Last Thursday, a new exhibition on Vikings opened at the Canadian Museum of History. On a ten month international tour, aside from showing off over 500 artifacts rarely seen outside Sweden, those behind the traveling exhibition hope to change some of the stereotypes modern audiences have about viking culture. However, the perception that Vikings were sea-faring explorers is definitely true and that brings us to their connection to Canada.
Almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his appearance in North America, Leif Erikson (also spelled Ericsson, Erickson, or Eiriksson) “discovered” the continent. As such is considered to be the first European to set foot on North American soil. Erikson was an Norse explorer who established a settlement called Vinland, located on the northern tip of Newfoundland. But why didn’t the Vikings stay? What happened to the settlement? Also, why is Canada’s history of vikings so seldom discussed, especially in comparison to later European explorers?
* Given that Greenland is technically part of North America, Erikson’s father, Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), should have the “first European” title because he founded the first Norse settlement there. However, since Greenland has long been politically and culturally associated with Europe, scholars generally give Leif Erikson the “first” distinction.
Son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, Erikson was born sometime between 970-980 in Iceland. After Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland (possibly due to a murder charge) he sailed west and ended up finding an island that he would name Greenland. When he returned to Iceland three years later, he convinced hundreds of others to help him establish a settlement there. Despite the harsh living conditions, farms were built and eventually the Viking settlement flourished.
Scholars believe Erikson grew up in Greenland and that he actually fit the stereotypical image of a Viking. He is described as a big, strong man with a striking appearance. However, he was also noted as being both noble and wise and not particularly violent so Erikson probably didn’t look like this…
Our knowledge of North American Viking exploration largely come from the Vinland Sagas. These two Icelandic texts, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eric the Red, were written in the early thirteenth century and detail the Norse expeditions. Although the sagas are based in oral tradition, their descriptions of natural environments and Indigenous culture match up with historical and archaeological evidence and so scholars hold them in high regard.
The Saga of Eric the Red tells us that during Erikson’s work for King Olaf of Norway he converted to Christianity. He was then asked by the king to introduce the religion to Greenland. Erikson agreed, but when he sailed back to the island his ship was blown off course and he ended up “discovering” Vinland. (In Greenlanders, the story goes that Erikson made it to Greenland just fine. Instead, he wanted to see if claims of land in the far west were true. He asked his father to join him, but Erik the Red fell off his horse shortly afterwards. He took it as a bad omen and stayed behind).
Regardless, around the year of 1000 Erikson’s ship likely sailed by Baffin Island and Labrador, before he stopped in northern Newfoundland. Winter was coming and the area had vines and grapes (hence the name, Vinland) and tons of salmon. Endless wine and fish? Erikson knew he struck gold and so his crew settled in for the season.
After the winter though, Erikson returned to Greenland. He either went back to work for his father or to resume his work in spreading Christianity. On the way back, he rescued some men whose ship had crashed and earned himself the nickname “Leif the Lucky.” Not so lucky was the fact that his father died either just before or not long after Erikson’s return so he became chieftain of Greenland. He also decided that he had ownership over Vinland and that any further expeditions to the area were authorized and taxed by him. It is believed that Erikson himself never returned to Vinland, but his siblings did. Expeditions to Vinland continued for another decade or so, but then they stopped completely. So what happened?
Essentially, the Indigenous Nations got there first. The sagas once again provide us with this possible explanation. As we know North America wasn’t really discovered by Europeans, Indigenous Peoples had been there for ages. Erikson himself did not have any problems, but hostilities eventually arose between Indigenous groups (possibly either the Beothuks, Dorset, or Algonquins) and his siblings. The Viking term for Indigenous people was “Skraelings.” According to Greenlanders, the first negative encounter came when Vikings attacked nine Indigenous people who were just chilling by their boats one day. One of them managed to escape and that individual came back with a lot of friends. Armed with bows and arrows, they attacked the Vikings and killed Erikson’s brother Thorvald. Although the relations between both sides were not always violent as trading supposedly happened between the two, the Saga of Eric the Red says, the Vikings “realized that even though this was good land, their lives here would always be dominated by battle and fear.” They lacked the numbers required for defending a long-lasting settlement and so they decided it would be best to abandon the settlement. That of course is the main difference between them and the European colonizers who came roughly 500 years later and gives us our likely answer to why Vikings are so rarely discussed today in regards to Canadian history.
So how do we know Vinland was most likely in Newfoundland and not somewhere further south like Cape Cod, as was once believed? In the 1960s, an archaeological excavation in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland led to the discovery of what was later determined to be a Viking settlement. The remains of eight buildings were found. Carbon dating estimates these buildings were constructed between 990-1050 and among them was a blacksmith workshop, a carpentry workshop that specialized in boats, and many everyday Norse items for both men and women. However, there were some food found there (ex: butternuts) that is not native to Newfoundland, so this suggests that the Vikings most likely did sail further south at some point.
“Photograph of the largest original Viking building in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. The entryway is in front, the sleeping quarters in the center. To the left a boat repair area, and to the right storage. The other excavated buildings are to the left of this shot.” (By Clinton Pierce, 2010).
As a history nerd, I both understand and hate the government’s decision to bury the site once again. I know this was done for protection and conservation purposes, but how neat would it be to explore or view a Norse settlement? Oh well! For those interested, here is a picture of a model of the settlement and here is a reconstructed Norse sod house.
Fun Fact: What does October 9th (Leif Erikson Day in the US) have to do with the man himself? Nothing! That day was picked because it is the anniversary of the arrival of the Norwegian ship Restauration in New York in 1825. Its arrival marks “the beginning of organized immigration from Scandinavia to the USA. The holiday was first recognized by Wisconsin in 1930, eventually becoming a nationally observed holiday in 1964.” [Source]
“CHAPTER 1: The First Warriors: ‘The Encounter With The Vikings’ and ‘The Withdrawal Of The Vikings,'” Canadian Military History Gateway, Government of Canada. March 2011. Accessed from: http://www.cmhg.gc.ca/cmh/page-11-eng.asp and http://www.cmhg.gc.ca/cmh/page-16-eng.asp
Ingstad, Helge and Ingstad, Anne Stine, The Viking Discovery of America. Newfoundland: Breakwater Books Ltd (2000).
Lewis-Simpson, Shannon (ed.). Vínland Revisited: the Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium. St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, Inc., (2003).
“The Saga of Erik the Red,” Icelandic Saga Database. (Taken from the original 1880 translation of ‘Eiríks saga rauða’ by J. Sephton). Accessed from: http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en
“Where is Vinland?” Canadian Mysteries. Accessed from: http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/vinland/whereisvinland/indexen.html