Hundreds of years before Columbus, the Norse were the first Europeans in the New World
Discover how Viking explorers were the first Europeans to reach America and why their colonies didn’t last
The famed longships of the Norse were perfectly designed to skim the rough seas of the North Atlantic. On board could be a band of warriors bent on conquest or a community ready to settle some newly discovered land. Having colonised Iceland in the 9th century it was only a matter of time before the Norse ships strayed even further westward. In the Groenlendinga saga, we have the Norse account of expeditions into North America.
Erik the Red and Greenland
When charges of manslaughter were brought against Erik the Red and his father, Thorvald, the pair fled their home in Norway. Crossing the sea, they joined those Norse who had already settled in the aptly, if uninvitingly, named Iceland. Here Thorvald died, while Erik the Red married Thjodhildr, and raised their sons, Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein, and his daughter, Freydís, who would all play crucial roles in the Norse voyages into the West.
Erik’s violent past was not left behind in Norway. After killing Eyiulf the Foul and the famed dueller Hrafn, Erik and his family had to move on again. A change of scenery did not end the quarrels. A fight over a loaned set of wooden beams erupted between Erik and a man named Thorgest. Others took sides in the dispute and battles and bloodshed resulted. A meeting of the people in the area declared Erik an outlaw. Clearly, Erik needed a new home again.
Word had reached Erik of a land beyond the western sea so he equipped a ship for a voyage and gathered a crew for this chancy trip. To his friends he promised that he would return if he succeeded in discovering this land below the horizon. He left it unspoken as to what fate would befall his crew on the ocean if he failed to locate it.
From Iceland, Erik struck land quickly and he named the spot Midiokul. A vast wilderness of rock and towering mountains of ice seemed to loom over this new country. Glaciers spilled down into the churning ocean. In the summers Erik led his crew on expeditions to locate sites for settlements. In the winters, they dug in to survive the biting cold. After three years, Erik sailed once more for Iceland to tell people of his discoveries. When he told the tales of his voyage he named his newfound land of ice and stone Greenland – saying that a country with a good name would be more attractive. The next summer Erik returned to his Greenland,
trailed by another 25 ships. Only 14 made it
safely to their new home. While his father Erik was colonising Greenland, Leif sailed back to Norway. He visited King Olaf and this Christian monarch preached the new faith to Leif. Leif was taken with Christianity and, along with his crew, was baptised before returning west in search of his father.
Bjarni’s voyage west
While still a young man, Bjarni, a relative of one of the first settlers in Iceland, was filled with a desire to travel. Bjarni grew rich by plying his trading vessel between Norse settlements. Every other year he would set his sails for home, however, and spend a winter with his father, Herjólf. One winter, Herjólf decided to follow Erik to Greenland and the old man sold his farm. Among his crew was a Christian from the Hebrides who had composed a famous song about the dangers of the stormy sea and rolling waves that would face them. His song called on the Christian God to watch over the ship. Perhaps his song was heeded by the new god for despite the dangers of the voyage, the ship reached Greenland safely, and Herjólf settled there.
After a trading voyage that winter, Bjarni returned to Iceland to hear the news that his father had left Norway for Greenland. Perplexed, he decided to keep to his custom of spending the season with his father and turned his ship towards the west. Bjarni asked if his crew would follow him and not a man left his service despite Bjarni warning, “Our voyage must be regarded as foolhardy, seeing that not one of us has ever been in the Greenland Sea.”
They soon discovered how foolhardy they had been when all of the dangers listed in the Christian’s song were visited on them.
For three days they sailed until the land they had left behind was hidden by the water. The good wind that had eased them across the waves fell and a terrible north wind started to blow. A fog descended that hid the sky from them. For many days and nights they had no notion of where they were going. When the Sun once again showed its face, they could navigate and hoisted their sails. On the first sight of land, they sailed straight for it.
“Is this Greenland?” the crew asked Bjarni. He did not believe so, so they sailed on. The next land they found was green and pleasant with hills and woods. “Is this Greenland?” No, replied Bjarni again for there were no great and ice-bound mountains. The third land they discovered was covered with trees in a flat expanse. Once again Bjarni did not think it was Greenland and denied his crew the chance to land there to take on food and supplies. At this his shipmates grumbled but they sailed on anyway.
The next land was a mass of rock and ice, which raised the crew’s hopes of an end of their voyages but proved to be only an island in the great sea. Through gales, Bjarni commanded his ship onwards. Finally they found a land that seemed to match the descriptions of Greenland that had come to them. The ship made for land. On the spit of land above their landing spot they discovered the home of Bjarni’s father. Bjarni decided to give up voyaging and lived there with his father for the rest of the old man’s days.
Leif sets forth
Word of Bjarni’s haphazard voyages into the further west spread. Hearing of the lack of spirit Bjarni had shown in not exploring these new lands, people mocked him, but others took up the challenge of following his course through. Leif, son of Erik the Red, travelled to visit Bjarni to hear of his travels, and bought a ship from him.
Leif tried to persuade his father to join him on this new great exploration. At first Erik refused, feeling himself too old for the rigours of the long voyage. Salt spray and foaming ocean swells were thought more suitable for the young. Leif told him they could use his good luck on such a daring mission and succeeded in luring his father to the ship with praise of his skills. On the way, the horse Erik was riding stumbled and threw the old man. Erik took this for a divine sign that he had gone too far. No more lands were to be his for the taking and Erik returned to his home. Leif set sail for the lands beyond the west without him.
First the ship came to the island Bjarni had discovered that was nothing but a flat and rocky outcrop dominated by mountains of ice. No grass grew and all the necessities of life seemed absent. Leif called this Helluland, for it seemed to be nothing but flat rocks (‘Hella’ in Old Norse). They could not settle here and so Leif set out on his ship again.
The next land they found was flat and wooded, with broad and safe beaches of sand. Leif declared this land too would have a fitting name and called it Markland (‘Forest Land’). They set out from this more promising land in hopes of greater discoveries.
For two days and nights they travelled with a northeasterly wind in their sails. They landed on an island a short distance from a greater land. In the
“The eight that they had seized they killed on the spot, but the ninth escaped”
fine weather they explored the island. Seeing the dew on the lush grass, they tasted it and found it the sweetest water in all the world. Taking their ship to the land across the narrow gulf, the tide fell and the ship was grounded on a sandbank. Despite the dangers, they abandoned the ship in a small boat and crossed to the mainland. They discovered rich rivers and lakes in an abundant land. As the tide lifted the ship again, they rowed out and took the vessel up one of the rivers into a lake for safety.
The vines of Vinland
Once ashore, the crew decided to build a long house there. The nearby rivers teemed with the largest salmon any of them had seen and as winter drew in, the grass barely withered. There would be no need to supply cattle with fodder. Even in the depth of winter, the nights were nowhere near as long as those in Greenland or Iceland. The longer days shone on a land that had no frost.
Leif split the company in half. One group would stay and guard the house while the other would explore the land they had discovered. On no account were the explorers to stay away overnight.
One night it was found that Tyrker the German had not returned with the foragers. This Tyrker was a loyal friend of Leif and Erik the Red, and Leif was angry with Tyrker’s companions for losing him in this strange land. With 12 men he set out to recover his friend. Only a short distance from the settlement they discovered Tyrker in a state of bewildered excitement. He babbled to the men in German and could not be understood. Rolling his eyes and grinning madly, Tyrker began to explain his discoveries in the Old Norse tongue. Having gone only a little further than the others, he stumbled on something new. “I have found vines and grapes,” he told them. Tyrker swore that his homeland was famed for its grapes and that he knew what he was talking about. Despite grapes not being native to North America, there was presumably some delicious berry there that produced a sufficiently intoxicating drink when fermented.
It was from this discovery of vines that it is said that Leif named the new land Vinland. Leif now set his crew to cutting timber and collecting fruit. The cargo was loaded on the ship in the spring and they set out into the rising sun for home.
Leif the Lucky
With fair winds and a calm sea, the ship made its way swiftly back to Greenland. Within the sight of the ice mountains and valleys of their destination the crew called to their captain,` “Why are you steering so much into the wind?” Leif had been turning the ship for some time. He asked if anyone could see anything out on the waves. None of the crew could, but then none of the crew could match Leif’s hawklike vision. “I see a ship or raft,” Leif told them and pointed. Now they saw it too and the ship steered ever closer. “If they need help we will give it, and if they seek a fight we will be better prepared.” On the ship they discovered a party in need of help.
When Thori, leader of those in the ship, heard
Leif’s name, he asked whether he was son of the famous Erik the Red. Leif said that he was and invited them onto his ships, with as many of their possessions as it could hold.
For this rescue of those lost in the midst of the sea he became known as Leif the Lucky. Leif took Thori and his wife Gudrid into his own home. That winter illness struck the settlers and Thori died, as did Erik the Red. While Leif had no plans to return to Vinland his brother, Thorvald, felt there was more exploring to do. He borrowed his brother’s ship and set out.
Following Leif’s advice, Thorvald made for the place his brother had previously settled. Over winter, Thorvald and his 30 men took in provisions from the rich lands around them. When spring arrived, Thorvald loaded a smaller boat to explore the western coast during the summer.
The land they found was wooded and welcoming. The forests came down close to the sea and the beaches were of soft and pale sand. The islands and rivers offered many places to explore. Despite their searches, they found no animal lairs or signs of human habitation until they came to one of the western islands. There they found a wooden structure clearly set up to hold grain and keep it safe. Finding nothing else, Thorvald returned to the Norse settlement in the autumn.
The next summer they explored the eastern coast. As they crossed the sea, a high wind pushed them onto the rocks and damaged the keel of the ship. Putting ashore, they repaired the keel and Thorvald named the place Keelness. Sailing on after the mending, they came to a place of safe anchorage.
The land there about was fair and fine. Thorvald looked at it and declared that this was where he would make his home.
Returning to the ship, the men stopped. There on the sand they saw three small mounds that had not been there before. Approaching, they could make out three canoes made of skin, each concealing three indigenous men, whom the Norse named Skraelings, underneath. The party divided into three to approach them. All but one of the hiding men were captured.
The eight that they had seized they killed on the spot, but the ninth escaped into the woods. Returning to the headland, they looked about and in the distance discerned villages.
Then, as if placed under a powerful charm, the Norsemen were overcome by a sudden need to sleep. Only a voice booming out of the sky was able to
call them back. “Awake, Thorvald, thou and all thy company, if thou wouldst save thy life; and board thy ship with all thy men, and sail with all speed from the land!” This the Norsemen did but even as they made it to their ship, innumerable canoes filled the sea. Thorvald called for the ship to put up its war-boards, shields to protect his men from arrows. Putting his faith in his ship’s defences Thorvald offered no attack but let the arrows of the Skraelings clatter harmlessly against them. The Skraelings gave up the battle and retreated.
Thorvald called to his men to see if any had been wounded. None had taken so much as a scratch but the captain had not been so lucky himself. He showed his crew the shaft of an arrow, which had glanced through the war-boards and taken him under the arm.
Knowing that his end would come soon, Thorvald ordered his men to flee as quickly as possible back to their own settlement.
He only asked them to bury him at the point that he had thought would make a good home for his old age. “Bury me there,” he told them, “and place a cross at my head, and another at my feet, and call it Crossness for the rest of time.”
At the settlement, they gathered wood and grapes before sailing back to Greenland, bringing with them the tale of Thorvald’s discoveries and of his death.
The death of Thorstein
On Greenland, while Thorvald had been exploring, his brother Thorstein Eriksson had married Gudrid, one of those Leif the Lucky had rescued at sea. When Thorstein heard of his brother’s death, he wanted to sail to Vinland and recover his body.
He crewed Thorvald’s own ship with 25 sturdy men and set out to the west. His wife Gudrid accompanied him.
For a whole summer it is said that their ship was buffeted by the sea and gales, so that they never knew where they were. By winter, they had reached the western settlement of Greenland and sheltered there. Homes were found for of all the crew except for Thorstein and Gudrid, who instead had to shelter on their ship. Shivering on the wooden deck, they were visited by a grim looking man. “I am called Thorstein the Swarthy,” he announced to Gudrid and Thorstein Eriksson. The swarthy man offered them a house to live in and Thorstein Eriksson and Gudrid gladly accepted the offer.
But death came among the settlers in that season. Many of Thorstein Eriksson’s band sickened and died. Thorstein had coffins made for the dead and carried them back to his ship so that the bodies could be returned to their family. Then the disease entered Thorstein the Swarthy’s home, carrying off his wife. As Thorstein the Swarthy’s wife Grimhild lay dead on her bed, she seemed to move. The house moaned as if all the timbers of the building shifted and groaned against each other. Thorstein Eriksson sickened after this strange sign. Gudrid did all she could to comfort her husband, yet he died. As she grieved over her husband’s body, Thorvald the Swarthy sought to ease her suffering. He promised to accompany Gudrid home and carry with them all the bodies of the dead.
Then the dead man sat up and spoke loudly. “Where is Gudrid?” he asked three times. Shocked, Gudrid did not know whether to answer the corpse so Thorstein the Swarthy asked, “What do you want?”
“I wish to tell Gudrid of the fate which is in store for her, so that my death may not sadden her too harshly, for I am at peace in a glorious place. I must tell you, Gudrid, that you will marry a man of Iceland, that many years of happy marriage shall be yours, and from you shall spring a large and famous progeny full of noble virtues. You shall travel the world – from Iceland to the far south before returning to take the veil in a church.” Having prophesied the future with his dead tongue, Thorstein Erikson returned to his bed. Thorstein sold up his farm and possessions. He attended to Gudrid on her return to her home and returned the bodies of the dead to their families.
The same summer that had seen Gudrid return saw a ship arrive in Greenland from Norway, captained by Thorfinn Karlsefni. This wealthy captain was welcomed into Leif the Lucky’s home and passed the winter there. Karlsefni soon found himself in love with the widow Gudrid and could not resist proposing marriage between them. At the time there was much talk of another voyage to Vinland. People clamoured for Karselfni to lead the expedition and he accepted. With 60 men and five women who were all promised an equal share of the profits of the journey, Karlsefni and Gudrid set out. Since it was their intention to found a permanent settlement in Vinland, they loaded many cattle onto their ships too. Leif loaned them the use of the long house he had constructed in Vinland for the duration of their trip, though he would not give it over to them forever.
The ships soon found the site of Leif’s expedition. A huge whale was driven onto the sand where they captured it and stripped it of its flesh so that they
“There on the sand they saw three small mounds that had not been there before”
would not go hungry that season. The cattle they set to wander freely over the land, though the bulls turned wild and vicious in their freedom. Soon the settlement was full of timber from the expansive forests, and their larders stocked with fish from the rivers and game hunted in the woods. Winter was not hard for the settlers. It looked like life in this new western land was promising.
The Skraelings came in the first summer. Many emerged from the forest but when they approached the settlers’ cattle, the anger of the bull and its bellowing scared the Skraelings into retreat. Fleeing from the bull, the Skraelings stumbled towards Karlsefni’s home and attempted to get inside. Karlsefni barred the doors. Since none could speak the language of the other, understanding was slow to be reached. The Skraelings then set out furs and other goods to trade. Karlsefni saw that the natives were eager to get some of the Norse weapons but he forbade any of his men to swap their sharp blades for goods. In place of weapons, he offered milk from the herd and a deal was struck.
Despite the peaceable outcome, Karlsefni had the settlement surrounded by a strong wooden palisade. In this safe place, Gudrid was delivered of a baby boy – the first European to be born in North America. They called him Snorri.
When the Skraelings next came, they arrived in greater numbers but still with packs of goods to trade. Karlsefni commanded the women to take out milk, which had been so sought after last time. When the Skraelings saw the milk they were so eager to trade that they hurled their goods over the wall and into the encampment. All seemed well.
But then one of the Skraelings attempted to seize a weapon from the Norsemen. He was slain on the spot. Immediately the Skraelings fled, abandoning all of their items to escape. Karlsefni called his band together and told them they must prepare for an attack by the Skraelings. When the natives did return, Karlsefni had his warriors drive their bull in front of them since it had so terrified their opponents before. The battle went poorly for the Skraelings – one of them did manage to wrest an iron axe from a Norseman, only to kill one of his own companions as he waved it about. The Skraeling chief, a huge man of fearsome power, picked up the axe and examined it. He flung it with all his might into the sea and his men retreated into the woods, never to meet the Norsemen there again.
The Norse passed the winter in peace but Karlsefni had made up his mind to return to Greenland. The ships were loaded with the timber of the land, the furs the Skraelings had traded to them, and the bounty of the vines.
By now, Vinland was thought of as a place where men might make their fortunes. It chanced to happen that just as Karlsefni returned from the North American settlement, a ship carrying brothers from Norway arrived in Greenland. These siblings, Helgi and Finnbogi, were received by the daughter of Erik the Red, a haughty woman called Freydís. She asked the pair to join her in a voyage to Vinland, with the brothers to receive half of the spoils they won. Helgi and Finnbogi hastily agreed. Each promised to take an equal number of men, but Freydís immediately broke her word and carried an extra five men on her vessel. She tried to convince her brother Leif to give his home in Vinland to her, but once again he would only lend the house for as long as she was there.
It was only on arrival in Vinland that Helgi and Finnbogi discovered Freydís’ treachery. It had been agreed that the ships would stay together but it happened that the brothers’ ship landed first near the settlement. Finding Leif’s empty house, they moved their goods into it. Freydís was outraged at their bold move and stormed at the brothers that they must remove themselves from the home lent to her by her brother. With ill grace, the two left and set up a house beside the sea.
The wrath of Freydís
The settlement set to the task of gathering goods that could be profitably returned to Greenland, with Freydís felling valuable wood for timber. As winter drew in, the brothers suggested that all of the settlement could come together in the playing of games. For a time there was peace between the factions but soon the games led to arguments, and arguments led to open hostility. Now no one passed from Freydís’s house to the brothers’ and it was as if there were two camps drawn up for battle.
In the depth of that winter, Freydís crept from her bed and, cloaked in her husband’s furs, crossed to the brothers’ house. Barefoot, she passed over the dewy grass. Pushing open the door, she woke Finnbogi from his sleep. “What do you want?” he asked brusquely. Freydís queried whether he was happy in this new land. Finnbogi replied that the land was plentiful and that there was no cause for the breach between the two groups of settlers, and so Freydís offered a solution.
She and her followers would leave Vinland if Finnbogi gave them his ship since it was the larger of the vessels that had carried them there. To be rid of her, Finnbogi agreed. On returning to her bed, Freydís’ cold, wet feet woke her husband. “Where have you been?” he asked her.
She flared up. “I have been to see Helgi and Finnbogi! I wished to buy their ship but they received me so cruelly that they struck me and sent me from their door. Will you have your wife unavenged? I will leave you if you do not rid both me and yourself of this shame!”
At this, Freydís’ husband rose from his bed and gathered his men. They took their weapons and broke into the brothers’ house as everyone inside was still in their slumber. Every person inside was bound and led out. All of the men they killed at once but none of Freydís’ followers could be induced to kill the five women that were there that fateful night.
Freydís called for an axe and dispatched all five of the women herself. Now she swore her men to secrecy. Any man who spoke of the day’s deeds would be killed by Freydís. They would claim the brothers’ group had set sail, never to be seen again.
Back in Greenland, Freydís showered those who had sailed with her with the booty of their voyage, hoping to buy their silence. But it didn’t work – news of her crimes soon spread. Leif came to hear of his sister’s wrongdoings and even tortured some of her followers for their crimes, but, alas, he could not bring himself to punish his own sister. From that day onwards, however, Freydís and her husband were shunned by all who met them. Meanwhile, nothing but good was spoken of Thorfinn and Gudrid. Of their line sprung many noble and blessed progeny.
In search of Vinland
The earliest written account of the discovery of Vinland comes from around 1075 in the writings of Adam of Bremen, who documented the journeys into the west.
“It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes.”
However, the failure of the Norse to establish lasting colonies on the North American continent led to their discoveries being mostly forgotten about in Europe. While Norse settlements have been discovered in North America by archaeologists, such as at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the exact locations described in the saga are still debated. At one point in the saga we are told that on the shortest day of the year, the Sun was visible between ‘dagmálastaður’ and ‘eyktarstaður’. If we knew what exact times of day were meant by these terms, we would be able to identify the latitude of the Norse settlements. We might also be able to identify the unfortunate natives who were dubbed ‘Skraelings’.
It says much about Norse culture that the first meeting with the Skraelings was a massacre for which no cause is given. Inuit folk tales tell of killing a foreigner, using the term for European, and knowing that they would return to seek revenge.
The mystery of the vines of Vinland also persists. Tyrker might have been sure they were grapes, but we still do not know what berries the Norse actually discovered in North America – they possibly could have been cranberries or bunchberries. Whatever they were, the wine that was produced from them was certainly potent enough to tempt others to follow in search of them.
“When the Skraelings next came, they arrived in greater numbers”
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Leif Eriksson discovering America: his story was recounted in the Groenlendinga saga
The north Atlantic was a hazardous route. The Groenlendinga saga tells of many ships lost in the crossing that never returned home
The Norse colonies in Vinland were soon abandoned, possibly due to the difficulty of the crossing and the lack of profit from trade Erik the Red, founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Erik was exiled from Norway and Iceland asa result of his combative nature. He is also in Eiríks saga rauða, which deals with his settling of Greenland
The Vinland Map is allegedly a 15th century copy of a 13th century original, but its historicity is questioned Leif Eriksson is credited with being the first European to land in North America. He named the land he discovered Vinland
A reconstruction of a Norse long house at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where archaeologists discovered evidence of Norse settlement in the New World
Erik the Red led many colonists across the sea to Greenland. Many believed they were heading to a green and fruitful land