Two ancient Norse sagas, Erik's Saga and The Greenlanders' Saga, describe the lives of Leif Erickson and his father, Erik the Red. Erik the Red was a notorious outlaw, who, when banished from Norway for murder, moved to Iceland where he started a family. His oldest son, Leif, was born in Iceland at the end of the eighth century. When Leif was a child, Erik was once again tried for murder and banished. Leaving his family in Iceland, Erik set out to explore the western sea. One thousand miles to the west of Iceland, he encountered a large landmass with good pasturage along its southern coast and inner fjords. He spent three years in this new land before returning to Iceland. Upon his return, he organized a group of colonists, including his family, to establish a colony in the new land, which he called Greenland.
Despite its name, Greenland has a harsh and unforgiving climate. When the settlers arrived, they found only a few wind-stunted trees and more than 80 percent of the land covered with ice year-round. As leader of the Greenland settlement, Erik chose the best farm site for himself. He established a farm, Brattahlid, on the southern tip of the island. Erik's four children grew up at Brattahlid, where they learned the skills necessary to survive in the far north. Eventually, Leif married and had a son. After his father's death, Leif took over management of Brattahlid.
To survive in Greenland, the medieval Norse exploited all possible means of subsistence. They trapped, gathered wild plants, fished, and hunted. When wild resources were scarce, their farms helped sustain them. Considering the difficulty of life in Greenland, it is easy to understand why the Norse Greenlanders continued to search for other lands to colonize.
Around the year 1000, Leif outfitted a ship with more than thirty oarsmen and set out to explore lands to the west of Greenland. The sagas contain such a detailed description of this voyage that they have allowed modern scholars to retrace Erickson's path. His ship most likely traveled north up the western coast of Greenland, then crossed the Davis Strait to Baffin Island. Leif and his men rowed a small boat ashore on the Baffin coast, but, finding the land unsuitable, they returned to the ship and headed south to Labrador, and ultimately to a land Erickson named Vinland, which scholars believe was located on the Canadian island of Newfoundland.
Erik's Saga tells us that Erickson and his men found Vinland so appealing and hospitable that they built a large sod house there where they spent the winter. The sagas recount that Erickson named the land Vinland, meaning "land of wine," because he found grapes growing there. This element of the sagas has been hotly debated, however. Although the ruins of a Norse settlement that conforms closely to saga accounts have been discovered on Newfoundland, the ruins lie nearly 1,000 miles north of today's vines. Several theories have been offered to explain this inconsistency. The historian Helge Ingstad has suggested that the name Vinland is derived not from the Old Norse term for "wine," but from a similar Norse word meaning "meadow." According to this theory, the story about the grapes was a late addition to the sagas, inserted to explain the origin of Vinland.
Though they likely intended to do so, the Norse Greenlanders were not able to establish a permanent Vinland settlement. This was due at least in part to conflict between the Norse and the Native Newfoundlanders. Artifacts excavated at the L'Anse aux Meadows Norse settlement site in Newfoundland indicate that Beothuk Indians and Dorset Eskimos occupied the area at the time of the Norse settlement. The sagas tell of conflicts between the Norse and the Natives. The Norse, who feared the Natives, were known to attack with little provocation. This resulted in vengeance attacks by the Natives, who vastly outnumbered the settlers.
Although archaeologists cannot prove that the ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows are the remains of Leif Erickson's Vinland settlement, it is clear that the Norse visited North America 500 years before Columbus. Yet Columbus and the Norse saw their discoveries in a completely different light. Unlike Columbus, the Norse did not know that they had discovered a new continent, and they received neither fame nor lasting wealth from their discovery.
Amy L. Propps
Engstad, Helge. 2001. The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. New York: Checkmark Books.; Johnston, George, trans. 1976. The Greenlanders' Saga. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press.; Jones, Gwen, trans. 1961. "Eirik the Red." Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. New York: Oxford University Press.