If you asked the average person on the street who “discovered” America (we’ll put aside the racist and Eurocentric issues this raises for another time) most people would probably tell you it was Christopher Columbus. In 1492, Columbus undertook his first voyage Westwards, under the theory that he would reach Asia – contrary to popular belief, medieval Europeans did know the world was round, not flat, and it was this knowledge of a round earth that made Columbus believe he could reach Asia. By doing this, he hoped to beat economic competition from other European imperial powers, and help the Spanish Crown enter the spice trade. Whilst sailing for Asia, Columbus instead bumped into the huge land mass that is North and South America, and thus the ‘New World’ was found and, eventually, conquered and colonised. A great story (again, future mass genocide and slave trade aside), but Columbus was not, in fact, the first European to make landfall in the Americas – he got beaten by over 400 years by the Vikings.
Around 970, a Viking named Leif Erikson was born. His father was Erik the Red, a Norwegian Viking who was said by medieval and Icelandic saga sources to have founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Leif was also a distant relative of the Norwegian Viking Naddod, who is credited with the discovery of Iceland, and who was one of the first settlers on the Faroe Islands. With such illustrious ancestors, Leif probably felt the pressure to make a great discovery of his own.
Seattle’s Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina, WikiCommons
So, in 999 AD Leif and his crew set sail to travel from Greenland to Norway where he became a hirdman (originally meaning armed companions, hirdman later expanded to mean more generally a member of the royal court household) of King Olaf Tryggvason. Whilst here he converted to Christianity, and was charged with bringing the religion to Greenland. It was whilst en route to Greenland that he got blown off course, and saw North America. There are slightly different accounts of how Leif first went to Vinland (the name given to America) and some show that Leif wasn’t strictly the first European to find it. According to Einar Haugen’s translations of the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both written around 1200, a merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson sighted land to the west of Greenland after being blown off course one time. Moreover, one time when Leif was blown off course whilst travelling between Norway to Greenland, he found a land he didn’t expect to see that had self-sown wheat fields and grapevines. Whilst here, he rescued two men who had been shipwrecked there, and went back to Greenland where he Christianised people. If these stories are true, then Leif was not quite literally the first European to land in America.
Nonetheless, let’s get back to Leif’s journey. Leif spoke to Bjarni about the land he had seen, and then purchased a ship and gathered a crew of 35 men. His father, Erik the Red, planned to join him, but he fell from his horse on his way to set sail and, viewing this as a bad omen, dropped out. Leif followed Bjarni’s route, and landed in a rocky and desolate place which he named Helluland. It is possible that this could have been Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada. After setting sail once more, he next landed in a forested region which he called Markland – this may have been Labrador in northern Canada. Setting sail for a third time, Leif and his crew landed in a verdant area with a mild climate and plenty of salmon. As winter approached, Leif decided that they would stay there and so he split his crew into two groups, one to make camp and one to explore inland. During one of the explorations, a man named Tyrker (who may have been Leif’s foster father) discovered that the land was full of vines and grapes. This is what caused Leif to name the land Vinland.
The beginning the thirteenth century copy of ‘The Saga of Erik the Red’
Leif and his crew built a small settlement, which later visitors called Leifsbúðir, or, Leif’s Booths. Once winter passed, Leif returned to Greenland, bringing a cargo of grapes and timber, as well as rescuing an Icelandic castaway and his crew. Icelandic chronicles record another attempt to visit Vinland from Greenland over a century after Leif’s voyages. In 1121, the Icelandic bishop Eric Gnupsson decided to try and find Vinland, but there are no more reports of him, and 3 years later another bishop was sent to Greenland, suggesting Eric was unsuccessful. As there are so few written records that have survived in Greenland, our knowledge is patchy, and the next reference to a Vinland voyage doesn’t come until another Icelandic chronicle. This describes how in 1347, a ship arrived in Iceland after it had been blown off course on its way home from Markland to Greenland with a load of timber. This gives us an indication that the Greenlanders had continued to use Markland as a source of timber for several centuries after Leif’s discovery.
As for Leif, he returned to his family estate in Greenland after his trip, and doesn’t seem to have returned to Vinland to our knowledge. He continued to preach Christianity to the Greenlanders, and whilst his father Erik refused to convert, his mother quickly converted and built a church. Nothing is mentioned about his death in the sagas, but the last mention we have of him being alive is in 1019, and by 1025 he had passed on his chieftaincy to one of his sons. This means he probably died sometime between these dates.
An imagining of Leif’s men building a settlement in Vinland, by James Fergus Kyle.
Whilst Leif may not have returned to Vinland, we know for certain that his travels encouraged other Norsemen to make the trip. Leif’s brother Thorvald made a journey, and he was, as far as we can tell, the first to make contact with the indigenous people, who the Norse called skrælingjar. In modern Icelandic, this means barbarian or foreigner, but the origin of the word may have been derived from the Old Norse verb skrækja, meaning “bawl, shout, or yell”, or be related to the word “skrá”, meaning “dried skin”, in reference to the animal pelts worn by the Inuit.
There were no permanent Norse settlements in Vinland, although as mentioned there were clearly sporadic trips at least to Markland for forages, timber, and trade for centuries after. Leif’s legacy is widely remembered in North America, and the first statue of him was erected in Boston in 1887. Numerous other statues to Leif exist in North America, and in 1929 the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to make 9 October “Leif Erikson Day” in the state.
US commemorative stamp issued 9 October 1968, Leif Erikson Day.
As mentioned, written evidence for this period in Iceland and Greenland are almost non-existent, and so for a long time we knew very little about the extent of Viking exploration and settlement in North America. However, archaeologists are keen to find what evidence they can, and some headway has been made in the last 50 years. In the early 1960s, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It was suggested by the couple that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, was Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúðir, and it is now generally accepted that this was the case. Many wooden objects were found at L’Anse aux Meadows, and radiocarbon dating confirms the site’s occupation as being confined to a short period around 1000 AD. This provided proof that Vikings had reached America almost 500 years before Columbus did. L’Anse aux Meadows has been named both a National Historic Site of Canada and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Other archaeological evidence has suggested that Vinland may have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. In 2008, a team led by Dr. Patricia Sutherland of the Canadian Museum of Civilization found archaeological remains of yarn, Eurasian rats, tally sticks, a carved wooden Dorset culture face mask depicting Caucasian features, and possible architectural remains on Baffin Island. This indicated that Europeans had been on the island no later than AD 1000, which fits in with the saga accounts of Leif’s voyage. As the archaeological site at Tanfield Valley is thought to have been a trading post, this lends further credence to the idea that Baffin Island was the site of Helluland.
Modern recreation of the Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows.
In 2015, research done via satellite imagery and magnetometer readings suggested that Point Rosee, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, could be the location of a bog iron-smelting site and therefore a possible Norse settlement. Dark soil discolouration and rectangular features shown on satellite images and high-resolution aerial photographs suggested the presence of ancient buildings at the site. As Wikipedia describes:
“During a two-week exploratory dig in June 2015, trenches then uncovered turf walls, a style of construction used by Vikings, and signs of roasting bog iron to produce metal: a boulder that had been used as a hearth and cracked by heat, and residues of ash and iron. According to Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in the Vikings, only the Norse would have been smelting iron in this region. However, Birgitta Wallace, an expert on the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, is unsure of the identification as a Norse site. Carbon dating indicated the site dates to between 800 and 1300 CE. Excavations in 2016 did not turn up any conclusive evidence of Viking presence. The archaeologists think the site may have been a temporary iron-working camp, but it is possible it was a permanent Norse settlement.”
The research undertaken at the site was aired in a documentary called Vikings Unearthed, which aired in April 2016 and featured Point Rosee. I watched it when it aired and it certainly made for interesting viewing, if only to see how satellite usage is helping modern archaeology, so if you can find it anywhere I do recommend giving it a watch!
Douglas Bolender, Dan Snow, and Dr Sarah Parcak on the set of Vikings Unleashed, at Point Rosee.
Eventually, for reasons unknown, the Norse must have stopped travelling to North America, and it is interesting to wonder about why they never made permanent settlements there after creating settlements in Iceland and Greenland. This then paved the way for Columbus to “discover” it himself in the late medieval / early modern period, and lead to the great imperial race between European powers. Leif returned to a reasonably quiet life in Greenland, but at least he had managed to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers.
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