Who was Thorfinn Karlsefni and What is He Famous For?

A celebrated Norse explorer, he is believed to have been one of the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil. This is the story of Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

3 January 2023

A wealthy trader descended from European royalty, Thorfinn Karlsefni Thórdarson is famed for leading an 11th century Norse expedition to the New World.

The story of this intrepid explorer, sometimes known as Thors Karlsefni, would not be written for hundreds of years. It was only in the 13th century Greenland Sagas and The Saga of Erik the Red that it was finally described, along with five other expeditions to North America.

This is common with Viking history of the time, when very little was written down contemporaneously. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the disparity of time makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction or even to determine the veracity of differing accounts of the same stories. With that said, here is the tale of Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Thors Karlsefni - The Early Years

Leif Erikson Exploring Greenland (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

Thors Karlsefni is believed to have been born in Iceland in circa 980 AD. Named Thorfinn Thórdarson, it is unclear as to when or how he gained the byname “Karlsefni”, which has been translated variously as ‘the makings of a man’, and ‘a promising boy’.

In terms of his background, Thorfinn Thórdarson is said to have come from a wealthy family who owned large tracts of land in the north of the country. Legend has it he was descended from royalty, including Olaf the White of Dublin and his wife, Aud the Deep-Minded.

According to the Greenland Sagas, as a young adult he bought a share of a merchant ship and began trading goods between Iceland and Norway. He settled in Greenland where he met and married Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir sometime around 1002. Gudrid had her own aristocratic connections as the widow of the youngest son of Erik the Red. The couple’s first son, Snorri, is thought to be the first European baby born on North American soil.

At the time, Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson had returned to Greenland with tales of the great treasures of Vinland. This was the viking name for the only known Norse or viking site on the North American continent. Now known as L’Anse aux Meadows, it is located on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland.

Encouraged by his wife, Thors decided to go in search of his own fortune. And thus began the Thorfinn Vinland Saga.

The Greenland Sagas - Tales of an Extraordinary Journey

Engraving of Thorfinn Karlsefni, and his wife from 1902 (Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images)

There is some disparity between the Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red in their accounts of the journey of Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir. The Greenland Sagas say he took two ships, 60 men and five women. And it is believed he followed the route of Leif Erikson.

As much as can be ascertained, that route took them up the west coast of Greenland, across the Labrador Sea and, after traversing the Davis Strait, the ships turned south until they reached landfall in Newfoundland, or as it was known then, Vinland.

During their time in Vinland, they are said to have encountered one or more groups of indigenous people. And it is fighting between the Norse and these groups that is attributed as the reason they left three years after their arrival. They returned, first to Greenland and then to Iceland.

Thorfinn Karlsefni - The Later Years

Glaumber Viking Farm, alleged home of Thorfinn Karlsefni (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Viking historians and archaeologists are split on where the family lived in Iceland. Indeed, as with his early life, very little is written of Thorfinn Karlsefni’s later years. The Greenland Sagas say that he bought land at Glaumbaer in the far north of the country and continued trading goods to Norway.


Icelandic Parliament (Photo: Gem E Piper via Getty Images)

The story of Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir is a fascinating one of adventure and exploration, their legacy an enduring one. Their sons, Snorri and Thorbjorn had a long line of historically important descendents. Among them were bishops, the abbess of a convent and 13th century lawspeaker and knight of Norway, Hauk Erlandson, who served as the highest elected official in the Icelandic parliament.


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