of mocassins, which Watts preferred to alpine boots for unclear reasons.

Watts’ accounts of his expeditions are great primary sources, showing what he thought English readers would find appealing in Iceland but also straightforwardly communicating what he himself was there for: exploring untrodden tracts of the island and making useful or interesting discoveries. In my next few posts I hope to share more images of Icelandic maps in the Cornell libraries, and also some noteworthy passages from Watts’ books.

9 thoughts on “Mapping Iceland

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  3. Hi Seth,
    W.L.Watts has inerested me for some years. Maybe you are not aware that he emigrated to the US in the 1880s and had a careear with California State Mining Bureau. Some documents are available in California Libraries at Sacramento and L.A.
    Watts is higly regarded here in Iceland, being the first one on record, to cross the Vatnajökull glacier, along with his five Icelandic companions.
    Also to be the first one to travel to the Askja Caldera, after the big volcanic eruption in 1875.

    • Hi Víðir,
      I wasn’t aware that Watts moved to the US, thanks for letting me know! I’m glad to hear that he is fondly remembered in Iceland, since from the two books of his I’ve read it seems he truly loved exploring the interior despite its rough times and places. I hope to write more about him and others in further detail soon!

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