It is well documented that the Vikings arrived in North America five centuries before Europeans began to arrive in droves. The Vikings and their time in North America were brief, but it forms an interesting look into a culture from the Western Hemisphere and a culture from the Eastern Hemisphere, meeting each other for the first time.
This episode is not about the Norse and their settlement in North America, but rather their interactions with the Indigenous who were already there.
Before I dive in, I will apologize now for any time I mispronounce names. I also want to state that nearly all the information for the interactions between the Vikings and the Indigenous comes from Sagas, written after the events happened, so some things may be true, other things embellished upon.
One of the earliest tales of European and Indigneous interaction comes from the tale of a Viking trader who arrived at the court of King Alfred The Great in the ninth century. The Viking, named Ohthere, told of a long voyage to the edge of the White Sea where he was furnished by people, he called the Sami, with otter and marten furs and bushels of soft bird down. The Viking trader then gave the king walrus ivory.
According to the Icelandic Sagas, specifically Eirik The Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders, the Norse were exploring the lands west of Greenland for some time after establishing settlements there. In 985, a merchant named Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course from a migration fleet of 25 ships and after three days of sailing he hit upon land. He was only interested in finding his father’s farm, but when he returned, he told about this land to Lief Erickson who would explore the area in more detail and put down a small settlement there in 1000 AD.
Three lands would be described on the voyage of Lief. The first was Helluland, which means stone-land or Land Of The Flat Stones, and today is believed to have been Baffin Island.
In the Saga of Erik The Red, it is said.
“They sailed away from land, then to the Bear Islands. Thence they sailed away from the Bear Islands with northerly winds. They were out at sea two half-days. Then they came to land and rowed along it in boats and explored it and found there flat stones and so great that two men might well lie on them stretched on their backs with heel to heel. Polar foxes were there in abundance. This land they gave name to, and called it Helluland.”
The Saga also says that Lief described it as worthless country, with great glaciers and seemed to be like one great slab of rock.
It is also believed, based on what was said in the Sagas, that the Norse explorers contacted the Dorset culture that lived there, described as skraelings in the Sagas. The origin of the word skraeling is not known but it is believed it comes from an Old Norse verb that means bawl, shout, or yell. Some also speculate that it comes from the word skra, which means dried skin, in reference to the skins worn by the Inuit.
No cultural ramifications for either side have been suggested by historians. Yarn from archeological digs on Baffin Island also seems to correspond to yarn found in Norse settlements. Further digs at Baffin Island have found tally sticks, signs of iron and bronze metallurgy and whet stones. The theory states that the Norse wanted walrus ivory and furs, the Dorset wanted metal and wood. Dorset carvings of people who had long noses, beards and prominent eyebrows were also found during excavations. Some historians believe that the Vikings stayed on the island for an extended period and traded with the Dorset people. None of this has been confirmed though and the theory is somewhat controversial as a result. The Dorset culture was a Paleo-Inuit culture that lasted from 500 BC to about 1500, preceding the Inuit culture. The Dorset would be displaced by the Thule, who had begun to rise in Alaska and are the ancestors of today’s Inuit and spread east to Baffin Island.
The second land described was Markland, which was never recorded to have been settled but was a common spot for Vikings to go to harvest timber. It is suggested that Markland was Labrador, but the area has not been pinpointed. The name for the land, Markland, means the land of forests and for the settlers in Greenland, where there are few trees, Markland would be a welcome place to harvest. While there was no permanent settlement, the Saga of the Greenlanders state 160 men and women settled in Markland for winter protection around 1010 AD.
The last and most famous landing spot is Vinland and today it is the only known Norse site in North America outside Greenland, found at L’Anse Aux Meadows on the northern coast of Newfoundland. Lief Erickson was the first known European to set foot on Newfoundland, staying the winter and making no contact with the Indigenous.
In 1004 AD, Thorvald Eiricksson sailed with 30 men to Vinland to spend the winter at the camp his brother Lief had built years earlier.
The expedition would find no signs of people initially, except for on, what the Sagas say, “on one westerly island, where they found a wooden stack-cover.”
In the spring, Thorvald found nine Indigenous sleeping under three skin-covered canoes and attacked them. The ninth Indigenous was able to get away and soon the Indigenous came back to the Norse camp in full force, killing Thorvald with an arrow that passed through the baracade the Norse had put up, although some say he was on his ship when the arrow hit him. According to the Sagas, there would be brief hostilities, but the Norse would stay for another winter and leave the following spring.
In the Sagas, the following is said, “I have been wounded under my arm he said. An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow and this will cause my death.”
The Norse were able to keep the Indigneous away with their swords but with the death of Thorvald, the Norse returned to the coast and buried him with crosses at his head and feet. This would make Thorvald the first known European to be buried in what would one day be Canada.
Five years later in 1009 AD, Thorfinn The Valiant supplied three ships with livestock and 160 men and women. After landing at the Viking settlement on the island, Thorfinn began peaceful relations with the Indigenous on the island. The Indigenous offered furs and gray squirrel skins, while the Norse offered milk and red cloth. The Saga states that when the Indigenous saw the milk, they wanted to buy nothing else. The Indigenous, according to the Sagas, tied the cloth around their heads. Thorfinn forbid his men from trading their swords or spears.
In the Sagas, the Indigenous are described as such.
“They were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.”
According to one story in the Sagas, a bull that belonged to Thorfinn stormed out of the wood, startling the Indigenous, who got into their boats and rowed away. They would return three days, although some accounts say three weeks, later in force and are described as hoisting a large sphere on a pole that was dark blue in colour and the size of a sheep’s belly that flew over the heads of the Norse and made a sound described as an “ugly din”. In the attack, it is stated that the Norse retreated to a defensible position and at the end, many of the Indigenous were dead and two of the Norse were slain.
The Norse apparently retreated and Freydis, the half-sister of Leif Erickson, who was pregnant at the time, was not able to keep up with the retreating Norse. She called out to them stating that they should stop fleeing from, as she said, “such pitiful wretches”. She then grabbed a sword off the body of a dead Norseman, took out a breast and struck it with her sword, frightening the Indigenous who fled into the woods. Thorfinn then comes back for her and praises her for her courage.
Another account says that a Viking had killed an Indigenous man who he claimed was trying to steal weapons.
The Vikings chose to leave, stating in the Sagas, “despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.”
The Sagas go on to say that the Vikings, “realized that even though this was good land, their lives here would always be dominated by battle and fear.”
With that, the experiment in Vinland by the Vikings ended, somewhat. Erik Gnupsson, the Bishop of Greenland, would make an expedition out to Vinland in 1121 and returned a year later. The main reason was that the Indigenous were more numerous and knew the land better, while the Vikings were stretching their resources being there. In addition, while the Vikings had iron weapons, their level of technology was not that much more than the Indigneous and much less than would be seen 500 years later when Europeans arrived with guns, bringing highly infectious diseases with them as well.
The Indigenous would also tell tales of the Vikings who had briefly arrived on their land 1,000 years ago. The Inuit would say, “Soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest and killed him on the spot. When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait would come and avenge the death of their countrymen.” The word Kavdlunait was the Inuit word for foreigner or European, and the Greenlandic word qallunaaq, which is similar, means Dane.
Interestingly, based on DNA analysis, it was found that 80 living Icelanders have a genetic variation like one found in Indigenous people in North America. It is believed this variation entered the Icelandic bloodline around 1000 AD when it is believed the first Viking-Indigenous child was born. It is believed, but not confirmed, that an Indigenous woman sailed from Newfoundland to Iceland during the period when Vinland was active. The DNA lineage, called C1e is passed down through a female and the unique gene is present in four distinct family lines in Iceland, found during a deCode Genetics study. The Inuit do not carry the genetic variant. There is nothing in the Sagas that speak of an Indigneous woman going back to Iceland. The Saga of Erik The Red tells of four Indigenous boys who were captured and taken back to Greenland. Today, 80 individuals in Iceland carry the gene.
While the settlement only lasted for a few years, it is believed that the Norse made trips to Markland for timbers and to trade with the local Indigenous for as much as 400 years, stopping just prior to the arrival of France, England and Spain to North America. Skraeling Island in the Arctic has evidence of chain mail, a boat rivet, an axe head and more, dating to between 1160 to 1440 AD, well after Vinland had faded from use. Norse cloth dating from 1043 to 1413 AD can be found on Ruin Island. This shows that there was likely extensive trade and interaction between the Inuit, Dorset, and Vikings. The last official mention though comes in the Icelandic Annals, stating a ship made the voyage from Greenland to Markland in 1347. This is the last mention of a voyage to Markland.
Information comes from Smithsonian Magazine, Canadian Geographic, MacLean’s, Wikipedia, National Geographic, Native American Net Roots, Canadian History Bits, Newfoundland Heritage, Ancient Origins.Net, History Extra, Indigenous – Norse Contact and Trade