Crossing the Atlantic

In the 11th century the Norse people of Scandinavia had already established a reputation in Europe for daring seamanship, but their most famous voyage would stand unmatched for 400 years.

In lapstrake boats and with no navigational tools, a group of Norsemen caught the first glimpses from sea of North America. Probably not knowing that they were the first to see the continent from the sea, the Norse were equally unaware of the significance of their later settlement in what is now Newfoundland. There is no solid evidence as to why the Norse colonizers did not stay to exploit their discoveries  --  Canadian history may have taken an interesting turn if they had.

The telling of these trans-oceanic adventures was passed down orally through generations, and the stories written down a few hundred years afterward in what have become known as the Vinland sagas. In the intervening centuries, Europe remained unaware of the Norse discoveries and did not follow until John Cabot's journeys.

Myths abound as to others who may have crossed the Atlantic before the Norse. It was written in the ninth century that St. Brendan, a sixth century Irish monk, travelled around Europe's Northern Islands in a curragh (a small boat with a wicker frame, designed for use on lakes and rivers). One of the islands he supposedly visited was later called "St. Brendan's Isle" and placed on contemporary maps in the far western part of the Atlantic.

The Norse in "Vinland"

In the year 985, the Viking Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Eric the Red) founded a colony in Greenland. The following year, Bjarni Herjólfsson set sail from Norway to join his family in the new colony. As the compass was not yet in existence and as navigation by the stars was difficult in cloudy weather or during the bright northern nights, Bjarni likely drifted, towards what we now call Newfoundland. He is the first European known to have seen North America, but Bjarni was unaware that what he saw was a separate continent from Greenland. Nonetheless, his voyage brought about the first explorations on the shores of what, today, is Canada.

During a "Skraeling" attack at Vinland: "She [Freydis] found a dead man in her path, Thorbrand Snorrason  --  he had a flat stone sticking out of his head. His naked sword lay beside him; she picked it up and prepared to defend herself. The Skraelings were making for her. She pulled out her breasts from under her clothes and slapped the naked sword on them, at which the Skraelings took fright, and ran off to their boats and rowed away. Karlsefni's men came up to her, praising her courage. Two of Karlsefni's men had fallen, and a multitude of Skraelings. [...]"

(Jones 1961, 153)

Towards the year A.D. 1000, intrigued by Bjarni's experience, Leifr, son of the Viking chief Eric the Red, bought Bjarni's ship and decided to go looking for this previously unknown land. He travelled the same route along the coast as Bjarni, but north to south, rather than south to north. First he came to what he called "Helluland" ("land of the flat stones"). This could have been a part of Baffin Island or of northern Labrador. Next, Leifr saw a low and wooded shore bordered by white sand, which he called "Markland" ("wood land"). This was probably the shore of Labrador south of Hamilton Inlet. Two days of sailing further, Leifr and his companions explored a third land, covered in fields, trees and vines, which they called "Vinland" ("wine land"). They spent the winter there, before returning to Greenland, where their discovery was of interest to many people. Four expeditions followed this discovery.

The first expedition was led by Thorvaldr, Leifr's brother, who spent two winters in shelters that had been built by Leifr and his companions the previous year. He explored the nearby shores before being killed by an arrow during a fray with the Native people of Markland, whom the Norse called "Skraelings". The following year, Thorsteinnr, another son of the same family, made a second expedition to explore this territory more thoroughly and to bring back Thorvaldr's body, but storms prevented his reaching his goal.

The third and biggest expedition was aimed at setting up a colony. Led by Thorfinnr Karlsefni, an Icelander, approximately 160 Greenlanders (many of them accompanied by their families) left in three ships, carrying with them cattle and foodstuffs. For three years, the colonists explored the coast of present-day Newfoundland and Labrador and traded furs with the Native people there. However, their relations with the "Skraelings" turned sour, and after two bloody battles, they decided to return home.

Despite this, Freydis  --  Eric the Red's daughter  --  returned to Vinland with two brothers from Iceland the following year. During the winter, there was great conflict between the Greenlanders and the Icelanders, which ended with Freydis ordering the murder of the Icelanders. When her men refused to kill the Icelandic women, Freydis killed them herself with an axe. The survivors returned to Greenland. After Freydis's expedition, the Vinland sagas no longer mention the New World; however, Norse objects dated later than the year 1000 and found on First Nations and Inuit sites lead historians to believe that the Norse made other trips to trade furs and other articles with the Native peoples.

L'Anse aux Meadows, in the northern part of Newfoundland, is the only known former Norse colony in North America. Some four centuries after the Norse, the Europeans who dropped their fishing nets along these shores took great care not to reveal anything about the area and its surroundings, but the search for a passage to Asia led explorers across their sea route, and many traders were soon to follow.

The Vinland Sagas

The first Europeans for whom there is convincing evidence of a presence in North America are the Norse. It has been known, since archaeologists uncovered a Norse habitation near the village of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, that the Norse came to North America a thousand years ago. By studying and interpreting this site, its artifacts, and what is already known about medieval Norse culture, archaeologists can draw conclusions about what these early visitors did, why they came, and how they lived. Our ability to attach names and personalities to this research, though, rests entirely on the literary heritage of the Norse, in the form of sagas composed in the early half of the last millenium. Two sagas in particular  --  the "Saga of the Greenlanders" and the "Saga of Erik the Red"  --  provided scholars with evidence of a Norse trans-Atlantic voyage long before the discovery of the remains of the habitation at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Sagas are, quite simply, stories. They were part of a Scandinavian story-telling tradition, memorized and re-told from one generation to another. Sagas might not be composed until years after an event, and they were certainly not written down until long after that. The Greenlander and Erik the Red sagas, for instance, were probably composed some two hundred years after the events they describe, and were not written down until the early 1300s. By then, the stories had been embellished many times, with fanciful details added and with other information, conceivably, deleted. By the time they were recorded on parchment, the sagas were a blend of fact and invention. This made it difficult, until the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows, for scholars to argue with any certainty that the Norse had truly crossed the Atlantic to North America.

The challenge in using the sagas as accurate historical records becomes more obvious when we consider the Greenlander and Erik the Red Sagas; of all the many Norse sagas, they are the only ones to tell the story of how the Norse came to the North American coast  --  which they called "Vinland". Each saga tells the tale differently. In the Greenlander Saga, Bjarni Herjólfsson stumbles upon Vinland first and Leifr Eriksson then retraces Bjarni's voyage in order to explore the new land more thoroughly. In the Erik the Red Saga, Bjarni does not exist, and it is Leifr Eriksson who finds Vinland first. There are other differences, yet both sagas agree that once Vinland was found, several attempts were made to settle the new land. These were eventually abandoned in the face of resistance from Native peoples. Perhaps more importantly, the sagas had a ring of truth sufficient to inspire Helge Ingstad to search for Vinland on the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts during the 1960s, a search that led eventually to L'Anse aux Meadows. While most experts today do not believe that this habitation was Vinland, there is no longer any doubt that the Norse were the first Europeans to reach North America. Had it not been for the sagas, that realization might never have come.

Transportation: The Viking Ships

The Norse, or Vikings, were known as expert shipbuilders. They used their long, wooden vessels to carry out raids on their European neighbours, and then to travel to Iceland, Greenland and eventually to Newfoundland, establishing colonies  --  like L'Anse Aux Meadows  --  in each place.

Broadly speaking, the Norse used two types of ships. With one they carried out the coastal raids for which they were feared throughout western Europe. These warships were built for speed: long and slender and low in the water. The other type was used for trans-oceanic trading and colonizing expeditions. Built for sea-worthiness, they were broader and deeper, with high gunwales, capable of carrying large cargoes and navigating the stormswept waters of the North Atlantic. Known as knarrs, these were the vessels that brought the Vikings to North America.

Both ship types were constructed of long, overlapping planks of oak built up from a central keel in a style known as clinker-built or lapstrake. The narrow hull tapered fore and aft to a soaring bow and stern and was strengthened on the inside with transverse ribs and rivetted with iron bolts or nails. These sleek, bullet-shaped craft, up to 25 metres long, were propelled by rows of oars on either side, or by a rectangular sail made of woolen cloth. A single steering oar was mounted on the right side at the rear. (The Norse word for rudder was styri and the side to which it was fastened was the styrabord, the origin of today's starboard or right side of a sailing vessel.) The Vikings had no navigational instruments, but found their way at sea by noting familiar landmarks and by observing the behaviour of wind, waves, clouds and sea life.

So important were these vessels to the Vikings that in many instances chieftains and nobles were buried in them, along with personal possessions thought to be necessary for the afterlife. Since the 1880s, archaeologists have located several of the huge gravesites and recovered longships preserved in the clay. A vessel reclaimed from burial at Oseberg, Norway, was built about 820 A.D., making it the oldest sailing vessel ever found in Scandinavia. It was thought to contain the remains of Queen Asa and her female servant, along with a winter sleigh, beds, chests, cooking vessels and tapestries. The Oseberg ship is just one of the vessels at the Viking Ship Museum near Oslo. Replicas of these vessels have been built and successfully sailed across the Atlantic, proving without a doubt that for their time, the Vikings were the most proficient shipbuilders and navigators in Europe.

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