He Could Have Discovered America, but He Wanted to See His Parents

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When we talk about the discovery of this great nation, we usually talk about Christopher Columbus, whose voyages sparked widespread awareness of the Americas in Europe (from which came sustained exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World), and Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer known as the first European to land in continental North America.

A guy we don’t usually talk about is Bjarni Herjólfsson, who could have snatched Erikson’s “First!” honor away, but chose to go hang out with his parents, instead.

Family Bonds

One of the early Norse settlers of Iceland was Bárdi Herjólfsson. His son was Herjólfr Bárdarson, and his son was Bjarni Herjólfsson. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni was a seafarer from an early age, and became a merchant whose voyages brought him wealth and fame. He was also a devoted son, and when he wasn't sailing around the North Atlantic, he would spend his winter down time alternately in Norway and with his parents in Iceland.

One summer, when Bjarni was away on a trading voyage, Herjólfr decided, like his father before him, to settle new land. He and his wife, Thorgerdr, joined Erik the Red on a journey to Greenland and made a new home there.

When Bjarni returned to Iceland, he found his father had sold his land and sailed west. Bjarni became upset and refused to unload his cargo or disembark from the ship. When the crew asked him what was going on, he told them he intended to continue his usual practice and spend the winter months with his parents. He would sail to Greenland, a place he’d never been, with no map, going only by directions given by some Icelanders who’d made the trip. His crew agreed to go with him and they soon set off heading west.

An Unexpected Journey

After a few days at sea, the sailors lost sight of all land, and wind and fog caused them to lose their bearings. After several more days of pushing on, blind and lost, the weather improved and they reset their course. They spotted land again, but didn’t know what it was. It didn’t match the description of Greenland they’d gotten in Iceland, and it didn’t look like any other place they knew.

Bjarni decided to sail in closer to get a better look. The coastline they saw was thickly wooded, with low hills. No mountains. No glaciers. No great rocks. It didn’t look like what they’d heard of Greenland, and the alien shore was of no interest to Bjarni. He ordered the ship back out to sea and they continued on, keeping the land on their port side.

After two more days, they saw land again. As they got closer to shore, they saw that the land was flat and covered in forest. No glaciers or mountains this time, either. The crew suggested they go ashore. Their wind had died down, and they were in need of wood and water, anyway. It wasn’t Greenland, Bjarni told the crew, and they wouldn’t be stopping.

Back out to sea they went with the land to port, and after a few more days, they saw unknown land a third time. It was high, rocky, and glaciered. Certainly, this had to be Greenland. Nope, said Bjarni, this land looked worthless to him too. Without lowering the sails, they moved right along.

Once more they went back out to sea and headed away from the shore. After four days of sailing they saw a fourth landmass. The crew, no doubt getting a sense of deja vu, asked their captain if he thought this might be their destination.

Yes, he said, this place looked very much like what he’d heard about Greenland and here they would land.

And so they did, landing, conveniently, at a cape that was basically Herjólfr’s back yard. Bjarni reunited with his parents, gave up his life at sea and retired to their home.

Land Ahoy

Unbeknownst to him or to anyone else at the time, those strange lands that Bjarni had refused to stop at were Canadian shores. Historians think that the first hilly, wooded land was Newfoundland, the second flat, wooded land was Labrador, and the third rocky place was Baffin Island.

Not only had Bjarni come within spitting distance of the New World and then turned around without checking it out, he practically handed over his place in the history books to someone else. After his father died, Bjarni resumed voyaging, and made reports of his Greenland trip when he returned to Iceland and Norway. Leif Ericson (son of Eric the Red) got wind of the story and went to Bjarni to learn more. Leif then purchased the ship Bjarni had made the voyage in and set out with 35 men to see the lands that Bjarni had described.

Leif became the first European to land in the mainland Americas and the first to establish a settlement there. Bjarni, meanwhile, got lost in history after selling his ship. Not much is known about him other than the fact that his curiosity did not get the better of him.