Bjarni Herjólfsson

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Bjarni Herjólfsson

fl. 985

Icelandic Explorer

Bjarni Herjólfsson was probably the first European to see North America. Blown offcourse during a voyage from Iceland to Greenland, he saw the lands that Leif Eríksson would later explore and that Thorfinn Karlsefni would later try to colonize.

Bjarni was the son of Herjolf Bardarson the Younger, the son of Bard Herjolfsson, the son of Herjolf Bardarson the Elder. The family lived at the far western end of Reykjaness peninsula in southwestern Iceland on land granted to the Herjolf the Elder in the late ninth century by Ingólfur Arnarson, the original settler of Iceland. Like most Icelanders of the time, they made their living by farming, fishing, and raiding. Bjarni became a successful merchant.

About 900, Gunnbjorn Ulfsson, a Norwegian-born Icelander, discovered what was later called Greenland, but nothing resulted from this discovery. The Gunnbjarnar Skerries, small islands just east of Ammassaalik Fjord, were named for him. About 978, Snaebjorn Galti Holmsteinsson, fleeing Icelandic law with about two dozen companions, spent a terrible winter in the Gunnbjarnar Skerries. After murdering Snaebjorn and his foster father, Thorodd, for having brought them to that dreadful land, the rest returned to Iceland to face vengeance.

Snaebjorn's tragedy was still fresh in the minds of Icelanders when Eiríkr Raudi Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), likewise in trouble with the law, decided to flee Iceland about 982. Erik sailed due west, as both Gunnbjorn and Snaebjorn had done, but when he saw the Gunnbjarnar Skerries, he turned south and followed the coast around the southern tip of Greenland, now called Nunap Isua or Cape Farewell, and landed near modern Tunulliarfik, which he called Erik's Fjord. Having promised his friends in Iceland that he would return for them if he found a suitable site for colonization, he named the land Greenland to make it sound more attractive, gathered 25 ships full of colonists in Iceland, and set sail about 985. A natural disaster, probably a submarine earthquake, sank 11 of the ships, but the rest arrived safely.

Herjolf accompanied Erik on this colonizing expedition. As one of the first settlers, Herjolf named Herjólfsfjord (modern Narsap Sarqaa) and Herjólfsness (modern Ikigaat) after himself.

Bjarni was in Norway on a trading voyage when his father and Erik moved to Greenland. When he arrived home in Eyrar, Iceland, he was surprised to learn that Herjolf was gone. He decided that he would not break his old habit of staying with his father each winter, and immediately sailed for Greenland.

Viking ships, whether the long, slender warships or the broad, stout merchant vessels, were all powered by only oars and a single rectangular sail, and steered by only a starboard tiller. They could not sail close to the wind, had difficulty holding course in adverse winds, and were especially at the mercy of crosswinds. Their main advantage was that they were the fastest ships of their time.

Bjarni fell victim to the unmanageability of his heavily laden merchant ship. Winds forced him southwest, where he sighted a strange land. Since it was heavily wooded, he knew it was not Greenland and set a new course north. The second land he saw was also wooded, so he continued north. The third land was rocky, mountainous, and covered with glaciers. Sailing east from there, he landed at Herjólfsness four days later.

Bjarni gave up trading as soon as he was reunited with Herjolf, and farmed at Herjólfsness for the rest of his life, except for a few voyages to Norway. Bjarni was sharply criticized and lost some honor for failing to drop anchor and explore the new lands he had seen from offshore, but he continued to talk about his discovery, even as far as the Norwegian courts of King Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000) and Earl Erik Haakonarson (1000-1015). Earl Erik made Bjarni one of his retainers.

Fourteen years after Bjarni sighted North America, Leifur Eiríksson (Leif the Lucky) decided to explore these lands. He bought Bjarni's ship and hired 35 sailors. Thus, about 1000, it was Leif who first landed in North America and coined the names Helluland (Slab-Land, probably Baffin Island or northern Labrador), Markland (Forest-Land, probably southern Labrador, Newfoundland, or Nova Scotia), and Vínland (Wine-Land, probably New England or Long Island).