With a Norse settlement in "Vinland," modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, peoples from Viking societies saw both friendly and violent encounters with the so-called "skræling." 

The Norse settlers, ultimately, did not learn from the accrued wisdom and adaptability of indigenous Americans, which would lead to the end of the Norse settlement of the Americas.

Norse colonization of North America

European colonization of North America has, only in recent history, been revised to begin in the 10th century CE. Pushing westward across the North Atlantic Ocean from Iceland, Norsemen established two settlements on Greenland. From here, they pushed westward again, establishing a single settlement on what is now the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. Though the settlements on Greenland lasted for five centuries, the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows has a strong historical connection with some of the "Vinland" sagas complied later in the 13th century CE.

The general consensus of modern academia is that the Norse settlement on the tip of Newfoundland only lasted around two decades, supporting, at its height, anywhere between 30 to 160 people. Though more archaeological evidence of Norse settlement has been found in southern Newfoundland, it appears unlikely that the Norse settlers had the manpower or resources to construct any further settlements throughout North America.

Human habitation and culture before the arrival of the Norse

The island of Newfoundland (also called Terre-Neuve in French or Ktaqmkuk in the Mi'kmaq language) is not only the world's 16th largest island but also home to a number of rare plant and animal species. Its relatively mild subarctic climate allows cold winters and short, hot summers with little precipitation. A wealth of flora and fauna has enabled several peoples to establish settlements and habitation on the island, with the Norse being only but one. Recent archaeological evidence has uncovered human habitation of Newfoundland stretching as far back as 9,000 years ago.

The first serious signs of prolonged human settlement in Newfoundland arose with the so-called "Maritime Archaic" peoples. These peoples were subarctic hunters who lived along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, reaching Newfoundland about 5,000 years ago. Around approximately 2,000 BCE, a new people slowly started to emerge and dominate this area of North America. Though this process took time, by about 800 BCE, an entirely new people and culture had replaced the Maritime Archaic people in Newfoundland.

The people of the Dorset culture were Paleo-Eskimo people who were highly adapted to the cold climates of Newfoundland. They were maritime-oriented people who were navigators and developed boats similar to modern-day kayaks. The Dorset people are believed to have lived in Newfoundland until the early 16th century CE. In what may be history's first case of a societal collapse due to climate change, the "Medieval Warm Period" (a period of warm climate in the North Atlantic from approximately 950 CE to 1250 CE) devastated the Dorset's way of life.

Next to settle in Newfoundland were the peoples of the Beothuk culture. They are believed to have migrated from the mainland to the island of Newfoundland sometime approximately in the very early 1st century CE. They lived in self-sufficient groups of between 30 to 55 people and hunted caribou, seals, and salmon.

Around the year 1000 CE, on the other side of the Americas, in Alaska, the Thule people soon began to migrate eastward. Sometime in the 11th century CE, the Thule had reached modern-day Canada and the island of Newfoundland. Here, they would have experienced direct contact with the microscopic Norse settlement. Continuing their eastward expansion, they had reached Greenland, and a more significant Norse settlement, by the 13th century.

The Thule experienced direct contact with the microscopic Norse settlement in Newfoundland. Photo: Timothy Holmes / Unsplash

Skrælingjar

By the time of the arrival of Norse settlers to both Greenland and Newfoundland, we have a situation of several people already living there. Following the establishment of the western and eastern settlements in Greenland and the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows farther westward, the Norse soon began to come into direct contact with these indigenous peoples.

In the early 12th century, Ari Thorgilsson complied the epic Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders). This historical work deals with the first Norse explorers and settlements both in Greenland and further afield in Vinland.  It is in this historical compilation that the term skræling (plural skrælingjar) first appears. Old Norse in origin, it is believed to derive from the word skrá, meaning 'dried skin.' This may be a reference to the animal furs worn by the Inuit peoples.

Norse settlers met these skrælingjar both in Vinland (Newfoundland) and, from the arrival of the Thule people into Greenland sometime in the 13th century, in both the Norse settlements of Greenland. By the time the Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red) – both dealing heavily with the Norse exploration and settlement of North America – were compiled, in the late 13th and early 14th century, these terms were commonly known throughout Viking societies.

First contact?

According to these two sagas (collectively known as the Icelandic Sagas), the man credited with the European' discovery' of North America was one Bjarni Herjólfsson in 985 CE. While sailing from Iceland to Greenland with a fleet of 25 ships, he was blown off course and, after three days of travel westward, eventually sighted land. Upon his return to Iceland, he described his adventures to Leif Erikson, who, approximately 15 years later, returned to this new land. 

The Icelandic Sagas then go into detail about Erikson's exploration of three areas: Helluland (land of flat stones), Markland (the land of the forests), and Vinland (land of the vines).  It was in Vinland (modern-day Newfoundland) that Erikson was said to have established a Norse settlement. Erikson spent two separate winters in Vinland and sailed back to Greenland without incident.

A few years later, Leif's brother, Thorvald, sailed to Vinland with a crew of 30 men. They wintered at the camp that Leif had established; however, their stay would not be peaceful. Upon spring, first contact was made with the indigenous people. A fight ensued, and the Vikings attacked nine skrælingjar. However, one escaped and came back with a larger force to attack the Norse camp. Thorvald was eventually slain by an arrow, becoming the first, but not the last, European casualty of North American colonization and this clash of cultures.

Around 1010 CE, another Norse voyage took to the seas to sail westward to Vinland. Unlike the previous expedition, this one, led by Thorvald the Valiant, was more peaceful. Three large ships were crammed full with 160 men and women, and after a long winter, the Norse headed south. There, they encountered the local indigenous population and even bartered furs for milk and other food supplies. Apparently, though, a bull brought by the Norse frightened these locals. They came in force a few days later and attacked the Norse camp with "catapults." As the Norsemen retreated, Leif Erikson's pregnant half-sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, bore her breast at the indigenous warriors and managed to scare them away.

As with all medieval sources, these sagas should not be viewed with much historical authenticity or authority. However, it does portray a fascinating insight into the first contacts between medieval Norse settlers and the local indigenous populations of North America that must have occurred at places like L'Anse aux Meadows.

Leif was the son of Erik the Red, who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Photo: Rafael Garcin / Unsplash

And what about the Norse settlements in Greenland?

Lying a short distance across the unforgiving North Atlantic Ocean from Vinland was the two Norse settlements in Greenland. This was another place of contact between indigenous populations and Norse settlers. The Norse had arrived, according to the Icelandic sagas, sometime in the 980s CE. 

Having been banished from Iceland for murder, Erik the Red is said to have first 'discovered' Greenland and spent three years of his exile exploring it. Upon returning to Iceland, he decided to lure fellow settlers across the oceans with him to colonize this land by naming it 'Greenland.' An eastern and a western settlement were soon established, which had, at its height, a combined population of over 3,000 spread out over 400 farms.

The Norse settlers in Greenland would have encountered the Beothuk and the Thule peoples. There has been significant evidence of Norse trade with indigenous populations as artifacts (such as chess pieces, small ivory statues, and ship rivets) have been discovered by archaeologists far beyond the assumed range of Norse activity on Greenland.

One possible reason for the collapse of the Norse settlements on Greenland was their unwillingness to adapt and integrate with the local Thule people. There was little cross-cultural exchange and no intermarriage. The Norse did not seem to want to learn from the Thule people how best to adapt to winters in this harsh and barren climate.   This would not be the last time in history that European cultural arrogance would dismiss local indigenous traditions and knowledge.

Eventually, the Norse settlements in Greenland would cease to exist sometime in the early 15th century. The last recorded activity was a marriage-taking place in 1408 CE.

The sign of things to come…?

The Norse contact with local indigenous populations was – perhaps – not as destructive as what would occur by the time of Christopher Columbus's voyages of 'discovery' in the late 15th century. The arrival of Europeans to North America, and Greenland, from 1492 CE onwards would signal genocide unseen in history. First Nation peoples throughout North America (from Alaska to Mexico) would fall victim to combinations of European greed, slavery, famine, disease, murder, and religious fever. The best current estimates are that a century after Columbus's voyages, the indigenous populations of the Americas declined by more than 90%.

Our only glimpse into the first contact between the Norse settlers and local indigenous populations of North America and Greenland are the Icelandic sagas. What actually happened between the two cultures is very much guesswork. However, the signs of European arrogance and violence are there, foreshadowing what would happen centuries later. 

For the latest archaeological information on the dating of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, click here.

For an analysis of why Pope Francis made a recent trip to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in the oppression, genocide, and abuse of First Nations peoples since the 15th century, click here.

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