Bjarni Herjolfsson

Bjarni Herjolfsson, Norse explorer (dates of birth and death unknown; lived in the 10th century). Herjolfsson was likely the first European to sight the east coast of North America. While sailing from Iceland to Greenland in 986 CE, Herjolfsson sighted lands that were later determined to be Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland. Although Herjolfsson never set foot in North America, Leif Ericsson later retraced his voyage, establishing a settlement at what he called Vinland.

Norse Ship
Though not the dragon-headed vessels of legend, these seaworthy ships carried the Norse across the North Atlantic to North America. Replica, L'Anse aux Meadows.

Early Life

Herjolfsson was the son of Herjólfr Bárdarson and his wife, Thorgerdr, who were early Norse settlers in Iceland. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders, an Icelandic narrative recorded in the 14th century (and one of the main sources of information about the Norse in North America), Herjolfsson was “a very promising man” and someone who loved to travel. As a young man he alternated between spending a winter abroad and a winter with his parents in Iceland.

Voyage to Greenland

In the summer of 986 CE, Herjolfsson returned from a trip to Norway. He arrived in Eyrarbakki, Iceland, and learned his father had sailed with Eric the Red to Greenland, with the intention of living there. Troubled by this news, Herjolfsson refused to unload his cargo, stating to his crew that he intended to sail to Greenland and winter with his parents, as was his usual practice. His crew agreed to stay with him and they began the voyage together.

Driven off course by stormy weather, Herjolfsson sighted land, which he described as wooded and hilly, and continued northward, sighting mountainous land and mountains partly covered with snow. Realizing these lands did not fit the description of Greenland, he changed course and eventually reached his father's estate. After reuniting with his father, Herjolfsson decided to retire from his life as a sailor. He lived with his parents for the remainder of their lives, eventually inheriting his father’s estate.

Sighting the Atlantic Coast

Scholars generally agree that Herjolfsson sighted Newfoundland, Labrador and Baffin Island, though some argue that he strayed as far south as Maine. About 15 years later, around 1000 CE, Leif Ericsson bought Herjolfsson's ship and retraced his voyage, naming the lands Helluland (now known as Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador) and Vinland (somewhere around the Gulf of the St Lawrence).


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