Vikings in America


Interest in the history and culture of the Vikings has grown considerably in recent years. Many people know that the Norsemen raided numerous places in Europe and explored several islands in the northern Atlantic Ocean. But how far west did they actually travel? Did the Vikings, who were brilliant ship builders and sailors, every make it to North America?

Viking explorer, Leif Erikson of Iceland, was the first Norseman to land on North American shores, which he did around 1000 A.D. Following his arrival, several other ancient Scandinavians made the journey west, across the Atlantic, and settled on the coast of Canada. 

Because the Vikings did not permanently settle in North America, historians have limited evidence and can only speculate how far south they traveled toward the mainland of present-day America.

Viking ship america
The Vikings reached North America centuries before Christopher Columbus

The only physical evidence that has been found of a settlement is in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. This mysterious settlement has answered some questions about the Vikings, but it has raised many more:

  • Who was Iceland explorer, Leif Erikson? How did he become an explorer? Why did he travel to North America in the first place? What did he see? What did he learn?
  • Did any of Erikson’s sons follow in his steps and travel to North America? What was their fate?
  • How far south did Erikson and his companions travel? Did they reach the land of present-day America? Since it was hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus, what did they see? What did they learn?
  • Why didn’t Erikson and his companions stay in North America? Was their something inefficient about it? Was it dangerous? Were challenges at home calling for their return?

The answers to these questions can be uncovered in a combination of ancient Scandinavian literature, such as Norse sagas, as well as hard evidence, like archaeological discoveries.

The Vikings were religious people, following teachings known today as Norse Mythology. Valhalla was an important belief to many Vikings. See Is Valhalla Heaven or Hell to learn more.

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings were residents of ancient Scandinavia, which is the land that is the present-day is home of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The peak of the Viking’s civilization was between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D.

Their ancestors can be traced back earlier than that, and their descendants can be identified after that, but historians agree that period was the zenith of their collective reign.

Greenland map
Greenland lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America

The ancient Norsemen are widely known for their sea-faring culture that includes trading with, and raiding, coastal countries in Western Europe, such as England and Ireland. Their raids in particular were known for being brutal and excessive.

The Vikings were also avid explorers and adventurers, discovering and settling new lands such present-day Iceland, Greenland, The Faroe Islands, and even to the eastern coast of North America.

Ragnar Lodbrok was one of the most important Vikings to ever lie, yet many myths exist about him. See Ragnar Lodbrok: Separating Fact from Fiction to learn more.

Their advanced shipbuilding technology and craftsmanship made possible explorations to faraway lands.

Viking ships allowed the ancient Scandinavians to sail further and faster away from home, and return with more and more goods for their people, whether it was the spoils of raiding or cargo that was traded or gathered. 

Without these advanced shipbuilding techniques, the “Viking phenomenon” would likely not have happened. [1] Their sailing eventually led them west. Within Viking history, several notable figures would be instrumental in the discovery of North America: 

  • Bjarni Herjolfsson: A Norse merchant
  • Erik the Red: Jarl (Chief) of the Greenland settlement 
  • Leif Erikson: Son of Erik the Red, Norse adventurer, Jarl of Greenland
  • Thorfinn Karlsefni: Norse trader and adventurer

Understanding more about these legendary Vikings helps people learn their motivation for traveling further westward, across the vast and cold Atlantic Ocean. 

Erik the Red

Erik Thorvaldsson, also known as Erik the Red for his flaming red hair, spent most of his formative years in Iceland. Yet, many historians believe he was born around 950 A.D. in Rogaland on the southern tip of Norway.

At only ten years old, he left his native Norway when his father, Torvald Asvaldsson, was exiled for manslaughter. They settled in Haukade, Iceland. [2] This exile method of conflict resolution would become a family custom for Erik would experience his first exile in about 980 A.D.

The Viking way of life was about more than raids. They valued family, farmed land, and even played games. See Did the Vikings Play Chess? to learn more.

When a fellow clansman, Eyjolf the Foul, killed several of Erik’s slaves for inadvertently triggering a landslide, Erik killed Eyjolf in retaliation. Eyjolf’s kinsmen then demanded Erik be banished from Haukade. Erik resettled on the northern coast of Iceland. 

Then, in 982 A.D., another conflict arose between Erik and a fellow settler, Thorgest, over Erik’s “setstokker,” which is a relic with holy significance in the Nordic religion. In the fight that ensued between their households, two of Thorgest’s sons were killed. Erik was once again banished.

Deciding to leave Iceland all together, Erik had heard of a large landmass 900 nautical miles west.

After traversing the dangerous Atlantic ocean and exploring the far-off coast, Erik deemed the new land suitable for raising livestock. He named this land Greenland, even though much of it was not green, in order to be more appealing to would-be settlers. 

Years later, he established two permanent settlements in Greenland with several hundred others: Eystribyggð and Vestribyggð; that is, the Eastern and Western Settlements.

It was here that historians believe that Leif Erikson was likely born along with his siblings: brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, and sister, Freydis. 

Bjarni Herjolfsson

Bjarni Herjolfsson was a Norse-Icelandic explorer and merchant. According to one saga, Bjarni was the first known European to discover the North American continent visually around 986 A.D. 

In an attempt to sail from Iceland to Greenland to visit his parents, legendary accounts state that Bjarni was blown off course.

Having no map or compass, he came across a landmass full of trees and tall mountains. However, despite requests from the crew, he did not stop to explore. He was eager to find Greenland and see his parents.

Despite having this knowledge of new land, Bjarni decided to settle with his father in Greenland and did not return to explore. Word of his discovery made its way through the population in Greenland, but no one seemed interested at that time in exploring it. 

When Bjarni’s father died, he returned to Norway and continued telling his tale of unknown lands. Eventually, the intrigue caught on as the stories traveled through the Nordic world. Greenlanders, who lacked timber in their desolate homeland, took a special interest in his tale of heavily-wooded coastlines.

In one recounting of the discovery of America, Bjarni’s story encouraged Leif Erikson to buy the old ships that belonged to merchants and plan his own voyage to these new lands.

Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson, the second son of Erik the Red, was born in either 970 or 980 A.D. His place of birth has never been confirmed, but historians believe it was either Iceland or Greenland. Based on the best available records, it is understood that Erickson spent most of his childhood on the desolate shores of Greenland, a country that is around 85% ice.

Unlike his father, Erickson was known to be wise and considerate, which caused fewer conflicts with his fellow Greenlanders. Just before the turn of the millennium, in 999, Erickson took his first voyage away from home.

He traveled to Norway to serve under King Olaf Tryggvason. There, he converted to Christianity and was tasked by the king to spread the new religion to his fellow Greenlanders.

It is on this return trip from Norway that one story asserts, Erickson discovered new lands. Unlike Bjarni, Leif decided to stop and explore, thus being the first European to set foot in North America. He called this new land Vinland, due to the account of “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines.”

Leif made landfall at several locations before deciding to settle for the winter in a mild area filled with grapevines and salmon. This settlement, called Leifsbuðir by the Norse, may have been located on the only Viking settlement discovered to date, which is today called, L’Anse aux Meadows.

On his return voyage from this new land, Erickson rescued two Icelandic castaways, which earned him the title “Leif the Lucky.”

Over the years, he would make several other trips to Vinland to gather resources of wood and grapes: wood for the growing population of Greenland and grapes known to a make a wine that the Norse people preferred.

Thorfinn Karlsefni

Following Erickson’s discovery of America, others journeyed to these lands in search of resources and the idea of founding settlements. Thorfinn Karlsefni, whose by-name means “a real man” or “a sterling man,” was one of these men who attempted to establish permanent settlements on the North American continent.

With his wife, Gudrid, they are said to have had the first Norseman to be born in the new world, a son called Snorri Thorfinnson.

Much of what is known about him comes from the two main sagas that mention the discovery of Vinland: The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Because of this, it is difficult to distinguish the facts from the legends surrounding this Norse hero. 

What can be confidently surmised is that Thorfinn did follow Erikson’s route to the new lands with women and livestock, a signal that they intended to settle there. Thorfinn’s direct connection with Erik the Red and his family comes from his marriage to Gudrid, whose former husband was Erik’s third son Thorstein. 

Ultimately, Thorfinn and his crew did not remain in Vinland, citing conflicts with the natives (who they called Skraelings or “wretched ones”) as their primary reason for leaving. The arrowheads of native residents have been found in buried Norsemen bodies, which provides proof of these conflicts. 

Discovering America

From the early Viking era, the Norse had a rich oral tradition, so most of the history was passed through generations by word-of-mouth in the form of stories. If they had any written records, they have not survived. 

Thus, historians have gathered much of their knowledge of early Vikings from literary sagas. A “saga” is a dramatized retelling of a historical event featuring legendary figures and heroic acts. Sagas were the primary form of storytelling for the Norse people. 

These first sagas were recorded in the 13th century, almost 100 years after Leif Erikson’s death. Two main sagas mention the discovery of America, or Vinland as the Vikings called it. These are:

  • The Saga of Erik the Red
  • The Saga of the Greenlanders

Each of these sagas tells a slightly different tale, of the settlement of Greenland and the discovery of America. 

The Saga of Erik the Red

Despite its name, this saga primarily recounts the expeditions of Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife, Gudrid. Also, within this saga, is the recounting of events leading to Erik’s banishment and Leif’s discovery of America.

In this saga, Leif ship was blown off course while returning to Greenland from Norway. It was during this time when he had his first sight of the new land. Rescuing two shipwrecked men, he then continued toward his homeland, only to set out for the new land at a later date.

If this account is to be trusted, then these two anonymous men could have actually been the first Europeans to set foot on American soil, not Erikson. 

The Saga of the Greenlanders

Known as the Grœnlendinga saga in Old Norse, this saga recounts the settling of Greenland by Erik the Red and his followers. It also describes several voyages to North America by Erik’s children, Leif and Thorvald as well as Thorfinn (Þorfinnr Karlsefni Þórðarson in Old Norse) and Gudrid.

Bjarni Herjolfsson is credited in this saga as the first European to lay eyes on Greenland. It is told that fog and bad weather blew him off course where he saw three different lands, but decided not to stop at any of them, recognizing that they were not Greenland. 

It is after these initial sightings that Erikson decided to adhere to the colonizing spirit of his father and grandfather, and go scout out these new lands. Initially, his father Erik was planning to journey with his son, but fall from a horse, believed to be a bad omen, kept the elder man land-bound. 

Thus, buying Bjarni’s ship and tracing his course in reverse, Leif discovers the same lands Bjarni had claimed to see. First, he finds an icy land of little interest, then a wooded-land with white beaches, and finally land with a mild climate. It is in this last area that they decide to over-winter, gathering wood and grapes to take back to Greenland.

Following this account of Erikson’s visit, the Grœnlendinga saga then goes into other Greenlanders’ trips to Vinland. 

  • Thorvald Erikson: Erikson’s oldest brother, Thorvald, decides that Vinland had not been explored enough and decides to mount his own expedition. Further exploration reveals to Thorvald a beautiful and verdant land where he desired to make his settlement. Unfortunately, they are set up by natives, who give Thorvald a fatal arrow wound. He is buried in Vinland, and his crew heads back to Greenland.
  • Thorstein Erikson:  Erikson’s younger brother, plans an expedition to Vinland to retrieve the body of his brother. Along with Gudrid, his wife, he sets sail in the late spring. However, after sailing all summer, the ship ends up back in Greenland, never making it to Vinland. That winter, Thorstein falls ill and, upon his deathbed, predicts Gudrid will marry an Icelander and have a long line of descendants.
  • Thorfinn Karlsefni: Thorfinn is the Icelander whom Gudrid is predicted to marry. Falling in love, the two married later that winter. Encouraged by his wife, Thorfinn plans an expedition to settle Vinland. 
  • Freydis, daughter of Erik: Leif’s only sister also wanted her share of the riches in Vinland, so planned her own expedition with two brothers Finboggi and Helgi. Initially, they agreed to split the profits equally, but Freydis soon betrayed the brothers. While in Vinland, she and her husband Thorvard, killed all the men and women of the brothers’ crew. Returning to Greenland with precious cargo, she hid the truth of her deeds from her brother. However, eventually, he found out and predicted that her descendants “would not get on well in the world.” 

The First Landing of Erikson

Erikson is said to have discovered several locations in the new world, before choosing one to establish a settlement. 

  • Helluland: The first area they discover is icy and barren. Getting out to explore briefly, Leif decides not to remain and names this land, Helluland, or “Stone-slab Land.”
  • Markland: The second place they land is full of trees and white beaches. Leif names it Markland meaning “Wood-land.” 
  • Vinland: Lastly, they come upon a green and inviting country with plentiful food and mild weather; this he dubs Vinland or “Wine-land.” It is here that Erikson decided to make a settlement and spend the winter.

Modern Day Locations

Historians have worked to match modern place names to the locations described in the two sagas. Because no physical evidence has been found for many of these locations, the modern-day equivalents are mostly speculation.

However, combining the description of these lands from the sagas and plotting logical courses of Norse ships through the Labrador Sea, historians have surmised some relatively valid correlations. 

  • Helluland could have been modern-day Baffin Island, Canada 
  • Markland would be somewhere in modern-day Labrador, Canada
  • Vinland, with its settlement Leifsbuðir, could be the tip of Newfoundland, Canada, at the modern-day site of L’Anse aux Meadows. 

Why the Vikings Didn’t Stay

Ultimately, the Norse colonies in North America were short-lived. Their attempts to settle lasted only twenty years and likely involved less than 200 people; this could be due to many factors:

  • The distance between Greenland and Vinland was too great to support commerce between the two colonies.
  • The population of Greenland also remained small, which did not allow for large groups of colonists to Vinland.
  • Their iron weapons, while superior to that of the Native Americans, could not compete in warfare with a large number of natives.

However, even after attempts to colonize Vinland failed, Norse people would make many more trips to the news lands for exploration and resources. The Greenland colony, while it remained small, continued until the 15th century A.D. In this time, they would still require lumber and food.

Journeys to Markland for lumber continued until at least 1357. Expeditions also continued further north to hunt polar bears, walruses, and seals. These northern voyages would bring them in contact with the Inuit peoples with whom they traded until the end of the colony. There is even evidence of a Norse hunting camp at the Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island. 

The Evidence of Vikings in North America

Only the last site has shown archaeologists any evidence of a Norse presence. In 1961, archaeologists discovered a series of turf longhouses as well as workshops. While the longhouse is a typical Norse design, it was also known to be used by the Inuit and other Native peoples.

What distinguishes the site at L’Anse aux Meadows as a Norse settlement was the vast collection of metal artifacts: tools and weapons. These artifacts include metal ship rivets and a bronze ring pin.

As the Native Americans did not have access to metal until much later, these artifacts, as well as stone loom weights, a typical Norse women’s activity, presents compelling evidence of not only a Viking presence in America, but one that also included women. 

The Impact of Vikings on America

As the colonizing attempts were so short in this part of the land, the Norse impact is judged to be very slight. News of Norse discoveries did travel throughout the European world, but it did not seem that the European people as a whole believed Vinland to be part of an entirely new continent.

There is also no evidence that Columbus knew about this land when he set out on his first voyage in 1492. 

Regarding the Native Americans, the Norse presence was not seen to affect them in any significant way. While some trade and fighting occurred, it was low. There were not enough Norsemen to significantly impact the numbers of the tribes through war or disease. Socially, the Native Americans’ culture developed as it would have without any change from the European visitors.

Thorvald Erikson’s encounter with the Skraelings, understood as the first encounter of this kind, did mark a significant moment in world history. It completed the loop of humans’ migration out of Africa. The descendants of those who traveled east through Asia finally met with those who went west.

Piecing together history

Even though radiocarbon dating places the organic matter found from the site at L’Anse aux Meadows, between 980 and 1020 A.D, the climate of the area does not resemble what was described in the sagas as Vinland. 

Recent winters in the northern tip of Newfoundland are severe, and there are no grapes or even grape-like berries (gooseberries, cranberries, etc.) to be found. This knowledge has led to speculation that this site is not Leifsbuðir, where there Norse attempted to establish a colony. 

Some historians believe that this settlement served as a base, or as a shipbuilding center or docks for exploration further south. This hypothesis is backed up by the presence of butternuts, a type of walnut that grows no further north than present-day New Brunswick. 

Further analysis of modern-day climates, and the salmon described in Erikson’s account, would put Vinland north of the Hudson River. Conversely, the presence of grape moves the location even further south to the Canadian Maritimes or even New England. Lastly, frost-free winters are not found north of the Chesapeake Bay. 

The Hoax of Vikings In Minnesota 

In 1898, a Swedish immigrant to Minnesota named Olof Ohman discovered a stone slab with a runic inscription describing a Norse expedition that settled temporarily near Kensington, MO. The inscription read:

“Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out [to] fish. One day after we came home [we] found 10 men red of blood and dead. AVM Save [us] from evil. [We] have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 days’ travel from this island. [In the year] 1362.” [3]

This inscription would have placed the Scandinavians in the interior of America more than 100 years before Columbus’s discovery.

However, this artifact was proven to be a fake, possibly created by its founder, who was by trade, a stonemason. Several critical pieces of evidence debunked its historical accuracy:

  • The writing was a mixture of historic 9th and 11th-century runes as well as several made-up ones.
  • The language was a Swedish-Norwegian dialect spoken by later Scandinavian settlers.
  • The dates were based on the Arabic system, which differs from the one used by the 14th century Norse people.

Since then, several other Viking artifacts have been discovered in America, but all have been proven to be false. One genuine artifact, an 11th-century penny with the head of King Olaf Kyrre, was likely planted in a site in Maine. There is no historical context that places this item so far south.

Further Exploration

Even today, archaeologists and adventurers are still exploring America, searching for further evidence of a Norse presence in the country. A

promising lead was discovered in 2016 by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in Newfoundland. This scientific journey was chronicled in the BBC’s show The Vikings Uncovered. [4]

Final Thoughts

The mystique of the Viking Age has enthralled archaeologists, historians, and adventurers. The idea that people had the technology and heroic spirit to explore further and further from their homeland carries a romantic notion.

That the Norse people were able to discover North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus, makes many people wonder what other great feats they could have achieved. 

References:

[1] https://norse-mythology.net/who-were-the-vikings/

[2] https://www.biography.com/explorer/erik-the-red

[3] https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/vikings-in-america/

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35935725

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