Icelandic explorer Gudridur Thorbjarnardóttir (c. 980–c. 1030) was part of a historic expedition of Icelanders to North America around 1000 CE. They sailed in one of the traditional Viking longships from their colony in Greenland to Newfoundland, where Thorbjarnardóttir became the first European woman to give birth in North America.
Gudridur Thorbjarnardóttir's story is told in two of the lesser-known sagas recounting Icelandic history, which give conflicting accounts. She was likely born around year 980 CE and more definitively hailed from Laugarbrekka, a settlement on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. This volcanic island in the Norwegian Sea, located roughly 400 miles north of the coast of Scotland, had been settled by Norse Vikings only a century before her birth. In one account, Thorbjarnardóttir's grandfather is described as an Irish slave taken in one of the Vikings’ many raids on British Isles turf and the rest of Europe. Her parents were Thorbjarnarur Vifilsson and Haallveig Einarsdóttir, and there are inconsistencies about a possible first marriage Thorbjarnardóttir made. This was allegedly to a Norwegian merchant named either Thorir or Einar, and she was widowed at a young age.
Snæfellsnes and other peninsulas jutting out from Iceland's west coast produced several generations of daring explorers who ventured far beyond the known parts of Europe and the British Isles. Closer to Iceland was the massive Arctic-climate island of Greenland, which had some hospitable coastal areas. According to the Grxnlendinga saga, or Saga of the Greenlanders, Thorbjarnardóttir traveled with her father as part of the first wave of Icelandic settlers on Greenland. The mission was led by Erik the Red, a Norwegian latecomer to Iceland whose dispute with a neighbor prompted him to search further afield during a period of exile mandated by the Icelandic Thing, or governing council. This epoch is recounted in Eiríks Saga rauda which details his colonization of Greenland and mentions Thorbjarnardóttir as living in Eystribyggd, or Eastern Settlement, also known as Brattahlid. This was Erik's base in Greenland.
Erik the Red's most famous son was Leif Eiríksson, who visited Norway around 999 and converted to Christianity. Back in Greenland, Leif was intrigued by reports of other Icelandic seafarers who had been blown off course in a westerly direction when trying to make landfall on Greenland; after dodging icebergs, their vessels neared a large land mass. Around 1000 Leif landed on Newfoundland, an island off the coast of Labrador in northeastern Canada, and established a settlement there. He called it Vinland, probably for the grapevines that flourished in the temperate Newfoundland climate.
More details survive about Thorbjarnardóttir's next husband, the Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni. According to the Grænlendinga, it was she who urged him to organize a new colony of settlers in Vinland. The exact dates of Thorbjarnardóttir's seafaring expeditions are unknown, but her successful trip with Thorfinn likely took place in 1003, and they may have stayed as long as two years in the sod-house settlement the Icelanders built. Their son Snorri Thorfinnsson was the first child of two-parent European descent to born in North America. Snorri lived to 1090, and his birth date is commonly cited as roughly 1004.
The details of Thorbjarnardóttir's life in Newfoundland are obscured by time and conflicting reports in the Grænlendinga, which mentions her presence; in contrast, the account of the Vinland settlers in Eiríks Saga rauda does not. There were likely ongoing issues with the Skrælingar, and their community of 60 or so may have included Freydis Eríksdóttir, the sister of Thorbjarnardóttir's second husband, with whom Thorbjarnardóttir is reported to have quarreled. The sagas, written a few hundred years after these events occurred, frequently refer to clashes between those who had adopted Christianity, which Thorbjarnardóttir had done, and the Norse who retained their pagan beliefs.
More information survives about Thorbjarnardóttir's life after leaving Vinland. With toddler Snorri in tow, she and Thorfinn returned to his native Iceland. Animosity from her mother-in-law prompted the couple to settle elsewhere and they established an agricultural settlement, Glaumbær, near present-day Skagafjördur. Thorbjarnardóttir had a second son, Thorbjorn, and there are unverifiable claims that Thorbjarnardóttir traveled to Rome to make a Christian pilgrimage later in her life. Snorri built a church for her at Glaumbær, which has been excavated by archeologists and dated to roughly 1030. She was said to have lived her final years as an anchoress, or hermit, in religious contemplation. Snorri and his descendants are cited in the Icelandic sagas as early proselytizers for the Christian faith in Iceland, and their descendants were appointed to important bishoprics.
For decades the idea that North America had been visited by Leif Eiríksson 500 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola and claimed the Americas for Spain was treated as a half-fable, as was the suggestion that pre-literate Europeans in possession of what was essentially Iron Age technology lived in North America 600 years before pious Christians descended on Massachusetts Bay in 1620. An important discovery in 1960 at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, revealed the existence of several sod houses, confirming the Norse Viking settlement. The structures are similar to those built in 10th- and 11th-century Greenland and Iceland.
The differing versions of Thorbjarnardóttir's story have been analyzed by Nancy Marie Brown in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. Brown writes that Eiríks Saga rauda “has been traced to a nunnery in northern Iceland, whose abbess was Gudrid's seven-greats granddaughter: Gudrid was presumably an exemplar, a role model for young Christian women.”
Brown, Nancy Marie, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007, p. 37.
Byock, Jesse L., Viking Age Iceland, Penguin Books, 2001.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 30, 2002.
Smithsonian, December 2004, p. 92.
Glaumbaer Heritage Site website, http://www.glaumbaer.is/ (November 14, 2016), “The First Farmer.”❑