The modern, pop cultural view of Vikings is full of magical myths and misconceptions. No, they didn’t wear horned helmets. Yes, they did a lot more than mount violent raids on communities across Europe. In fact, they went far, far further than the shores of our continent. Strange as it may sound, some Norse adventurers could technically have called themselves Americans.
When it comes to the fascinating story of the Vikings’ connection with the New World, one figure looms large: Leif Erikson, the intrepid Norseman who beat Columbus to the Americas by several hundred years. But what’s the real story here, and did he and his followers really lay down roots across the Atlantic?
As with all things Viking, we have to pick out historical truths amid the grand, glittering tapestry of legends and folk tales that have come down to us across the centuries. That’s easier said than done, but some key texts – or “sagas” – written in the 13th Century shed some light on Leif Erikson’s exploits. Intriguingly, it seems Leif was not the first European to “discover” the New World.
In fact, he only embarked on his voyage after hearing the stories of another man, Bjarni Herjólfsson, a merchant who reported seeing a mysterious coastline after his boat was blown off course close to Greenland, in the late 10th Century. Herjólfsson himself didn’t actually set foot on this exciting new landscape of forests and mountains, though. In the opinion of 20th Century historian, TJ Oleson, the baffled Norseman had probably glimpsed modern-day Newfoundland.
Inspired by Herjólfsson’s dramatic report, Leif Erikson apparently purchased the very ship the merchant had used on that trip, gathered a crew of hardy seadogs, and set out to investigate further. According to the sagas, he and his men landed at various spots which could correspond to modern-day Baffin Island and Labrador, before coming to a rich and fertile realm he named Vinland. The true identity of Vinland is a historical puzzle that has intrigued Viking buffs ever since.
All we know for sure is that Vinland was a swathe of the North American shoreline, and that it was the site of the first European settlement in the New World, around 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his grand appearance. The biggest breakthrough in the investigation into Norse escapades in North America only came in the early 1960s, when a Norwegian husband-and-wife team – one an explorer, the other an archaeologist – found evidence of a Viking settlement on the tip of Newfoundland.
Known as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site’s discovery utterly changed our view of Viking history, and proved the sagas weren’t just overblown fairy tales. The Norse adventurers really had made their way to North America, and L’Anse aux Meadows may have been a part of the wider region they had dubbed Vinland.
Archaeologist are at work trying to definitely locate other Viking settlements in North America, which can further corroborate the titanic sagas of old. Certainly, the stories make for juicy and sometimes gruesome reading. Leif Erikson’s brother, Thorvald, is said to have stayed for a protracted period of time in Vinland, exploring this alien land, and slaughtering several Native Americans whom they called “skraelings”. Then there’s the story of Leif Erikson’s sister, Freydis, who according to one saga was a fearsome warrior who single-handedly scared off an attack by angry skraelings.
Another early Norse pioneer was Thorfinn Karlsefni, who – along with his family and crewmembers – settled in Vinland and even traded with the skraelings before things turned ugly and more violence ensued. There are conflicting accounts of what became of their expedition, but it’s generally agreed that Thorfinn’s son Snorri was born in Vinland, and so has the distinction of being the first European settler born in North America. A genuine “American Viking”.
But why did the Viking presence in North America not last? This is another source of endless debate. Some believe there just weren’t enough of them there at any one time to maintain a thriving and permanent community. Perhaps the indigenous peoples, or skraelings, proved more than a match for the fledgling pioneers, and beat them away. It’s even been suggested climate change made seafaring conditions too cold for the Norse sailors to mount major expeditions west. Whatever the reason, the alternative history of the New World – one in which the Vikings stayed and created a Norse America – remains a tantalising vision to ponder