History Files
 

The Americas

North American Colonial Settlements

 

Norse Colonies in the Americas (Vinland)
AD 1021 - 1347?

Norse settlement in the Americas has long been a problematical area of study, mainly because the Norse settlement period predated the first landfall by Christopher Columbus by about four and-a-half centuries. In addition the only recorded evidence about it comes from two Icelandic sagas, and a few other scraps such as Adam of Bremen's entry into the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum which was written around 1075.

The name Vinland was written by Adam as 'Winland', although the 'v' should be pronounced as a 'w' anyway. It has generally - although not universally - been accepted at face value, to denote a wine-growing land. Butternut and wild grapes grow along areas of the St Lawrence River a little way to the south, both of which can be fermented into wine. Their discovery also hints at exploratory voyages into the interior which have not been recorded (although the sagas themselves do contain vague references to lands discovered to the south and west of the initial Vinland site). The term Vinland may also have been used more than once to denote more than one settlement, although the L'Anse aux Meadows site is accepted as the main settlement, and very likely the one founded by Leif Erikson.

Recent study has confirmed the date at which the settlement was erected at L'Anse aux Meadows as being AD 1021. This does not necessarily mean that Leif Erikson's arrival can be linked to this date, only that the main settlement was erected at this time. But the two events would most likely be close together in terms of dating. In 2021 a new dating technique was developed which relied on the fact that solar storms produce a distinctive radiocarbon signal in a tree's annual growth rings. A significant solar storm of AD 992 is known which involved a burst of high-energy cosmic rays from the sun. The trees which were cut down for the Viking dwellings had twenty-nine additional rings after that date, meaning that they were felled in 1021.

Eleanor Barraclough, a lecturer in medieval history and literature at Durham University, has suggested that the site was not a permanent settlement, but was instead a temporary boat repair facility. She has noted the lack of burials, tools, agriculture, or animal pens, suggesting that the inhabitants abandoned the site in an orderly fashion. According to a 2019 PNAS study, there may have been Norse activity in L'Anse aux Meadows for as long as a century. The settlement itself was ultimately abandoned, but traffic between Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland seems to have continued at least until 1347. The name L'Anse aux Meadows is French-English, translated as the 'bay with the grasslands', although other interpretations exist.

(Information by Mick Baker, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from The Viking Discovery of America The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Helge Ingstad & Anne Stine Ingstad (Breakwater, 2000), and from External Links: Publications (Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough), and New horizons at L'Anse aux Meadows (PNAS, 2019), and Success of sky-polarimetric Viking navigation (The Royal Society), and L'Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment, Birgitta Linderoth Wallace (part of Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, James H Barrett, ‎ Brepols NV, 2003, available separately as a PDF download via ResearchGate) and Solar storm confirms Vikings settled in North America (The Guardian).)

986 - c.1020

Bjarni Herjˇlfsson accidentally discovers the Newfoundland coastline after being blown off course during his voyage from Norway to Greenland. Norse navigation generally uses coastlines, the stars, and sundials which have been calibrated to show the direction of the North Pole, but any interruption in sunlight would disrupt that.

A Viking longboat
Bjarni Herjˇlfsson could have been acclaimed by history as the first European to discover the Americas, if only he'd landed instead of continuing his voyage to Greenland

Because he does not want to delay his journey he does not go ashore to investigate the newly-sighted lands. Instead, he completes the voyage to Greenland where he remains until the death of his father. Then he returns to Norway where he relates his tale of discovery, around AD 1000. He repeats it again upon a return to Greenland, which inspires Leif Erikson to attempt to retrace his steps.

1021 - 1025?

Leif Erikson

Son of Eirik the Red of Greenland. Colony founder.

1021

Eight timber-framed buildings covered in sod stand on a terrace above a peat bog and stream at the northern tip of Canada's island of Newfoundland: the L'Anse aux Meadows settlement. In 2021 a new dating technique reveals the precise date at which Leif Erikson's Viking settlement is founded in Vinland, by this group which has travelled from Greenland using the very same ship as Bjarni Herjˇlfsson and retracing his steps.

The new dating method relies on the fact that solar storms produce a distinctive radiocarbon signal in a tree's annual growth rings. It is known there had been a significant solar storm in 992 involving a burst of high-energy cosmic rays from the sun. The trees which are cut down for the Viking dwellings have twenty-nine additional rings after that date, meaning that they are felled in 1021.

Leif Erickson is the offspring of Eirik the Red, a leading figure in the Norse settlement of Greenland. Eirik himself is the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson of Jadar, who had been exiled from Norway in the 870s for murder. He had gone on to settle on the newly-discovered island of Iceland, providing the first link in the chain which would lead to Vinland.

Leif Erikson
Leif Erikson's name is preserved by the Icelandic sagas which record the relatively short-lived Viking settlement of Newfoundland

The earliest use of 'Red Indian' to denote the Native Americans they meet in Vinland certainly post-dates the Norse settlers of Newfoundland. The people they encounter would be the Beothuk, whom they called skrŠlings and who are know to daub themselves in red paint, thereby further emphasising their skin colour. But the Norsemen are unlikely to expect any 'Indians' here even if they do know what they are.

They attack and kill the skrŠlings they meet, but are attacked in return by a larger force. Leif's brother, Thorvald, is killed after being struck by an arrow. Having been in Vinland for around four years (and Thorvald for about three, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders), the main party decides to return home to Greenland.

1026/27 - 1028?

Thorfinn Karlsefni

Brother-in-law. Renewed the colony, perhaps two years later.

c.1026 - 1027?

The Saga of the Greenlanders provides no firm dating, but a rough timeline can be calculated. Another brother of Leif Erikson's is Thorstein. He marries Gudrid, the widow of a ship's captain who had been rescued by Leif. He leads a third expedition to Vinland to bring home Thorvald's body but loses his way and spends much of the summer wandering the Atlantic. Following an over-wintering on Greenland he dies of disease.

Gudrid remarries, to an Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni. The two lead a major expedition back to Vinland, taking livestock with them. This time relations with the Native Americans are peaceful, with trade links being established. Late in the year (by which time it must be 1027 or even later), a misunderstanding with the natives leads to the settlement being attacked. This time the Vikings are prepared, with a strong defensive position ready so that they only suffer minor casualties.

Abandoned Norse dwelling on Greenland
Norse occupation on Greenland itself was not always as smooth as it could be, as evidenced by this abandoned dwelling, so the farther-flung outpost of Vinland may have been beyond contemporary means to support it

1028 - 1029?

Freydis

Dau of Eric the Red. Sister to Leif. Returned to Greenland.

c.1028 - 1029?

Thorfinn and Gudrid return to Greenland with a vessel laden with grapes and/or berries of various types, along with hides. Freydis, daughter of Eric the Red (presumably Leif's sister), leads another expedition in the same summer, with two Icelanders and their followers.

Upon landfall the Icelanders apparently show disrespect to Leif's dwelling, so Freydis banishes them from the settlement. That autumn Freydis is seemingly behind a deliberate misunderstanding which results in the murder of the entire Icelander party in their sleep, including five women. The expedition returns to Greenland the following summer, again laden with produce. Leif discovers the truth behind the Icelander-killings, and no further expeditions are recorded in the Saga of the Greenlanders.

c.1030 - 1347

Further voyages to Vinland are recorded however, some of them over a century later, but records are extremely patchy regarding any results. One vessel disappears entirely in 1121, never to be heard of again. One vessel in 1347 is blown off course before making landfall on Iceland. It contains a full shipment of timber, the probability being that this has been harvested from the Vinland area.

Map of Mississippian culture
The Mississippian culture and its related neighbours essentially had Cahokia as their capital, this being the largest pre-Columbian settlement to the north of the Aztec empire (click or tap on map to view full sized)

 

Could the Union of Denmark and Norway in 1380 change the trading conditions for Iceland and Greenland so that Vinland is no longer a priority and is eventually abandoned and forgotten? To date, no modern scholars have arrived at any firm consensus. Possibly by coincidence, this is the same period in which North America's Late Mississippian culture is in steep decline, also eventually disappearing until it is rediscovered by modern archaeologists.