American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Norse Exploration of North America

Before Columbus's voyages, sporadic contact between Native people and non-Natives left a residue of myth, transmitted from generation to generation in oral histories. American Indians from Nova Scotia to Mexico told their children about pale-skinned, bearded strangers who had arrived from the direction of the rising sun. Such myths played a large part in Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs, who were expecting the return of men who looked like him. The Natives of Haiti told Columbus they expected the return of white men; some Mayan chants speak of visits by bearded strangers. The Leni Lenape (Delaware) told Moravian missionaries that they had long awaited the return of divine visitors from the East. These currents, among others, suggest that the peoples of the Old and New Worlds communicated with each other sporadically centuries before Columbus.

In the realm of what critic Stephen Williams calls "fantastic archaeology" (Williams, 1991), theories establishing European origins for Native American peoples have long historiographic pedigrees. Evidence that meets the strictest standards of professional archaeology is scant in support of any of them. One exception is the pre-Columbian landfall of the Vikings. Norse sagas (oral histories) and scattered archaeological evidence indicate that, beginning about 1000, Viking explorers who had earlier settled Iceland and Greenland conducted several expeditions along the East Coast of North America. At up to three locations—Newfoundland, and possibly Cape Cod and the James River of Virginia— some evidence exists of small-scale, short-lived Viking settlements. One Viking (the word is from the Norwegian viks for fjord dweller), Thorfinn Karlsefni, explored 3,000 miles of North American coast in the early eleventh century, according to the sagas.

The technical capability of the Vikings to reach North America is not in doubt. They were capable seafarers and built sturdy longships easily capable of reaching Iceland from Norway, a distance much greater than the voyage from Greenland to North America. In 1893, Magnus Andersen, a Norwegian, sailed a reconstructed Viking ship from Norway to Newfoundland.

Vikings may have followed the Saint Lawrence River and Great Lakes as far inland as the vicinity of Kensington, Minnesota, where, in 1898, a large stone was found inscribed with Norse runic writing that described the ambush and killing of ten men. Testing has revealed the runes as weathered (as would be expected) but authentic. The Norse may have been looking for new sources of furs after the German Hanseatic League captured their trade in Russian furs in 1360 (Kehoe, 2002, 217).

Indisputable proof of Viking landings in North America has been found on the northern tip of Newfoundland. These discoveries began with the explorations of Helge Ingstad, at L'Anse aux Meadows, about 1960. The site has since been excavated and part of it turned into a public park. The evidence there is conclusive—right down to such things as a soapstone spindle whorl, nails, and even the remains of an iron smelter, along with hundreds of other artifacts, many of which have been carbon–14 dated to about 1000. Most other supposed Viking visits to North America (one in the unlikely location of Tucson, Arizona) still reside in the realm of archaeo-logical speculation. According to Frederick Pohl, a science fiction novelist who also has written three books on Norse exploration of North America, eighty-nine locations of Norse landfall have been asserted in North America. Some of these locations are as far apart as present-day Minnesota and New Orleans.

According to the Viking sagas, in about 985 the Viking sailor Bjarni Herjulfsson sighted land (probably Cape Cod) after several navigational errors led him astray on a voyage to Greenland. He finally reached his destination by sailing northeastward along the North American coast. In Greenland, his story of three land sightings to the southwest excited the imagination of Leif Erickson, who interviewed Bjarni and purchased his ship.

According to the sagas that were told after his voyages (which have been written and translated into English), Erickson made landfall at three places. He called the first Helluland, probably Baffin Island; the second was Markland, possibly Labrador or Newfoundland. The third landing, where Erickson established a small winter settlement, may have been on Cape Cod, near Follins Pond. The sagas tell of their ship being beached and stored, a house being built, and salmon caught that were larger than any the Vikings had ever seen. While the Viking settlement in Newfoundland lasted several years and left behind many artifacts, the visit to Cape Cod seems to have been more of a temporary stop, leaving little evidence that survived ensuing centuries.

Thorvald Erickson, a brother of Leif, set out on his own voyage of discovery shortly afterward, in 1007. His plan was to explore the coast north and south of Cape Cod. Along the way, Thorvald's thirty-man crew seized and killed eight American Indians (they called them "skraelings," meaning "screamers," after their war whoops, indicating, by connotation, a wretched or uncultured people). Thorvald later was killed in revenge for those murders, and his crew sailed back to Greenland without him.

A few years later, in 1010, Thorfinn Karlsefni sailed from Iceland to Leif's settlement on Cape Cod, after which he probably explored the Atlantic Coast southward to the James River of present-day Virginia. The trip required four summers. The first winter was spent along the Hudson River of New York State, where the Vikings were surprised by the depth of snowfall for a place so far south. The second winter was spent along the James River of Virginia. The sagas tell of a voyage up the river to the rapids, far enough upstream to have seen the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one point, according to the sagas, Karlsefni's crew was attacked by Native Americans who used a large hornet's nest as a weapon. In all, the Karlsefni expedition probably logged about 3,000 miles along the coast and adjoining rivers.

Leif Erickson died about 1025, and his Labrador settlement withered, but not before Karlsefni and Gudrid, his wife, had given birth to a son they called Snorri, the first child believed to have been born in America of European parents. After that, voyages continued from time to time through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. King Magnus of Norway and Sweden authorized the Paul Knutson expedition, which sailed in 1355 to explore conditions in Greenland and Vinland. Knowledge of North America was apparently still being recalled in Iceland in 1477, when a young Italian sailor, Cristoforo Colombo, visited and became excited by sailors' gossip of land to the south and west of Greenland.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Kehoe, Alice Beck. 2002. America before the European Invasions. London: Longman.; Pohl, Frederick Julius. 1972. The Viking Settlements of North America. New York: C. N. Potter.; Williams, Stephen. 1991. Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
 

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