The Norse in the North Atlantic
The first Europeans known
definitely to set foot in Newfoundland were the Norse. Beginning
in the eighth century, they burst out of their cultural homeland
in Scandinavia (particularly Norway) in a series of expansionist
waves of migration triggered by unknown causes -- possibly
overpopulation, possibly political unrest. Their notorious war
galleys, known as "longships," were fast and
maneuverable, perfect for swift hit-and-run raids in the
sheltered seas and waterways of Europe. Going on such raiding
expeditions was known as going "a-Viking," and it was
by that name that the Norsemen became feared throughout Europe.
Yet the Norse who came to Newfoundland were not fierce raiders in
search of pillage and plunder. The Norse appearance here was the
final step in a relatively peaceful expansion of livestock
farmers across the North Atlantic, taking in parts of the British
Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and finally Vinland.
|A Norse woollen garment with a head covering.
The Norse who settled in Newfoundland probably wore clothing similar to this outfit which was excavated in Herjolfsnes, southwestern Greenland.
From Geoffrey Ashe et al., The Quest for America (New York: Praeger Publishers, ©1971) 103. Courtesy of the Nationalmuseet (The National Museum of Denmark), Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Norse expansion into the
North Atlantic occurred between 800 and 1000 CE, and may have
been caused by a combination of population pressures and
political unrest in the Norse homeland. Norsemen appear to have
left their homeland in search of a place where their old customs
and freedoms were not so threatened. Iceland, discovered by the
Norse in 860, appears to have been settled by ca. 874 and was
fully occupied by 930. Indeed, the occupation of Iceland
was so rapid that the island soon felt the
pressures of overpopulation. By 975 a major famine had
struck, so that interest in finding new lands for expansion
remained strong. Rumours of lands to the west, possibly fed by
earlier Irish voyages, led to the discovery of Greenland in 982
by Erik the Red. Three years later, a major colonizing expedition
of several hundred people was organized in Iceland and sailed to
The Norse Settle in Greenland
Eventually around 300 farmsteads
were established in southeastern Greenland, clustered into two
settlements. The oldest was the Eastern Settlement. The more
suitable of the two for livestock farming, it was the most
heavily populated region, with about 3,000-4,500 people. For this
reason, the Eastern Settlement survived into the 1400s. The
Western Settlement was about 160 miles further north along the
Davis Strait. Though it was closer to northern hunting grounds,
and had a promising beginning, it never had a population greater
than 1,000-1,500. It was the first of the two areas to experience
decline, so that by about 1350 it had disappeared.
Though their culture was a
violent one by our own standards and blood feuds were common, the
Greenland colonists were not bloodthirsty sea-raiders. Nor were
their vessels the classic "longships" used by Vikings
in the sheltered waters of Europe on their raiding expeditions.
In the North Atlantic, the Norse used stout, sea-worthy vessels
known as "knarrs." Although there were limits to how
much they could carry, they were more suited for carrying cargo.
The knarr was also open to the elements and, though driven by a
sail, it was small enough to be rowed. Most knarrs were built in
Europe and imported to Greenland. This made Greenland dependent
on secure trade links with Europe.
The people of Iceland and
Greenland supported themselves through livestock farming and
trading. The region was not suited to growing grain, and so
the raising of sheep and goats dominated the
agricultural economy. Stock-raising of this type, together with
the impact of substantial numbers of people moving into Iceland
and Greenland, caused environmental degradation.
Trees were felled to heat homes and smelt iron, and turf was stripped from the thin soils. The result was erosion and soil damage.
To make matters worse, after 1250 AD, a period of
climatic cooling known as the "Little Ice Age" began,
causing the agricultural economy of the region to deteriorate
It is necessary to explain all
these developments if we are to understand why the Norse failed
to colonize North America successfully, for it was from these
Greenland settlements, and not the Norse homeland in Europe, that
the Norse explorers of North America came, around the year 1000.
||Late 16th century world map based on Icelandic writings.
This map by Sigurd Stefánsson, a schoolmaster who taught at Skálholt, dates
from the 1500s. The western hemisphere place names were derived from information
contained in old Icelandic writings. Although the original map has not survived,
this reproduction was published in 1706 by Torfæus from 'Gronlandia
From Jónas Kristjánsson, Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts (Reykjavik, Iceland: Saga Publishing Co., ©1970) 16.
According to the sagas, a merchant-shipowner named
Bjarni was making his way from Iceland to Greenland
in 986 CE when he was blown off course by a severe storm. When
the storm ended, he found himself off an unfamiliar shore. He
recognized that this was not his intended landfall. The land was
too forested, and he was too far south. Bjarni therefore
headed north, arriving in Greenland about a week later. During
the return trip, he noted a changing landscape as he
progressed north, from forested hills, to a flat, heavily
forested coastline, to glaciated mountains.
This had not
been an intentional voyage of discovery, nor was Bjarni
interested in following through on his discovery. As a merchant,
he was interested primarily in trading with established
communities, not investing in risky and speculative efforts to
establish new ones. It was an attitude that would be shared 500
years later by the merchants of Bristol.
The Greenland colonists were not
interested in immediately exploiting the new discovery, for they
had just recently arrived in Greenland. Because they were still
busy establishing themselves, Bjarni's
voyage did not inspire a return trip for nearly a decade. Then
Leif, the son of Erik the Red, retraced Bjarni's route in reverse.
He passed a land of rock and ice, which he called Helluland - probably Baffin Island - and then a country that was flat and wooded, which he called Markland
This was probably part of southern Labrador.
He eventually reached a land which the sagas describe as a land of
grassy meadows, with rivers full of salmon, and enough other resources
to encourage over-wintering. Leif gave this land
the name "Vinland." The men proceeded to build houses
in typical Greenland Norse fashion, with sod-walls and peaked
roofs of timber and sod. When Leif and his crew returned to
Greenland, their reports of this new land aroused interest in
|Sod House, L'Anse aux Meadows.
Courtesy of Ben Hansen. From a postcard entitled A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Early Viking habituation at L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld. Published by H.H. Marshall Ltd. St. John's, Newfoundland
One such expedition was led by
Leif's brother, Thorvald, who was able to locate Leif's
wintering place. Thorvald was eventually killed in a skirmish
with local natives that the Greenlanders called
"Skraelings." From the saga descriptions, it is
impossible to say whether these Skraelings were Indians or Inuit.
Another brother, Thorstein, attempted to sail to Vinland but
spent much of the summer fighting contrary winds and seas before
giving up and returning to Greenland. The most ambitious effort
was led by Thorfinn, and included women and livestock.
This expedition apparently remained in Vinland for two or three
years, but eventually abandoned the effort after hostilities
broke out with the natives. Thus, the discovery of Vinland was
not followed by successful settlement and exploitation of the New
||Remains of hall D at L'Anse aux Meadows.
Courtesy of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada, Federal Archaeology. ©Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Canada.
Was Vinland in Newfoundland?
Where was Vinland? The location
is difficult to determine because the details provided in the
sagas often seem to conflict. The sailing directions suggest
Newfoundland, but descriptions of lush vegetation, including
grain and self-sown wheat, together with the discovery at L'Anse
aux Meadows of butternuts (which have never grown further north
than New Brunswick) suggest a more southerly location.
discovery of the Norse habitation at L'Anse aux Meadows gave
powerful support for those who believed that Vinland was in
Newfoundland. Yet L'Anse aux Meadows appears to have been a small
settlement of about eight buildings and no more than 75
people, mostly sailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, hired hands and
perhaps even serfs or slaves. It is probable therefore that the
settlement was a base camp for repairing and maintaining Norse
bloomery and one smithy have been identified, where local
bog iron was apparently smelted into "sponge iron,"
then subsequently purified and made into nails, rivets, and other
iron work. The settlement was probably also a base camp for
expeditions further south. During the summer, possibly two-thirds
of the camp would have been off exploring as far south as the
Gulf of St. Lawrence.
|Sod building replicas at L'Anse aux Meadows.
Courtesy of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada,
Federal Archaeology. ©Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Reproduced
with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Canada.
Photo by André Corneiller.
Some women must have been present --
artifacts found there, such as a spindle whorle, bone needle, and
a small whetstone for sharpening, were a typical part of a Norse
woman's everyday possessions. Nevertheless,
archaeologists have concluded that the habitation there was
little more than a seasonal camp, never occupied for more than a
few seasons, and certainly never developing into the sort of
permanent settlement which had been established in Greenland. The
consensus among scholars today (1997) is that "Vinland" was
not a specific site, but a region which included
Newfoundland and extended south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as
far as Nova Scotia and coastal New Brunswick.
The Significance of Vinland
Another important question is why the Norse failed to settle
permanently in North America. How was it that they could survive
in Greenland for 500 years, but could not establish themselves in
Vinland, with its richer resources and better climate?
Vinland was a remote place, and voyaging there was risky and uncertain,
as we know from the sagas. Moreover, the Norse expeditions met strong
resistance from the native inhabitants. The level of technology of the Norse
was not significantly more advanced than that of the natives and this, combined
with the small numbers of Norsemen in America, meant that they had no decisive advantage.
||L'Anse aux Meadows, looking north.
Courtesy of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada, Federal Archaeology. ©Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Canada. Photo by Birgitta Wallace.
In the early 11th century the Greenland settlements were still young and
in their pioneering phase, and did not have the population nor the wealth to
support a new colony so far away - and never would have. There was also little
incentive, in that the economy which developed in Greenland did not need expansion to America.
There might have been some incentive later in the history of the Greenland
settlements, as they became increasingly less viable, but by that time - the
13th and 14th centuries - the inhabitants were preoccupied with their own
survival, and would not have had the resources or the interest to create a new colony.
Greenland was a fragile colony, incapable of sustaining
itself as climatic, economic, and political conditions
deteriorated. According to Thomas McGovern, a leading authority on
Norse expansion to North America, "Greenland simply did not
produce enough people or riches to act as a successful base for
sustained colonization attempts, and Norse Greenlanders may have
seen little immediate benefit in expending either in
Vinland." (McGovern, 285-308). Geoffrey Scammell
concurs: "The Norse had gone as far as they were going....as
the settlements in Iceland and Greenland decayed they were
deprived of bases, material and incentives for any further
endeavour." (Scammell 9). Greenland
represented the practical limit of medieval Europe's extension
into the North Atlantic.
The Norse contact with Newfoundland was fortuitous and
the significance of their experience quite
limited. Although they were probably the first Europeans to live
in North America, however briefly, we cannot really say that they
"discovered" America. As Daniel Boorstin
explains, "What they did in America did not change their own
or anybody else's view of the world....There was practically no
feedback from the Vinland voyages. What is most remarkable is not
that the Vikings actually reached America, but that they reached
America and even settled there for a while, without discovering
America." (Boorstin 215). European discovery of North
America, including Newfoundland, in the sense of being aware that
this was an new world to them, and a new opportunity, would have
to wait until the era of John Cabot.
Article by Olaf Janzen. ©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project
Updated August, 2004