Who found America first, Leifr Eiríksson or Bjarni Herjólfsson?

Asked By

Björgvin Gauti Bæringsson


Nordic people sailed to North America around 1000 AD; within a century, Adam of Bremen wrote of this. But no-one who went to America is mentioned by name in a source written earlier than 1200, two centuries after the event. Thus it is impossible to state with certainty the name of the first Nordic man to see the American continent. Perhaps his name was neither Leifr nor Bjarni.

However, from the sources it is possible to speculate whether Leifr was there earlier, or Bjarni. The events are recounted in two of the Sagas of Icelanders, the Saga of Greenlanders and the Saga of Eiríkr the Red, which have much in common, but also differ in important ways. According to the Saga of Greenlanders, Bjarni Herjólfsson was carried off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland, and saw unknown land three times: first unmountainous, forest land, then low-lying wooded land, and finally an island with a glacier, before finally reaching Greenland. Leifr Eiríksson subsequently bought Bjarni's ship, and led the first expedition to the unknown lands. They first reached the land Bjarni had seen last, which they called Helluland (Slabland), then they reached the wooded land which they called Markland (Woodland), and finally they made a settlement in the land where they later found grapes, which they called Vínland (Wineland).

In the Saga of Eiríkr the Red, Bjarni Herjólfsson is not mentioned; Leifr Eiríksson is said to have been carried by the ocean to a land of self-sown wheat and grape vines, on his way from Norway to Greenland. He explored, then returned to Greenland. He never went back to Vínland.

The Saga of Eiríkr the Red was long believed to be more reliable than the Saga of Greenlanders, and thus Leifr, or "Leif the Lucky," has received all the credit for finding America. But in 1956 Jón Jóhannesson wrote a paper arguing that the Saga of Greenlanders was older and more reliable. Since then, Ólafur Halldórsson has researched this subject more than other scholars, and his conclusion is that neither saga can be regarded as "more correct" than the other: that neither is based on the other, and that they were probably written at around the same time, based upon oral accounts, which differed to some extent.

It must be regarded as more likely that an oral tradition will be simplified in the telling, than that it will grow more complicated. It is more probable that Bjarni Herjólfsson came to be omitted from the narratives on which the Saga of Eiríkr is based, than that he has been added into the stories on which the Saga of Greenlanders is based. It is more likely that the experiences of two men, Bjarni and Leifr, have been attributed to one of them, Leifr, as the story was passed down. Therefore it seems to me more likely that Bjarni, rather than Leifr, found the land later known as America. But this is far from certain, and anyone is free to have his/her own opinion on the subject. All that is known with absolute certainty is that Nordic people built houses on Newfoundland some time around AD 1000. This is proved by archaeological remains which have been unearthed there, at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Translated by Anna Yates.

  • The Complete Sagas of Icelanders I. General editor: Viðar Hreinsson. Reykjavík, Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997.
  • Ingstad, Anne Stine & Helge,The Norse Discovery of America I-II. Oslo, Universitets­forlaget, 1985.Jón Jóhannesson, "Aldur Grænlendinga sögu." Nordæla. Afmæliskveðja til Sigurðar Nordals (Reykjavík, Helgafell, 1956), 149-58.
  • Jones, Gwyn, The Norse Atlantic Saga: being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. New and enlarged edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Ólafur Halldórsson (ed.), Grænland í miðaldaritum. Reykjavík, Sögufélag, 1978.

Um þessa spurningu


Published 5.3.2005


Answers in English


Gunnar Karlsson (1939-2019). „Who found America first, Leifr Eiríksson or Bjarni Herjólfsson?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 5.3.2005. (Skoðað 21.4.2024).


Gunnar Karlsson (1939-2019)prófessor emeritus í sagnfræði við HÍ


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