The Norse discovery of America has become one of the most studied aspects of the Viking Age (circa 800–1100). During this time, Scandinavian raiders, traders and settlers were extremely active across much of Europe and as far south as north Africa’s Mediterranean coast and as far east as Baghdad. Collectively, Viking Age Scandinavians knew more of the world than any previous Europeans, a knowledge that, step by step, led them to the Americas.
The first step on the way to the Americas came 200 years before Leif Eriksson’s discovery of Vinland – with the conquest and colonisation of Scotland’s Northern Isles soon after 800. This was followed about 25 years later by the settlement of the Faroe Islands and then Iceland in circa 870. The next step was the foundation of the Norse Greenland colony by Erik the Red in the 980s.
The settlement of Greenland was quickly followed by the first European sighting of the North American continental mainland, a feat achieved by an Icelandic merchant called Bjarni Herjolfsson.
According to the Greenlanders’ Saga – which, with Erik the Red’s Saga, is our main literary source for the Viking discovery of America – Bjarni had returned home from a trip to Norway in 986 to find that his father had emigrated to Greenland with Erik the Red. Knowing nothing about Greenland, save that it was mountainous, treeless and had good pastures, Bjarni set off after his father and predictably soon got lost.
After several days of bad weather and poor visibility, Bjarni found himself off the coast of a densely forested, hilly land. This was obviously not Greenland so, without even landing, Bjarni sailed north and, after two days, sighted a flat, forested land. Once again he didn’t land. After sailing north-east for another three days, Bjarni encountered a rocky, mountainous, glaciated land which he thought too barren to be Greenland. Putting the land astern, Bjarni sailed east, arriving four days later at the Norse settlement in Greenland.
Bjarni’s discoveries created a lot of interest and, when he decided to give up trading, Erik the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson, bought his longship and set off on a follow-up expedition. This was around the time that Iceland converted to Christianity, around year 1000. Leif began by reversing Bjarni’s course. Sailing north-west, Leif came to a land of bare rock and glaciers which he called Helluland (‘Slab Land’). Turning south, Leif next came to a low forested land with white sand beaches which he decided to call Markland (‘Forest Land’).
Sailing south-west for two days Leif discovered a land where the rivers teemed with salmon and grapes grew wild. This Leif called Vinland (‘Wine Land’) and decided to land. The party built houses at a place afterwards called Leifsbuðir (‘Leif’s booths’), where they spent a comfortable winter.
According to Leif’s journal: “The country seemed to them so kind that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock: there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all.”
The winter days were much longer than they were in Greenland and “on the shortest day of the year, the sun was visible in the middle of the afternoon as well as at breakfast time”. Come the spring, Leif and his men cut a full load of timber – wood was always in short supply in Greenland – and set off home.
Leif made no contact with native peoples during his expedition, and the dubious honor of the first contact fell in the hands of his brother, Thorvald, in his follow-up expedition, three years after the first one.
According to the sagas, Thorvald and his men were exploring a headland at the mouth of a fjord when they spotted three humps on a sandy beach. On further investigation, the humps turned out to be canoes and under them were cowering nine men. The Norsemen captured and killed eight of them but the ninth escaped and raised the alarm.
Later the same day, Thorvald and his men saw a swarm of canoes sailing down the fjord towards them. Outnumbered, they took refuge in their ship, where they fought back the attack using their superior technology of iron weaponry. However, during the fight Thorvald received an arrow wound in the armpit and died shortly afterwards. At his request, Thorvald’s men gave him a Christian burial on the headland, marking his grave with crosses at his head and feet.
Leif had been the first European to set foot on the American continent; Thorvald was the first to be buried there.
Thorvald’s death at the hands of Native Americans was not enough to deter at least another two attempts by the Norse to settle in Vinland. The first, about two years after Thorvald’s death, was led by Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic merchant, who took with him his wife Gudrid, 65 men, five women, and a variety of livestock.
The party spent an uneventful winter at Leifsbuðir, during which time Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri, the first European to be born in America. In the spring, the new group had its first encounter with Native Americans, this time peacefully, who turned up at Leifsbuðir to trade furs. The Norse called them ‘Skrælings’, perhaps meaning ‘screamers’. Coming from a Stone Age culture, the Skrælings were fascinated by the Norsemen’s iron weapons and tools but Karlsefni forbade his men to trade them.
During a second encounter of Thorfinn’s expedition, later in the summer, one of Karlesefni’s men killed a Skræling who was trying to steal some weapons. The Norse defeated an attempt by the Skrælings to take revenge but after spending another winter at Leifsbuðir, Karlsefni returned to Greenland.
Soon after, another attempt at settlement was made by Leif’s half-sister Freydis who, according to Erik the Red’s Saga, had already been to Vinland as part of Karlsefni’s expedition. She had played her part in repelling the Skræling attack, terrifying them by baring one of her breasts and beating it with a sword. Freydis was an abrasive woman however, unsuited to leadership and her attempt at settlement ended when half the party were killed in a deadly internal feud.
Only one further voyage to Vinland is recorded. In 1121 Erik Gnupsson, the bishop of Greenland, set out for Vinland but the fate of his expedition is not known.
Archaeological proof of a Norse presence in North America was found in 1961 with the discovery of a settlement of turf longhouses and workshops at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, with a large number of metal artifacts discovered at the site, including wrought iron ship rivets and a typically Scandinavian bronze ring pin. Stone loom weights and a spindle whorl provided evidence for weaving at the site. As this was a female activity in Viking Scandinavia, this confirmed the saga accounts of women taking part in the Norse voyages of exploration. Radiocarbon dates from organic matter at the site show that it was occupied briefly, between 980 and 1020, which accords well with the saga traditions.
The Norse attempt to settle Vinland was fleeting – it was all over in about 20 years and probably involved fewer than 200 people, making it doomed to failure due to its small size. The distances were too great, the small Greenland colony did not have the population to support a colonizing venture and even the Viking iron weapons were insufficient agains the far more numerous natives.
The Europeans only returned to the Americas centuries later, but when they finally came, they came in numbers. The rest, well, is history.