The Pageant of America: A Pictorial History of the United States - Vol. 1

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Clark Wissler et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE VIKING ADVENTURERS

STRANGE is the story of how the destiny of Europe was first linked with that of America. In northern Scandinavia in the ninth century lived a rugged people, individualistic, warlike, ruled over by petty chieftains like the thanes of early

England. Over them was a king whose power varied with his personal ability. A wild hinterland drove these Vikings seaward from their homes at the head of deep-set, highwalled fjords. They built better ships than their neighbors. Without a compass they abandoned cautious land-hugging and struck out into the open water. The rough free life at home and familiarity with the sea in all its moods schooled the Viking in courage and initiative; he became a freebooter, a pirate, and also a colonizer.

A ferment stirred in Norway in the ninth century. The North Sea was dotted with the sails of their little open ships. From the chronicles of Christian lands which suffered from the scourge of the Northmen has been gleaned most of what is known of these aggressive seafarers. They sailed to England and to northern France; they established themselves in Baltic Russia. Landsmen were no match for the sailor warriors from the north, and for a time the Vikings upset the balance of northern Europe. In vain church bells tolled; in vain the litany ascended, "From the fury of the Northmen good Lord deliver us." In their day of greatness they settled Iceland where they founded a commonwealth; from Iceland they crossed to Greenland where they established two frontier settlements; and from Greenland they sailed to Vinland.

The location of Vinland must forever remain a mystery. Whatever news Leif brought home is recorded in sagas set down long after the event. But the early sagas were deliberate attempts at historical narrative and in them is to be found most of what is known of the earliest history of Iceland. With some detail they record Leif's exploit, but their geographical descriptions cannot with assurance be attributed to any known coast. That part of the continent of North America -- the coast of Labrador -- was explored by the Vikings was demonstrated by the MacMillan Arctic expedition in the summer of 1925, when ruins were found on the mainland on the fifty-sixth parallel of north latitude. Had the Vikings been merely pirates, they must have sunk into oblivion. There was in them, however, a greatness which left its indelible impress upon

Europe. But their discovery of America was premature; neither they nor their neighbors were prepared to develop the continent which lay beyond the ocean.

128 Model of a Viking Ship, In the United States National Museum, Washington

-69-

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