Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir … the woman who found the New World 500 years before Columbus

In our new series on lesser-known adventurers, we shine a light on the Icelandic explorer who reached America long before big Chris

Passport details
Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, AKA Gudrid the Far-Travelled, New World explorer.

Place and date of birth
Iceland, sometime in the late ninth century… but you should never ask a Viking woman her age.

Claim to fame
Gudrid was as well-travelled as her nickname suggests, visiting Norway, Greenland and, later in life, making a pilgrimage to Rome. What makes her truly exceptional, though, is that she sailed to North America in a longship, beating Christopher Columbus to the New World by almost 500 years. According to the accounts recorded in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, Gudrid lived in America (known to the Vikings as “Vinland”) for three years. Her son Snorri was the first European to be born there.

Supporting documentation
It’s an almost unimaginable feat of derring-do, considering the hazards and the available technology, but there are pretty good reasons to believe that it stacks up. Since the 1960s archaeological evidence has emerged to confirm the Vinland sagas’ extraordinary accounts of a precocious Norse expedition to the New World. The remains of a settlement were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, with typical Viking characteristics and preserved artefacts. Remnants of a spindle used for spinning yarn support the idea that a woman was among the would-be settlers.

Distinguishing marks
Sadly, Gudrid will never come to life for us in the way later, better-documented explorers do. However, the glimpses we get from the two sagas suggest Gudrid was not only resourceful but a compassionate traveller, who deserves to be better-known.

Last sighted
The Viking settlement in America was abandoned after three years. Gudrid returned to Iceland, where she ran a farm, and eventually converted to Christianity. In her sunset years, she went on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Intrepidness rating
Considering the era, the challenges, the risks, her gender and the cultural norms of the time, Gudrid’s a 10 out of 10.

Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir