Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir

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In this saga we again meet people who become real personages to us. While the charismatic and possibly vainglorious Thorfinn Karlsefni is the more dominant person, his wife Gudrid, whom we met just previously as Thorstein's widow, is a major figure in our story. Almost certainly the tales she transmitted to her grandchildren are what we read today in portions of this saga, and she was, as I tried to show in her short biography, quite a sailor. There is a hint in some of the tales that she may have been a survivor of the shipwreck that Leif discovered. It could be so but is not relevant to Vinland. She is a much admired personage from that day to this. Apparently, as we Americans would say, she was quite the "looker".

At some indeterminate time she becomes enamored of Thorfirm. It is not known how long they may have known each other as the hazy background of Karlsefni gives some cause for speculation that he may have been resident at Greenland, and perhaps Bratahlid - where Leif lived - for some time. Indeed the sagas do not even tell us his legal name for "Karlsefni" is a colloquial nickname meaning essentially, "some hunk of a man." (It was actually Thordarsson. He came from the Orkneys according to some sources, but we have it from a reliable genealogy as from the Faroe Islands. The two were widely traveled, as we will see, which might explain the discrepancy) He asks Gudrid for her hand in marriage and she demurely suggests he make the request to Leif. As we have seen, as former sister-in-law and a dependent, her status likely was as some sort of vassal or chattel to Leif. The great explorer and leader sets no obstacles in their way and they marry after a very short betrothal - "the same winter."

They set out to form an expedition to Vinland and approach Leif with the request to buy his "house" (this would imply the entire "vik"). Leif refuses to sell but gives free usage of it for as long as they wish, so the expedition is made ready. From all indications a sizeable complement was raised for this express purpose of settling Vinland, and the base complement was formed from populations of both Greenland and Iceland. It is difficult to establish the number of ships involved, some translators give it as two, others three and some five. But from what we will see below, as there were more than several years duration of the drama some of the ships must have made the journey several times and were probably joined later by others from both Greenland and Iceland. However, the narrator of the sea road was in one ship only and it is the impression of this reader that this particular narrator was someone possibly young and probably inexperienced both with the sea and the previous several voyages to Vinland. He - or she - uses some unfortunate phraseology which has led certain strict scholastic disciplines to refuse acceptance that the expedition even reached the coast of Vinland.

Recall, through this, that the tale of the journey out results from one narration but the drama, which increases in complexity, must be the result of numerous contributors. We follow only one of the several ships on the long, but by this time well-known, sea road.

Alas, confusion sets in immediately for this ship is said to have departed toward the north and made an initial landfall at an island of which the narrator says, "- and they named this 'Bear Island'.

They proceed and come to the next landfall which has mountains and again the narrator says, "- and they named this 'Helluland'." This manner of speaking leads one to believe that perhaps it may not have been the same Helluland of Leif Erickson; so the sagas read.

Their next landmark is a place of which the narrator says, "- and they named this 'Markland'. They go on to the next which the narrator describes almost identically with an earlier traveler, "- and they sailed along some 'far-along beaches' which they named 'Wunderstrands' because it took so long to sail along them."

Then, as they are sailing along they come to a place where they see the keel of a ship upon the beach. Some of the crew row ashore to examine this and return to confirm that it truly is a keel. (Some translators go so far as to identify this as Thorvald's keel, but even without this we can well suppose that it almost had to be. Moreover, for those unfamiliar with the visual aspects of observations at sea, we might presume that the lookout of the ship was actually looking for it.)

(Here we come to the point of major divergence in interpreting the sagas. As mentioned above, certain over-precise scholars believe the expedition never even reached Vinland, although this is a difficult position to take considering the landfall of Keelness. The next major body of opinion holds that the ships actually reached Leifsbudir with no further difficulty. This is what Flateybok says. The third, inclusive of the entire episode of the next waystop, is the one which is supplemental to this story. It is often omitted entirely as having too much and/or too awkward detail to fit! There seems to be simply too much to it to discard the tale altogether as the many other analysts have done; and the detail, far from being superfluous, holds key elements to discovery.)

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This landfall of Keelness is to become a major factor in establishing certain relationships to the ultimate destination that we are seeking. But for now, the ship(s) make off and come next to an island which, after some explorations, is named "Straumney"; "straum" meaning "stream", which is a reference to exceedingly strong currents around the island. ('This is clearly stated by the narrator). In the sagas as related about this place, there are cross references to "Straumfjord"; there apparently develops some traffic between the Island and a fjord, although the landing at the mainland is never described. Events are described sometimes as at the island and sometimes at the fjord; so it is apparent that the island is in or adjacent to a fjord.

"Now, It happened that they had along two who were slaves to Leif Erickson and they had been given to him by King Olaf of Norway with the remark that if ever Leif had cause to need swift runners, these two should be used. These were a man and a woman named Haki and Hekja. They were Celts (var. Gaels) and their garment was a simple cloak fastened between their legs and open down the sides. And they wore nothing else.  Karlsefni instructed them to go off south and explore the country down there so that he might know if it was good land or not. They set off and were gone for three days and returned; one was carrying grapes (var. grape leaves, vines), and the other carried a sheaf of self sown wheat."

The island is apparently a rather attractive haven and the sagas say that the entire group spent the rest of the season of good weather in explorations with the result that they did not attend to food gathering as they should: consequently, during the following winter, a famine developed.

One day one of their number was missed and this was one Thorhall, called 'the Hunter.' He was a man of irritable temperament but was highly regarded nonetheless. He had been gone for three days when a party set out to find him. After a long search they found him lying down upon a cliff, staring at the sky, mumbling and moaning and all the while scratching himself. They asked him what was the matter and he replied that it was none of their affair. They tried to talk to him but he would not reply. After a while they asked him to come home with them and he said 'all right' and came away with them.

As the season progressed, it transpired that the winter was more severe than they had expected and their previous neglect at setting aside stores resulted in starvation. One day they came upon a dead whale stranded on the beach. This whale was of a type that was strange to them. Even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales, could not say what kind it was. They cut it up and ate some but with the result that all who ate of it became sick. They then threw the carcass away (var. off a cliff)."

(There are said to be many birds on either this island or an outlying smaller Island they name "Birdsey" (trans.?). The birds' nests are so close together that it is hard to step between them.)

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In early spring preparations are made for the coming year and now a dispute arises between Karlsefni and the same Thorhall the Hunter who had previously been lost. It seems that Thorhall wants to return to Greenland, or at least travel in that direction as, he says, "-- Leifsbudir lies in that direction, back beyond the cape." Thorfinn and the bulk of the party hold that they wish to sail onward, "- further south along the coast."

Fortunately for us, this Thorhall considered himself quite a poet and as part of his argument he composed two refrains in an attempt to induce others to accompany him on his homeward course. Here they are in two versions selected from several extant translations:

Now let the vessel plow the main
to Greenland and our friends again!
and leave this strenuous host
who praise this god-forsaken coast!
To linger in a desert land
and boil their whale by Furdirstrand!

It is not widely known that there was actually a short form of literary effort on the coast of Vinland but there it is. Since it yields us a most important clue which will be investigated later we will see this again in another translation which shows the extreme variations possible in reading the runes; same refrain as above;

Comrades let us now be faring
homeward to our own again!
Let us try the sea steeds daring
Give the chaffing courser rein!
Those who will may bide in quiet
feasting on a whale steak diet
in their home by Wunderstrand!

("Furdirstrand" is the same as "Wunderstrand", meaning long beaches or "marvelous beaches".)


Thorhall Is unsuccessful in swinging others to his views and when it is time to sail (he evidently has his own ship) he splits off from the others and goes his own way with an apparent "bare bones" crew of nine men. He leaves with the following parting shot of embittered verse;

They flattered my confiding ear,
with tales of drink abounding here;
my curse upon this thirsty land !
A warrior trained to bear a brand,
a pail instead I have to bring,
and bow my back beside the spring !
for ne'er a single draught of wine
has passed these parched lips of mine.

And a variation for added interest;

When I came these brave men told me
Here the best of drink I'd get!
Now with water pail behold me,
Wine and I are strangers yet!
Stooping at the spring I've tasted
all the wine this land affords.
Of its vaunted charms divested
poor indeed are its rewards!

The affection in which he seems to have been held becomes more apparent as someone keeps tabs on him, avoiding abrupt eviction from the sagas. His courses are unfruitful and also unlucky. He suffers a terrible trip and eventually makes landfall off Ireland. His landing there is among a people long exasperated with incursions of pestiferous Vikings; Thorhall and company are imprisoned and enslaved, beaten and abused; it is said that Thorhall was killed there eventually. News of this unhappy result reached Greenland many years later. (This failed trip also indicates great distance of Vinland from Greenland.)

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The main story goes on. There is a minor version which states that Karlsefni went on with only forty men for a period of two months, leaving one hundred on the island, and then returned to Straumney after certain events. The most acceptable version says that all, or most, of the complement pushed on and "- after a long way" (var. "time") reached a place which they named "Hop."

Hop becomes a sizeable settlement either immediately or soon thereafter. It is the most completely described of the Vinland settlements and the population at one time was as high as 150. Some scholars believe that this figure may be over two hundred. Moreover, they are known to have had cattle and other llvestock along with them. The rough description of the settlement goes, "-- there were houses (shelters) down near the water and more farms further back on the other side of the hill", "-- all the hillsides were covered with vines and all the valleys grew self sown wheat", "--the river flowed down the land (from the north) into a lake, and then into the sea", and "--halibut were caught in pits dug in the marshes."

Events proceed in the following manner, however. At some time (var. 'following spring'), contact is made with a group of natives who are described, always with the derogatory name of "skraelings", which means "skreechers" or "barbarians." They are described as "small, dark ugly men with unkempt hair, broad cheekbones and bulging eyes". This initial contact, though cautious, is fair enough and soon trading begins between them.  It is in this period when the variations - not severe - become apparent between the Greenlandic sagas and the Icelandic ones.

One senses at all times the two groups and also the several individual narrators who lived out the drama. One says the natives "- came out of the woods," the other says they came by "boats." Of the water approach it is said that a number approach, stand "off the point" and wave their "staves" (var. shields) "sunwise", (i.e., east to west); this is interpreted as indicating peaceful intentions. The Norse hold out a white shield as indicator of peaceful intent. This is interpreted by the natives as the Vikings wish. The natives land and on this and several subsequent visits trading is commenced. The natives have "dark" or "gray" pelts, the Greenlanders red cloth and milk. The sagas give good impressions that the Norse think they have the better of the bargain, for they say that they cut the red cloth into strips and when they start to run short they cut the strips narrower, but the natives pay as much or more as for the wide strips. It is also said that the natives are very enthusiastic at sight of the milk "in pails" and wanted that and nothing else, "-- they left their goods behind and carried their purchase away in their stomachs." The natives also go to great lengths to buy some of the Norse iron weapons, but Karlsefni forbids this.

During one of these trading visits, "- a bull belonging to Karlsefni-" suddenly gave a great bellowing and "-- charged down out of the forest-" onto the point where the trading is taking place. The natives take fright and escape into their boats while the Vikings subdue and placate the bull. This done they turn and try to induce the natives to again come ashore but this they will not do, only stare sullenly and then row off "-- south beyond the point."

Karlsefni recognizes that there is now some danger from these natives and he orders a palisade to be built for defense. He also devises a battle strategy of which several versions - all bad - appear in the sagas. One of these is that a battleground is selected "-- between the lake and the river -" to where they will proceed "-- when the battle commences,"driving their bull before them."

This battle does ensue; and provides a wealth of vital insights to the place. These will be addressed shortly. In the event, the Vikings do not do so well as we might have supposed, and are driven to, or make, a strategic retreat. They lose two of their number; from the way the sagas are expressed, they are not of the feeling that they must escape the settlement precipitously, but later, after an indeterminate time and much debate, they decide - Karlsefni decrees - that there will always be trouble between themselves and the natives. So they decide to leave the area and then return to Straumney, the island where they had suffered famine previously. This second settlement of the island is more successful. They remain there for some time. The total time from the stay at Hop to the time when Thorfinn and Gudrid leave the coast to return to Greenland can be established very closely, for their child, Snorri (known to have been tended as an infant during the battle at Hop) is said to have been three years old when he left the coast of Vinland.

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One of the most informative items that can be studied is the tale of the battle that occurred at Hop. Nobody really seems to like war - at least after it has started - but much of human progress and much of human knowledge has been in response to the need to document the misfortunes that result. This is the case with this battle; it yielded a plethora of clues for me to follow in my research. Fortuitously, the story comes to us through the two sources, the Icelandic and the Greenlandic. The two descriptions are distinctive and unique but qualified by the difficulties of translation. Leif had apparently become aware of natives living in the area, as witnessed by what may have been a martial order in organizing his crew in the manner he did. As events befell, it seems that he did not have any direct contact with them. His omission of direct remark of these natives is less noteworthy than if he had stated an absence of aborigines, since we know that all lands of the world - especially all sizeable lands - were inhabited. Essentially the scenario of the battle is as follows:

The natives make a sudden dramatic reappearance in their boats and an action commences upon the point whereon the trading had taken place previously. 

Apparently overwhelmed, fearful of the event, or for strategic reasons, the Norse make a retreat to palisaded structures. Fighting goes on there for a time and the natives hurl a device over the wall which makes such a "hideous noise" that a panic results and a second retreat commences northward, "-toward some cliffs that they knew."

Whether the defensive position which was the destination was ever reached is not clear, for the fighting seems to progressively wind down; the victorious natives break off the battle, return to their boats and "row off south around the point". That is the sum of the battle but it may have been more complicated than it appears.


As we have seen in the previous section, relations with the natives seem to have started at least reasonably amicably. The Northmen met and traded with them apparently on several occasions. We can see quite clearly the Norse point of view of these natives, not only in the derogatory expression used -"skraelings" - but also in the sly inference that they felt they had gotten the better of the others in the bargaining. From the native point of view, there must have been abundant curiosity about these people who had now appeared from the sea on three separated occasions and showed every indication of interest in remaining at the spot. Their initial approach seems one of investigative but wary interest, since they came in numbers and "stood off" until a "meeting of the minds" was established.

It is interesting to speculate that perhaps they, too, felt they had the best of the bargain as it seems likely that the pelts traded were rabbit, game of great abundance in the neighborhood and a notorious "glut on the market" in fur trading all over North America.

But after the charge by Karlsefni's bull and, no doubt, with the dubious novelty of interesting strangers wearing off, the Indians take themselves away and are seen no more for a period of three weeks. Karlsefni seems to have had some premonition of impending trouble for he takes certain actions in tended to bolster defense of the place, including the building of a palisade.

There is a divergence in the details of the battle, but they essentially conform with each other in major factors. It is evident that the battle took place in the springtime; it is so stated and also that one of the items of barter was "milk in pails." But the manner in which the skirmish started is interesting for it is given is several ways, three of which are all plausible, are all possible, and all give insights as to how disparate individuals entered into the fray.

It is said that one morning they looked out over the lake and saw a multitude of native boats approaching; "- they looked out and saw boats, they came as a torrent, appearing as charcoal strewn upon the water-". (This perspective was a "key" clue). Again the natives stay somewhat offshore but this time wave their "staves" (var. paddles) anti-sunwise, i.e. unnatural direction; from west to east, and at the same time they make a noise, "- as of threshing" (thumping). Their intentions are read by the Vikings as being hostile and a red shield is held forth as token of accepting battle; the natives either force or are allowed a landing for fighting which immediately commences.

One of Karlsefni's narrators gives him credit for establishing a strategy of sorts during the peaceful interim. Since the strategy is inherently faulty and does not even have the advantage of ultimate victory it seems doubtful but might well be true. In this, Karlsefni locates a place in a clearing "-between the lake and the river-" and he says that at the appropriate time they will "- make for this clearing, driving our bull before us". In the event the sagas say the natives came right to the place as Thorfinn had planned.

Another of Karlsefni's strategies is defined as having a small force hold and delay at the point while others prepared. This coincides with what is known in the first version and may be likely. This consideration of marshalling of manpower should be considered in viewing the somewhat less than spectacular result of these armored men of a warrior race. Without an alarm it would take at least a half-hour for several runners to do the job, and the distance from the portage to the point is only a matter of few minutes paddling if pressed. Surprise and the psychological unpreparedness associated with Christianity must have had a great effect on things.

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Another variance from the Icelandic sagas -apparently from Gudrid herself - says that a native woman appeared at the house where Gudrid was tending Snorri and a brief exchange was interrupted by a "great crash" when a native male was slain for attempting to seize a viking sword or ax. The exchange goes like this:

Gudrid was sitting with Snorri who was asleep in his cradle when she looked up and saw framed in the doorway a "skraeling" woman. She was small of stature, had a band around her round head of auburn hair. She wore a black tunic and had the largest eyes ever seen in a human head.

She said to Gudrid, "What is thy name?"

Gudrid replied, "My name is Gudrid, what is thy name?" and at the same time motioned for her visitor to sit beside her.

The woman moves as if to comply (and may even have done so) when they are startled by the loud crash, and the woman disappears. The crash is attributed to an Indian attempting to seize a Viking weapon, at which he was slain and in falling knocked down some barrels or casks."

If this is true, then these two Indians must have been inside the palisade - and probably peaceably - when this happened.


The fighting on the point goes badly for the Vikings and they are forced to retreat to the palisaded buildings. Some versions state that this was a tactic ordered by Karlsefni, but if so, was a very faulty one, if we can believe the common but possibly exaggerated claim of excited combatants that they were slaying many enemies.

The natives in their turn now spring a little surprise of their own. They have a device described in the sagas as "- blue-black and about the size of a sheep's belly-" which they slung from a pole over the palisade - where it lands "-- with a hideous noise". Whatever this was it creates a panic and another retreat starts. This retreat is specified to have headed north along the river to "- some cliffs that they knew." They are harassed by the natives and soon pass Freydis' house, within which that irascible woman was apparently in ignorance of the goings-on. She comes out and rebukes the men strenuously.

Her remarks cannot be omitted without losing something valuable from the tale:

"Why do you run from men such as these? You should be able to slay them like cattle. Why, if I had a sword I could do it myself"

Unarmed, she is left, but sets out and attempts to keep up with the retreating party. She Is "big with child" and "much slowed" and is unsuccessful in this and is about to be caught up when she comes upon the body of one Thorbrand Snorrason who has fallen with a flat stone penetrating his skull. His sword still lies beside him and Freydis snatches this up, bares her breasts and stokes the sword on them; which action dismays the natives who break off combat, return to their boats and "- row off south around the point."

The native leader is described. He is said to be taller, lighter, and handsomer than the others, "- a real leader. " The natives all along had been trying to obtain some of the Norse iron weapons (even during the trading) and at the conclusion of the battle the "skraelings" unhurriedly take time to examine one which an individual brings to his chief. This leader tests this - either a sword or an ax - by striking a stone, which breaks it (the weapon, in one version), or by striking a companion, which kills him (the companion, in the other). He expresses disgust - one can almost see him, the sagas are so lucid - and throws it with all his might "out into the water". After the battle the Vikings again regroup and resettle and discuss the battle. They claim to have inflicted many casualties while suffering only two men dead themselves. Most significantly, however, they also debate a matter which enabled me to extract another clue. Someone apparently has made the claim that a party of natives came by land - from the west, a separate attack from that of the boats. This claim is discounted. The party concludes (or Karlsefni decrees) that the landward attack was "an illusion". For some reason they cannot believe that anyone approached the settlement from the west. Moreover, Gudrid's claim to have spoken with the native woman just as the battle commenced seems to have been accepted only reluctantly and because she had a reputation for truth. The sagas say with an atmosphere of doubt that "- only Gudrid saw her".

At some later time - the impression is that it was not immediate- Karlsefni decrees that they will not ever be able to remain on anything like amicable terms with the natives. As a result the party decides to return to the island Straumney. During the first year at Hop, however, they had cut timber for cargo and "set it out on a rock to season."

At Karlsefni's return to Greenland, he made up a cargo for sale in Europe with mainly goods brought back from Vinland. It was said that this cargo was the richest ever to have sailed from Greenland at that time.

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Author's note: It was with a sense of disbelief that I was to discover that the Vinland narratives were not so very ancient as to be remote and ethereal. This couple, who contributed their tale and at least one son to the discovery of America became, in their time, substantial citizens of Iceland and commenced a line which extends to this day - all recorded. Surprisingly some of these members of the family reside in the United States, following immigration of a descendant near 1880. They had a second son named Bjorn from whom the line descends. It is unknown just where Bjorn had been born but it is entirely possible that he also may have been born in Vinland, which would increase the infant population there to at least three - all born in America some 500 years before Columbus' discovery. Gudrid's subsequent trip to Rome makes her, in my mind, one of the most remarkable women in history.


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