Gunnbjörn Ulfsson

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Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (Norwegian and settler in Iceland, lived c. 10th century), name also given as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson, was the first European to sight North America.[1]

History

Gunnbjörn was blown off course while sailing from Norway to Iceland. He and his crew sighted islands (Gunnbjörn's skerries) lying close off the coast of Greenland, and reported this find. Gunnbjörn did not land. Greenland is physically and culturally part of North America; it is separated from Ellesmere Island by only a narrow strait, so this constitutes the first definitively established European contact with North America. This reference confuses Gunnbjörn with other early Icelandic accounts on Greenland and the lands to its west.

The exact date of this event is not recorded in the sagas. Various sources cite dates ranging from 876 to 932.

Waldemar Lehn, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and an expert in atmospheric refraction and mirages, has argued that what Gunnbjörn saw was most probably a mirage of the Greenland coast due to "optical ducting under a sharp temperature inversion".[2] Such phenomena were not unknown to the Norse, who called them hillingar.

The first records of purposeful visits to Gunnbjörn's islands were by Snæbjörn Galti around 978 and soon after by Eric the Red who also explored the main island of Greenland, and soon established a settlement. But neither Snæbjörn nor Eric were sailing blind; they knew well of the location reported by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson and the first settlers in Iceland.

A number of modern placenames in Greenland commemorates Gunnbjörn, most notably Gunnbjørn Fjeld (3,694 m a.s.l.).

References

  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 10. Chicago. 1955. p. 858. . This reference is misunderstood, the only reference to Gunnbjörn is from the Book of Settlement Landnámabók (of Iceland), where his sons live in Iceland's Westfjords and a note is made that Gunnbjörnssker are named after him. Greenland's east coast is a day's journey off the Westfjords, it is not unlikely that he hunted seals and walrus there, the main occupation of the settlers.
  2. Seaver, Kirsten A., The Last Vikings: The Epic Story of the Great Norse Voyagers I.B.Tauris, 2014, ISBN 9781784530570