Bjarni Herjolfsson

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Bjarni Herjólfsson was an Icelandic trader who is the first known European to discover the mainland of North America in the year 986 AD.

Bjarni was born in Iceland to Herjólfr, who was the son of Bárdi Herjólfsson (Old Norse: Bárði) and Thorgerdr (Old Norse: Þorgerðr). When Bjarni grew to manhood, he became a merchant captain based in Norway. Although he was away most of the year, he made sure he visited his father every summer in Iceland.

Bjarni is believed to have been the first European to see North America.

The Greenlanders Saga tells about one year when he sailed to Iceland to visit his parents that they weren’t there.  Bjarni learned that his father, Herjólfr, had gone with Erik the Red to resettle in Greenland.

So Bjarni took his crew and set off to find his father.

In the summer of 986 AD, Bjarni, who had no map or compass and really wasn’t really sure where Greenland was located exactly, became blown off course by a storm. Since no one in his crew had been to Greenland before, they had to search for it.

In his search, he saw a piece of land that was not Greenland. It was covered with trees and mountains and although his crew begged him to, he refused to stop and look around. More concerned about his father’s welfare in Greenland, he pressed his crew to continue searching.


Eventually Bjarni and his crew managed to regain their course.  Bjarni also reported seeing low-lying hills covered with forests some distance farther to the west. The land looked hospitable, but Bjarni was eager to reach Greenland to see his parents and did not land and explore any of the new lands.

He eventually arrived in Greenland and decided to settle with his father in Herjolfsnes (located approximately 50 km northwest of Cape Farewell, Greenland).

An interpretation of the sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland, Helluland and Markland travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders.
An interpretation of the sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland, Helluland and Markland travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders.

Bjarni reported finding the new lands to the west while he was in Greenland, but no one at them time seemed to have shown interest in them.

After his father’s death, Bjarni returned to Norway.

After his voyage, word spread of the lands to the west that he and his crew had seen when he was looking for his father in Greenland.  Word of his discovery created great intrigue throughout the Nordic Empire. Bjarni was both celebrated for his discoveries and chided – famously by Eric Haakonsson (Earl of Lade, Governor of Norway and Earl of Northumbria) – for his lack of curiosity and not investigating the newly discovered lands.

According to Grettis saga, Eric Haakonsson forbade duelling by law and exiled berserks shortly before his expedition to England. <read about Viking Duels >

Greenlanders took special interest in his discoveries and because they lacked timber, became allured by the wooded coastline Bjarni reported sighting.

Professor T. J. Oleson of the University of Manitoba stated, “There are strong arguments for the view that the three lands seen by Bjarni were Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.”

Soon afterwards, Leif Erikson (Old Norse: Leifr Eiríksson), the son of Greenland leader Eric the Red, bought the ship that Bjarni had used for the voyage. Leif hired a crew of 35 people and then set out to retrace Bjarni’s journey. The result is thought to be the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

Eiríksstaðir - Leifur Eiríksson Statue.
Eiríksstaðir – Leifur Eiríksson Statue.
  • Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first known European to find the mainland of North America.
  • Leif Erikson made the first known European to attempt a settlement on the mainland of the North America.
  • Christopher Columbus discover the Bahamas Islands 500 years later and gets all the credit of discovery.




by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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