Leif Eriksson—Discoverer of America?
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN DENMARK
WHO discovered America? Nobody really knows for sure. The answer depends greatly on how you define “discover” and “America.” After all, this vast land was populated for many centuries before Europeans even knew that it existed. Early in 1493, Christopher Columbus returned to Europe with eyewitness accounts of his first voyage to the Americas. He actually landed on the islands of the West Indies. But he was not the first European to reach this amazing new world. A band of fair-haired Scandinavians had evidently reached the North American mainland 500 years earlier.
A thousand years ago, the North Atlantic was likely as cold and unpredictable as it is today. A sailor may think that he knows the ocean’s changing winds and currents, but fog and storm can make it impossible for him to find his bearings for weeks on end. According to one of the ancient Norse sagas, this is just what happened one summer to young Bjarni Herjolfsson, an accomplished sailor and adventurer. He lost his bearings—but he might have found a continent!
It was the era of the Vikings, when the Norse expanded their dominion across the seas and down through Europe. Their slim, seaworthy ships could be seen anywhere from the coast of Norway to the shores of North Africa to the rivers of Europe.
According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni went on a long excursion to Norway. As the winter of 986 C.E. neared, he returned to Iceland with a full cargo. But to his surprise, he found that his father had left Iceland with a fleet of ships under the leadership of Erik the Red. They had gone away to settle in a large country that Erik had discovered west of Iceland. To add to its appeal, Erik had named the island Greenland. Resolutely, young Bjarni set sail for Greenland. But then the wind changed. Fog descended upon the sailors. “For many days they did not know where they were sailing,” states the saga mentioned above.
When the seamen finally saw land, it did not fit the description of Greenland. The coast appeared to be lush, hilly, and forested. They sailed north with the coast on their left side. A second sighting of land seemed no more like Greenland than the first. Several days later, though, the land was different—more mountainous and glacial. Then Bjarni and his crew turned east toward open seas and finally found Greenland and the Norse colony of Erik the Red.
Leif Eriksson Sets Out
This may be how Europeans first set their eyes—though not their feet—on the mainland of the continent that was later to be known as North America. The report of what Bjarni had seen aroused the keen interest of his fellow Norsemen in Greenland. Their chilly land had few trees; to build and repair their boats and homes, they depended on driftwood or on the costly transport of lumber from overseas. But apparently just across the water to the west was a land with forests full of trees in untold numbers!
Especially tempted by this new land was young Leif Eriksson, a son of Erik the Red. Leif was described as “a large, strong man, of very striking appearance and wise.” About the year 1000, Leif Eriksson bought Bjarni’s ship, and with a crew of 35 men, he set out to find the coasts Bjarni had seen.
Three New Lands
If the sagas are accurate, Leif first found a grassless land, with large glaciers covering the highlands. Because that land was like a single flat slab of rock, Leif named it Helluland—meaning “Stone-Slab Land.” This may have been the moment when Europeans first set foot on North America. Historians today believe that Helluland was Baffin Island, in northeastern Canada.
The Norse discoverers continued their journey south. They encountered a second land, which was flat and forested, with beaches of white sand. Leif called it Markland, meaning “Forest Land,” today usually identified with Labrador. Soon they discovered a third and even more promising land.
The saga continues: “They sailed out to sea and spent two days at sea with a north-easterly wind before they saw land.” They found this new land so pleasant that they decided to build houses and spend the winter there. During the winter “the temperature never dropped below freezing and the grass only withered very slightly.” Later, one of the men even found grapes and vines; hence, Leif Eriksson called the land Vinland, possibly meaning “Wineland.” The following spring the men sailed back to Greenland, their boats laden with the bounty of Vinland.
Scholars today would love to know just where this Vinland of green pastures and grapes was, but its location remains elusive. Some researchers find that topographical features in Newfoundland match the descriptions in the ancient sagas. A site excavated in Newfoundland shows that Norsemen did visit the island. Yet, other scientists hold that Vinland must have been farther south and that the site in Newfoundland served the Norsemen as a base camp or a gateway to a more southerly Vinland.*
No one really knows how to reconcile the details of this Norse saga with today’s geography. The sketchy and cryptic details of the sagas have long intrigued historians. However, the most substantial evidence of a Norse presence in America before Columbus is the site excavated during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newfoundland, near the village of L’Anse aux Meadows. This site contains the ruins of houses that are indisputably Norse, as well as an iron furnace and other objects that have been dated to the time of Leif Eriksson. Also, a Danish explorer working in southern Newfoundland recently found a carefully crafted stone weight that was probably used in a Viking ship.
The Norse voyages to new lands in the far west were not kept secret. Leif Eriksson traveled to Norway to report what he had seen to the Norwegian king. When Adam of Bremen, a German historian and head of a cathedral school, traveled to Denmark about 1070 to learn of lands to the north, Denmark’s King Sweyn told him about Vinland, with the excellent wine. This bit of lore became part of Adam of Bremen’s chronicle. Hence, many of the learned in Europe came to know of the western lands that Norsemen had visited. Additionally, ancient Icelandic annals of the 12th and 14th centuries mention some later Norse voyages to Markland and Vinland, west of Greenland.
Christopher Columbus too may well have known about the Vinland journeys that took place some 500 years before his time. According to one book about Vinland, there are indications that before his famous voyage of 1492/93, Columbus even traveled to Iceland in order to study the records there.
What Became of the Norsemen?
There is no record of a permanent Norse settlement in America. There may have been a short-lived, abortive attempt at settling there; but conditions were harsh, and native Americans—whom the Vikings called Skraelings—proved to be more than a match for the intruders. In Greenland the descendants of Erik the Red and of his son Leif Eriksson had a difficult time. The climate grew harsher, and provisions became sparse. After four or five centuries, the Norse seem to have disappeared entirely from Greenland. The last written record of Norsemen in Greenland involves a wedding held in a Greenland church in 1408. Over a century later, a German merchant ship found the Greenland colony entirely deserted but for a single unburied body—that of a man, his knife still at his side. After that, there is silence about the Norsemen in Greenland. Not until the 18th century did Norwegian and Danish settlers arrive to establish a permanent colony.
It was from Greenland, however, that intrepid Norse navigators set out for a new world. One can still imagine those hardy sailors guiding their square-sailed boats across unknown waters until they gazed in wonder at a strange coastline on the horizon—never suspecting that five centuries later, Christopher Columbus would be hailed as the discoverer of this New World.
See the article “Where Is the Legendary Vinland?” in the July 8, 1999, issue of Awake!
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HOW DID THE VIKINGS NAVIGATE?
The Norse Vikings had no compasses. How, then, did they come to be such excellent sailors? When not sailing in open seas, they sailed with a coast in sight. When possible they crossed a strait at a point where land could be seen on both sides. In addition, they knew how to follow the sun and the stars. For example, they used a simple system to determine their latitude, employing a table of figures for each week of the year and a measuring stick to gauge the height of the midday sun above the horizon. Because they had no system for determining longitude, when they were in open seas they preferred to sail due east or due west, following a chosen latitude.
If, for instance, they wanted to travel from Greenland to a position on the Vinland coast, they would sail south from Greenland until they found the correct latitude; then they would turn due west and find the desired harbor. Also, bird-watching was useful to a Viking crew in open seas. They were experts in deducing where there was land—and what land it was—by observing birds in flight. They sometimes took ravens with them; when freed, the birds would soar and take flight toward the nearest coast. The Viking crew then knew where to find the nearest land.
Another aid to navigation was the taking of soundings. A Viking sailor would lower a line with a lead weight attached. This served two purposes. First, it enabled him to determine the water’s depth. After the weight struck bottom, the sailor would haul in the line, using the span of his arms to measure its length. To this day, mariners measure depth in terms of the six-foot [1.8 m] “fathom,” a term derived from an Old Norse word meaning “outstretched arms.” But the lead weight had a second function. Often, it was made with a hollow bottom that was filled with tallow. Thus, the weight would bring up a sample of the seafloor. The sailor would examine the composition of the sample and consult his sea charts, which contained written descriptions of the makeup of the seabed in various locations. Simple though their tools were, the Vikings became outstanding navigators.
Photo: Stofnun Arna Magnússonar, Iceland
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Bjarni Herjolfsson traveling from Iceland about 986 C.E.
Leif Eriksson traveling from Greenland about 1000 C.E.
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
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At left, a reconstruction of Erik the Red’s Greenland home
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A full-scale replica of a Viking ship repeating Leif Eriksson’s journey
Viking ships on pages 2 and 18: Photos: Narsaq Foto, Greenland
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Statue of Leif Eriksson, Iceland
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L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland
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Artifacts on display at the Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden