Vikings in America: the Europeans who arrived 500 years before Columbus
Historian John Haywood tells the epic story of a small band of Scandinavian explorers who went where no European had gone before, 500 years ahead of the voyages of Columbus...
The first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans did not go well for either side. Around AD 1000, Leif Erikson had sailed west from the newly established Norse colony in Greenland and discovered a fair land he named Vinland. Now, three years later, his brother Thorvald was in the second summer of a follow-up expedition.
The Vikings were exploring a headland at the mouth of a fjord when they spotted three humps on a sandy beach. On further investigation, the humps turned out to be canoes and under them were cowering nine men. The Norsemen captured and killed eight of them but the ninth escaped and raised the alarm.
Later the same day, Thorvald and his men saw a swarm of canoes sailing down the fjord towards them. Outnumbered, they took refuge in their ship and, with the advantage of iron weapons, beat off the attack. However, during the fight Thorvald received an arrow wound in the armpit and died shortly afterwards. At his request, Thorvald’s men gave him a Christian burial on the headland, marking his grave with crosses at his head and feet. Leif had been the first European to set foot on the American continent; Thorvald was the first to be buried there.
Leif had been the first European to set foot on the American continent; Thorvald was the first to be buried there
Because of the subsequent history of the Americas, the Norse discovery of America has become one of the most studied aspects of the Viking Age (c800–1100), a period that saw Scandinavian raiders, traders and settlers active across much of Europe and as far south as north Africa’s Mediterranean coast and as far east as Baghdad. Collectively, Viking Age Scandinavians knew more of the world than any previous Europeans. As the only proven pre-Columbian European contact with the Americas, the fascination with the Norse discoveries is understandable. But do they really merit all the attention?
The Norse route to America is sometimes described as ‘the stepping stone route’ because it proceeded in stages, from one island group to another with relatively short open-sea crossings between them.
The first step on the way came – 200 years before Leif’s discovery of Vinland – with the conquest and colonisation of Scotland’s Northern Isles soon after 800. This was followed about 25 years later by the settlement of the Faroe Islands and then Iceland in c870. The next step was the foundation of the Norse Greenland colony by Erik the Red in the 980s. As Greenland is geologically part of the North American continent, this ought to be regarded as the first European settlement in the Americas, though it is rarely recognised as such.
The first sighting
The settlement of Greenland was quickly followed by the first European sighting of the North American continental mainland, a feat achieved by an Icelandic merchant called Bjarni Herjolfsson.
According to the Greenlanders’ Saga – which, with Erik the Red’s Saga, is our main literary source for the Viking discovery of America – Bjarni had returned home from a trip to Norway in 986 to find that his father had emigrated to Greenland with Erik the Red. Knowing nothing about Greenland, save that it was mountainous, treeless and had good pastures, Bjarni set off after his father and predictably soon got lost.
After several days of bad weather and poor visibility, Bjarni found himself off the coast of a densely forested, hilly land. This was obviously not Greenland so, without even landing, Bjarni sailed north and after two days sighted a flat, forested land. Once again he didn’t land. After sailing north-east for another three days, Bjarni encountered a rocky, mountainous, glaciated land which he thought too barren to be Greenland. Putting the land astern, Bjarni sailed east and four days later arrived at the Norse settlement in Greenland.
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Bjarni’s discoveries excited a lot of interest and, when he decided to give up trading, Erik the Red’s son Leif Eriksson bought his ship and set off on a follow-up expedition. This was around the time that Iceland converted to Christianity, that is c1000. Leif began by reversing Bjarni’s course. Sailing north-west, Leif came to a land of bare rock and glaciers which he called Helluland (‘Slab Land’). Turning south, Leif next came to a low forested land with white sand beaches which he decided to call Markland (‘Forest Land’).
Sailing south-west for two days Leif discovered a land where the rivers teemed with salmon and grapes grew wild. This Leif called Vinland (‘Wine Land’). The party built houses at a place afterwards called Leifsbuðir (‘Leif’s booths’), where they spent a comfortable winter. “The country seemed to them so kind that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock: there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all.”
The winter days were much longer than they were in Greenland and “on the shortest day of the year, the sun was visible in the middle of the afternoon as well as at breakfast time”. Come the spring, Leif and his men cut a full load of timber – wood was always in short supply in Greenland – and set off home.
Leif made no contact with native peoples, that fatal first encounter took place during his brother Thorvald’s follow-up expedition. Thorvald’s death at the hands of Native Americans was not enough to deter at least two attempts by the Norse to settle in Vinland. The first, about two years after Thorvald’s death, was led by Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic merchant, who took with him his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, 65 men, five women, and a variety of livestock.
The party spent an uneventful winter at Leifsbuðir, during which time Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri, the first European to be born in America. In the spring, the party had its first encounter with Native Americans, who turned up at Leifsbuðir to trade furs. The Norse called them ‘Skrælings’, perhaps meaning ‘screamers’. Coming from a Stone Age culture, the Skrælings were fascinated by the Norsemen’s iron weapons and tools but Karlsefni forbade his men to trade them.
Gudrid gave birth to a son, Snorri, the first European to be born in America
During a second encounter later in the summer, one of Karlesefni’s men killed a Skræling who was trying to steal some weapons. The Norse defeated an attempt by the Skrælings to take revenge but after spending another winter at Leifsbuðir, Karlsefni returned to Greenland.
A second attempt at settlement was made by Leif’s half-sister Freydis Eirksdottir who, according to Erik the Red’s Saga, had already been to Vinland as part of Karlsefni’s expedition. She had played her part in repelling the Skræling attack, terrifying them by baring one of her breasts and beating it with a sword. Freydis was an abrasive woman, unsuited to leader ship, and her attempt at settlement ended when half the party were killed in a deadly internecine feud. Only one further voyage to Vinland is recorded. In 1121 Erik Gnupsson, the bishop of Greenland, set out for Vinland but the fate of his expedition is not known.
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Archaeological proof of a Norse presence in North America came to light in 1961 with the discovery of a settlement of turf longhouses and workshops at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The long house is the typical Norse dwelling but similar houses were also built by the Inuit and other Native American peoples.
What proved beyond doubt that this was a Norse settlement was the large number of metal artefacts discovered at the site, including wrought iron ship rivets and a typically Scandinavian bronze ring pin. Stone loom weights and a spindle whorl provided evidence for weaving at the site. As this was a female activity in Viking Scandinavia, this confirmed the saga accounts of women taking part in the Norse voyages of exploration. Radiocarbon dates from organic matter at the site show that it was occupied briefly, between 980 and 1020, which accords well with the saga traditions.
The environment around L’Anse aux Meadows bears little resemblance to the saga descriptions of Vinland. Winters there are severe and there are no wild grapes so it is unlikely to be Leifsbuðir. It is more likely that L’Anse aux Meadows was a base for expeditions further south. That such expeditions took place is proved by the presence of butternuts among food remains on the site. An American species of walnut, butternuts grow no further north than New Brunswick, 500 miles to the south.
The Vinland conundrum
So, if Vinland was not at L’Anse aux Meadows, where was it? Helluland and Markland can fairly certainly be identified as Baffin Island and Labrador respectively but the saga descriptions of Vinland contain mutually incompatible details. The salmon described in Leif’s account place Vinland north of the Hudson river and the grapes place it south of the St Lawrence. That would be somewhere in the Canadian Maritimes or New England, but there are no frost-free winters north of Chesapeake Bay.
The length of the shortest day is no help in determining Vinland’s latitude because it is not based on clock times – the Vikings did not have clocks – so, unless there are new archaeological discoveries, we’ll probably never know the location of Vinland.
The Norse attempt to settle Vinland was fleeting – it was all over in about 20 years and probably involved fewer than 200 people. It was doomed to failure. The distances were too great, the small Greenland colony did not have the population to support a colonising venture and their iron weapons did not give the Norse a decisive advantage over the far more numerous natives.
Yet this was not the end of the Norse presence in North America. The Greenland colony survived until the mid-15th century when the impact of the Little Ice Age killed it off. The Greenlanders continued to sail to Markland to cut wood until at least as late as 1347 and they travelled high into the Arctic, hunting polar bears, seals and walrus. There, around 1170, they met with the Thule Inuit, and these contacts continued until the end of the colony. Norse artefacts have been found on many Thule sites in the Canadian Arctic and a probable Norse hunting camp has recently been identified at Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island.
Judged objectively, the impact of the Norse discovery of America was slight. News of the Norse discoveries soon reached Europe but it did not change Europeans’ world view in the way that Christopher Columbus’s later discovery did: no one suspected that Vinland was part of a new continent. There is no evidence that Columbus knew about Vinland when he set out on his fateful voyage in 1492. As far as Native Americans were concerned, the Norse voyages might as well never have happened – they had no influence whatsoever on North America’s cultural development.
Despite this, Thorvald Eriksson’s fatal encounter with the Skrælings does mark a significant moment in world history: it was the end of humanity’s 70,000-year journey out of Africa. The descendents of peoples who had left Africa and migrated east through Asia to the Americas had finally met the descendents of people who had left Africa and migrated west. The circle of the world was finally closed.
America's Viking hoaxWhy evidence of a Scandinavian colony in Minnesota doesn’t stand up to scrutiny
In 1898 a Swedish emigrant called Olof Ohman made a sensational discovery on his farm near Kensington, Minnesota. It was a flat stone with a runic inscription: “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.”
On closer examination the runes turned out to be a mixture of types used from the 9th to the 11th century, and homemade symbols. The language used was the distinctive Swedish-Norwegian dialect spoken by the numerous Scandinavian settlers in Minnesota in the 1890s, while the date was based on the Arabic system of notation which was not used in 14th‑century Scandinavia.
The stone was a fake, probably made by its discoverer, a former stonemason, but despite academic debunking some romantics still believe it to be genuine. For many Americans, particularly those with Scandinavian ancestry, the wish to believe that the USA has a heroic Viking past is strong and linked to the needs of immigrant communities to put down roots in their adopted homeland.
Since the Kensington hoax, several more purported Viking artefacts have been ‘discovered’ in the USA but none has stood up to scrutiny. So far, only one genuine Norse artefact has been found. This is a penny of Norway’s 11th-century king Olaf Kyrre, found on a medieval Native American site in Maine. But it is likely that this was planted, as the context of the find is not recorded.
John Haywood is a historian and author. His book Northmen (2015) is published by Head of Zeus