The Vikings in Newfoundland
It was long believed that the first European to visit Newfoundland was John Cabot (c. 1450-1499), who arrived in 1497 under the banner of england’s King Henry VII (1457-1509). We now know that other Europeans visited Newfoundland and Labrador 500 years before Cabot, and they later committed their story to writing. For many years scholars weren’t sure if Newfoundland was the place being written about, or even if the stories were based on real events. These tales – the Sagas – were very much real. They tell of the first verified contact between people of the Old and New Worlds, as voyagers from Europe made an appearance in North America.
These voyagers were the Scandinavian warriors and explorers popularly known as Vikings (vikingr, meaning “raider” or “pirate”) or Norsemen (men from the north). Unlike most Europeans of the time, the Vikings practised their old pagan religion, worshipping many gods like Odin and Thor. Before the Vikings adopted Christianity people were shocked by their behaviour, especially the Norse destruction of churches and monasteries, and occasional human sacrifices.
Their open boats, propelled by oars or a simple square sail, were among the most efficient sea- going craft of the Dark Ages, and the Vikings used them to great advantage. The most famous type of Viking craft were the dragon-prowed langskips or longships, though their farthest voyages were made in deeper-draught vessels. Starting in the late-700s AD, the Vikings began raiding the British Isles and France before finally settling there. Their attention was also focussed further afield. Swedish Vikings reached Russia, while others visited the Byzantine Empire, now modern Turkey, and fought the Arabs.
The Vikings always seemed to like a challenge, and were possessed of a restless spirit. By the late-800s they settled the island of Iceland. One colonist was Thorwald, exiled from Norway for the crime of murder. He was accompanied by his son Eirik raudi (Eric the Red), who was banished from Iceland after he too committed murder. Leaving Iceland and sailing west, Eric discovered a large Arctic island which he named Greenland to encourage settlers. Eric established two settlements there which survived for 500 years before failing due to worsening climate conditions.
One of Greenland’s new colonists was Eric’s son Lief, or Leifr (fl. 1000). Young Lief Ericsson and his mother were converts to Christianity, though Eric followed the old pagan religion until he died. At Greenland Lief heard tales of the traveller Bjarni Herjolfsson. Blown off course while making his way to the new settlement from Iceland, Herjolfsson sighted a forested land to the west of any previous Viking discoveries. Though he never went ashore, Bjarni Herjolfsson might have been the first European to see mainland North America.
Buying Herjolfsson’s boat, Lief Ericsson sailed off around the year 1000 to find the new land. Lief and his crew first spotted an island they named Helluland, or Flat Stone Land, believed to be Baffin Island. They next came to a place whose trees led to the name Markland – Forest Land, probably Labrador. Finally, the explorers arrived at a locale they named Vinland after the grapes they found growing there. It is now thought that Vinland has some connection to Newfoundland. If not actually Vinland itself, the island may have been used as a base camp for exploring a larger area of that name. Lief and his compatriots returned to Greenland about a year after he first set out.
Over the next few years other Norsemen tried to establish a colony at Vinland. About the year 1003 Lief’s brother Thorvald led his own expedition to the new land. From the beginning the Norse settlements ran into problems, especially clashes with the aboriginal peoples, whom the Vikings called Skraelings,. After he and his men killed a number of the Natives, Thorvald died in a counter-attack. Around 1009 AD Þorfinnr, or Thorfinn, Karlsefni took up the challenge of permanently settling Vinland. Thorfinn also ran afoul of the locals, and returned to Greenland after a stay of around two years. About a year later Eric the Red’s daughter Freydis, and some Norwegian collaborators, made the last serious attempt to colonize Vinland. Trouble soon arose between Freydis’ people and the Norwegians, all of whom were killed. Once the survivors returned to Greenland the settlement was abandoned, but it remained in the Viking tradition through their oral tales, later written down as the Sagas. As the years passed people forgot the reality behind the Sagas and most assumed they were nothing more than legends.
One person who believed the Sagas recounted real events was Norwegian adventurer Helge Ingstad. He noticed similarities between physical descriptions of the land in the Sagas and Newfoundland. Along with his wife, professional archaeologist Anne Stine, Ingstad explored Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula in the 1960s, and noticed how well a place called L’Anse aux Meadows fit with the characteristics of Vinland. With the help of local residents the Ingstads were able to find and excavate a Viking settlement which could very well be inland.
The name of the place was a stumbling block for many years, as grapes do not grow in Newfoundland. Perhaps the Vinlanders discovered some of the island’s many berry varieties that can be used to grow wine, and named the settlement from there. Scholar Magnústefánsson has argued that beer was the Norse beverage of the era. Wine drinking was quite rare. According to Stefánsson, the problem may stem from confusion over the terms vín and vin. The name might derive from abundant grasslands, rather than having anything to do with wine. Other academics like Alan Crozier favour the “Wineland” interpretation. Whatever the truth behind the name Vinland, L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland can claim the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America.
English, L. E. F. Historic Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John’s: Newfoundland Department of Tourism, 1988.
Lewis-Simpson, Shannon (ed.). Vinland Revisited: the Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium. St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc., 2003.
Major, Kevin. As Near to Heaven by Sea. A History of Newfoundland and Labrador. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2001.
Nimoy, Leonard (narrator). Ancient Mysteries. Vikings in North America. A & E Television, 1995. Smallwood, Joseph R. and Poole, Cyril F. (editors-in-chief). The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. 5 volumes. CD-ROM Edition. Version 1.8. St. John’s: Harry Cuff Publications, 1997.