The History Of The Vikings In Vinland And North America

If until now you thought that the North American continent was initially discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 along with his crew and three ships (the carrack Santa Maria as well as the caravels Pinta and Santa Clara), then you have been misled to acknowledge one of history’s greatest confusions. Putting aside the fact that Christopher Columbus didn’t actually want to discover the New World but rather to seek a faster and easier way to reach India, America was spotted several centuries before by other Europeans, namely the Norsemen (Vikings).

The Norsemen who set foot on American soil at the round of the 11th century were led by Leif Erikson (also know as Leif the Lucky), the son of another reputed Viking explorer by the name Erik the Red, who discovered Greenland after he was exiled from Iceland for murder.

According to the legend, Leif Erikson heard the account of an Icelandic merchant who told him about a land of forests and lush meadows situated westward of Greenland. Having been informed about the existence of such a vast space worth colonising and farming, Leif Erikson gathered his men and set sail to reach for this mesmerising land the Icelandic merchant told him about.

Satellite view of Newfoundland island, Canada, highlighting the area of Norse settlement in the north. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Leif and his crew are known to have landed somewhere on the eastern coastline of modern day Canada, namely in Newfoundland island. He then gave it the name ‘Vinland’ (the land of wine). However, not much is known regarding the fate of the Norse settlers Leif had brought with him.

In spite of the fact that at first all seemed to unfold quite peacefully for the recently settled Scandinavian community, they shortly came in contact with an indigenous group of Native Americans who have been henceforth known as ‘Skrælings’ (the term can possibly denote ‘savage’ or ‘cloth-skin’ in Old Norse).

The Norse numbered few settlers to actually win a subsequent war with the indigenous population and they were inevitably forced to withdraw from Vinland. As such, very much unlike the Faroe IslandsIceland or Greenland (territories that have been previously settled by the Norsemen), modern day Newfoundland preserves only sparse archaeological evidences of a past Norse presence.

The archaeological site of L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland and Labrador province, Canada, comprises a recreation of some Viking Age longhouses, being the most renowned and best preserved Norse historical site in North America. The site was discovered during the early 1960s by Dr. Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad. Subsequently, in 1978 the area was included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Reconstructed Viking Age longhouses at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

In mid 2015 a team of archaeologists led by Sarah Parcak spotted another possible Viking Age site in southern Newfoundland, namely at Point Rosee. If confirmed, this discovery may very well re-write the history of the Norse settlement in the region.

However, there were other notable territories mentioned in the sagas and known to the Norsemen in the proximity of Vinland, specifically Helluland (‘the land of flat stones’; most likely present day Baffin Island) and Markland (‘the land of forests’; most likely Labrador).

These two were sighted by Leif Ericson prior to Vinland and were also named by him after he set ashore. While Helluland did not present much interest to Leif given its barren landscape, Markland was quite promising. It’s probable that the latter eventually represented an important timber source for the settlement(s) in Newfoundland island.

As previously mentioned, the voyages of both Erik the Red and Leif Erikson are documented in two Icelandic sagas, namely that of Erik the Red and of the Greenlanders. Both medieval manuscripts translated in English can be found and read online below:

Documentation sources and external links:


8 Responses to The History Of The Vikings In Vinland And North America

  1. Kim pierri says:

    You forget “Adam of Bremen” as a source, its closer in time

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello and thank you for reading The Dockyards!

      Indeed, this is a very good point. Adam of Bremen, a medieval German chronicler, recounts in his 11th century work ‘Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum’ (literally ‘The Deeds of Hamburg’s Bishops’) that the Norsemen discovered a land of wine and wheat far away in the west. The land in question is doubtlessly Vinland and this source is the only (and also earliest) of its kind mentioning it aside from the Icelandic sagas.

      • William OHalloran says:

        A fun and controversial theory is that the early Scots/Irish were looking for walrus and other fur bearing animals in Greenland and even the Eastern most part of the Hudson’s Bay in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Farley Mowat presents a fairly convincing story in the Far Farers written in 1999. So maybe Leif the Lucky wasn’t all that lucky after all. Maybe he learned of East Greenland from a “West man.”

  2. Jim says:

    Great read. However you mention the norsemen set foot in American soil. Should that not read “Canadian soil” or “North American” soil instead? From a Canadian 🙂

    • Jeppe says:

      Are you saying, that Canada is not America? Canada is America, North-America is America. They all are combined as America.

      America does not mean only usa, its the whole continent, including south America.

  3. Hans Otten says:

    ‘discovered’ is a strange term here. There were already thousand of years people living there.

  4. THE VINLAND FIND IN THE CONTEXT OF OTHER VIKING EXPLORATIONS AND SETLEMENTS AND ‘VIKING’ SETTLEMENTS LONG BEFORE THE ‘VIKING AGE’

    The period between 793, when a Norwegian band raided the monastery of Lindesfairne and 1066, when William the Conqueror seized the throne of England, is commonly known as the Viking age.

    The meaning of the terminology Viking is not precisely known, it probably derives from Vik = cove or bay, but Scandinavians never referred to themselves as vikings, rather they went a-viking. This activity took them all over Europe into Asia (=Gods’ country, – derived from Ás = god, plural Æsir) and eventually America, (From Gods’ Country to ‘God’s own Country’). This mobility of Scandinavians however was by no means confined within this period; they had been on the move long before, trading, raiding and settling in new areas, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not.

    Anglons, Juts for example left their lands in southern and western Jutland and now northern and northwestern Germany mixed with Saxons in Holland around 500 to 700 to settle in England.

    The ballad of Beowulf recounts that the Geats (Gautar) the Frisians and mainland Dutch on one side fought the Franks aided by a legion of Romans, and that Hygelac (Hugleikur) their leader was killed in that raid. This was corroborated by the historian Gregory of Tours (d 594) who dated the death of Hygelac, latinized to Clochilaichus, as ca 521.

    Howard D. Chickering, an authority on the Beowulf ballad wrote. “It was through the early East Anglian court that detailed knowledge of Scandinavian tribal history in Beowolf became available in England? Wehha as the first king to rule over them in England, his son was Wuffa, from whom the dynasty took its name, the Wuffingas. These names correspond roughly to Weohstan (icel. Vésteinn), Wiglaf (icel. Vígleifur) and the Wylfingas in Beowulf (icel.Ylfingar = the name of the original Swedish line of kings). It is conceivable that the Geats (in Swedish, the Gauts) who lived near Uppsala, migrated to Anglia under the leadership of Weohstan or Wiglaf, bringing with them Swedish heirlooms that were later buried at Sutton Hoo (sometime in the 6th century). Perhaps they left Gautland after a disastrous defeat by the Swedes, as prophesied at the end of Beowulf.”
    (Chickering,. 1977 p 249)

    Swedes also traded and raided on the southern shores of the Baltic. Later they established fortified towns on the Russian rivers to allow trade to flourish with Arabs, Bulgars, the Byzantine Empire and the Silk Route to China, thus forging the foundations of the Russian state, besides giving it – its name.

    “In fact it was the Swedes who actually created the future Russian State by founding the great Russian cities of European Russia – Novgorod (=New Fortress. ‘Garður’ has two meanings in Icelandic (= old Danish the language of these people) = garden and fence), Kiev (=flat bottomed boat = shallows), Smolensk (=Narrow lands, valleys)–“
    (Magnusson 1976 p 27) (Inserts in italics are mine).

    Norwegians and Danes had settled among the Picts in both Shetland and the Orkneys long before the Viking era, as excavations in these areas prove.
    “The archeological record suggests a process of peaceful assimilation; the earliest layers of Norse occupation have yielded almost no traces of weapons”.
    (Magnusson, ibid)

    During the ‘Viking’ era, the outward push resulted in extensive Scandinavian settlements being established in Ireland, Scotland, England and France as well as colonization of previously uninhabited areas in the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland and an attempt at settlement in Vínland on the North American mainland.

    This beachhead settlement on the North American mainland lasted only for a few years “…indeed, the very next year (i.e. 1001) Leif’s brother Thorvaldur led an expedition to Vínland, but was killed by an arrow in a skirmish with a group of native Americans. Thorfinnur Karlsefni is said to have established a settlement of between 60 and 160 people a few years later, but it seems to have lasted only about three years. The continued hostility of the indigenous population, whom the Vikings called Skrœlingjar, a somewhat derogatory term, was undoubtedly a factor in its collapse, but supply routes with the home base in Greenland seem also to have been overstretched.” (Graham-Campbell,1994 p 177)

    ‘VÍNLAND’

    The Icelandic Sagas provide three accounts of the Vínland – find (not discovery, since there were indigenous people there already), and they tell of several attempts to establish a Norse colony there. The three accounts are to be found in Eiríks Saga Rauða = History of Eric the Red, Grœnlendinga Saga = History of the Greenlanders and Grœnlendinga þáttur = Section on Greenlanders.

    These concur in contributing the first exploration of the north American mainland to Leif the lucky Ericson, after Bjarni Herjolfsson had seen it from the sea but not landed there.

    “Leifur was son of Eiríkur Þorvaldsson (Thorvaldsson), son of Astvaldur son of Ulfur son of Öxna-Þorir. Eiríkur and Þorvaldur having been outlawed by Gulathing in Norway for a killing, left for Iceland and settled at Drangar in Hornstrandir, a remote and bleak area in northwestern Iceland.

    In Iceland Eiríkur married Þjóðhildur (Thjothhilder) Jörund’s-dóttir, Jörund was son of Úlf who was married to Þorbjörg knarrarbringa, later married to Þorbjörn in Haukadal. When Eirik’s father died, Eiríkur and his wife left Hornstrandir to settle at Eiríksstaðir in Dalir, near Þorbjörn and Þorbjörg.” Information compiled from Eiríks Saga Rauða = History of Eric the Red

    The genealogies, which abound in the introduction to each Saga, serve to establish the characters standing in society and give links to the reader’s own family history. We may, for example understand from Eric’s genealogy and the fact that he and his father were relegated to Hornstrandir when they first came to settle in Iceland, that he did not belong to the ruling class or to a powerful ancestry. Þorbjörn (Thorbjorn) in Haukadal however did, being son of Vifill, a Celtic gentleman who had come to Iceland with Auður djúpúðga (the deep minded = the intelligent) and most of Þorstein’s children. Auður was a widow of Olafur hvíti (the white) king in Dublin and mother of Þorsteinn Rauður (red) king (Earl and co-regent with Malcolm) in Scotland (Earl of the Islands, Ross, Cathness) who was killed in a battle in Scotland. The later ‘earls of the Isles’ belong to this family. Þorbjörn in Haukadal had a daughter Guðríður (Gudrid) who first married Þorsteinn, Leif Eríksson’s brother and after having been widowed married Thorfinnur Karlsefni who we will read about later.

    Leifur, his brothers, Þorsteinn and Þorvaldur, as well as their sister Freydís were borne and raised in Hornstrandir and Dalir.

    Eiríkur got himself into trouble in Iceland for a killing, the same he had previously done in Jœren in Norway, and was outlawed for three years. He left for Greenland, which had been seen on the horizon by fishermen. After three years he returned to encourage settlement in Greenland.

    According to Ari Þorgilsson (a very reliable Icelandic historian / written 1111) 25 ships left Breiðafjörður in western Iceland to settle in Greenland. This was in 985. 14 of these ships reached their destination while others were driven back and some got lost in severe weather encountered at sea.

    The ‘History of Greenlanders’ gives the following account of Leif’s exploration of the American mainland in a loose translation or trans-scribtion rather than translation. All name spelling is Anglicized for ease of both writing and reading.

    ‘TRANSSCRIBTION’

    …’Leif met with Bjarni Herjolfsson, bought his ship and hired a crew of 35. Among them was a ‘Southerner’ from Germany named Tyrkir, who had been with Eric and his family for years. They sailed west from Greenland and came first to the land that Bjarni’s crew had seen last on the horizon. In that area they found glaciers at elevated levels and stony ground between the sea and the snows. The area was void of plants. This land they deemed useless and called it Helluland (Stoneland / = Baffinland). They boarded the ship again and followed the current south until they saw another shore. This land was low and flat, forested and had white sand beaches. This land they called Markland (Forestland = / Labrador). Then they sailed two more days with a northerly wind filling the sail, before they saw another shore. Here they sailed up to the land and found an island just north of a mainland peninsula (Cape Breton Island?). They sailed through the sound separating the island from the mainland, heading west. Here they encountered enormous flats exposed on the out-tide and beached the ship. From the ship there was a long way to the sea on low tide. They walked over the flats to the land, to an area where a river entered the shore flowing from an inland lake (Bras d’Or Lake?). On high tide they rowed out to their ship and moved it up river into the lake where they anchored it, and set about to build a large hall.

    Both the river and the lake were good salmon fishing waters. This land was beautiful and there was no need to gather hay for winter, since they did not experience any frost. Length of day and night was more even, than both in Greenland and Iceland.

    When they had finished the building, Leif split the group into two, one half to explore the area during daylight hours returning by nightfall, while the other stayed home. Those that went exploring were to stay together. Thus they continued for some time alternating staying at home and going exploring. One evening they returned with Tyrkir missing. Leif left with twelve men to look for him and found him returning in good spirit not far away. Leif asked why he had not returned with the group. Tyrkir answered that he had walked not much farther than the group, where he found grapevines and grapes. Are you telling the truth? asked Leif. Of cause I am, he answered I was born and bred in a wine-growing area.

    The following morning Leif gave one group the task to pick grapes and the other to fell trees and prepare logs for shipping. The following spring Leif left the land laden with timber. This land Leif named Vínland the good. Outside the Greenland coast they found a ship stranded on a skerry. This ship was laden with wood. Leif and his men saved the crew and later salvaged the cargo. Due to these occurrences Leif gained his nickname ‘the lucky’.

    The following year, Thorvald, Leif’s brother, went to Vínland and stayed in Leifsbúðir (=Leif’s base or camp). In the spring after the first winter Thorvald sailed westward along the shore. The land was both beautiful and well forested almost down to the shore, with only a narrow white sand beach. This area abounded with islands and was very shallow. They encountered neither men nor animals but on a westerly island they found a corn bail on a pole. They did not find other signs of humans and returned to the camp in the autumn.

    The following summer Thorwald sailed east and north along the coast. Turning around a peninsula they encountered a sudden strong wind blowing. They drifted on to land and broke the keel of the ship. This caused a lengthy delay while they repaired the ship. This ness they named Kjalarnes (Keel-ness). They continued the journey into the mouth of a fjord that they then encountered. Here they took land on a forested headland where Thorwald announced that he would build his farm, ‘because this is a beautiful area’. Looking along a sandy strip towards land they saw three hills. They walked over there and came across three skin boats with three rowers in each. These men they killed but one escaped. Waking up from sleeping shortly thereafter they saw a multitude of skin boats coming on the fjord and a battle ensued. Thorvald was shot under the arm with an arrow and died. He was buried on the Headland where he had wanted to live, and two crosses, one at the head and the other at the feet were raised to mark his grave. This place they called Krossanes (Ness of Crosses).

    Thorstein Eric’s son had married Gudrid Thorbjorn’s-daughter, Thorbjorn was son of Vifill a Celtic settler in Dalir in Iceland (see above). Thorstein died in Greenland about a year after his brother had been killed in Vínland.

    Thorfinn Karlsefni, a wealthy man from Skagafjord in Iceland (Descendant of Auður djúpúðga – see above) stayed in Greenland over winter and married Gudrid, Thorstein’s widow, in the spring. In the following summer Thorfinn and Gudrid hired a crew of sixty-five. Leif lent his holdings in Vínland to Thorfinn but was unwilling to sell. Thorfinn and his crew stayed in Leifsbúðir (=Leif’s camp) the first winter. Next summer they encountered a large group of natives. These natives wanted to enter the building but were thwarted by Thorfinn and his men. They then wanted to sell skins for weapons. Thorfinn banned this but offered household articles and food. This was accepted. Neither group could understand the other’s language. The natives then left and Thorfinn made his crew build a timber fortress around the camp. This summer Gudrid bore Thorfinn their first child, a son named Snorri.

    The following winter a still larger group of natives arrived. They wanted to trade the same as before. Thorfinn Karlsefni ordered the women to offer only food and nothing else. The natives then threw their wares over the fortress wall. One native was killed when they tried to take weapons off the men as payment for the wares. This winter there were more skirmishes with the natives and many of them were killed.

    The following summer Thorfinn returned with his men to Greenland and later to Iceland after a trading trip to Norway where they stayed over winter. In the spring when Thorfinn prepared his ship for Iceland a ‘Southerner’ from Bremen in Saxland offered ½ a mark of gold for a timber chest that Thorfinn had with him from Vínland. Thorfinn did not know the name of the timber but it was ‘mössurr’ a Vínland timber. Thorfinn and Gudrid settled in Glaumbœr in Skagafjord. Snorri, their son took over Glaumbœr when his father died, and Gudrid went on a pilgrimage to Rome. (Gudrid may have been one of the most traveled females of her time) Returning to Glaumbœr she found that while she was away Snorri had built a church there. Gudrid became a nun and stayed in Glaumbœr until she died. She and Thorfinn had another son, Bjorn. Snorri had a son Thorgeirr. He was father of Yngvildur, Bishop Brand’s mother. Snorri’s daughter Hallfrid married Runolf. Their son was Bishop Thorlak. Bjorn’s daughter was Thorunn who was Bishop Bjorn’s mother. A large number of people are descended from Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid.’ (Insert in italics is mine).

    DEDUCTIONS & EVIDENCE OF FURTHER CONTACT WITH VÍNLAND

    The account is in a literary sense one of the poorest in Icelandic medieval literature but its contents are fascinating. If we are to believe the account, there is no possibility, for example, that the Nordic ruins found in barren and treeless Lance aux Meadows is the Vínland of the sagas. We also know from Grœnlendinga þáttur (Section on Greenlanders) that further attempts at settlement were made. It is also almost certain that both Icelanders and Greenlanders made use of the forests of North America long after these settlement attempts.

    One indication is the name of the timber used to make Thorfinn’s chest, the one he sold to the Saxon from Bremen. Thorfinn did not have a name for the timber at the time, but the scribe did, or suspected he did. ‘Mössurr’ is not a name for timbers known from Europe. Today we do not know which timber it refers to, but we know that the first timber the explorers would have encountered which was unfamiliar to them would have been Maple and Hickory in the Canadian Maritimes and New England, where wild grapes also occur. The coastline, especially of New England, is dotted with islands and headlands and nowhere else is the difference between high and low tide greater.

    The history of American Native nations tells us that a native tribe was entering these same areas about the time these settlements were attempted.

    It makes a lot of sense for a small group of timber loggers visiting this hostile area in the ensuing years to put up camp on a treeless coast, across water only approximately 30 km away from forested areas. Such arrangement allows tree gathering in daylight in relative safety and make an undetected approach to the base camp over water and treeless barren country difficult. The Lance aux Meadows ruins are much more likely to be viewed in this light.

    ‘Despite extravagant effort, archeologists have so far found only one authenticated Viking site, on Newfoundland. Nevertheless, it seems that for another 300 years, occasional Viking expeditions visited North America to collect timber for treeless Iceland.’ (Magnusson, 1976 p.31)

    The historian and biographer Andrew Sinclair has written at length about the history of Rosslyn (Rosslyn Chapel) (Gardiner, L. 1996 p 296) and the Sinclairs, imparting a detailed account of the Sinclair fleet’s transatlantic voyage in 1398.

    The St Clairs (=Sinclairs) trace their ancestry back to Rögnvald the Mighty, Earl of Møre in Norway. It was Rögnvald’s second son, Göngu-Hrólfur, or Rollo, who provides the biological link with the dynasty. (See St Clair’s family tree in Gardiner, L. 1996 p 427/ 428)

    This ancestry links the St Clairs with both Thorfinn Karlsefni (ibid + Icel. Ættar töflur = Clan books = family trees) and a large number of Icelanders at that time. It is therefore likely that Gudrid, on her pilgrimage to Rome would have stayed with the St Clairs in Normandy. The Sinclairs in Scotland and the St Clairs in Normandy / England would therefore have been in possession of the information about her experiences in Vínland.

    (She would have been travelling around 1030, well before both 1066, when William seized the crown of England, and 1057, when the first St Clair, William the Seemly came to Scotland.)

    It is not far fetched to assume that Christopher Columbus, (who is known to have traveled to Ireland and Scotland and suspected of having traveled to Iceland as well long before his America voyages) got his first information about lands in the west at these latitudes. Linking this information with information he knew about the ‘silk route’ may have been the bases for his assumptions. Later research and calculations served to convince himself of the viability of his venture. This scenario would make his attempt, while certainly a courageous one, an informed risk, like all good risks are rather than a foolhardy one.

    Magnus G Bjornsson

    Bibliography:
    Graham-Cambell, Ed.Cultural Atlas of the Viking World Facts on File Inc., New York 1994.
    Chickering, H .Jr 1977 Beowulf, Anchor Books Doubleday New York .
    Gardiner, G. 1996 Bloodline of the Holy Grail Element, Brisbane.
    Magnusson, M. 1976 Viking / Hammer of the North Orbis Publishing London .
    Wallace-Murphy, T. & Hopkins, M. 1999 Rosslyn Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail, Element Boston.

    Author unknown, Eiríks Saga Rauða =

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