Putting a Face on the Vikings in North America

By Colin Woodard, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Putting a Face on the Vikings in North America


Colin Woodard, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


At the turn of the last millennium, a party of Norse Vikings landed on this rocky, fogbound shore, built a small settlement, and set out to explore a vast new region they called "Vinland."

But for much of the past 1,000 years, the Norse voyages were forgotten, the epic accounts of their journeys dismissed as myths. Generations of schoolchildren were taught that Columbus discovered America, and that another Italian, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), was the first European to lay eyes on Newfoundland.

Today, the elusive Viking legacy in North America remains controversial. Like fall leaves falling, the US celebration of Columbus Day in a few weeks routinely prompts scholarly interest in the Viking legacy.

This year, as a century draws to a close, the effort to see through the mist of a 1,000 years of Viking legend will intensify, gathering force from the broad array of millennial deliberations.

Historians remain divided over the significance of the Norse exploration of North America. "To my mind discovery and exploitation are linked, and the age of Columbus is the age of discovery," says Byron Nordstrom, professor of Scandinavian Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. "The Norse discovered these places, but there's no lasting colonial or trade establishment and the contact {with native Americans} never develops into anything significant."

Historians debate whether the Viking landing is of lasting historical significance. Archaeologists argue over the authenticity of alleged Norse artifacts found everywhere from New England to the Upper Plains (Minnesota via the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes). Vikings may have been the first Europeans to visit and live in the New World, but did they really "discover" it?

The Norsemen's most important historical contribution may have been the geographical knowledge that trickled from Greenland to Europe over the centuries leading up to Columbus's voyage.

Experts think this knowledge may have contributed to 15th-century rumors that there was land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, prompting Columbus and others to sail west in search of new trade routes to Asia.

Columbus may even have had direct knowledge of the Norse discoveries: Some documents suggest he may have visited Iceland in 1477, say scholars.

The Vikings were credited with colonizing Greenland in the 10th century, but that wasn't quite "the real North America," and the episode remained a historical footnote. But in 1960, the remains of a Viking village were discovered outside this fishing hamlet at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The subsequent excavation of the humble remains of 8,000-year-old sod buildings shook the foundations of North American historical scholarship. If Greenland Vikings were exploring the New World at the height of the Middle Ages, suddenly anything seemed possible.

Through their recorded sagas, the Vikings themselves provided the clues that led Viking hunters to Newfoundland. The sagas - first transmitted orally, then written down in the 12th century - tell the story of the voyages of Eric the Red and his son Leif Ericson.

Around 982, Eric the Red, a Norwegian-born settler, was exiled from Iceland for killing two men in a feud. Eric sailed westward to discover Greenland and, after his three-year banishment concluded, he returned to Iceland to organize the colonization of the newly discovered land. In 986, Eric, his family, and several dozen settlers founded a Greenland settlement that would endure for four centuries.

One of the settlers, Bjarni Herjolfsson, had arrived some weeks later than the others and became lost on the dangerous ocean crossing from Iceland. They arrived in Greenland to report having sighted a low-lying, tree-covered coastline several days sail to the west and mountainous, glaciated land five days north of that. Herjolfsson is now thought to be the first European to lay eyes on North America.

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