The Vikings in North America

While the early seeds of the Portuguese Empire sprouted in Iberia, people in today’s Scandinavian countries to the north: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, sought new lands in the North Atlantic. Archaeologists have excavated remains of their colonies as far west as Newfoundland. Some people think they traveled as far as Martha’s Vineyard Island in New England.

The northern explorers became known as vikings, which essentially meant settlers in the old Norse language of Scandinavia. [The Norse word víkingr literally meant creek, camp, or dwelling place.] The old Norse language and alphabet sprang from the Latin language and alphabet of the Roman Empire, which spread north with Christianity in the 900s.

These Norsemen were explorers, traders, warriors, and sometimes pirates. A set of manuscripts titled The Sagas of Icelanders [Íslenzk Fornrit in Icelandic] describe their early visits to North America. The Sagas were written between the tenth and twelfth centuries about events that took place some two hundred years earlier, between 900 and 1100 CE. They include historical and genealogical records about early Norse families who settled Iceland and Greenland, as well as settlements farther west across the North Atlantic. Today, we give the vikings credit for being the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil.

The authors of the Sagas referred to the indigenous people of the new lands they inhabited as skraelings. The skraelings of Greenland and Newfoundland would have been the ancestors of the modern day Inuit nation. [The term skraelings is still used in modern day Icelandic to mean barbarian or foreigner.]

The vikings traveled great distances in boats called knarrs, long open-decked vessels powered by rowers and one sail. We categorize knarrs as lapstrake vessels because their hulls were sided with overlapping planks called strakes. The average knarr was some 54 feet long with a beam of around 15 feet. They carried 30 to 40 tons of cargo. Depending on how much cargo a knarr hauled, it could transport up to ninety men. Knarrs easily maneuvered large waves and were light enough to portage [carry across land from one port to another].

The Norse often brought caged ravens along on their voyages to help them find land, a bit like Noah in the Old Testament who sent out a dove to see if the waters of the Great Flood had receded. When the dove returned with a twig of fresh leaves in its beak, Noah knew land was near. If the ravens did not return to the Norsemen, the men knew the ravens had found some fruitful land on which they preferred to perch.

The Sagas of Icelanders were written in prose, like lyrics, and are considered the best known specimens of Icelandic literature. The identity of their authors has yet to be revealed. However, enough details in the Sagas have endured through time, such as descriptions of landscapes that are still the same today, to encourage scholars to trust the Sagas as being historically factual.

Saga Summary

Once upon a time about a thousand years ago, a Viking named Bjarni Herjólfsson (1) was blown off course while on his way from Norway to Greenland. As Bjarni drifted in unknown waters, he came upon a land that he believed no one in his country had ever seen before. This land was probably today’s Newfoundland. Bjarni did not make landfall, which means he did not take the historic step to become the first European to walk on North American soil. But there is more.

An explorer named Eric the Red moved from Norway to Iceland, where he met his woman consort Thjóohildr. Between 970 and 980 CE, Eric the Red and Thjóohildr had a son named Leif. Since Leif was the son of Eric, he became known as Leif Eric’s Son, or Leif Ericsson. Leif had two brothers and a sister. We are not sure if Leif’s siblings had both the same parents as he, but that does not matter for this tale.

The Sagas say that Eric the Red became an outlaw and was banished from Iceland, which caused him to move his family to the frontier of Greenland. By 986 CE, Eric the Red had established the first settlement there, co-existing with the skraelings.

Leif grew up to be a “strong man, striking in appearance, wise, and considerate.” In 999, he and a crew sailed from Greenland to Norway, his paternal homeland. Leif spent some time in Norway working for King Olaf Tryggvason, who had recently converted to Christianity. While there, Leif also converted to Christianity, whereupon King Olaf commissioned him to return to Greenland and Christianize the vikings and the skraelings there.

As Leif made his way home from Norway to Greenland, he was, like Bjarni had been, blown off course. The tides and winds pushed him far westward until he came upon the land Bjarni had previously sighted. Leif and his crew got out of their knarrs and explored the island. As they did so, they came across two Norsemen who had shipwrecked on Newfoundland earlier. So you see, it was the two shipwrecked Norsemen, whose names the Sagas did not record, who were the first Europeans [that we know about] to set foot on North American soil.

Leif, with the rescued castaways, returned to Greenland. Shortly after, he and his father sought out Bjarni Herjólfsson to obtain a precise description of how to sail back to the new land Bjarni and Leif had come across accidentally. Bjarni obliged Leif with directions and also sold him his knarr. Leif and Eric the Red prepared to sail the knarr to Greenland with a crew of about thirty-five men. However, close to the time of their departure, Eric the Red fell from his horse. Being superstitious, as Norsemen tended to be, Eric feared the fall was an omen [prophesy of good or evil] telling him he should not travel with Leif. So Leif headed off on his own toward the newly found land.


Map showing the water and wind currents of the Northern Atlantic.

Leif Ericsson’s expedition probably followed the ocean currents, which we show you in the map above. The Sagas say they landed first at a place they described as “desolate, flat, and rocky” [possibly today’s Baffin Island]. The Norsemen named it Helluland, which meant flat-rock land. They next approached a land abundant with tall trees they named Markland, which meant Forest land [probably Labrador]. After two more days at sea, they landed at the newly found land [probably Newfoundland].

The Sagas stated that one of the islands where Leif landed had mild weather and was covered with self-sown wheat fields and grape vines. For that reason, Leif named it Vinland. But the exact location of Vinland has been a subject of debate among historians for hundreds of years. Some think the description of wheat fields and grapevines describes Newfoundland. Others think it better describes Martha’s Vineyard Island near Cape Cod in New England.

The search party began building a settlement on Vinland [wherever it was]. A little later they named it Leifsbúôir, which meant Leif’s Booths. The vikings stayed there through the winter. In spring, Leif headed back to Greenland with his knarr filled with grapes, timber, and grapevines. [The Norse used grapevines to strap together and fasten the strakes on the knarrs.] On the way to Greenland, Leif and his men rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew. The action earned Leif the nickname Leif the Lucky.

As we noted, the Sagas also included genealogical information. Leif had at least two sons, each with a different mother. We know he spread Christianity in Greenland because his mother built a Christian church there called Thjóohild’s Church. Eric the Red did not join it. He preferred his old pagan religion.

We also learn from the Sagas that Leif’s brother, Thorvald Ericsson, traveled to Vinland after permanent settlements were established. He did not get along with the skraelings. His hostility resulted in a battle during which the skraelings killed him. Today, Thorvald is credited with being the first European to die on North American shores.

The Sagas named two other men from Iceland who visited the viking settlements, Karlsefni and Freydis. During the next couple of centuries, Norsemen traveled back and forth between Scandinavia, Iceland, Labrador, and Newfoundland. Labrador was an important source of timber.

The Vikings on Newfoundland

In the early 1960s, Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and husband, Helge Ingstad, uncovered evidence of Norselanders residing at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. As the map below indicates, L’Anse aux Meadows would have been the first place a knarr arrived after sailing west from Labrador. The Ingstads suggested too possibilities for the identity of the site: They could be the remains of Leifsbúôir. Or they could be the remains of a port where the Norsemen repaired their ships on the way to Leifsbúôir and the other settlements named in the Sagas: Straumfjörör and Hóp.

Did the Vikings Reach Martha’s Vineyard Island?

Evidence that Martha’s Vineyard Island was the Vikings’ Vinland is much less concrete. The Sagas claim that Leif and or his men continued in their knarrs beyond Vinland to a “promontory” [such as Cape Cod], then on to “southern shores where great sandy cliffs towered over them,” [as would the northern shore of Nantucket Island, or the cliffs at Gayhead in Martha’s Vineyard]. The Norse named the cliffs Wonderstrands. The knarrs navigated dangerous shoals [such as the sand bars south of Cape Cod] and landed on a beach where there was fresh water that tasted “sweet as morning dew.”

Continuing west, the Norsemen traveled through a sound [a passageway such as Vineyard Sound] where the water currents were very strong . They came to a large triangular island [similar to Martha’s Vineyard] that lay to the south. A group of smaller islands extended to the west [like the Elizabeth Islands do]. The Vikings were enchanted by “the beauty of the place, the plentiful fish, and the warm climate.” After a small delay – when their ship ran aground on a shoal, and they had to wait for the currents to release them – they entered a river-mouth that led to a large lake [possibly Menemsha Pond on Martha’s Vineyard Island or maybe even Narragansett Bay]. The Vikings built dwellings on the eastern shore of the pond and stayed for several months.

Archaeologists have found trenches, mounds, and structures made with megalithic stones called cromlechs or dolmens on Martha’s Vineyard Island that do not appear to have been left by the native Wampanoag Indians. No artifacts were left behind to link the dolmen to the Norsemen. One dolmen is close to the shore of Squibnocket Pond near Menemsha Pond on the southwestern point of the island.

Channing Nevin’s Research

Several residents of Martha’s Vineyard Island have proffered signs they believe to be evidence of Viking visitations a thousand years ago. Journalist Jim Hickey included those claims in his article for the Vineyard Gazette titled, “Rural Legend of Viking Presence Endures.”(2) Hickey wrote that in 1894, a Mr. W. Channing Nevin analyzed information in the Sagas about the rising and setting of the sun and determined that the longitude and latitude of where the Vikings landed pinpointed Martha’s Vineyard Island. Mr. Nevin deduced the time of their visit to be 900 CE. From this information, he published a poem called The Norseman and the Vineyard Maid.

In Nevin’s poem, Leif Ericsson pulled in at the location of today’s Edgartown, where he fell in love with one of the Indian maidens. Leif stayed on the island for several years then left. Nevin wrote, “True to his manly instincts, [Leif] returned to [the island] to seek his Vineyard maid, only to find that, brokenhearted at his desertion, she had yielded up her young life [died] with the name of the loved Norseman on her lips. And so she was buried at Naushon [one of the Elizabeth Islands].”

Leif Ericsson’s Rune Stone

A large boulder with mysterious petroglyphs thought to be left by the Vikings was found by a Mr. Crane on a small island he owned three miles off the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard [the same corner where Squibnocket Pond is located]. The uninhabited island is called Noman’s Land. Legend claims it was named during the early 1600s after the Wampanoag sachem [chief] who lived there named Tequenoman.

Jim Hickey wrote that Mr Crane found his rune stone in 1926. Runes are the Old Norse letterforms, similar to Latin. The name rune came from the Norse word rúnar, which referred to the magic signs or hidden lore of the Norse people before the Middle ages. Rune stones, therefore, are rocks with the ancient letterforms or signs chiseled in them.

Mr. Crane found the large black rock partially buried at the water’s edge. He could see the indented forms of the runes as the waves crashed over them at sunset.(3) Later reports by the State Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources who wanted to excavate the rock said it was about “four tons in weight” and “the size of an antique desk.”

In 1927, a year after Mr. Crane’s discovery, a writer named Edward F. Gray, who had been researching the vikings’ visits to North America(4), photographed the letterforms. That was a difficult task because the rock was only visible when the tide was at full ebb. Even then, waves constantly washed over the inscriptions making it difficult to get near them with a camera. Like Mr. Crane, Mr. Gray wondered if the inscriptions were runes. But, neither men were professional archaeologists and neither knew much about the Old Norse language.

Mr. Gray wrote that the letterforms were four inches high. Later historians attempting to decipher Gray’s and Crane’s photographs added: there were four lines of letters, they were evenly spaced, and they spelled out:

Gray’s report initiated a new debate. One faction of archaeologists claimed the Norse did not use Roman numerals as far back as the year 1001, so the rock had to be a hoax. A second faction countered that Leif Ericsson, a Christian, would have had plenty of access to Latin writings, and that his teacher, Tyker Southman, who was among the voyagers, would have used Roman numerals to inscribe a date. [Tyker Southman was a Christian from the northern part of today’s Germany.]

What Happened to the Rune Stone?

Leif Ericsson’s rune stone was submerged completely in 1938 when a hurricane hit New England. During World War II [1941-1945], the navy used Noman’s Land for bombing practice. [The possibility of unexploded ordnance still remains a threat to visitors today.] Fortunately, a curious resident of Greenwich, Connecticut, named Curtiss Bacon convinced the navy to halt the bombing for one day while he searched for the rune stone. He found the rock still under the water, but apparently did not do anything more with it.

In 2007, John Alden of the Historical Maritime Group of New England and Kenneth M. Jungersen, an author, hired diving and salvage experts to excavate the stone. They wanted to study it and then place it in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. Their efforts were halted for two reasons:

  1. The usual objections that the rock was not genuine.
  2. Descendants of the Aquinnah tribe(5) of Wampanoag Indians who live in today’s Gay Head registered a complaint about the excavation. They worried that the rock might have historic and or cultural value to the Wampanoags.

Nothing was done to move the rock to enable scientists to look at the writing more closely.

Kenneth Jungersen of the excavation party pointed out that the stone had probably moved dramatically in relation to the edge of the sea over the last 1000 years. He speculated that in or around 1875, the rock slid from the highest point of the ten-meter bluff – a more likely place for such a marker – to the beach. In other words, he did not believe the rock was always exposed to the wear and tear of the waves as it is now. On the other hand, if the same people who inscribed Dighton Rock at the side of the Taunton River [which we describe below] created the rune stone at the edge of Noman’s Land, it is more likely the rock was where it is today.

Since 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has owned Noman’s Land. They allow it to serve as a wildlife refuge, primarily for migratory birds. The debate about whether or not the vikings visited Noman’s Land may go on forever.

Viking Reports Near Fall River, Massachusetts

In 1831, a skeleton with its armor still on was found in Fall River, Massachusetts. Celebrated Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) analyzed the metal of the skeleton’s armor and found it to be identical in composition with the metal known to have been used on Norse armor in the tenth century. Berzelius is considered one of the founders of modern chemistry. He and archaeologists concluded that the skeleton was that of an Icelander. They wondered if it was the legendary Thorvald Ericsson killed in the Americas by the skraelings.

Dighton Rock

Sometime between 1602, when the English first arrived to Vineyard Sound, and 1680, when an English minister reported finding it, English colonists came upon another large boulder with curious petroglyphs inscribed on it. This one sat near the shore of the Taunton River in Massachusetts. In 1680, Reverend John Danforth of Plymouth Colony wrote a thesis about the glyphs, which is on file at the British Archives in England. He said he thought the glyphs were carved into the red sandstone by the local Wampanoag Indians. However, in 1837, a Danish scholar named Carl Christian Rafn saw a photo of the rock and determined the carvings to be Norse runes that the vikings engraved during their visit to Massachusetts in 1001 CE. The photograph of the rock below was taken in 1892.


Dighton Rock by the Taunton River, Photo by [probably Andrew M.] Davis, December 31, 1892.(6)

We have included additional photographs of the rock and more information in our article Dighton’s Rock. Suffice it to say for now, no one has yet determined who carved the petroglyphs. But it is one more arrow that points to a possible visit from the vikings to Southern New England.

Blond and Fair Skinned Indians

Another fact that supports the theory that Viking’s ventured farther south than Newfoundland is that when the English and Spanish arrived in North America over 500 years later, they noticed, with surprise, some Algonquian Indians with blond hair and fair skin. Algonquians normally had very black hair and dark skin. Recent DNA studies indicate that European DNA was introduced to the North American Indians much earlier than Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492(7), particularly in the area of the Great Lakes. Possibly, early vikings introduced their DNA to the Inuit, and by the time the English arrived five hundred years later, the European DNA had spread through the native population to New England and Virginia.

False Beards

One of the English groups that arrived with Captain Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602 made another curious observation. Some of the Algonquians greeted the English wearing strips of animal fur cut to fit their faces like false beards. Algonquian Indians were not able to grow beards themselves. Historians speculate that the American Indians saw the beards on the vikings centuries earlier and copied the style of wearing a beard for their new guests.

Why Didn’t the Vikings Stay in America?

By the 1300s, the viking settlements in Newfoundland were inactive. Historians do not know why they stopped thriving. One theory is that the vikings did not have guns like their successors would, and the intelligent American natives chased them away with their bows and arrows. Another theory is that the plague that killed over a third of the population in Europe during the mid-1300s reached Newfoundland.

Did Christopher Columbus Know about the Viking Discoveries?

It is highly unlikely that the Scandinavians did not pass information about settling Newfoundland to their descendants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They probably shared this information with their neighbors: the Dutch [people of Germany and today’s Netherlands] and the English. It is certain that by 1424, European mariners reported sighting islands west of the Ocean Sea. Many suspected there was a mainland in that direction. However, everyone, including Christopher Columbus, thought that mainland was Asia, not two continents the size of the Americas.

Notes

  1. Bjarni is often translated to Biron in English.
  2. Hickey, Jim. “Revisiting Viking Myth on Island, Noman’s Expedition Is Planned.” Vineyard Gazette, Martha’s Vineyard Island, 7 June 2007. Source: http://mvgazette.com/news/2007/06/08/revisitng-viking-myth-island-
    nomans-expedition-planned?k=vg5325c91bc836c.
  3. Water on the stone makes the indentations easier to see. They are even easier to see when the sun is setting because the angle of the sun causes greater shadows in the engravings. A trick for making gravestones easier to read is to sprinkle them with water.
  4. His subsequent book was titled, Leif Ericksson, Discoverer of America.
  5. The Aquinnah tribe was one of five Wampanoag tribes that resided on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1500s. Based on language similarities, Wampanoag people were part of the larger Algonquin nation.
  6. Photo from the Dighton Rock Museum web site: http://www.dightonrock.com/dightonrockitsmusuemanditspark.htm
  7. We discuss this in great detail in our article “The American Native” in the webBook, Before Winthrop.

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