Thorfinn Karlsefni - Encyclopedia

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or THORFINN KARLSEFNI Karlsefne (fl. 1002-1007), Scandinavian explorer, leader of the chief medieval expedition for American colonization. Thorfinn belonged to a leading Icelandic family and had great success in trading voyages. In 1002 he came to Greenland, married Gudrid, widow of Red Eric's son Thorstein, and put himself at the head of a great expedition now undertaken from Ericsfiord for the further exploration and settlement of the western Vinland (south Nova Scotia?) lately discovered by Leif Ericsson. Three vessels took part in the venture, with 160 men and some women, including Gudrid, and Freydis, a natural daughter of Red Eric. They first sailed north-west to the Vesterbygd or "Western Settlement" of Greenland, thence to Bear Island, and thence away to the south till they reached a country they named Helluland (some part of Labrador?) from its great flat slabs of stone (hellur). Two days' sail farther southward brought them to a thickly-wooded land they called Markland (i.e. Woodland, our Newfoundland?). Two days after this they sighted land to the right hand, and came to a cape, where they found the keel of a ship - perhaps a relic of some earlier, possibly Scandinavian explorer - and which they called therefore Kialames (Keelness; Cape Breton, or some adjacent point?); the long bleak sandy shores of this coast they called the Wonderstrands (on the east coast of Cape Breton Island?). After passing the Wonderstrands and reaching a coast indented with bays, Thorfinn put two fleet Gael runners ashore, with orders to explore southwards (see Leif Ericsson): they returned with grapes and wild wheat, proofs that the Northmen were not far from Vinland. The fleet now stood in to a bay called by the explorers Streamfiord or Firth of Currents, and wintered there (1003-1004), suffering some privations, and apparently getting no more news of the fruitful country desired. Thorfinn's son Snorri was born this first autumn in the new world. Next spring nine of the party, headed by the chief malcontent Thorhall, Red Eric's huntsman, sailed off northward, intending to come to Vinland by rounding Keelness and thence working round west (and south). Adverse weather drove them to Ireland, where they were enslaved. Meanwhile Thorfinn, with the rest of the venturers, sailed south "for a long time," till they reached a spot they called Hop, at the mouth of a river which flows from a lake into the sea (several estuaries near the southern extremity of Nova Scotia would do equally well here). Here they found the "self-sown" wheatfields and vines of Leif's Vinland, and here accordingly they settled and built their huts above the lake (1004-1005). After a fortnight natives, swarthy and ill-looking, with ugly hair, great eyes and_broad cheeks (Beothuk or Micmac Indians?) appeared with many skin canoes; in the spring following these Skraelings came back and bartered with their visitors. Terrified by a bull belonging to the latter they fled, and after three weeks returned to fight. They were beaten off, but the Northmen narrowly escaped destruction, and two of their number (one a leading settler) were slain. The colony at Hop was therefore abandoned and the whole force returned to Streamfiord. Thence Thorfinn revisited Hop, staying two months; and also made a voyage northward in search of Thorhall, rounding Keelness and sailing westward (along the north coast of Cape Breton Island?), and apparently southward also, till they came to the mouth of a river flowing from east to west. Here Thorvald Ericsson was killed by a (Skraeling?) arrow, and the expedition came back to Streamfiord where they passed the next winter (1005-1006). Internal dissensions now broke out, mainly about the women of the colony, and in the next summer (1006) the entire project of Vinland settlement was abandoned and the fleet sailed to Markland. Two Skraeling children were captured here and the expedition divided, Thorfinn making Greenland and Ericsfiord in safety with his own vessel, while the other was lost in the Irish Sea, only half the crew escaping to Ireland in the ship's boat.

It may be noticed that the Flatey Book narrative gives a somewhat different but much slighter account of Thorfinn's expedition, making both Thorvald Ericsson and Freydis undertake separate Vinland ventures - one before, the other after, Karlsefni's enterprise - Thorvald being killed on his (as in Red Eric Saga, but with divergent details), and Freydis on her committing atrocities upon her comrades, the Icelanders Helgi and Finnbogi, which are unnoticed in Red Eric. The latter, however, in its mention of the domestic broils which arose over the women of the colony in its third winter, points to something which may have been the germ of the highly elaborated Freydis story in Flatey. On Flatey Book, Red Eric Saga and the whole bibliography for the Vinland voyages, including that of Thorfinn, see Leif Ericsson and Vinland. The six Vinland voyages of Flatey, we may repeat, Red Eric reduces to three, wholly omitting the alleged voyage of Biarni Heriulfsson, and grouping those of Thorvald Ericsson and Freydis with Thorfinn Karlsefni's in one great colonizing venture.

(C. R. B.)

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