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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Discovery of America by the Northmen
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[In considering the reputed discovery of America by the Northmen we stand upon much firmer ground, and the story, though it has not been without dispute, is accepted by many writers as describing an actual event. In fact, it is of high probability on its face, since the daring navigators who successively sailed to and colonized Iceland and Greenland might very easily have made a farther voyage to the American continent.

The Scandinavian vikings, in their single-masted, many-oared galleys, often ventured far out on the waters of the Atlantic, and in the year 860, Naddoddr, one of these Norse pirates, was blown by an adverse wind upon the coast of Iceland. In 876 another navigator, driven beyond Iceland by a storm, saw in the distance the coast of an unknown land. About the year 981, Eric the Red, an Icelandic outlaw, sailed in search of this land, and discovered a new country, which he named Greenland as an inducement to immigrants.

The sagas or written legends of Iceland, which describe these events, relate that subsequent to the discovery of Greenland the vikings made frequent voyages to the south, to a land which had been discovered there by one Bjarni, and which received the name of Vinland. Some writers consider these stories as too vague and mythical to be of any value, while others accept them as containing definite and trustworthy information concerning the eastern coast of America at that date. This new land is said to have been first discovered by Bjarni in 985, during a voyage from Iceland to Greenland. We select from "The Discoveries of America to the year 1525," by Arthur James Weise, a translation of some of the more significant portions of these sagas.]

As soon as they had fitted for the voyage, they intrusted themselves to the ocean, and made sail three days, until the land passed out of their sight from the water. But then the bearing breezes ceased to blow, and northern breezes and a fog succeeded. Then they were drifted about for many days and nights, not knowing whither they tended. After this the light of the sun was seen, and they were able to survey the regions of the sky. Now they carried sail, and steered this day before they beheld land. . [They] soon saw that the country was not mountainous, but covered with trees and diversified with little hills. . Then they sailed two days before they saw another land (or region). . They then approached it, and saw that it was level and covered with trees. Then, the favorable wind having ceased blowing, the sailors said that it seemed to them that it would be well to land there, but Bjarni was unwilling to do so. . He bade them make sail, which was done. They turned the prow from the land, and sailed out into the open sea, where for three days they had a favorable south- south-west wind. They saw a third land (or region), but it was high and mountainous and covered with glaciers. . They did not lower sail, but holding their course along the shore they found it to be an island. Again they turned the stern against the land, and made sail for the high sea, having the same wind, which gradually increasing, Bjarni ordered the sails to be shortened, forbidding the use of more canvas than the ship and her outfit could conveniently bear. Thus they sailed for four days, when they saw a fourth land [which proved to be Greenland].

[The second voyage to this newly-discovered region was made by Leif, the son of Eric the Red, about the year 1000. He first reached a land of icy mountains, with a plain between the mountains and the sea covered with flat stones. This region Leif named Helluland. Afterwards he reached a level country covered with trees, which he named Markland.]

[Leaving Markland] they sailed on the high sea, having a northeast wind, and were two days at sea before they saw land. They steered towards it, and touched the island lying before the north part of the land. When they went on land they surveyed it, for by good fortune the weather was serene. They found the grass sprinkled with dew, and it happened by chance that they touched the dew with their hands and carried them to their mouths and perceived that it had a sweet taste which they had not before noticed. Then they returned to the ship and sailed through a bay lying between the island and a tongue of land running towards the north. Steering a course to the west shore, they passed the tongue of land. Here when the tide ebbed there were very narrow shoals. When the ship got aground there were shallows of great extent between the vessel and the receded sea. So great was the desire of the men to go on land that they were unwilling to stay on board until the returning tide floated the ship. They went ashore at a place where a river flowed out from a lake. When the tide floated the ship they took the boat and rowed to the vessel and brought her into the river and then into the lake. Here they anchored, carried the luggage from the ship, and built dwellings. Afterwards they held a consultation and resolved to remain at this place during the winter. They erected large buildings. There were not only many salmon in the river, but also in the lake, and of a larger size than they had before seen. So great was the fertility of the soil that they were led to believe that cattle would not be in want of food during winter, or that wintry coldness would prevail, or the grass wither much.

[During the winter one of the men, named Tyrker, exploring the country, discovered wine-wood and wine-berries (vinvid ok vinber). On the approach of spring they spent some time in gathering wineberries and loading the ship with wood, after which they set sail for Greenland, Leif naming the region Vinland (Wine-land), from its productions.

In the spring of 1007 an expedition comprising three ships sailed for this new land. In two days they reached Helluland, and in two more Markland. Departing from Markland, they continued their voyage.]

They then sailed far to the southward along the coast, and came to a promontory. The land lay on the right, and had a long sandy beach. They rowed to it, and found on a tongue of land the keel of a ship. They called this point Kjlarnes (Keel Cape), and the beach Furdustrandir (Long Strand), for it took a long time to sail by it. Then the coast became sinuous. They then steered the ship into an inlet. King Olaf Tryggvason had given Leif two Scotch people, a man named Haki and a woman named Hekja. They were swifter than animals. When they had sailed past Furdustrandir they put these Scots ashore and ordered them to run to the south of the country and explore it and return within three days. They were absent the designated time. When they returned, one brought a bunch of wine- berries, the other an ear of wheat. When they were taken on board the ship sailed farther. They came into a bay where there was an island around which flowed rapid currents that suggested the name which they gave it, Straumey (Stream Island). There were so many eider ducks on the island that one could hardly walk about without stepping on their eggs. They took the cargo from the ship and made preparations to stay there. They had with them different kinds of cattle.

It is now to be told of Karlsefne that he, with Snorro and Bjarni and their people, sailed southward along the coast. They sailed a long time, till they came to a river which ran out from the land and through a lake into the sea. The river was quite shallow, and no ship could enter it without high water. Karlsefne sailed with his people into its mouth, and called the place Hop. He found fields of wild wheat where the ground was low, and wine-wood where it was higher. There was great number of all kinds of wild animals in the woods. They remained at this place a half month, and enjoyed themselves, but did not find anything novel. They had their cattle with them. Early one morning, when they were viewing the country, they saw a great number of skin boats on the sea. . The people in them rowed nearer and with curiosity gazed at them. . These people were swart and ugly, and had coarse hair, large eyes, and broad cheeks. They remained a short time and watched Karlsefne's people. They then rowed away to the southward beyond the cape.

[In the spring the natives returned and trafficked with the Northmen.]

The people preferred red cloth, and for this they gave skins and all kinds of furs. They also wanted to purchase swords and spears, but Karlsefne and Snorro would not sell them any weapons. For a whole skin the Skraelings took a piece of red cloth a span long, and bound it around their heads. In this way they bartered for a time. Then the cloth began to diminish, and Karlsefne and his men cut it into small strips not wider than one's finger, and still the Skraelings gave as much for these as they had for the larger pieces, and often more. It happened that a bull, which Karlsefne had with him, ran out from the wood and bellowed loudly. This frightened the Skraelings so much that they rushed to their boats and rowed away to the southward around the coast.

[Three weeks afterwards a large number of Skraelings returned in their boats, uttering loud cries.]

Karlsefne's men took a red shield and held it towards them. The Skraelings leaped from their boats and attacked them. Many missiles fell among them, for the Skraelings used slings. Karlsefne's men saw that they had raised on a pole something resembling an air-filled bag of a blue color. They hurled this at Karlsefne's party, and when it fell to the ground it exploded with a loud noise. This frightened Karlsefne and his men so much that they ran and fell back to the river, for it seemed to them that the Skraelings were enclosing them on all sides. They did not stop till they reached a rocky place, where they stoutly resisted their assailants.

[The Skraelings were finally frightened off by the valiant behavior of Freydis, the wife of Thorvard.]

Karlsefne and his men now perceived that, notwithstanding the country was fruitful, they would be exposed to many dangerous incursions of its inhabitants if they should remain in it. They therefore determined to depart and return to their own land.

[Many subsequent visits were made by the Northmen to Vinland, these continuing as late as the fourteenth century. But they seem to have made no effort to colonize this region as they had done in the cases of Iceland and Greenland. Just where Vinland was situated is one of those geographical problems that will probably never be settled. Some writers place it as far south as the coast of Rhode Island. Others conceive it to be no farther south than Labrador, or possibly south Greenland. The description of the Skraelings is considered to apply more closely to the Esquimaux than to the North American Indians. Whether the so-called wine-berries were actually grapes is questionable. In fact, no positive proof exists that the Northmen discovered the continent of America. The balance of probabilities is that they did so, though how far south their excursions extended can never be definitely decided.]

Arthur J. Weise


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