Peoples from Viking societies beat Christopher Columbus to this "undiscovered" land by about half a millennium but would not have the same apocalyptic impact on the peoples living there already.
The history of European North America begins with these brave and plucky settlers in the early medieval period.
Norse settlement in Greenland
About a century before William the Conqueror ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, Norse settlers began to colonize Greenland. In the 980s CE, peoples from Viking societies in Scandinavia and Iceland sailed across the cold North Atlantic to Greenland. From their small settlements there, they then sailed further westward to explore and settle the northern tip of what is now Newfoundland, Canada. Though the Norse settlement on Greenland lasted for five centuries, the Viking presence in North America may have only lasted decades.
The Norse presence in Greenland can be traced back to settlers from Iceland. According to the Saga of the Icelanders, Erik the Red was banished from Iceland for murder. During this three-year banishment, he went to explore the southern coast of Greenland. Returning home, he hoped to entice settlers to join him, thus naming this area "Greenland."
Erik would then lead Norse settlers to Greenland, and they would eventually establish two settlements – one in the east and one in the west, near the present capital Nuuk. Archaeological evidence shows the settlement had a combined population, at its height, of between 2000-3000 settlers who worked on over 400 farms. These farms helped strengthen a burgeoning economy made rich with the export of walrus ivory, furs, and blubber.
However, like Erik the Red before, many settlers here started to explore and sail westward.
Erik the Red, his son, or Gudrid - who discovered "Vinland" first?
According to both the Saga of the Icelanders and Erik the Red's Saga, Norse settlers started exploring westward just a few years after the establishment of the eastern and western settlements in Greenland. In 985 CE, a merchant by the name of Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course on the voyage from Iceland to Greenland and, after three days of sailing, eventually sighted land. When he finally made it back to Iceland, he recounted his tale to a son of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson.
Leif was said to have then bought Herjóflsson's ship and assembled a crew of almost forty men. Leif then took to the seas and sailed westward until he eventually landed in a rocky cove, which he named Helluland. Sailing further south, he came to an area rich in forests, which he named Markland, before eventually coming to an area of land with a more mild climate and plentiful fish stocks. As winter approached, the explorers camped there and, during their explorations of the island, would eventually find what they believed to be vines and grapes. It was from this discovery that the first Norse settlement in North America would receive its name "Vinland" (Wine Country).
Leif Eriksson is said to have been the first European to have set foot on North American soil. In fact, one of the most famous Norwegian paintings from the 19th century, by Christian Krogh, depicts this scene, the sighting of the North American continent by Leif Eriksson on board his ship.
The area of what Eriksson and others called Vinland is believed to have been the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland in Canada. Eriksson and later Norse settlers' voyages to North America predated Columbus' journey by more than five centuries, in an era where the Mayas were fervently building Chichen Itza and the Muslim world was at the height of its cultural, political, economic, and scientific powers in a Golden Age.
Over the course of the next few years, more and more Norse settlers began to explore Vinland, including one Gudrid Thorbjarndóttir. She sailed off with her husband to Vinland and was a famous explorer in her own right if we are to believe the sagas.
Leif Erikson was often described as a man of great wisdom and an attractive, very masculine appearance. He converted to Christianity during the reign of the Norwegian king Olaf, who gave Leif the task to go to Greenland to convert other settlers to Christianity. Photo: Tim Foster / Unsplash
Norse settlement and the Skræling
What recorded history we have of the Norse settlement in "Vinland" has only been passed down to us in the form of various sagas. These so-called "Vinland Sagas" state that around 300 people visited Vinland during these discovery voyages.
In the sagas, there appear to be two reasons for the decline of Norse settlements on Vinland. The first is the harsh winter season with limited supply lines stretched back to distant Greenland. Moreover, colonizing a foreign land without adequate knowledge of flora, fauna, climate, or conditions would test even the pluckiest of settlers and explorers.
The second issue is what the sagas describe as Skræling. This was the name given by Norse settlers to describe the local inhabitants in the area around Vinland and other parts of the newly "discovered" region. The word itself is believed to be related to the old Norse word skrá – meaning dried skin – a reference to the animal pelts and furs that these people wore. This would suggest that these Norse settlers had some contact with local indigenous populations and that the Skræling may well have been the ancestors of the current Inuit population of Canada.
According to the sagas, whilst Leif Eriksson had established a Norse foothold on Vinland overseeing the construction of several houses, it was his brother, Thorvald, who, on a later voyage, had the first contact with these Skræling. He was eventually slain by an arrow after a beachside attack in which his men had tried to capture 8 of the "natives." This violent attack would somewhat depressingly foreshadow what many local indigenous populations would receive – and not dish out - when larger European colonizers would arrive in the Americans centuries later.
These violent clashes and inclement weather would prove, according to the sagas, the death knell for further Norse colonization of Vinland.
Later accounts of Vinland
Putting aside the sagas, there is a surprising amount of writings about the Norse colonization of Vinland throughout the medieval period. Again, like the sagas, these accounts often blend fact with fiction. Perhaps the best description of the Norse settlement – outside of Norse society – was written by Adam of Bremen. This 11th-century German chronicler wrote a lucid and detailed description of the Norse settlement and its origins in his chronicle, Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, which was believed to have been compiled sometime around 1075 CE.
Throughout the 12th century, there are Icelandic accounts of Norse Greenlanders voyaging to Markland to source timber. In fact, one Icelandic bishop, Eric Gnupsson, was set to have set out, in 1121 CE, for Vinland; however, here, the historical record ends and whether he perished or not is still unknown.
Following Christopher Columbus' voyages to the Americas, which heralded the dawn of the "Age of Discovery," Vinland soon disappeared from the historical record. In fact, in the Historia Norwegiae, complied in the 16th century, there is no mention of Vinland, and it only makes a passing reference to the Norse settlement in Greenland.
L'Anse aux Meadows and Scandinavian immigration
The Norse exploration of North America was believed, throughout the 20th century, to be a sort of pseudo-scientific fact. That was until 1960. A Norwegian husband and wife team, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, started to excavate an area at L'Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. They carried out seven excavations up until 1968 and found the remains of a Norse settlement dating from approximately 1,000 years before. Radiocarbon dating estimates the settlement was constructed between 990-1050 CE.
The Ingstads discovery backed up what was written in all those Norse sagas. Norse explorers had indeed reached the Americas almost half a millennium before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. This was finally scientifically confirmed recently by a study that analyzed some tree rings at L'anse aux Meadows archaeological site. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site of Canada. It is the only site of pre-Columbic trans-oceanic contact between Europeans and Indigenous Americans found so far.
Almost a millennium after the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, huge swathes of Scandinavian migrants would flock to the United States and Canada during the 19th century. In the United States, this immigration has led to certain states – like North Dakota and Minnesota – having more than 30% of the population claim Scandinavian ancestry. In fact, the professional American football team based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is called the "Minnesota Vikings" – a nod to the Norse heritage in the Americas that stretches back over a millennium.
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