The Norse exploration and settlement of North America have now passed from legend into historical fact. However, an Icelandic saga mentions how Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir led a Norse expedition to North America. 

Who was she, and did she really set foot on the North American continent half a millennium before Columbus?

Iceland's most famous explorer?

According to two Norse sagas – The Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders – a husband and wife team led a Norse expedition from Greenland to Vinland, where a son was born – the first European birth in the Americas. 

Even to this day, her name is well known throughout the people of Iceland: Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir. 

How do the sagas describe her life?

Gudrid appears as the main character in The Saga of Erik the Red. In this saga, a young slave boy asks for Gurdrid's hand in marriage, but her father refuses the request. Following this, Gudrid and her father left with Erik the Red on a long voyage to Greenland. 

During her stay in Greenland, the authors of this saga then use Gudrid as a symbol of the Christianization of the Norse people throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. A sorceress comes to her father's house with spells and chants, but Gudrid refuses to take part as she says she is a good Christian woman. 

Whilst in Greenland, she marries the brother of Leif Eriksson and joins him on a journey to Vinland to retrieve the body of her husband's brother. The two spend the winter there, where the brother rises from the dead to tell Gudrid she must marry an Icelander. Sickness causes Gudrid's husband to die, and she moves back to Greenland and remarries a rich merchant. The two then lead an expedition, with 60 men, to Vinland, where a son – Snorri – is born. The couple eventually leaves Vinland after increasing hostilities with the local indigenous people (Skrælingar – "barbarians" in old Norse).

The Saga of the Greenlanders paints a very similar portrait of the life of Gudrid. However, upon marrying her husband in Greenland, he tells her of her future conversion to Christianity and to donate any money accrued in her life to the poor. Her voyage to Vinland – and the birth of her son there, Snorri – is said to have taken place sometime between 1005 and 1013 CE. She is then said to have spent the latter years of her life as a nun and later a hermit.

Leif was the son of Erik the Red, who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Photo: Tim Foster / Unsplash

Did she really set foot on American soil?

Like many of the characters in Norse sagas, there is much historical speculation about whether Gurdrid is an actual historical person or just a fictional character. Since the 1960s, archaeologists have been pouring over the remains of a Norse settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. They have found concrete evidence of Norse settlement – that included women – but there is little other archaeological or scientific evidence that Gudrid reached the Americas hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus. The two sagas follow that most basic rule of a good story – never let the truth get in the way.

Aside from her travels across the North Atlantic Ocean, she was said to have gone on a pilgrimage to Rome and to have met the Pope. Again, there are no church records or historical evidence to back this claim up other than what appears in the two sagas.

How is she remembered?

Regardless of whether Gudrid was indeed the European first woman to set foot in the Americas hundreds of years before the more celebrated explorers, she has a legendary following in Iceland today. Her name, in old Norse, actually means "well-traveled" – which, according to the two sagas, she certainly was.

There is a famous 1939 statute of her – in a boat with her son, Snorri, on her shoulder – which is on display at Glaumbær in Iceland, with a smaller copy in Ottawa, Canada. She is also featured as a character in a Japanese "manga" comic, Makoto Yukimura's "Vinland Saga."

For Icelanders today, she was a pioneering female explorer whose sense of faith and adventure shaped history forever.

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