The Colonization of Vinland, 986–1014 A.D.
The Colonization of Vinland, 986–1014 a.d.
First Sightings. In 986 a.d. Bjarni Herjolfsson was on his way to Greenland from Iceland when he and his ship got lost in a storm. After the sky had cleared he saw “a country that was not mountainous, but was well wooded and with low hills. . . .” Thus was made the first recorded European sighting of North America. As new arrivals in Greenland, the Norse were hardly prepared to expand yet again to the west, and only after the population grew and land became scarce did the Vikings begin to calculate the benefits of colonizing the land Herjolfsson had spotted. In 1001 Leif Ericsson bought Herjolfsson’s ship, outfitted it with some of the former owner’s crew, and sought out the mysterious land in the west they called Vinland, where they built a small settlement called Leifsburthir.
First Contact. After Ericsson and his men had returned to Greenland, Thorvald Ericsson set out in 1006 for Leifsburthir. On the beach they saw three bumps that upon closer inspection proved to be skin boats under which several Indians were sleeping. Thorvald killed eight of the frightened men, and his crew retreated to their ship. Much to their surprise scores of skin boats full of Indians appeared offshore, and the Vikings took up a defensive position. The so-called Skraelings let loose several barrages of arrows, one of which struck Thorvald dead. After the Indians had retreated, the remaining crewmen buried their leader nearby and holed up in Leifsburthir for the winter. In the spring they collected wood, harvested some grapes, and returned to Greenland with a less rosy picture of the New World.
The Vinland Colony. Three years later Thorfinn Karlesefni, his wife, and 160 other settlers located Leifsburthir, repaired the dilapidated houses, and built several new buildings to house the rest of the colonists. Subsequent dealings with the local population, however, convinced Karlesefni that they not only outnumbered the Vikings but also had the potential to destroy the tiny settlement.
War with the Skraelings. The native inhabitants were intrigued by the cattle the Vikings had brought with them and confined their first swaps of goods to furs and skins for fresh milk. Later they added red cloth to the list of goods they desired, and they were always intrigued by the Vikings’ metal weapons. During one trade visit to the settlement, a native man tried to get hold of a sword, and its owner immediately killed him. The rest of his companions fled, and Karlesefni warned his men to prepare for a battle. Weeks later the assault came. Were it not for the heroics of Freydis, Leif’s half sister, who charged headlong into the attackers, the Vikings would have been vanquished. After having spent three winters in Vinland, Karlesefni and the colonists retreated to Greenland. Freydis made a subsequent voyage to Vinland, but Karlesefni’s failure ended the attempt to colonize the region. By 1014 sustained contact between Greenland and Vinland had stopped, but over the next few centuries an occasional ship was blown off course into the waters first sailed by Herjolfsson.
Helge Ingstad, Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-Sites in North America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969);
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (New York: New York University Press, 1966).