Centuries before Christopher Columbus, and with only rudimentary navigational technology, Norse sailors managed to reach Greenland and the North American continental shelf.
Making their way slowly westward across the treacherous North Atlantic Ocean, it was Gunnbjörn Ulfsson that has been celebrated as the first European to sight Greenland.
His “discovery” of Greenland would herald its rapid transformation into a Norse settlement on the outer edge of the “known” world.
A tall tale of the sea
The origins of the Norse settlement of Greenland, like so much of early medieval Nordic history, can trace their roots back to the thoroughly entertaining (though historically dubious) old Norse sagas.
One, the Saga of the Icelanders, deals with how people from Viking societies came to settle in Greenland in the final two decades of the 10th century CE.
The eventual two Norse settlements on Greenland (an eastern and a western one) were medieval miracles that managed to survive and, indeed, thrive until the 15th century CE.
Modern historians have pointed to climate change as a factor in the collapse of the Norse society that was half a millennium old.
Whilst much attention in this saga goes to Erik the Red (whose manslaughter caused his banishment, which caused his seafaring voyages of “discovery” that led to the Norse settlement of Greenland), it was not actually Erik that is credited with being the first European to spot Greenland.
That honor (whether historically accurate or not) belongs to a more obscure figure by the name of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson.
Landnámabók and a first sighting?
Just a short trip (...for the early medieval period but a ridiculously long one for we modern jet setters that can fly across continents in hours) eastward from Greenland, across the perilous northern fringes of the North Atlantic Ocean, is Iceland.
Modern historians have theorized that Norse settlers from Iceland more than likely sailed westward to settle in Greenland. The Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements) describes the settlement of Iceland, by Norse settlers, during the 9th and 10th centuries CE.
Believed to have been compiled in the 12th century CE - long after the last Viking ship ever sailed – this is a sort of “Who’s Who” of early Norse settlers mixed with tall tales and a bit of historical gossip.
It lists the more than 3,000 people who lived in the Norse settlements in Greenland. Among them was Gunnbjörn Ulfsson and his two sons, who were said to reside, in the late 9th century CE, in the western fjords of Iceland.
According to lore, Ulfsson was the first man to sight the Greenland shore when his ship was blown off course from Norway to Iceland. Photo: Maridav / Shutterstock
Ulfsson’s claim to fame is that, according to the Landnámabók, he was the first man to sight the Greenland shore when his ship was blown off course from Norway to Iceland.
Since Greenland is also, geologically speaking, part of the North American continental shelf, he also may lay claim to being the first European to “discover” North America too...even before the more fabled exploits of his Viking brethren, Leif Erikson and Freydís Eiríksdóttir.
If his story is true, his sighting was said to have taken place sometime between the late 870s and mid 930s CE, this would further push back the European “discovery” of North America by between half a century to a century.
The Inuit were there millennia before
Other than this small mention in the Landnámabók, there is little other mention of Ulffsson. He disappears off the historical record (academics would probably argue that he disappears off a literary record rather than a historical one) after sighting the coast of Greenland.
What cannot be stressed enough is that regardless of the adulation he receives in the sagas, he was not the first “man” to sight Greenland. The Inuit peoples of Greenland had been there for millennia before any Norse sailor was blown off course.
Ulffsson and his crew were said to have spotted a series of islands off the coast of Greenland (Gunnbjarnarsker) which became a popular port of call for Norse travelers between Iceland and the mainland Greenland settlements.
They were also, according to later medieval cartographers, the location of as many as 18 farms and were believed to have been destroyed by volcanic activity. Like most of the life of Ulfsson, the islands are lost to us now submerged in darkness.
Despite the fact we know so little of Ulfsson, he has a rather large legacy in Greenland today.
The tallest mountain in Greenland is named after him (Ulfssonfjeld). For the people of Greenland today, fact and fiction, history and sagas are part of their everyday landscape.
Science Journal has recently published an article on a new theory for the collapse of the Norse settlement on Greenland, available here.
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