Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 4 - The Legend of the Norsemen

There are many stories of the coming of white men to the
coasts of America and of their settlements in America
long before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Even in
the time of the Greeks and Romans there were traditions
and legends of sailors who had gone out into the 'Sea of
Darkness' beyond the Pillars of Hercules--the ancient
name for the Strait of Gibraltar--and far to the west
had found inhabited lands. Aristotle thought that there
must be land out beyond the Atlantic, and Plato tells us
that once upon a time a vast island lay off the coasts
of Africa; he calls it Atlantis, and it was, he says,
sunk below the sea by an earthquake. The Phoenicians were
wonderful sailors; their ships had gone out of the
Mediterranean into the other sea, and had reached the
British Isles, and in all probability they sailed as far
west as the Canaries. We find, indeed, in classical
literature many references to supposed islands and
countries out beyond the Atlantic. The ancients called
these places the Islands of the Blessed and the Fortunate
Isles. It is, perhaps, not unnatural that in the earlier
writers the existence of these remote and mysterious
regions should be linked with the ideas of the Elysian
Fields and of the abodes of the dead. But the later
writers, such as Pliny, and Strabo, the geographer, talked
of them as actual places, and tried to estimate how many
Roman miles they must be distant from the coast of Spain.

There were similar legends among the Irish, legends
preserved in written form at least five hundred years
before Columbus. They recount wonderful voyages out into
the Atlantic and the discovery of new land. But all these
tales are mixed up with obvious fable, with accounts of
places where there was never any illness or infirmity,
and people lived for ever, and drank delicious wine and
laughed all day, and we cannot certify to an atom of
historic truth in them.

Still more interesting, if only for curiosity's sake,
are weird stories that have been unearthed among the
early records of the Chinese. These are older than the
Irish legends, and date back to about the sixth century.
According to the Chinese story, a certain Hoei-Sin sailed
out into the Pacific until he was four thousand miles
east of Japan. There he found a new continent, which the
Chinese records called Fusang, because of a certain
tree--the fusang tree,--out of the fibres of which the
inhabitants made, not only clothes, but paper, and even
food. Here was truly a land of wonders. There were strange
animals with branching horns on their heads, there were
men who could not speak Chinese but barked like dogs,
and other men with bodies painted in strange colours.
Some people have endeavoured to prove by these legends
that the Chinese must have landed in British Columbia,
or have seen moose or reindeer, since extinct, in the
country far to the north. But the whole account is so
mixed up with the miraculous, and with descriptions of
things which certainly never existed on the Pacific coast
of America, that we can place no reliance whatever upon

The only importance that we can attach to such traditions
of the discovery of unknown lands and peoples on a new
continent is their bearing as a whole, their accumulated
effect, on the likelihood of such discovery before the
time of Columbus. They at least make us ready to attach
due weight to the circumstantial and credible records of
the voyages of the Norsemen. These stand upon ground
altogether different from that of the dim and confused
traditions of the classical writers and of the Irish and
Chinese legends. In fact, many scholars are now convinced
that the eastern coast of Canada was known and visited
by the Norsemen five hundred years before Columbus.

From time immemorial the Norsemen were among the most
daring and skilful mariners ever known. They built great
wooden boats with tall, sweeping bows and sterns. These
ships, though open and without decks, were yet stout and
seaworthy. Their remains have been found, at times lying
deeply buried under the sand and preserved almost intact.
One such vessel, discovered on the shore of Denmark,
measured 72 feet in length. Another Viking ship, which
was dug up in Norway, and which is preserved in the museum
at Christiania, was 78 feet long and 17 feet wide. One
of the old Norse sagas, or stories, tells how King Olaf
Tryggvesson built a ship, the keel of which, as it lay
on the grass, was 74 ells long; in modern measure, it
would be a vessel of about 942 tons burden. Even if we
make allowance for the exaggeration or ignorance of the
writer of the saga, there is still a vast contrast between
this vessel and the little ship Centurion in which Anson
sailed round the world.

It is needless, however, to prove that the Norsemen could
have reached America in their ships. The voyages from
Iceland to Greenland which we know they made continually
for four hundred years were just as arduous as a further
voyage from Greenland to the coast of Canada.

The story of the Norsemen runs thus. Towards the end of
the ninth century, or nearly two hundred years before
the Norman conquest, there was a great exodus or outswarming
of the Norsemen from their original home in Norway. A
certain King Harold had succeeded in making himself
supreme in Norway, and great numbers of the lesser chiefs
or jarls preferred to seek new homes across the seas
rather than submit to his rule. So they embarked with
their seafaring followers--Vikings, as we still call
them--often, indeed, with their wives and families, in
great open ships, and sailed away, some to the coast of
England, others to France, and others even to the
Mediterranean, where they took service under the Byzantine
emperors. But still others, loving the cold rough seas
of the north, struck westward across the North Sea and
beyond the coasts of Scotland till they reached Iceland.
This was in the year 874. Here they made a settlement
that presently grew to a population of fifty thousand
people, having flocks and herds, solid houses of stone,
and a fine trade in fish and oil with the countries of
Northern Europe. These settlers in Iceland attained to
a high standard of civilization. They had many books,
and were fond of tales and stories, as are all these
northern peoples who spend long winter evenings round
the fireside. Some of the sagas, or stories, which they
told were true accounts of the voyages and adventures of
their forefathers; others were fanciful stories, like
our modern romances, created by the imagination; others,
again, were a mixture of the two. Thus it is sometimes
hard to distinguish fact and fancy in these early tales
of the Norsemen. We have, however, means of testing the
stories. Among the books written in Iceland there was
one called the 'National Name-Book,' in which all the
names of the people were written down, with an account
of their forefathers and of any notable things which they
had done.

It is from this book and from the old sagas that we learn
how the Norsemen came to the coast of America. It seems
that about 900 a certain man called Gunnbjorn was driven
westward in a great storm and thrown on the rocky shore
of an ice-bound country, where he spent the winter.
Gunnbjorn reached home safely, and never tried again to
find this new land; but, long after his death, the story
that there was land farther west still lingered among
the settlers in Iceland and the Orkneys, and in other
homes of the Norsemen. Some time after Gunnbjorn's voyage
it happened that a very bold and determined man called
Eric the Red, who lived in the Orkneys, was made an outlaw
for having killed several men in a quarrel. Eric fled
westward over the seas about the year 980, and he came
to a new country with great rocky bays and fjords as in
Norway. There were no trees, but the slopes of the
hillsides were bright with grass, so he called the country
Greenland, as it is called to this day. Eric and his men
lived in Greenland for three years, and the ruins of
their rough stone houses are still to be seen, hard by
one of the little Danish settlements of to-day. When Eric
and his followers went back to Iceland they told of what
they had seen, and soon he led a new expedition to
Greenland. The adventurers went in twenty-five ships;
more than half were lost on the way, but eleven ships
landed safely and founded a colony in Greenland. Other
settlers came, and this Greenland colony had at one time
a population of about two thousand people. Its inhabitants
embraced Christianity when their kinsfolk in other places
did so, and the ruins of their stone churches still exist.
The settlers raised cattle and sheep, and sent ox hides
and seal skins and walrus ivory to Europe in trade for
supplies. But as there was no timber in Greenland they
could not build ships, and thus their communication with
the outside world was more or less precarious. In spite
of this, the colony lasted for about four hundred years.
It seems to have come to an end at about the beginning
of the fifteenth century. The scanty records of its
history can be traced no later than the year 1409. What
happened to terminate its existence is not known. Some
writers, misled by the name 'Greenland,' have thought
that there must have been a change of climate by which
the country lost its original warmth and verdure and
turned into an arctic region. There is no ground for this
belief. The name 'Greenland' did not imply a country of
trees and luxuriant vegetation, but only referred to the
bright carpet of grass still seen in the short Greenland
summer in the warmer hollows of the hillsides. It may
have been that the settlement, never strong in numbers,
was overwhelmed by the Eskimos, who are known to have
often attacked the colony: very likely, too, it suffered
from the great plague, the Black Death, that swept over
all Europe in the fourteenth century. Whatever the cause,
the colony came to an end, and centuries elapsed before
Greenland was again known to Europe.

This whole story of the Greenland settlement is historical
fact which cannot be doubted. Partly by accident and
partly by design, the Norsemen had been carried from
Norway to the Orkneys and the Hebrides and Iceland, and
from there to Greenland. This having happened, it was
natural that their ships should go beyond Greenland
itself. During the four hundred years in which the Norse
ships went from Europe to Greenland, their navigators
had neither chart nor compass, and they sailed huge open
boats, carrying only a great square sail. It is evident
that in stress of weather and in fog they must again and
again have been driven past the foot of Greenland, and
must have landed somewhere in what is now Labrador. It
would be inconceivable that in four centuries of voyages
this never happened. In most cases, no doubt, the
storm-tossed and battered ships, like the fourteen vessels
that Eric lost, were never heard of again. But in other
cases survivors must have returned to Greenland or Iceland
to tell of what they had seen.

This is exactly what happened to a bold sailor called
Bjarne, the son of Herjulf, a few years after the Greenland
colony was founded. In 986 he put out from Iceland to
join his father, who was in Greenland, the purpose being
that, after the good old Norse custom, they might drink
their Christmas ale together. Neither Bjarne nor his men
had ever sailed the Greenland sea before, but, like bold
mariners, they relied upon their seafaring instinct to
guide them to its coast. As Bjarne's ship was driven
westward, great mists fell upon the face of the waters.
There was neither sun nor stars, but day after day only
the thick wet fog that clung to the cold surface of the
heaving sea. To-day travellers even on a palatial steamship,
who spend a few hours shuddering in the chill grey fog
of the North Atlantic, chafing at delay, may form some
idea of voyages such as that of Bjarne Herjulf and his
men. These Vikings went on undaunted towards the west.
At last, after many days, they saw land, but when they
drew near they saw that it was not a rugged treeless
region, such as they knew Greenland to be, but a country
covered with forests, a country of low coasts rising
inland to small hills, and with no mountains in sight.
Accordingly, Bjarne said that this was not Greenland,
and he would not stop, but turned the vessel to the north.
After two days they sighted land again, still on the left
side, and again it was flat and thick with trees. The
sea had fallen calm, and Bjarne's men desired to land
and see this new country, and take wood and water into
the ship. But Bjarne would not. So they held on their
course, and presently a wind from the south-west carried
them onward for three days and three nights. Then again
they saw land, but this time it was high and mountainous,
with great shining caps of snow. And again Bjarne said,
'This is not the land I seek.' They did not go ashore,
but sailing close to the coast they presently found that
the land was an island. When they stood out to sea again,
the south wind rose to a gale that swept them towards
the north, with sail reefed down and with their ship
leaping through the foaming surges. Three days and nights
they ran before the gale. On the fourth day land rose
before them, and this time it was Greenland. There Bjarne
found his father, and there, when not at sea, he settled
for the rest of his days.

Such is the story of Bjarne Herjulf, as the Norsemen have
it. To the unprejudiced mind there is every reason to
believe that his voyage had carried him to America, to
the coast of the Maritime Provinces, or of Newfoundland
or Labrador. More than this one cannot say. True, it is
hard to fit the 'two days' and the 'three days' of Bjarne's
narrative into the sailing distances. But every one who
has read any primitive literature, or even the Homeric
poems, will remember how easily times and distances and
numbers that are not exactly known are expressed in loose
phrases not to be taken as literal.

The news of Bjarne's voyage and of his discovery of land
seems to have been carried presently to the Norsemen in
Iceland and in Europe. In fact, Bjarne himself made a
voyage to Norway, and, on account of what he had done,
figured there as a person of some importance. But people
blamed Bjarne because he had not landed on the new coasts,
and had taken so little pains to find out more about the
region of hills and forests which lay to the south and
west of Greenland. Naturally others were tempted to follow
the matter further. Among these was Leif, son of Eric
the Red. Leif went to Greenland, found Bjarne, bought
his ship, and manned it with a crew of thirty-five. Leif's
father, Eric, now lived in Greenland, and Leif asked him
to take command of the expedition. He thought, the saga
says, that, since Eric had found Greenland, he would
bring good luck to the new venture. For the time, Eric
consented, but when all was ready, and he was riding down
to the shore to embark, his horse stumbled and he fell
from the saddle and hurt his foot. Eric took this as an
omen of evil, and would not go; but Leif and his crew of
thirty-five set sail towards the south-west. This was in
the year 1000 A.D., or four hundred and ninety-two years
before Columbus landed in the West Indies.

Leif and his men sailed on, the saga tells us, till they
came to the last land which Bjarne had discovered. Here
they cast anchor, lowered a boat, and rowed ashore. They
found no grass, but only a great field of snow stretching
from the sea to the mountains farther inland; and these
mountains, too, glistened with snow. It seemed to the
Norsemen a forbidding place, and Leif christened it
Helluland, or the country of slate or flat stones. They
did not linger, but sailed away at once. The description
of the snow-covered hills, the great slabs of stone, and
the desolate aspect of the coast conveys at least a very
strong probability that the land was Labrador.

Leif and his men sailed away, and soon they discovered
another land. The chronicle does not say how many days
they were at sea, so that we cannot judge of the distance
of this new country from the Land of Stones. But evidently
it was entirely different in aspect, and was situated in
a warmer climate. The coast was low, there were broad
beaches of white sand, and behind the beaches rose thick
forests spreading over the country. Again the Norsemen
landed. Because of the trees, they gave to this place
the name of Markland, or the Country of Forests. Some
writers have thought that Markland must have been
Newfoundland, but the description also suggests Cape
Breton or Nova Scotia. The coast of Newfoundland is,
indeed, for the most part, bold, rugged, and inhospitable.

Leif put to sea once more. For two days the wind was from
the north-east. Then again they reached land. This new
region was the famous country which the Norsemen called
Vineland, and of which every schoolboy has read. There
has been so much dispute as to whether Vineland--this
warm country where grapes grew wild--was Nova Scotia or
New England, or some other region, that it is worth while
to read the account of the Norse saga, literally translated:

They came to an island, which lay on the north side
of the land, where they disembarked to wait for good
weather. There was dew upon the grass; and having
accidentally got some of the dew upon their hands and
put it to their mouths, they thought that they had
never tasted anything so sweet. Then they went on
board and sailed into a sound that was between the
island and a point that went out northwards from the
land, and sailed westward past the point. There was
very shallow water and ebb tide, so that their ship
lay dry; and there was a long way between their ship
and the water. They were so desirous to get to the
land that they would not wait till their ship floated,
but ran to the land, to a place where a river comes
out of a lake. As soon as their ship was afloat they
took the boats, rowed to the ship, towed her up the
river, and from thence into the lake, where they cast
anchor, carried their beds out of the ship, and set
up their tents.

They resolved to put things in order for wintering
there, and they erected a large house. They did not
want for salmon, in both the river and the lake; and
they thought the salmon larger than any they had ever
seen before. The country appeared to them to be of so
good a kind that it would not be necessary to gather
fodder for the cattle for winter. There was no frost
in winter, and the grass was not much withered. Day
and night were more equal than in Greenland and

The chronicle goes on to tell how Leif and his men spent
the winter in this place. They explored the country round
their encampment. They found beautiful trees, trees big
enough for use in building houses, something vastly
important to men from Greenland, where no trees grow.
Delighted with this, Leif and his men cut down some trees
and loaded their ship with the timber. One day a sailor,
whose home had been in a 'south country,' where he had
seen wine made from grapes, and who was nicknamed the
'Turk,' found on the coast vines with grapes, growing
wild. He brought his companions to the spot, and they
gathered grapes sufficient to fill their ship's boat. It
was on this account that Leif called the country 'Vineland.'
They found patches of supposed corn which grew wild like
the grapes and reseeded itself from year to year. It is
striking that the Norse chronicle should name these simple
things. Had it been a work of fancy, probably we should
have heard, as in the Chinese legends, of strange demons
and other amazing creatures. But we hear instead of the
beautiful forest extending to the shore, the mountains
in the background, the tangled vines, and the bright
patches of wild grain of some kind ripening in the open
glades-the very things which caught the eye of Cartier
when, five centuries later, he first ascended the St

Where Vineland was we cannot tell. If the men really
found wild grapes, and not some kind of cranberry, Vineland
must have been in the region where grapes will grow. The
vine grows as far north as Prince Edward Island and Cape
Breton, and, of course, is found in plenty on the coasts
of Nova Scotia and New England. The chronicle says that
the winter days were longer in Vineland than in Greenland,
and names the exact length of the shortest day.
Unfortunately, however, the Norsemen had no accurate
system for measuring time; otherwise the length of the
shortest winter day would enable us to know at what exact
spot Leif's settlement was made.

Leif and his men stayed in Vineland all winter, and sailed
home to Greenland in the spring (1001 A.D.). As they
brought timber, much prized in the Greenland settlement,
their voyage caused a great deal of talk. Naturally others
wished to rival Leif. In the next few years several
voyages to Vineland are briefly chronicled in the sagas.

First of all, Thorwald, Leif's brother, borrowed his
ship, sailed away to Vineland with thirty men, and spent
two winters there. During his first summer in Vineland,
Thorwald sent some men in a boat westward along the coast.
They found a beautiful country with thick woods reaching
to the shore, and great stretches of white sand. They
found a kind of barn made of wood, and were startled by
this first indication of the presence of man. Thorwald
had, indeed, startling adventures. In a great storm his
ship was wrecked on the coast, and he and his men had to
rebuild it. He selected for a settlement a point of land
thickly covered with forest. Before the men had built
their houses they fell in with some savages, whom they
made prisoners. These savages had bows and arrows, and
used what the Norsemen called 'skin boats.' One of the
savages escaped and roused his tribe, and presently a
great flock of canoes came out of a large bay, surrounded
the Viking ship, and discharged a cloud of arrows. The
Norsemen beat off the savages, but in the fight Thorwald
received a mortal wound. As he lay dying he told his men
to bury him there in Vineland, on the point where he had
meant to build his home. This was done. Thorwald's men
remained there for the winter. In the spring they returned
to Greenland, with the sad news for Leif of his brother's

Other voyages followed. A certain Thorfinn Karlsevne even
tried to found a permanent colony in Vineland. In the
spring of 1007, he took there a hundred and sixty men,
some women, and many cattle. He and his people remained
in Vineland for nearly four years. They traded with the
savages, giving them cloth and trinkets for furs.
Karlsevne's wife gave birth there to a son, who was
christened Snorre, and who was perhaps the first white
child born in America. The Vineland colony seems to have
prospered well enough, but unfortunately quarrels broke
out between the Norsemen and the savages, and so many of
Karlsevne's people were killed that the remainder were
glad to sail back to Greenland.

The Norse chronicles contain a further story of how one
of Karlsevne's companions, Thorward, and his wife Freydis,
who was a daughter of Eric the Red, made a voyage to
Vineland. This expedition ended in tragedy. One night
the Norsemen quarrelled in their winter quarters, there
was a tumult and a massacre. Freydis herself killed five
women with an axe, and the little colony was drenched in
blood. The survivors returned to Greenland, but were
shunned by all from that hour.

After this story we have no detailed accounts of voyages
to Vineland. There are, however, references to it in
Icelandic literature. There does not seem any ground to
believe that the Norsemen succeeded in planting a lasting
colony in Vineland. Some people have tried to claim that
certain ancient ruins on the New England coast--an old
stone mill at Newport, and so on--are evidences of such
a settlement. But the claim has no sufficient proof behind

On the whole, however, there seems every ground to conclude
that again and again the Norsemen landed on the Atlantic
coast of America. We do not know where they made their
winter quarters, nor does this matter. Very likely there
were temporary settlements in both 'Markland,' with its
thick woods bordering on the sea, and in other less
promising regions. It should be added that some writers
of authority refuse even to admit that the Norsemen
reached America. Others, like Nansen, the famous Arctic
explorer, while admitting the probability of the voyages,
believe that the sagas are merely a sort of folklore,
such as may be found in the primitive literature of all
nations. On the other hand, John Fiske, the American
historian, who devoted much patient study to the question,
was convinced that what is now the Canadian coast, with,
probably, part of New England too, was discovered, visited,
and thoroughly well known by the Norse inhabitants of
Greenland. For several centuries they appear to have made
summer voyages to and from this 'Vineland the Good' as
they called it, and to have brought back timber and
supplies not found in their own inhospitable country. It
is quite possible that further investigation may throw
new light on the Norse discoveries, and even that undeniable
traces of the buildings or implements of the settlers in
Vineland may be found. Meanwhile the subject, interesting
though it is, remains shrouded in mystery.

Stephen Leacock

Sorry, no summary available yet.