Not only had they crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean and set foot on the North American continent almost half a millennium before Señor Columbus, but they had also established the first European settlement in this brave new world.

Though their exploits in the New World were thought to be the stuff of legends, modern archeology proved otherwise. 

The only way is up 

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic might not have seemed, at first glance, like the best time to start a new airline. However, in February 2021, when the world was seemingly locked down, travel was forbidden, and the skies were off-limits, this is exactly what Bjorn Tore Larsen did. 

The name of his new venture struck many non-Scandinavians by surprise: Norse Atlantic Airlines. 

For many people who were not fortunate enough to grow up in Scandinavia or receive a crash course in its history, Larsen seemed to be drawing parallels between what some people call the Norse (early medieval Scandinavians, often erroneously referred to as "Vikings") and trans-Atlantic travel. 

I mean, surely the Vikings didn't sail across the Atlantic from Europe to North America, as Larsen and his new airline seem to suggest, right? 

Business journalists worldwide then had to do their research and find out that, well, yes, the Norse not only traveled frequently across the Atlantic but were so successful in their journeys that they ended up establishing a settlement on what is now the Canadian island of Newfoundland. 

This occurred almost half a millennium before Christopher Columbus established the first Spanish settlements. 

Larsen was tapping into the intertwined history of Scandinavia and the New World, which goes back more than a millennium to the time when Viking ships plied the Atlantic Ocean. 

According to the sagas, Leif Erikson reached Vinland around the year 1000, a journey confirmed by the archeological discoveries at L'Anse aux Meadows. Source: Dimitrios Karamitros / Shutterstock

Sailing westward into the Atlantic Ocean 

Now, before you accuse us at The Viking Herald of peddling historical conspiracies that even Graham Hancock would be proud of, let us turn to the cold, hard facts. 

We know, thanks to a wealth of archeological discoveries, that people from Viking societies were some of the most skilled maritime travelers in early medieval Europe. 

Within a century of their devastating raid on Lindisfarne that kicked off the Viking Age, they had sailed and settled in Iceland

A few decades later, they established two settlements in Greenland, all without modern navigational or safety equipment. 

Historians and scientists have pointed out that global temperatures rose during the early medieval period, allowing human settlement on the southern fringes of Greenland. 

It is here we must turn to the sagas – specifically, The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders

In them, there is much detail and discussion about people in Viking societies exploring the western Atlantic Ocean and tales of their adventures and exploits in what historians now know as the northeastern fringes of the North American continent. 

This was only possible thanks to the settlements in Greenland, which provided a base from which they could sail out further westward into the Atlantic and – either through accidental luck or purpose – discover new lands. 

The settlements in Greenland, established in 986, allowed people from Viking societies to move progressively closer to the North American continent. 

According to the sagas, discovery and exploration seemed to run in the blood of many a Viking. 

Erik the Red, exiled from Norway for murder, was responsible for the "discovery" of a new land – which, in one of history's greatest marketing ploys, he dubbed "Greenland" – hoping to entice Norse settlers westward. 

According to the sagas, Erik's son Leif followed in his family's footsteps when he was blown off course and found himself in a brave new world around the turn of the 11th century (though such dates should be viewed with skepticism). 

He dubbed this new land "Vinland." While Leif was not the first to sight North America, he was, according to the sagas, responsible for boasting about his discovery and planting the seed for a possible new settlement in this distant western land. 

In 1960, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland. Photo: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

A brave new settlement in a brave new world 

Following the collapse of the settlements in Greenland – which the latest historical consensus attributes to climate change – by the early 15th century, the memory of Viking settlements in the western Atlantic slipped into the tides of history. 

According to Birgitta Wallace's 2009 article in the Journal of the North Atlantic, talk of Vinland – a far western settlement – was ridiculed by later historians and chroniclers right up until the mid-20th century as the stuff of fantasy. 

This skepticism is exactly why the sagas should not be treated as a historical record. That was until a Norwegian husband-and-wife team began digging around on the island of Newfoundland. 

In 1960, the world – well, at least the historical community – was shocked when this husband-and-wife team, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered the remains of a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. 

Using historical maps and the sagas, they tried to disprove the idea that Vikings had settled along this part of the North American coastline, but ended up discovering conclusive proof that the tales of Viking ships sailing to North America were grounded in historical truth. 

Over the course of the decade, they uncovered a settlement – which has since been carbon-dated to have existed for around 60 years (c. 990 – 1050) – containing the remains of eight buildings and more than 800 artifacts. 

This was finally conclusive proof that some of the supposed tall tales about Leif Erikson, the Viking settlement on Vinland, and its encounter with Skraelings – which historians take to be the indigenous population of Newfoundland – had more than a shred of historical truth in them. 

The C. A. Nothnagle Log House, built around 1638 by Swedish settlers in New Jersey, represents the early Scandinavian influence in North America. Photo: Smallbones (Public domain)

Echoes of Viking journeys 

We will never know exactly why the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows ultimately failed. 

However, the fact that people from Viking societies managed to cross the vast Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the shores of the North American continent should be celebrated as one of the most remarkable navigational feats in history. 

Despite the settlement disappearing around the mid-11th century, this was not the end of the Viking story in America. 

Some eight centuries later, thanks to a combination of economic depression and rural poverty, hordes of Scandinavians – mostly Norwegians – crossed the Atlantic Ocean again like their ancestors. 

They came to both Canada and the United States of America to chase a better life and settled throughout the Midwest in the U.S. and the Prairie Provinces in Canada. 

As Michael W. Hughey and Michael G. Michlov wrote in their 1989 article in the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, if you visit any small town from Manitoba to Minnesota and Montana, you're bound to see the cultural legacy of Scandinavian migration.

This migration to the North American continent started well over a millennium ago.

We have more information on an alleged Viking expedition to South America here, whilst more information on L'Anse aux Meadows can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage website here.

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