Thorfinn Karlsefni Thordarson

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Thorfinn Karlsefni Thordarson

fl. 1000-1015

Icelandic Explorer

Thorfinn Karlsefni attempted the first permanent European settlement in America.

Thorfinn was the great-grandson of Thord Bjarnarson, one of the original settlers of Iceland. Thord's third son, Snorri Thordarson, married Thorhild Ptarmigan Thordardóttir, daughter of the powerful chieftain Thord Gellir Olafsson. Snorri and Thorhild's son, Thord Horse-Head Snorrason, and Thorunn, his wife, were the parents of Thorfinn Thordarson. The sobriquet "Karlsefni," by which he is commonly known, must have been given him when he was quite young, because it means something like "auspicious boy." The family's home was at Höfdi on Skagafjord in the North Quarter of Iceland.

Karlsefni became a wealthy merchant. Sometime in the first decade of the eleventh century, he and his partner, Snorri Thorbrandsson, and Bjarni Grimolfsson and his partner, Thorhall Gamlason, all Icelanders, sailed two merchant ships with 80 men to the settlement of Erik the Red at Brattahlid in southwestern Greenland. Because they arrived at Erik's Fjord in the autumn, they stayed with Erik over the winter. Karlsefni married Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, the widow of Erik's son, Thorstein.

Karlsefni heard directly from Bjarni Herjolfsson and another of Erik's sons, Leif the Lucky, about their respective voyages to the three coasts of North America that Leif had named Helluland (Slab-Land), Markland (Forest-Land), and Vínland (Wine-Land). Leif had erected temporary shelters in Vínland. Karlsefni asked Leif if he could use those shelters as a base camp from which to found a permanent colony there. Leif agreed.

The next spring, probably between 1004 and 1010, Karlsefni, Gudrid, and either 65 (according to Graenlendinga Saga) or 160 (according to Eirik's Saga) men and women sailed for Vínland. They located and expanded Leif's camp. Gudrid gave birth that autumn to Snorri Karlsefnisson, the first European child born in the New World.

The first year of the new settlement passed peacefully and even the winter was comfortable, but trouble began the following spring when the Europeans encountered Native Americans for the first time. The Vikings cheated them at trading, killed them without provocation, and called them skraelings, which means something like "wretches," "savages," or "those shriveled up by the sun." Eventually the native (perhaps Algonquin) counterattacks drove the settlers out. Snorri was three years old when Karlsefni's expedition abandoned the colony.

Karlsefni returned to his farm in Iceland. Gudrid survived him, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and became a nun. Snorri and their other son, Thorbjorn, both became prominent men in Iceland, and both the grandfathers of bishops.

In 1960 the Norwegian archaeological team of Helge Ingstad, his wife Anne, and their daughter Benedicte discovered the ruins of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Their excavations over the next eight years proved the Icelandic sagas correct about Vikings reaching America five centuries before Christopher Columbus. But there is no warrant for the hasty judgment that L'Anse aux Meadows is Leif and Karlsefni's Vínland. There could well have been many Norse settlements in America. L'Anse aux Meadows could have been any of them. For example, the account in Eyrbyggja Saga of another such settlement, that of Bjorn Breidavik-Champion Asbrandsson, tallies much better with L'Anse aux Meadows than do the stories of Vínland.

No one knows where Vínland was, but because it had wild grapes, it must have been south of Passamaquoddy Bay, and because it had salmon, it must have been north of the Hudson River. Some who believe it was farther north, perhaps in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, have tried to argue away the Icelandic word "vín" (wine), substituting "vin" (fertile); but such attempts fail because there is no confusion in the Icelandic language between these two words and because the sagas specifically mention grapes and wine in this land. Moreover, in 1075 a German priest, Adam of Bremen, wrote that many voyages had been made to Vínland and that it yielded excellent wine.


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Thorfinn Karlsefni Thordarson

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