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Vikings and the First American Colony

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Vikings and the First American Colony


The idea that Columbus did not provide Europeans with their first long term contact with America is now nearly universally accepted. Activists for the Irish monk, St. Brenden, and other early explorers are gaining support with new archaeological evidence. It is the Norsemen, though, that have the distinction of being the first colonizers of the Americas, whether or not chance meetings occurred before. The legacy they left the Americas is striking considering the short amount of time they actually spent here, and historians are baffled by nearly every aspect of their colony. The forces that made them abandon Vineland, their main colony, are the subject of an ongoing debate on both sides of the Atlantic. The nature, location, and inhabitants of the Americas the Vikings knew would all have been obstacles to forming a permanent settlement. The economy, the driving force for colonization, also affected the need for Vineland.

The peninsula in the northwest corner of Europe known as Jutland has been inhabited by Scandinavians for centuries. Ptolmey writes about the area and Roman artifacts have been found during excavations of Norway and Sweeden demonstrating considerable contact with southern Europe (Wilson 21-23) Literacy is indicated by the Runes which first appeared at the beginning of the third century. The Runic alphabet has changed and evolved through the years, and claims of inscriprions dot the United States and are largey the basis on knowledge of Viking presence (Wilson 27). During the first century, Europeans embarked on a period of great migration, a time of great wealth and prosperity for the Scandinavians. One cause was the settlement of a new territory on the basis of "an economy designed to produce goods for trade to the south" (Wilson 63). The Norwegians and Swedes turned North to find the furs, iron, horn and ivory demanded in Europe. This expansion would remain part of the Norse payche and would influence their later explorations (Wilson 70). By the eighth century the Vikings were making a reputation for themselves as they invaded England and other parts of Western Europe. Viking chiefs founded such towns as Dublin, Cork and Limerick to camp at while trading and staging further piratical attacks on the Continent (Wilson 76). In the Atlantic the Vikings discovered new lands including Iceland, Greenland and North America. By the middle of the tenth century about fifty thousand land hungry people populated Iceland and inhabited much of the fertile land (Wilson 79).

There were other Vikings, though, that wanted land and were not able to get any in Iceland. Vikings were never known for their gentle nature, and when they wanted land, they generally went out into the unknown to get it. The Groenlendinga Saga, a Norse heroic story, begins with Thorvald and his son Eric the Red as they are expelled from Norway because of some killings they commited. They headed for Iceland where Eric the Red married a woman named Thjohild who bore him a son, Leif Eriksson. After some more killings and fights, Eric was banned from Iceland. He took his family and headed for a land to the west, Greenland, where he built a colony (Samuel Wilson 18). Sixteen years later, a prominent Norse captain, Bjarni Herjolfsson, sailed from Europe to Iceland where his father lived. He arrived to find his father had moved to Greenland and attempted to follow with no map and nothing but verbal directions of the general area. Bjarni was blown off course and ended up in North America. After several months he found his way back to Greenland with stories of three different lands he visited. Everyone's imagination was sparked, but no one could be spared to explore (Samuel Wilson 19). Later Leif Eriksson would lead an expedition to exploit the area found by Herjolfsson. He named the land he found Vineland as a way to attract new settlers and spent at least one winter there. An attempt to colonize was thwarted for a variety of reasons including the natives and the location (Wallace).

Although archaeologists have not been able to pinpoint the location of Vineland, the Viking sagas tell of a fertile land where grapes grow wild, winters are mild, and the days are longer than in Greenland or Scandinavia. Hundreds of sites have been proposed from Virginia to Labrador. A popular site is Cape Cod where several Viking artifacts are reported to have been found (Jurgensen). Another area, L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, was discovered by Dr. Helge Ingstad in 1960 and offers indisputable proof of a Viking settlement. Is this the long sought after Vineland, though? The days there are just as long as in Greenland and the winters are harsh and there are no wild grapes. Theories of multiple settlements have been discussed, however there is no proof anywhere else at this time (Bakken).

The location of Vineland matters little. What is of importance is the fact that Leif Eriksson attempted a colony and failed. The Vineland Sagas describe a wonderful land that was, unfortunately, already populated. Skirmishes followed and the Norse were outnumbered. Feeling threatened they returned home and Vineland was abandoned (Wallace).

Vikings call the people they encountered Skraelings (barbarians) and the interaction between the two groups was disastrous. When Leif allowed his brother, Thorvald, to borrow his ship to explore the new land he was attacked by the natives and killed in the battle that followed. According to the sagas, Skraeling hostility was an insurmountable obstacle (Wilson 19).

Another major factor in the failure of Vineland was its location. A major cause of expansion was, as noted above, the quest for economic resources. Lumber was just one example of the resources that were scarce in Greenland and abundant in North America. There is an idea circulating that the Norse were a lot of free spirited men exploring for the sake of exploration. This could not be further from the truth. All voyages were taken on with a specific goal in mind. The Vikings were prospecting, not vacationing. The groups that colonized were comprised of men selected for specific skills they posessed. There were slaves for heavy work and no families or women. Trade was attempted. Clearly this settlement was formed out of economic drive (Wallace).

Distance became a problem for the Vikings. L'Anse aux Meadows in nine hundred kilometers from Greenland. Even if this was the true site of Vineland and there were no camps further south, the amount of labor it would have taken to transport colonists, livestock, materials and weapons to the colony and resources back to Greenland was simply greater than what was available. It took close to ninety people, all of them adults in their best health, to operate L'Anse aux Meadows when Greenland itself had fewer than six hundred inhabitants including women, children and the elderly (Wallace). Such a small colony could non sustain the upkeep of a distant satellite colony. This new land was too far away, the passage was too difficult and the area was too dangerous. The attractiveness of the colony also faded as colonists realized that there was little available in America that was not in Europe (Wallace).

During the period when Viking power was declining, the climate of Europe changed dramatically. The "Little Ice Age" as historians call it now led to a glacial expansion in Greenland, turning once fertile land to ice and forcing colonists off the island, abandoning not only Greenland, but Vineland as well. By this time though, hopes of colonizing America were largely a plan of the past (Roesdahl 276).

The history of Viking exploration now is told through sagas, which can be unreliable and biased just as any source. L'Anse aux Meadows,though, adds credence to th sagas and that are largely considered factual. Other sites in Greenland substantiate the sagas and we can rely on them for information regarding the Viking exploration of America. They do not, unfortunately, tell us the precise location of Vineland, so many aspects of the Viking adventures remain a mystery. For now, historians credit Vikings with the first European discovery of America. The colony was not permanent, but the legacy the Vikings left is seen in many places like Cape Cod where street names like Leif Lane and Viking Way dot the maps.

Historians may never know all the details concerning why settlement did not last. For now the evidence points to skirmishes with the natives, the long distance from Greenland, the population shortage and the natural environmental factors. The Vikings were here for an instant and, for various reasons abandoned their settlement, leaving their mark forever.

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