Two sagas from the 13th century—Eirik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders—unanimously declare that Leif Eiriksson was the first known Scandinavian to set foot on North America. Despite that acknowledgment, the Saga of the Greenlanders also claimed that at least one other person had seen the New World before Leif made his journey. The person in question was an Icelandic merchant named Bjarni Herjolfsson. Around 986, Bjarni was reportedly seeing to his trade route between Iceland and Norway when he received news that his father, Herjolf, was joining Eirik the Red’s expedition to settle Greenland. By the time Bjarni returned home, his father had already set sail for the new land. This realization disturbed the merchant—perhaps he was worried about his father’s ability to set up a farm alone, or maybe he was simply a filial type of guy who really loved his father. Whatever the case, Bjarni Herjolfsson quickly set back out to sea in order to meet up with his father in Greenland before winter, and he did not even take the time to unload or sell any of the cargo that he brought back from Norway before leaving port.
With his ship overweight and his navigation rushed, Bjarni soon found himself at the mercy of the weather. As the story goes, he was blown off course by storms and then found himself blinded by dense fog. Lost at sea, he continued sailing until finally, at long last, he spotted land. Yet, the sight of the coast perturbed Bjarni, for he had been given a description of his destination before he had set sail, and the lands he saw ahead were in no way Eirik the Red’s misleadingly-named Greenland. What was before him was an entirely different land.
Still eager to reach his father, Bjarni Herjolfsson did not stop to explore on foot, but instead sailed northward along the coast. He watched the geography change as his journey progressed. At first, the country he saw was extremely forested. Tree-covered hills began to give way to wooded flatlands, followed by a region of snow-capped mountains and a glacier on what seemed to be an island. Upon arriving in this more frigid and snowy place, Bjarni and his crew made the fortuitous decision to start sailing back east. Navigating this new route, the lost Icelanders finally reached Greenland, and Bjarni was reunited with Herjolf. Despite seeing plentiful land to the west, Bjarni apparently never attempted to go back to the places he witnessed. He did, however, spread the word in Greenland and similarly told his story in Norway whenever he visited for business.
Leif Eiriksson, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, was one of the people reportedly captivated by Bjarni Herjolfsson’s tales of land to the west. Eirik the Red’s Saga, however, cuts Bjarni out of the story and instead insists it was Leif who, while returning home from Norway, was blown off course by storms and discovered the New World by accident. Whatever the case, either tipped off by Bjarni Herjolfsson or carried off course by his own fateful storm, Leif was said to have reached North America around the year 1000 and went one step further than Bjarni by actually stepping foot on the land, which he called Vinland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Vinland Sagas (Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga) translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.