Norsemen in America

By John D. Baldwin.

It is generally known, I suppose, that original manuscript records of Norse voyages to this continent have been carefully preserved in Iceland, and that they were first published at Copenhagen in 1837, with a Danish and a Latin translation. These narratives are plain, straightforward, business-like accounts of actual voyages made by the Norsemen, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to Greenland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Within the whole range of the literature of discovery and adventure no volumes can be found which have more abundant internal evidence of authenticity. It always happens, when something important is unexpectedly added to our knowledge of the past, that somebody will blindly disbelieve. Dugald Stewart could see nothing but “frauds of arch-forgers” in what was added to our knowledge of ancient India when the Sanskrit language and literature were discovered. In the same way, here and there a doubter has hesitated to accept the fact communicated by these Norse records; but, with the evidence before us, we may as reasonably doubt any unquestioned fact of history which depends on similar testimony.

Any account of these voyages should be prefaced by some notice of Iceland. Look on a map at the position of Iceland, and you will see at once that it should not be classed as a European island. It belongs to North America. It was, in fact, unknown to modern Europe until the year 861 A.D., when it was discovered by Nadodd, a Norse rover. There is some reason to believe the Irish had previously sailed to this island, but no settlement was established in it previous to the year 875, when it was occupied by a colony of Norwegians under a chief named Ingolf. Owing to civil troubles in Norway, he was soon followed by many of the most intelligent, wealthy, and honorable of his countrymen.

Thus Iceland, away in the Northern Ocean, became a place of great interest. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the Icelanders had become eminent among the Norse communities for intellectual culture and accomplishment. They were far superior to their countrymen in Norway. To them we are indebted for the existing records of Scandinavian mythology. They were daring and adventurous navigators, and, when we consider how near Iceland is to America, it should not surprise us to hear that they found the American continent; on the contrary, it would have been surprising if they had failed to find it. They first discovered Greenland, and in 982 established a colony there. Afterward, in the course of many voyages, they explored the coast of America much farther south.

Narratives of some of these voyages were carefully written and preserved. There are two principal records. One is entitled “An Account of Erik the Red and Greenland.” This appears to have been written in Greenland, where Erik settled, and where the Norsemen had a colony consisting of two hundred and eighty settlements. The other record is an “Account of Thorfinn Karlsefne.” This was written in Iceland by a bishop, one of Thorfinn’s immediate descendants. The Norse narrative introduces Erik's voyage of discovery as follows:

“There was a man of noble family, whose name was Thorvald. He and his son Erik, surnamed the Red, were obliged to flee from Jadir (in the southwest part of Norway) because, in some feud that arose, they committed a homicide. They went to Iceland, which, at that time, was thoroughly colonized.”

Thorvald died soon after reaching Iceland, but Erik inherited his restless spirit. The record says he was at length involved in another feud in Iceland. Erik, being unjustly treated by some of his neighbors, committed another homicide, and the narrative relates what followed: “Having been condemned by the court, he resolved to leave Iceland. His vessel being prepared, and every thing ready, Erik's partisans in the quarrel accompanied him some distance. He told them he had determined to quit Iceland and settle somewhere else, adding that he was going in search of the land Gunniborn had seen when driven by a storm into the Western Ocean, and promising to revisit them if his search should be successful. Sailing from the western side of Iceland, Erik steered boldly to the west. At length he found land, and called the place Midjokul. Then, coasting along the shore in a southerly direction, he sought to find a place more suitable for settlement. He spent the winter on a part of the coast which he named “Eirek’s Island.” A satisfactory situation for his colony was found, and he remained there two years.

On returning to Iceland he called the discovered country “Greenland,” saying to his confidential friends, “A name so inviting will induce men to emigrate thither.” Finally, he went again to Greenland, accompanied by “twenty-five ships” filled with emigrants and stores, and his colony was established. “This happened,” says the chronicle, “fifteen winters before the Christian religion was introduced into Iceland;” that is to say, Erik made this second voyage to Greenland fifteen years previous to 1000 A.D. Biarni, son of Heriulf, a chief man among these colonists, was absent in Norway when his father left Iceland. On returning, he decided to follow and join the colony, although neither he nor any of his companions had ever seen Greenland, or sailed on the “Greenland Ocean.” Having arranged his business, he set sail, and made one of the most remarkable and fearful voyages on record.

On leaving Iceland they sailed three days with a fair wind; then arose a storm of northeasterly winds, accompanied by very cloudy, thick weather. They were driven before this storm for many days, they knew not whither. At length the weather cleared, and they could see the sky. Then they sailed west another day, and saw land different from any they had previously known, for it “was not mountainous.” In reply to the anxious sailors, Biarni said this could not be Greenland. They put the ship about and steered in a northeasterly direction two days more. Again they saw land which was low and level. Biarni thought this could not be Greenland. For three more days they sailed in the same direction, and came to a land that was “mountainous, and covered with ice.” This proved to be an island, around which they sailed. Steering toward the north, they sailed four days and again discovered land, which Biarni thought was Greenland, and so it proved. They were on the southern coast, near the new settlement.

It is manifest that the first land Biarni saw was either Nantucket or Cape Cod; the next was Nova Scotia, around Cape Sable; and the island around which they coasted was Newfoundland. This voyage was made five hundred and seven years earlier than the first voyage of Columbus.

Biarni’s report of his discoveries was heard with great interest, and caused much speculation; but the settlers in Greenland were too busy making their new homes to undertake voyages in that direction immediately. Fourteen years later, Leif, a son of Erik the Red, being in Norway, was incited to fit out an expedition to go in search of the strange lands Biarni had seen. On returning to Greenland “he had an interview with Biarni, and bought his ship, which he fitted out and manned with thirty-five men.” The first land seen by Leif, after he sailed from Greenland, was the island around which Biarni sailed. This he named Helluland (the land of broad stones). Sailing on toward the south, they came next to a land that was low and level, and covered with wood. This they called Markland (the land of woods). The narrative goes on: “They now put to sea with a northeast wind, and, sailing still toward the south, after two days touched at an island [Nantucket?] which lay opposite the northeast part of the main land.” Then they “sailed through a bay between this island and a cape running northeast, and, going westward, sailed past the Cape;” and at length they “passed up a river into a bay,” where they landed. They had probably reached Mount Hope Bay.

They constructed rude dwellings, and prepared to spend the winter at this place. It was about mid-autumn, and, finding wild grapes, they called the country Vinland. Leif and his people were much pleased with “the mildness of the climate and goodness of the soil.” The next spring they loaded their vessels with timber and returned to Greenland, where, Erik the Red having died, Leif inherited his estate and authority, and left exploring expeditions to others.

The next year Leif’s brother Thorvald went to Vinland with one ship and thirty men, and there passed the winter. The following summer he explored the coast westward and southward, and seems to have gone as far south as the Carolinas. In the autumn they returned to Vinland, where they passed another winter. The next summer they coasted around Cape Cod toward Boston Harbor, and, getting aground on Cape Cod, they called it Kialarness, Keel Cape. Here the chronicle first speaks of the natives, whom it calls “Skrællings.” It says: “They perceived on the sandy shore of the bay three small elevations. On going to them they found three boats made of skins, and under each boat three men. They seized all the men but one, who was so nimble as to escape with his boat;” and “they killed all those whom they had taken.” The doctrine of “natural enemies” was more current among the old Norsemen than that of human brotherhood.

A retribution followed swiftly. They were presently attacked by a swarm of natives in boats. The “Skrællings” were beaten off; but Thorvald, being fatally wounded in the skirmish, died, and was buried on a neighboring promontory. His companions, after passing a third winter in Vinland, returned to Greenland, having been absent three years. This, considering the circumstances, was an adventurous voyage, a brave exploring expedition sent from the arctic regions to make discoveries in the mysterious world at the south. On reading the narrative, one longs for that more ample account of the voyage which would have been given if Thorvald himself had lived to return.

The “Account of Erik the Red and Greenland” tells of an expedition planned by Erik's youngest son, Thorstein, which was prevented by Thorstein’s death. It relates the particulars of a voyage to Vinland made by Erik's daughter, Freydis, with her husband and his two brothers. Freydis is described as a cruel, hard-hearted, enterprising woman, “mindful only of gain.” The chronicle says her husband, named Thorvald, was “weak-minded,” and that she married him because he was rich. During the voyage she contrived to destroy her husband’s brothers and seize their ship, for which evil deed she was made to feel her brother Leif’s anger on her return. The same chronicle gives an account of a voyage northward, up Baffin’s Bay, and through what is now called Wellington Channel. There is also a romantic story of Thorstein’s widow, Gudrid, an exceedingly beautiful and noble-minded woman, which tells how she was courted and married by Thorfinn Karlsefne, a man of distinguished character and rank, who came from Iceland with ships, and was entertained by Leif.

Thorfinn came to Greenland in the year 1006, and, having married Gudrid, Thorstein’s widow, was induced by her to undertake a voyage to Vinland. They left Greenland with three ships and a hundred and sixty men, taking with them livestock and all things necessary to the establishment of a colony. The vessels touched at Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and, having reached Vinland, they passed up Buzzard’s Bay, disembarked their livestock, and preparations were made for winter residence. Here they passed the winter; and here Gudrid gave birth to a son, who lived and grew to manhood, and among whose lineal descendants was Thorvaldsen, the Danish sculptor.

The winter was severe; their provisions began to fail, and they were threatened with famine. This occasioned many anxieties and some adventures. One of the company, a fierce, resolute man, bewailed their apostasy from the old religion, and declared that to find relief they must return to the worship of Thor. But they found a supply of provisions without trying this experiment. Thor’s worshiper afterward left the company with a few companions to pursue an expedition of his own, and was killed by the natives.

The next spring Thorfinn explored the coast farther west and south. Then he went to the bay where Leif spent the winter, and there passed his second winter in Vinland. He called the bay Hóp. The Indians called it Haup; we call it Hope. During the next season they saw many natives and had much intercourse with them, which finally led to hostilities. The natives, in great numbers, attacked them fiercely, but were signally defeated. Freydis, being with the company, fought desperately in this battle, and greatly distinguished herself as a terrible combatant, although in that peculiar condition which does not specially qualify a woman for such exploits. Thorfinn afterward explored Massachusetts Bay, spent a third winter in Vinland, and then, with part of the company, returned to Greenland. He finally went back to his home in Iceland, and there remained during the rest of his life.

The Indians had traditions which appear to have preserved recollections of these visits of the Norsemen. In 1787, Michael Lort, Vice-president of the London Antiquarian Society, published a work, in which he quoted the following extract of a letter from New England, dated more than half a century earlier: “There was a tradition current with the oldest Indians in these parts that there came a wooden house, and men of another country in it, swimming up the Assoonet, as this (Taunton) river was then called, who fought the Indians with mighty success.”

There was now a settlement in Vinland, at Hóp Bay, and voyages to that region became frequent. The old Norse narrative says: “Expeditions to Vinland now became very frequent matters of consideration, for these expeditions were considered both lucrative and honorable.” The following appears in Wheaton’s History of the Norsemen: “A part of Thorfinn’s company remained in Vinland, and were afterward joined by two Icelandic chieftains. In the year 1059, it is said, an Irish or Saxon priest named Jon or John, who had spent some time in Iceland, went to preach to the colonists in Vinland, where he was murdered by the heathen.” The following is from the Introduction to Henderson’s Iceland: “In the year 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, made a voyage to Vinland.”

Thus it appears to be an authenticated fact that the Norsemen had a settlement or settlements in New England six hundred years previous to the arrival of English settlers. It is probable that their Vinland settlements consisted chiefly of trading and lumbering establishments. The first explorers “loaded their vessels with timber” when ready to return to Greenland, where the lack of timber was so great that the settlers found it necessary to use stone for building material. The Vinland timber-trade became naturally an important business, but neither Greenland nor Iceland could furnish emigrants to occupy the country. Traces of the old Norse settlements in Greenland are still visible in the ruins of stone buildings. Near the Bay of Igalito, in Greenland, are remains of a stone church. Vinland was covered with great forests, and there it was much easier and cheaper to build houses of wood.

The Norse records speak also of a region south of Vinland to which voyages were made. It is called Huitramannaland. Indeed, two great regions farther south are mentioned. There is a romantic story of one Biorn Asbrandson, a noble Icelander, who, being crossed in his matrimonial desires, went away toward Vinland; but his vessel was driven much farther south by a storm. Nothing was heard of him until part of the crew of a Norse vessel, on a voyage to Huitramannaland, were captured by the natives, among whom Biorn was living as a chief. He discovered an old acquaintance among the prisoners whom he found means to release. He talked freely with his old friend of the past, and of Iceland, but would not leave his savage friends.

How little we know of what has been in the past ages, notwithstanding our many volumes of history! We listen attentively to what gets a wide and brilliant publication, and either fail to hear or doubt every thing else. If these Norse adventurers had sailed from England or Spain, those countries being what they were in the time of Columbus, their colonies would not have failed, through lack of men and means to support and extend them, and the story of their discoveries would have been told in every language and community of the civilized world. But the little communities in Iceland and Greenland were very different from rich and powerful nations. Instead of being in direct communication with the great movements of human life in Europe, recorded in what we read as history, they were far off in the Northern Ocean, and, out of Norway, almost unknown to Europe. Afterward, when the name and discoveries of Columbus had taken control of thought and imagination, it became difficult for even intelligent men, with the old Norse records before them, to see the claims of the Norsemen.


This is taken from Ancient America, originally published in 1871.





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