The Vikings Explore North America

views updated

The Vikings Explore North America


Five hundred years before Columbus, Vikings led by Leif Eriksson became the first Europeans known to have set foot in North America. Norse sagas and archaeological finds record their explorations and their contacts with the native peoples. Unfortunately for the Vikings, their relations with the indigenous inhabitants were not friendly, and they soon abandoned their encampments.


In the tenth century, the Vikings had expanded from their Scandinavian homeland and settled the islands to their west, including the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. Vikings were accomplished sailors, well equipped to handle the rough waters of the North Atlantic. Their ships were sturdy, fast and flexible. They had overlapping clinker hull planking, to increase their strength and help prevent leaks. With a framework held together by animal sinews or spruce roots, they could flex rather than break apart under the stress of ocean swells. Deck planks were removable for arranging cargo and bailing out bilge water. The ships rode low enough to sail on the open ocean, but were shallow enough to beach and to navigate rivers. In addition to being propelled by their single square sail, they could also be rowed.

The famous Viking Erik the Red, who had been banished for three years from the established colony in Iceland after killing several men, spent the time exploring a large island to the west. When his exile was over, he returned to Iceland and recruited colonists to settle on the island, which he gave the enticing name of Greenland. In 986, he led an expedition to Greenland with hundreds of settlers. They established their farms along Greenland's southwestern coast, raising livestock on the rich pasture.

Neither Greenland nor Iceland had much timber, arable land, or metal for tools and weapons. They did, however, have abundant wildlife on both land and sea. Settlers obtained furs and hides, whalebone and walrus ivory to trade for the goods they needed. Soon traders in merchant ships were plying the waters between Greenland, Iceland, and the Norwegian mainland.

Viking sailors gave storms a wide berth, sometimes veering well out of their way to avoid them. As a result it was not uncommon to get lost or to be blown off course. In fact, it was one such lost sailor, Gunnbjorn, whose reports of land sighted to the west had led Erik on his explorations. When the Greenland settlement was only a few months old, another sailor, Bjarni Herjolfsson, went out from Norway in his trading ship to visit his father in Iceland. When he got there, however, he discovered that the older man had gone with Erik's expedition.

Bjarni determined to sail on to Greenland and winter with his father as he had planned. He and his crew became lost in a heavy fog, and by the time it lifted, Bjarni realized he had sailed much too far. There was land to the west, which we now call Labrador, Canada. Bjarni didn't know what it was, but he knew it wasn't Greenland, and he didn't go ashore there. He headed east, back into the open ocean, and luckily found Greenland in four days. He carried with him the tale of the new lands.


Bjarni's adventures were told in the Saga of the Greenlanders. The saga is an Icelandic literary form, written in a runic alphabet. Sagas combine the oral poetry and storytelling tradition of the Vikings with the written narrative forms adopted from medieval Christian civilization. Sagas must be used with caution as historical evidence because they incorporate fantasy and are often contradictory. However, they are often the only documentation available about incidents in Viking history. Together with archaeological evidence, they allow scholars to piece together an account of the Viking journeys to North America.

Among the Greenlanders who heard Bjarni's story was Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red. Leif bought Bjarni's ship and, in the year 1000, sailed west with a crew of 35 men. They first made landfall on a mountainous, glacier-covered coast Leif called Helluland, or "Flat Stone Land." This was probably Baffin Island. Turning away from its barren coast, they proceeded south until they came upon a forested region they named Markland, or "Woodland," believed to be Labrador. Continuing still further south, they arrived at a place they called Vinland, where they set up their encampment of Leifsbudir. After wintering there, they returned to Greenland.

The location of Vinland has long been debated. One translation of Vinland is "Grassland." If this is its meaning, it suggests the coast of Newfoundland. On the other hand, Vinland may also mean "Wineland" or "Vineland." This presents a problem, as grapes do not grow that far north. Berries do, though, including lingonberries, which are traditionally used to make wine in Scandinavia. Cranberries, currants, and gooseberries are other candidates. The climate is believed to have been slightly warmer in Leif's day, so perhaps grapes could grow in Newfoundland at that time. There is also the possibility that Leif, like his father, simply gave the land he found an attractive name.

The discovery of a Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern coast of Newfoundland has led most scholars to believe that this was Leif Eriksson's Vinland. The site at L'Anse aux Meadows was discovered and excavated in the early 1960s by the husband-and-wife team of archaeologists Helge and Anne Ingstad. While there are many dubious claims for "Viking" sites and artifacts in North America, the authenticity of L'Anse aux Meadows is unmistakable. Archaeologists have found structures of typical Scandinavian design and a Viking-style bronze pin. The buildings and artifacts have been dated to the early eleventh century. The absence of signs of long-term habitation, such as burial grounds, large garbage dumps, and rebuilt houses, fits in with Leifsbudir's use as a seasonal camp.

When Erik the Red died, Leif became head of the family, and was prevented from returning to Vinland by his new responsibilities. His younger brother Thorvald took Leif's ship and went instead. He and his crew of 30 men spent the summer exploring west of Leifsbudir, and then camped there for the winter. Thorvald's visit is notable in that it included the first recorded contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of North America, either Native Americans or Eskimos, whom the Vikings called skraelings, or barbarians.

Sadly, this first meeting set the tone for many that were to follow between Europeans and native North Americans. Thorvald and his crew sailed into a fjord and encountered nine native men in skin boats. A battle ensued in which eight of the nine natives were killed. The last man escaped and returned with reinforcements. The Vikings retreated, but not before Thorvald had been mortally wounded by an arrow. His men returned to Greenland, as the dying Thorvald had ordered. Another son of Erik the Red's, Thorstein, took the same ship out yet again, hoping to bring back his brother's body. But caught up in a storm, he found himself back on Greenland's coast, and died of an illness before he could set out once more.

According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, another expedition went out to Vinland shortly after the return of Thorvald's crew. It consisted of about 150 would-be colonists led by a wealthy Icelandic trader named Thorfinn Karlsefni. They set up an encampment not far from Leifsbudir, and surrounded it with a protective stockade. At first, they traded with the indigenous people, but relations soon turned hostile. When one native was killed while attempting to steal weapons, his companions returned with more men and boats. Although the Vikings defeated them, Thorfinn feared that the fighting would continue until all the colonists were killed. After the next winter, the settlement was abandoned. However, it had achieved one milestone. Thorfinn's wife Gudrid had given birth to a son, Snorri, the first European child born in North America.

Although some scholars doubt its veracity, there is another tale recorded in the sagas about an expedition led by Leif Eriksson's sister Freydis. This was apparently a commercial timber-cutting trip in partnership with two men from Iceland. Freydis is depicted as a ruthless and treacherous woman. Wanting to claim her partners' ship, she tricked her husband Thorvard into killing the two Icelanders and their crew. When Thorvard demurred at killing the five women among them, Freydis took on that task herself. Then she sailed back to Greenland with both ships and all the timber.

After Thorfinn, there were no more Viking attempts to colonize North America, although a few more journeys were recorded. In particular, Labrador was the destination for occasional timber-gathering expeditions. The Greenland settlement itself died out in the 1400s, as the climate cooled and supply ships no longer ventured through the icy seas. Little evidence remains of contact between the Vikings and the native North American peoples.


Further Reading

Brent, P. The Viking Saga. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Graham-Campbell, J. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Logan, F.D. The Vikings in History. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Ingstad, H. Westward to Vinland. E.J. Friis, transl. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969.

Ingstad, A. and H. Ingstad. The Norse Discovery of America. 2 vols. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1986.

Jones, G. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Magnusson, M. Vikings! New York: Elsevier-Dutton, 1980.

Magnusson, M. and Paulsson, H. The Vinland Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1965.