Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Thorfinn
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|Written by James C. Brogan. See also Þorfinnr "Karlsefni" Þórðarson on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer.|
THORFINN, Scandinavian navigator, b. in Norway; d. in Glœmbœland, Iceland, after 1016. He was surnamed Karlsefn, which signifies one that is destined to become a great man. He was one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles of the three northern kingdoms, and several of his ancestors had been kings. He went to Greenland from Norway in 1006, bringing with him two vessels. Here he married Gudrida, the widow of Thorstein, who persuaded him to organize an expedition to Vinland. With three ships and 160 men and women, besides a supply of cattle, Thorfinn and his companions set sail from Ericsfiord in the spring of 1007, and finally were driven by the polar current and a north wind toward Helluland (probably Newfoundland). They next came in sight of Markland (Nova Scotia), and then of an island (probably Anticosti), on which some of them landed and killed a bear. Therefore they called it Bjarnar, or Bearsland. The sagas are somewhat vague as to the route that they followed afterward, but it is probable that in their search after the grave of Thorvald they sailed along the New England coast. They touched at Cape Kjalarnes, for mention is made of the keel which was set up there three years before; but they did not discover the tomb of the son of Eric, although some of his companions must have been among the crew of Thorfinn. After leaving Kjalarnes they sailed past Cape Cod, which they called Furdustrandir, or Wonderstrands, because they saw there sand-hills and long and narrow shores, and it was “long to sail by.” Thorfinn soon put two scouts on shore, who were ordered to explore the country to the southwest, They returned after three days, bringing some bunches of grapes and ears of wheat. Next the Northmen anchored in a deep bay, which they called Straumfjord, on account of its currents, and they then reached an island frequented by eider-ducks in great numbers. They named it Straumey, and it is supposed to be either Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. They wintered at Straumfjord, and, resolving to plant their settlement on its shores, landed their flocks, built booths, and spent the spring in cultivating the land, fishing, and exploring the country. But when the next winter came their resources were nearly exhausted, and Thorfinn was deserted by some of his companions. With his two remaining vessels he sailed for Leifsbudir, probably in Mount Hope bay, and established there the settlement of Thorfinnsbudir. One morning, about a fortnight afterward, he saw the bay crowded with little boats, containing men of a blackish color, with flat faces and big eyes. They were the Skraelings (Esquimaux), say the sagas. They raised aloft long poles with which they made a hissing sound by moving them rapidly in the air. “What do you think of this?” said Thorfinn to Snorre. “I think it means peace, and the white shield should be held up.” So the white shield of peace was raised. The Esquimaux approached, gazed curiously a moment on the Northmen, and then disappeared behind the promontory. But they returned in the spring of 1009 in such numbers that the bay looked to their eyes as if covered with lumps of coal. The whites traded with the natives, bartering red cloth for skins and furs, and, when the cloth was gone, Thorfinn directed the women to offer the savages milk porridge, which pleased them so well that they no longer wished for any other food, “and so,” says the saga of Thorfinn, “they carried in their bellies the results of a barter that the Scandinavians put carefully aside to load their ships with.” Meanwhile, to be ready for a surprise, he surrounded the little colony with a palisade. In the autumn there was born to Thorfinn a son, who was named Snorre, and was in all probability the first child of European parentage born within the limits of the present United States. The Skraelings did not return until the beginning of winter, but they came then in larger numbers than usual, and laid down their merchandise before receiving the price of it, contrary to their custom. As soon as the milk porridge was brought to them they took up their bundles and flung them over the palisade. Profiting by the confusion that ensued, they rushed in and attempted to seize the arms of the Scandinavians; but as soon as they saw one of their number slain they took to flight, abandoning both merchandise and porridge. They returned in still larger numbers soon afterward, and the Northmen raised the red shield of war in reply to their fierce cries. There was trouble with the natives in the ensuing winter, hostilities began, and the Northmen, after fighting bravely for a time, fled, believing that they saw a host in their rear. They soon recognized that they had been the victims of mirage, which, according to Prof. Edward Hitchcock, in his “Report on the Geology of Massachusetts” (Amherst, 1833), still occurs on that coast; but Thorfinn resolved to leave the country. First he explored the coast in the neighborhood of Mount Hope bay, visiting several harbors and making inquiries as to the productions of the soil. He is believed by some to have ascended the Potomac. He then passed the winter in Straumfjord, when the turbulence of his followers forced him to sail homeward. One ship was lost, so that of the three vessels that left Ericsfjord in 1007 only that of Thorfinn returned in 1011. He carried his merchandise to Norway, where he was received with great distinction, but in 1016 he sailed for Glœmbœland, in Iceland, where he spent the rest of his days. The illustration represents a ship of that period. The remains of such a ship were discovered in 1880 in a mound at Gogstad, Norway, and are now to be seen in a good state of preservation at Christiania. The erection of the tumulus is ascribed by antiquarians to the most ancient iron age, or the 10th century of our era — most probably to the age of Harold the haired, founder of the Norwegian state.