Friday, December 12, 2008


Leif Eriksson sailed to and explored North America. In this 1996 photograph, a man dressed in traditional Viking clothing and armor poses at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

With their mastery of the North Atlantic nearly complete and their expeditionary zeal still strong, it was perhaps inevitable that the Vikings would eventually reach North America. Historians now agree that Erik’s son Leif Eriksson explored the North American coast in about 1000. The story of the Norse exploration of Greenland and North America is told in two Icelandic sagas recorded in the 12th and 13th centuries, Eiríks saga (Saga of Erik the Red) and the Groenlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders).

The Eiríks saga insists that Leif found “lands which he did not even know existed,” and many scholars believe that Leif reached North America by accident after being blown far off course on a summer voyage from Norway to Iceland. Leif, however, was not necessarily the first European to sight the New World. The Groenlendinga saga reports that the Icelandic merchant Bjarni Herjulfsson had been blown off course on a voyage from Iceland to Greenland in 986 and had told Leif Eriksson of finding an unknown land far to the west. According to this version, Leif acquired Bjarni’s ship and set out in the summer of 1001 specifically to find and explore that country.

In either case, Leif sailed westward and reached North America. The Greenlanders’ saga goes on to describe how he first sighted a frozen waste he called Helluland (“Flat-stoneland,” generally agreed to be Baffin Island, in Canada, lying southwest of Greenland and north of Hudson Bay). Sailing southward along the coast, he came to a wooded region with grasslands and an enormous stretch of sandy beach. He named this place Markland (“Forest-land,” tentatively identified as Labrador). Sailing farther south, he came to a temperate forested land where wild wheat and grapevines grew. This place he named Vinland (“Wine-land”); modern scholars identify the likeliest locale as Newfoundland and suggest that the so-called grapes, which do not grow at this latitude, were in fact some kind of cranberry or red currant. The Norse built themselves shelters and explored during the winter and spring. They returned to Greenland in the summer to tell of the plentiful “grapes,” salmon, timber, and grassland they had discovered.

Of several subsequent Norse voyages to North America, none resulted in permanent settlement. Leif’s brother Thorvald led one group of colonists to Vinland in 1003, but after only two winters, hostilities with Native Americans caused them to leave. Another serious attempt to colonize Vinland came a year or so later when Eriksson relative Thorfinn Karlsefni organized a fleet of three ships carrying more than 100 settlers and their livestock. They are believed to have spent their first winter on the shore of the St. Lawrence River estuary, where Snorri was born to Thorfinn and his wife, Gudrid, becoming the first European child to be born in North America.

The Vikings referred to the Native Americans as skroelings (“barbarians” or “weaklings”) but were nevertheless willing to trade with them, the Norse taking animal skins in exchange for red cloth. Workable business relations turned hostile, however, and Thorfinn’s group abandoned their settlement after a few years. Yet another expedition to Vinland led by Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis failed after she murdered her partner. The Vikings finally gave up on North America sometime between 1010 and 1025. They may have continued to harvest much-needed timber in Markland, but it evidently proved unsound economically to maintain settlements there. In their own terms—the desire to colonize—the Viking adventure in North America must be judged a failure.

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