Which Viking Found America First, Leif Eríksson or Bjarni Herjólfsson?

Posted by Ms Elly on

Which Viking Found America First, Leif Eríksson or Bjarni Herjólfsson?

The name that often goes along with American discovery was Columbus a famous Italian explorer. Columbus discovery of America happened in the 1492 A.D. This earned Columbus the title the first European who discovered America. However, in Norse-Icelandic sources, Viking explorers made their first voyage to North America about a millennium of years prior to Columbus. Two names were mentioned: Leif Eríksson or Bjarni Herjólfsson.

But which found America first?

The source about Viking settlement in America was written down about 200+ years after the event (roughly 1200s). But whether Leif Eriksson or Bjarni Herjolfsson discovered America first can be speculated from the sources.

 L'Anse aux Meadows, a historic viking settlement, Newfoundland, Canada

 L'Anse aux Meadows,a historic Viking settlement, Newfoundland, Canada. This is among the earliest Viking settlement in North America

Voyages of these two Viking sailors were mentioned in two parts of the Sagas of Icelanders: the Saga of Greenlanders and the Saga of Erík the Red.

Saga of Greenlanders

In the Saga of Greenlanders, Bjarni Herjolfsson was a famous sailor from an early age. He had a ship and a crew to set sail times within a year. His yearly tradition was that he would return home to meet his parent during summer. Circa 980s, Bjarni came back to visit his beloved parents only to find out that they had moved and settled down in another land, somewhere named Greenland by Erik the Red.

Ragnar Lothbrok and crew on "Vikings" TV series

Bjarni came home only to find out that his parents left him for another new land (Image: "Vikings" TV Series)

In 986, the son Bjarni left the harbour to find his parents. But the information he had about Greenland was little. Neither map nor compass appeared these days. His ship was blown off course and he spotted three different lands during this remarkable voyage: first full of mountains and forest, second full of low-lying hills and forest, and the last with glaciers. Every time he saw these exotic land, he refused to stop and carried on sailing.

After three times of spotting exotic lands, Bjarni finally found Greenland and reunited with his parents. He quit his sailing job and sold his ship to Leif Erikson who was eager to settle down in his own land. And there Leif was told about the story of the new lands that Bjarni had observed. Leif set sail and found out three lands that Bjarni had told him. The first full of mountains was Helluland (Stoneland), the wooded second Markland (Woodland), and the last Vinland (Wineland). Leif decided to settle down in the Vinland which is a part of North America.

Leif Erikson statue

Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina (Port of Seattle)

Saga of Erik the Red

The name of Bjarni was omitted from the saga of Erik the Red. Leif Erikson, who was the son of Erik the Red also Viking leader in Greenland, set sail and unintentionally found out Vinland. Because this new land was full of grape vines which could produce the best wine so they called it Vinland (Wineland). But then Erik returned to Greenland and never came back to Vinland.

What can be concluded?

Because the Saga of Erik the Red was more popular, people thought it was more reliable a source than the Saga of Greenlanders. Until the 20th century, the scholars claimed that neither of them was more correct than the other. Neither was based on the other and they were probably based on the oral accounts which differed from some extent.

And it seemed that Bjarni was more likely to be omitted from the Saga of Erik the Red than to be added to Saga of the Greenlanders.

Therefore, to me, it seems that Bjarni came to find North America earlier than Leif Erikson.

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