The Vikings who discovered America
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
This article is based on a theme from the brand new book by Simon Vincent: KINGDOM OF VIKINGS - The Rise and Fall of Norway. It is now available WORLDWIDE on Amazon. More info (USA): Kingdom of Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway: Vincent, Simon: 9781527280175: Amazon.com: Books
Who was the first (European) to discover America? Most people would say Columbus. But that's incorrect. About 500 years before, the Vikings had already discovered and settled in America. The story of how this happened is both inspiring as it is odd. It involves two extraordinary characters: Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky. The latter became immortalised as Leif Ericsson, the discoverer of America.
However, while the Vikings had series of expeditions into America, their stay was strangely short-living. Myth and mystery shrouded the continent as the Vikings kept disappearing deep into the woodlands of Newfoundland. This is a remarkable piece of history that most scholars thought was fiction until it was proven true in the 1950s.
Eric the Red - the Exiled Outlaw
We are in Norway. 970 A.D. The country is undergoing major changes as it is being assembled into one united Kingdom. This was in the late stages of the Viking Era - an explosive epoch where Scandinavian peoples emigrated, traded, explored and raided across the known world. For these peoples, the open seas were not deterrents, but highways to new and interesting lands. The Vikings were curious. At the heart of their culture lay the desire to become great explorers, and master the rough waves to push through the hardest environments.
Eric Thorvaldsson is a perfect example of an ambitious, impatient Viking. Eric’s family had voyaged on the seas early on. The father in the family, Thorvald, settled in Iceland after being exiled from Norway. His son, Eric, was a big and strong man, easily identified by his flaming red beard.
When Eric became an adult, he married Thjodhild Jorunsdottir and moved away from his family in Iceland to return to his homeland, Norway. He lived a good and peaceful life with his wife until he got involved in an intense conflict with his neighbour. The servants of Eric had, by accident, caused a landslide that ruined the crops of his neighbour, Eyolf. A furious Eyolf avenged his crops by murdering Eric’s servants, but as soon as Eric heard about this, he exploded with rage and, in “blood-vengeance”, killed Eyolf. Soon, Eyolf’s closest companions, as well as the entire village, protested against Eric and demanded his punishment. Like his father, Eric was exiled from Norway.
Eric sailed back to Iceland, hoping to find peace, but unfortunately for him, unrest followed him like a rainy cloud. It didn’t take long until he was dragged into another feud, again with his neighbour. It ended in a major conflict where the neighbour’s two sons were killed. Again, Eric was lynched at by the entire village. He was exiled, this time from Iceland.
Discovery of Greenland
It must have been upsetting for Eric the Red to be exiled for a second time. However, what he did next is puzzling. Having heard rumours of another piece of land further West, Eric was interested in pursuing this mythical, unknown land. The seafarer Gunnbjørn Ulfsson claimed he had seen this land himself.
Eric contacted Gunnbjørn and spoke with him. The voyage would be incredibly dangerous, long and filled with fatal risks. However, Eric was confident. Not only was he a very talented seafarer who mastered the art of navigation, but he was stubborn.
The red-haired father immediately began building his own ship, and in 982 he set sail for the unknown island. The seas were, as Gunnbjørn had said, rough. It was further North and the climate was much more volatile. However, despite all the challenges, Eric finally discovered the land.
He stayed there for a whole year, traveling deep into its core and examining its environment. He named it Greenland because he was certain that the earth was good enough for agricultural activity, but also because the charming name would attract settlers.
In 985 AD, he was permitted to return to Iceland. Eric returned, but not to stay. He spoke frequently to the public about his discoveries. After just a few months, he had persuaded seven hundred Icelanders to take the gamble and seek a new future in the newly found land.
At the head of 25 ships, packed with families, Eric led the migrants to Greenland. However - disaster struck. Many ships were wrecked by the harsh waves, drowning many families. Those who survived the trip on the other hand, had won themselves a new future.
On Greenland, Eric the Red found peace. He became Greenland’s chieftain and legislator, and lived there for the rest of his life together with his wife and four children: Leif, Thorvald, Thorstein and Freydis.
The Life of the Greenlanders
Two Norwegian colonies were quickly established. The climate of Greenland was milder than today so certain areas were up for farming. Cattle and sheep reared on the many plains of the island. Furthermore, by sailing North one could find polar bears and walruses, two species that could be hunted to produce ivory, hide and furs. Eskimos were useful trading partners as well. They knew perfectly well how to live and survive in the extreme conditions of the Far North. By observing their ways, the Norwegians learned plenty of tricks and ways to survive.
Though the population was mostly Norwegian, ships came from all of Scandinavia to Greenlandic shores. The Norse population eventually numbered around 4000, with 300 farms, 16 churches and even a cathedral. Archaeologists have even identified an Augustinian monastery and a Benedictine nunnery.
Discovery of America
Eric the Red inspired his eldest son Leif, who also wanted to sail on the open seas and search for new lands. Already in his early twenties, the adventurous Leif Ericsson set out from Greenland.
His first journey took him back to Norway where he met with King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. King Olaf was exhilarated over the discovery and inhabitation of Greenland and asked Leif plenty of questions. The King liked Leif and declared him a member of his personal unit of huscarls (or hirdmen), the hird. King Olaf sent Leif back to Greenland with the task of preaching Christianity there. With a cross chained around his neck, Leif the missionary returned to Greenland. The year was 1000 A.D.
However, fate would steer him on another course. After the beating of a violent storm, Leif’s ship drifted too far West, taking it to unknown seas beyond Greenland. Suddenly, his crew spotted land.
What was this strange place? They went ashore. It was obvious that this was not Greenland. The natural environment was too different. Leif and his crew dared into the mysterious territory, finding, to their greatest surprise, a cornfield. Utterly perplexed, the men continued, cautiously entering woods and scouting the shores. Too many questions were left unanswered when Leif and his company embarked their ships to leave again. They returned to Greenland, stunned over this strange experience.
Leif Ericsson immediately began investigating the issue. It turned out that he was not the first to have sighted this land. A certain Bjarni Herjolfson had long claimed to have spotted land West for Greenland. Few had any interest in his stories, but Leif stepped up and met with him. They had long conversations.
Leif purchased Bjarni’s ship, gathered 35 men to make up a crew and prepared to sail out again. This time he urged his father to come, but Eric hesitated, saying that he was getting too old for such bold adventures. The enthusiastic Leif managed to persuade him to join, but once on horseback, Eric fell and injured his foot – undoubtedly an ill omen. “I am not intended to find any other land than this one where we now live. This will be the end of our travelling together,” an upset Eric complained. So it happened: Leif Ericsson set sail alone. Now, it was his time.
At first Leif and his crew discovered a rocky wasteland that they called Helluland. This possibly was the Baffin islands, far North in modern-day Canada. Next, they sailed South and went ashore in an area full of woods and fields, naming it Markland (mark means field or border). Finally, they settled further South in a fruitful area filled with grape-trees, calling it Vinland (meaning “Wine-Land”). Here, the earth was fertile, rivers were plenty in number and grapes opened for trading opportunities – an ideal location to colonise. Much to their fortune, they also found that all nearby lakes had overflows of salmon.
Leif founded a settlement here and divided his company in two groups. One stayed in Vinland, while the other, led by Leif, returned to Greenland with ships loaded with timber and grapes. The excitement was beyond comprehension. It was a land of good promises. A merry Leif headed East again. On the way, he and his crew rescued two shipwrecked Norwegians – an affair that rewarded the young discoverer with the uplifting name Leif the Lucky.
Leif returned to Greenland a famous man. Word of his discoveries soon reached Norway. The people had high hopes. Within a short period of time, Eric and Leif had granted the Norwegians two new lands to populate, farm and cultivate. Unfortunate Norwegians sailed to Greenland, and many also to Vinland, to start anew.
Leif decided to retire from exploring and instead fulfil the promise he had made King Olaf Tryggvason: to spread Christianity on Greenland. For the rest of his life he travelled around the island and held speeches, assemblies and conversations to spread the new faith.
Eric the Red was particularly sceptical to his son’s religious activity. He refused to convert and remained Norse until his death. Leif’s mother, on the other hand, adopted Christianity and built numerous churches across Greenland. Even monks from the Franciscan and Augustinian orders settled here.
Leif the Lucky slipped out of the sources and escaped into the shadows of history. We do not know exactly how he ended his life, but we can easily imagine him spending his last years peacefully, overlooking the great seas of the Atlantic that had granted him so much fortune and fame.
The Norwegian colony in Vinland lived on. Many Norwegian and Icelandic explorers settled there and voyaged further into the American continent.
It is unclear how far they came, but there is reason to believe they entered deep into the American mainland, possibly even reaching the modern-day Wisconsin area. But as Leif had initially presumed, they were not alone in America. Native Americans with hostile intensions soon appeared. The “skrælinger”, as the Northmen called them (“thin ones”), were both aggressive and plenty in number.
Freydis Ericsdottir, Leif Ericsson’s sister, led a large expedition into America where she fought fiercely with the natives. The sagas detail one particular scene where the Northmen were forced to retreat, but Freydis turned the tide of the battle by tearing up her clothes, beating her sword against her breasts, while screaming uncontrollably to scare the natives. It worked, and the natives retreated. Ultimately, her expedition came short of success as the natives proved to be too many to handle for the handful of Northmen.
In the long-run, these colonies were difficult to sustain. With the limitations of contemporary bureaucracy, the Norwegian monarchy rarely managed to supply the colonies with men and provisions. It was too far away and too costly. Besides, wars and political unrest ravaged across Scandinavia and Britannia, leaving little time for Norwegian kings to invest in the Vinland colonies. In the end, it was up to the Icelanders and Greenlanders to maintain the settlements alone.
The Icelanders and Greenlanders definitely showed eagerness in preserving the colonies. In 1010 AD, Thorfinn Karslfeni led 140 armed men into Vinland, hoping to establish a permanent settlement there. Thorfinn certainly reached America, but it is unknown what happened next. Again, he might have penetrated deep into America and clashed furiously with natives – or, he might have been stopped short. Perhaps he found a way to coexist with the natives? As for now, we have no idea.
However, some baffling findings hint that the Norwegians actually maintained contact with America for many years after Thorfinn Karslfeni’s expedition. A Norwegian coin bearing the name and royal symbol of Norwegian King Olav the Peaceful Kyrre (11th century) was found in a former Native-American camp in Maine, USA. Does this prove that Norwegian settlements in America existed throughout the 11th century? Well, that is the debate. Most scholars do not consider the “Maine coin” sufficient evidence to reach this conclusion – the natives may have obtained this coin via trade markets in Greenland. Another interesting find is a text from the 1300’s AD that described how a group of Greenlanders arrived in Iceland after being blown off course on their way to Norway. They claimed they came from Markland (in Canada) and had ships stocked with timber.
As for the settlements in Greenland, they were officially included as a part of Norway in 1262 AD, under the reign of Norwegian King Haakon IV Haakonsson. Later, in the 1300’s, Greenlanders began facing serious challenges. Climate change pushed Eskimos south, as the colder conditions had fatal implications on their way of life. They clashed violently with the southerly positioned Greenlanders, leading to bloody feuds and quarrels. The Greenlanders were on their own. Sea-ice isolated them from the outside world, and the Norwegian monarchy did not have the capacity to aid them. Slowly, the Norwegian-Greenlander culture faded into the unknown. By 1410, Norwegian contact with Greenlanders was little to none. A ship that arrived in 1540 to examine the plight of the Greenlanders found nothing but deserted farms and one, unburied corpse.
Legacies of a Father & Son
Nothing lasts forever. Cattle die. Houses collapse. But, as the Norse proverb so brilliantly puts it: “the words of a legacy lives forever.” The lives of Eric and Leif could not be better examples. They became two of the earliest discoverers in history, faming their name worldwide. They showed courage, will, charisma and passion, traits that guided them on the uncharted ocean. Their discoveries gave the Norwegian kingdom new and resourceful lands, providing countless opportunities within agriculture, angling and trade. For the people, Greenland, and also Vinland, helped many disenfranchised, unfortunate or even criminals to win a new beginning. To start over. Others also wanted to escape the troubles of society and retire to a haven of serenity. Eric and Leif made this possible.
Leif Ericsson is regarded as one of history’s great discoverers. Few are aware of the fact that the Norwegian-born Leif Ericsson beat Christopher Columbus in discovering America by almost 500 years. Actually, this fact was so unbelievable that, at first, scholars rejected it completely, insisting that he set foot somewhere else.
However, thanks to historians Rasmus B. Anderson, Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen, the theory was subsequently recognised. US President Coolidge declared Leif Ericsson as the first discoverer of America in 1925. Explorer Dr. Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne-Stine, finally proved the Norwegian presence in America by finding remnants of Norse settlements in Canada in 1960. Today, in the United States of America, “Leif Erikson Day” is a nation-wide, annual observance day that takes place every October 9th.
They say fortune favours the bold, and in that case, Leif the Lucky must have been braver than most.
For more stories like these, check out Simon Vincent's new book on the dramatic Rise and Fall of the Viking Kingdom.
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