A Lucky Viking Who Found Vinland then Fought Over the Canadian Coastline
Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to establish an outpost in the Americas – some 500 years earlier, a Viking named Leif (“the lucky”) Erikson established a small village in Newfoundland, Canada.
Evidence of the Viking Arrival to Vinland
Although the Erikson family originated in Norway, they moved steadily westward as progressive generations were banished or exiled for manslaughter and other crimes. In approximately 1000 AD, Leif led a small expedition to Canada and established a colony there. Experts agree that the Vikings only lasted three to ten years at Vinland, eventually leaving not because of the cold or lack of food, but rather because they were chased off by the thousands of natives who inhabited the area.
In 1961, a team of investigative archaeologists led by Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad discovered the remains of an ancient Viking settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, which they named L’Anse aux Meadows. The site contained the foundations of sod longhouses built in the Viking style as well as a series of Viking artifacts including a ringed pin, a soapstone spindle whorl, a bone pin, a whetstone, iron boat rivets, and worked wood.
A recreation of the Viking L’Anse aux Meadows site, Newfoundland, Canada. (Dylan Kereluk from White Rock, Canada/CC BY 2.0)
It was believed that the settlement was used for gathering wood and iron-smelting. In addition to iron, the presence of butternut seeds convinced researchers that this must have been a Proto-European settlement, as neither of those things is believed to have been present in the Americas in the 11th century.
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The settlement, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was honored with a Statement of Significance that declares, “L’Anse aux Meadows is the first and only known site established by Vikings in North America and the earliest evidence of European settlement in the New World. As such, it is a unique milestone in the history of human migration and discovery.” (UNESCO, 1978)
Vikings VS Proto-Inuit Tribes
Little is known about the Proto-Inuit tribes living in Newfoundland at the time of Erikson’s arrival to Vinland. Historians believe that it was most likely either the Thule or Dorset tribes who controlled the coast in 1000 AD.
Drawing of a Sadlermiut man on inflated walrus skins bringing two dried salmon and a flint-headed arrow as a peace offering to newcomers. (1824) By Captain George Francis Lyon. (Public Domain) In the past it was believed that the Sadlermiut were the descendants of the Dorset people. However, this theory has been disproven.
The fragments of indigenous accounts that remain today show that the early Inuit were fully aware of the Norse arrivals and the threat these white men posed to their native way of life: “Soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest, and killed him on the spot...When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait [foreigner] would come and avenge the death of their countrymen” (Rink, 1875). The stories of the Norse and Inuit interactions are filled with violence and bloodshed - usually carried out in the name of vengeance.
The Sagas Account
Much of what we know about Erikson’s expeditions and the Vikings’ encounters with the Native Americans derives from Icelandic sagas, particularly The Saga of the Greenlanders and, to a lesser degree, The Saga of Erik the Red.
Graphical description of the different sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Modern English versions of the Norse names. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Sagas tell of how things were not faring well for Leif’s settlement in the New World. For example, his brother Thorvald Erikson died while scouting the coastline south of their encampment. Not long after coming ashore, they encountered a band of natives, dubbed skrælings by the Norsemen. Thorvald’s company managed to defend their ships and retreat; however, Thorvald was fatally struck by an arrow. “I have gotten a wound under the arm,” said he, “for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me. Now counsel I ye…bury me, and set up crosses at my head and feet, and call the place Krossaness for ever in all time to come” ( The Saga of the Greenlanders) Thorvald would be the first European known to have been killed and buried on the American continent.
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The third, youngest Erikson brother, Thorstein, attempted to retrieve the body of Thorvald but fell ill and died before his party could reach Vinland. His wife was incredibly persistent and managed to organize another expedition to Newfoundland. Her name was Gudrid Thorbjorns and, upon the death of her husband, she married Thorfinn Karlsefni Þórðarson. By the next spring, she had convinced Karlsefni to return to Vinland.
They reached the Viking establishment and were pleased to find the grapes and wheat they had brought before growing wildly. The winter was very hard but relations with the natives were peaceful, at least at first.
A statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Public Domain)
The End of the Vinland Settlement
Karlsefni made a point to prohibit any of his men from trading swords or spears to the Inuit but other than that, there was a healthy trade of spun red cloth for pelts. Things took a turn for the worse when, one day, a Norse bull broke loose of its confines and charged into the natives’ camp. They were terrified, being unfamiliar with bovine, and considered it a deliberate attack made by the Norsemen.
Karlsefni was forced to retreat to a defendable position. At this moment, the Norsemen wisely realized, “that though the land might be choice and good, there would be always war and terror overhanging them, from those who dwelt there before them. They made ready, therefore, to move away” ( The Saga of Erik the Red).
Part of a 13th Century copy of the Saga of Erik the Red. (Public Domain)
Vinland was simply too far away from the Viking strongholds on Greenland and Iceland- there were neither the resources nor the manpower to defend the location against the local inhabitants. After less than ten years, the Vinland settlement was abandoned. The Americas would not be settled again by Europeans for another 500 years.
Top Image: ‘Leif Eriksson Discovers America’ by Christian Krohg (1893). Source: Public Domain
Hirst, K. Kris. "L'Anse Aux Meadows - The Vikings in North America. " Newfoundland and Labrador Culture History and Archaeology. About, Inc, 3 Apr. 2016. Web. http://archaeology.about.com/cs/explorers/a/anseauxmeadows.htm
Rink, Henry. "54. Stories About The Ancient Kavdlunait." Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo. London: n.p., 1875. N. pag. Sacred-Texts of the Native American Inuit. Sacred-Texts, 2003. Web. 30 July 2016. http://sacred-texts.com/nam/inu/tte/tte2-054.htm
"The Saga of the Greenlanders." The Saga of the Greenlanders. Notendur, 2016. Web. 30 July 2016. https://notendur.hi.is/haukurth/utgafa/greenlanders.html
Sephton, J. The Saga of Erik the Red. N.p.: n.p., 1880. Icelandic Saga Database. Icelandic Saga Database, 2016. Web. http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en
UNESCO. Advisory Body Evaluation of L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. Publication. Paris: World Heritage Committee, 1978. L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. UNESCO, 2013. Web. http://whc.unesco.org/archive/advisory_body_evaluation/004.pdf