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Two types of evidence support the presence of Norse in North America up to five hundred years before Columbus. There are tales of even earlier Europeans In the New World, e.g. Saint Brendan, the Irish monk who, by legend, is believed to have sailed as far as the New World around 570 A.D.
The first evidence for the Norse in North America was the Icelandic Sagas that describe the people and events of Icelandic Norse families and their society in the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries. The Sagas tell of establishing a long-lasting settlement in Greenland and another brief settlement in Newfoundland.
A second piece of evidence is the actual discovery in 1960 of the remains of the Norse settlement in Newfoundland, L’Anse aux Meadows, dating to the year 1000 A.D. The name is derived from French, L’Anse aux Méduses, meaning Jellyfish Cove. Meadows replaced Méduses partly for its similar sound in English plus the fact that Arctic meadows now cover the area. This site is believed to be the short-lived colony named Vinland by its founder, Leif Erikson.
According to the Sagas, Norsemen from Iceland first settled Greenland in the 980’s when Eric the Red was banished from Iceland for committing murder. With his extended family and some additional followers he established settlements on the southwest coast of a new land that he named Greenland in a shameless bit of spin, hoping to entice more people to come. People came and the settlements endured, supporting an active trade with Norway and Iceland. The colonies began to decline in the fourteenth century, which coincides with a general climatic cooling called the Little Ice Age.
Near the end of the tenth century, Erik’s son Leif Erikson decided to search for another land to the west that an earlier navigator had sighted when blown off course. His expedition led to the establishment of several colonies, one of which is now called L’Anse aux Meadows. Others are believed to exist, but have not yet been discovered with certainty.
The Norse were not a single people, but consisted of three groups based on their country of origin and their destinations for exploration. Although they settled and farmed the lands they entered and became traders, their first contacts with other peoples were usually as raiders and plunderers.
Swedish Vikings headed east up the rivers of Russia such as the Volga and Dnieper. They eventually started the settlements that became the cities of Kiev and Novograd in Ukraine. Their probe probably extended as far as Constantinople. They established long-lasting trade with these areas.
The Danish Vikings arrived in Britain, France, and Spain, then sailed into the Mediterranean to Italy. Their first documented raid into Britain was the raid of a monastery on the northeast coast of England on the tidal island of Lindisfarne in 793. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Viking raid as follows:
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.
Those were “dragon-y” times.
A contemporary Northumbrian scholar named Alcuin wrote: Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.
A visit to the ruins of the Lindisfarne monastery many years ago gave me a clear sense of the vulnerability of this remote unfortified island. It was somewhat protected from invasions by land, but wide open to the shallow-draft Viking boats arriving by sea.
The Norwegian Vikings set sail to the west: Iceland, Greenland, and briefly North America. They were the first Europeans confirmed to have come to the New World. Some of their discoveries were the result of being blown off course and losing their way—not surprising considering their navigation depended on fair weather in a stormy sea like the North Atlantic.
Information in the Norse sagas suggest that Vikings depended heavily on sea lore for navigation: prevailing winds and currents. Even the presence of whales was useful information about the proximity of land. The stories also tell of Vikings being “bewildered” during a voyage. This occurred when the ship encountered fog or storms and they completely lost their sense of direction. This is when they might discover new lands.
If they used a navigational tool, it was probably a notched stick, which was helpful for sailing along a given latitude. A stick had a notch that corresponded with a known destination. The Viking navigator sailed north or south along the coast, occasionally holding the stick at arms length to see if they had reached the proper latitude for their destination. When the top of the stick touched the north star while the notch was held even with the horizon, they knew they could sail west to reach their destination. A separate notch would be needed for each destination.
The Norse preceded Columbus to North America by hundreds of years, but had no lasting effect. Why did the Norse settlement in America not spark the rapid expansion that occurred after Columbus? Trade between Europe and China and India had existed since at least the first century A.D. using both overland and combined sea and overland travel. But the Europeans had no incentive to reach Asia by sea in 1000 A.D. What changed by 1492? Believe it or not, economics.
In 1000 A.D. all goods between Asia and Europe passed through trading cities in the Middle East, and traders in that area added fees that raised the cost of spices and silks that finally reached European markets. Everyone in Europe was equally affected and prices for Oriental goods were stable. Apparently no one imagined an alternative at that time.
In the late fifteenth century an all-sea route to India was found when Vasco de Gama, sailing for Portugal, reached India by sailing around Africa in 1497-1499. Columbus had tried by sailing west, but failed to reach the Orient. Portugal carefully guarded its route from interlopers and soon had a well-protected market advantage and bigger profits.
Sixteenth century merchants of Italy, Spain, England, and France, wanting a similar price advantage, clearly saw the need to acquire a route independent of any foreign power. Then the quest for a passage through North America took off.
None of these conditions had sufficiently matured to expand global trade during the Middle Ages when Vikings were stirring. The European world had not yet awakened. All other adventures described in this Explorers’ Tales series are the result of that awakening.
Lagan, Jack. The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the Skills of the Ancients. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, Inc. 2005.
Mowat, Farley. The New Founde Land. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd. 1989.
Website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki Norse_colonization_of_North_America