The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
IF we go back to the middle of the ninth century we find what is now Norway divided into thirty odd districts, called fylkes, and governed by kinglets, or jarls. These rulers were elected and obtained their positions by the grace of the people in convention assembled. But about this time there appeared in Norway a man named Harald Fairhair, who with his prime minister, Guthorm, succeeded in subjugating all the kinglets in Norway, and united the various fylkes into one kingdom. The
last battle was a naval engagement at Hafursfjord, near Stavanger, in July, 872. In this battle the last of the kinglets was conquered, and Harald became monarch of all Norway. His usurpation of power created great dissatisfaction and resulted in a large emigration to France, to the British Isles, to the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetland Isles, to the Fareys and particularly to Iceland. Iceland had been discovered in 860, and had been visited several times by Norsemen between that time and 874, in which year the settlement of Iceland began. The flower of the Norwegian people emigrated, and it was not long before Iceland had a population of more than 50,000 souls. In Iceland a republic was organized which flourished for four hundred years; and it was during the time of the republic that the grand old poetic and historic literature of Iceland was produced.
Here it is proper to add that the Norsemen were the discoverers of pelagic navigation. Let me here state with all the emphasis that I am able to compress into so many words, that the navigation of the ocean was discovered by the old Norse Vikings. Before them, the only navigation known was coast navigation. The Norsemen were excellent ship-builders and knew how to calculate time by the sun, moon and stars, and into every history of the world, and into every encyclopedia I would have the fact conspicuously stated that pelagic navigation was discovered by the Norsemen.
Iceland became the hinge upon which the door swings which opened America to Europe. In the voyages between Norway and Iceland--a distance of about 800
miles--the sailors would occasionally be overtaken by cloudy and stormy weather and drift beyond Iceland, and so they could not help finding their way by accident to Greenland and other countries to the west and southwest of Iceland. And so it happened that in the year 876 a Norwegian mariner, by name Gunbjorn, reported that he had seen land far to the west of Iceland.
If the reader will now go with me to the southwestern part of Norway, about the middle of the tenth century, we shall find living there in a district called Jadern a man called Erik (often spelled Eirik) the Red. He was called the "Red" on account of his red hair and red beard and ruddy complexion. It also appears that he had a somewhat fiery and combative disposition. He now and then quarrelled with his neighbours, and on one occasion he had the misfortune of becoming guilty of manslaughter. For this reason he decided to emigrate from Norway, and he removed with his family to the western part of Iceland. But while he left his neighbors and the dust and sky of Jadern behind him, he carried his fiery nature with him and it was not long before he got into trouble with his new neighbors in Iceland. He therefore decided to emigrate from Iceland also and to go in search of the land seen nearly a hundred years before by Gunbjorn far to the west of Iceland. He left Iceland with a few companions in 982 and found an extensive country far to the west of Iceland. He remained there making explorations for three years and decided to found a colony there. He was anxious to give the country a name that might be attractive to settlers, and in discussing this
question with his companions, they agreed on naming the country Greenland, reasoning that no name would be better suited to attract immigrants.
Greenland belongs entirely to the Western Hemisphere and is accordingly a part of America. The discovery of Greenland was in fact the discovery of America, and Erik the Red was the first European who ever boomed real estate on the Western Continent, and he boomed it successfully. He succeeded in founding in Greenland a colony which flourished for several hundred years. The Icelandic sagas contain elaborate accounts of this colony and give us the names of a number of the bishops who resided there.
Erik the Red returned to Iceland in 985, and in 986 he, with a considerable number of followers, emigrated to Greenland. Among those who emigrated with Erik the Red was one Herjulf Bardson. Herjulf Bardson had a son, by name Bjarne. Bjarne was a viking merchant. He had a custom of spending one year with his father in Iceland and the next year abroad, acquiring fee and fame, that is, wealth and reputation. In 986 he chanced to be absent on a viking expedition and, on returning to Iceland in the summer, he learned that his father had emigrated with Erik the Red to Greenland. Desiring to spend the next winter with his father, as was his custom, he asked his sailors whether they would go with him. They all said they would. "But we have none of us ever been in the Greenland sea," said Bjarne. "We mind not that," said his men, "we are willing to go wherever you will lead." And so Bjarne and his men at
once set sail from Iceland. They were overtaken by foggy and stormy weather and sailed on and on, not knowing whither they were sailing. The fog and storm lasted for several weeks, then the sky cleared, the sun shone again, and lo behold they could see land in the distance! They saw that they were much too far south. The land, which was hilly and well wooded, did not correspond to the descriptions which they had received of Greenland. It was getting late in the season, so they did not go ashore, but proceeded northward. On their journey northward they discovered two other countries, but as neither of them could be Greenland they did not land. They hastened on until they finally reached Greenland in safety and happened to land near the colony founded by Erik the Red. We have no time to go into details, but it is evident that the first land seen by Bjarne, Herjulf's son, must have been some part of New England; the second land was probably Nova Scotia, and the third Newfoundland. And thus Bjarne, in the year 986, was the first pale-faced man whose eyes looked upon the American continent.
Erik the Red was the chief of the colony in Greenland. His family consisted of three sons, Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein, all bright, stalwart and enterprising young men.
In the year 1000, the same year as that in which Christianity was adopted as the religion of Iceland, Leif Erikson chanced to be in Norway. Norway had just been converted to Christianity and the ruler at this time was the famous King Olaf Trygvason. Leif Erikson
met the king, and the king became very fond of him. He persuaded Leif to accept the Christian religion and be baptised. Then King Olaf sent for Leif and told him that he had a double mission for him. "In the first place," said King Olaf, "I want you to go, and look up those lands which were seen by Bjarne and secure more definite information about them, and in the second place, I want you to go as a missionary to Greenland and preach the gospel of the White Christ to the colonists there."
Leif agreed to carry out the king's wishes. In the summer of the year 1000 he set sail for the far West. He decided to investigate the lands seen by Bjarne before going to Greenland. On his way west, he first reached the land which Bjarne reported he had seen, that is, Newfoundland. He anchored his ship off the coast, went ashore, and, exploring the land somewhat, found that it was hilly and extensively covered with large, flat stones. He decided to name the country after its most conspicuous peculiarities, and called it Helluland (land of flat stones). Then he proceeded towards the southwest and reached the second land seen by Bjarne (that is, Nova Scotia), which he also explored somewhat, and found that it was a heavily wooded country. On account of the large forests he called it Markland (timberland). Then he sailed on to the first country seen by Bjarne, that is, some part of New England, and here, the saga tells us, he first entered a bay and then a river, then the river widened into a lake, which he crossed, then he entered a river on the other side of the lake and sailed up this river as far as it was deep enough for his viking
ship. As the reader will see, this can be applied to the Boston Harbor, to the Charles River between Boston and Cambridgeport, to the Back Bay between Boston and Cambridge and to the Charles River up as far as Gerry's Landing, near which our Professor Horsford. claimed to have found the site of Leif Erikson's house and fireplace.
After having landed, Leif Erikson and his party, thirty-one in number, pulled the vessel ashore and at once went to work to build a house for the winter. The party was divided into two groups to explore the country in different directions on alternate days. On one evening, when the exploring party returned to the camp, one man was missing. This was a German, by name Tyrker, who, though a prisoner of war, was Leif Erikson's special favorite. Leif Erikson became very much alarmed and anxious He feared that Tyrker might have been slain by natives or devoured by wild beasts. Therefore with his men Leif immediately set out in search of Tyrker. But they had not gone far from the camp, when they met their missing fellow mate in a very excited state of mind. The cause of his excitement was the fact that he had found ripe wild-grapes. He had his arms full of grapes, and was devouring the fruit with all his might, and when spoken to by Leif Erikson, he only answered in his native tongue, "Weintrauben! Weintrauben!! Weintrauben!!!" He was born in a country where the grape grew, and, having been absent from Germany for many years, the finding of grapes in this western world overwhelmed him with delight. The
sagas tell us that grapes were found in great abundance on every hand, and from this circumstance Leif gave the country the name of Vinland, and history at the same time obtained the interesting fact that a German accompanied these daring Argonauts of the Christian era.
The sagas give very full and interesting accounts of the various products of Vinland and of the natives or aborigines with whom our Norse explorers came in contact. This part of the subject is fully treated in preceding chapters of this volume. What I desire particularly to emphasize at this point is the fact that Leif Erikson was the first European and the first Christian who planted his feet on American soil and, as such, he deserves a conspicuous place in the history of our country. He represents the first chapter of civilized and Christian history of America.
In the spring Leif Erikson loaded his vessel with as much timber as it would carry and, in obedience to the instructions of King Olaf, proceeded to Greenland to preach, the gospel of the Gallilean to Erik the Red's colony there. He was successful, and had the good fortune to convert the whole colony to the Christian religion, except the aged Erik the Red. The latter stubbornly refused to be persuaded. He declared that his faith in Odin and Thor, and particularly in his own might and main, had been sufficient for him through his long life, and he would not forsake the Gods of his childhood in his old age. And so Erik the Red died as he had lived, a heathen.
In the Greenland colony there was much talk about
[paragraph continues] Vinland the Good, and it was the general opinion that the country had been far too little explored. It was therefore agreed in the year 1002 that Leif's brother, Thorwald, should make an expedition to Vinland. He set out with a good crew of men and reached Vinland in safety, where he occupied the house built by Leif two years before. He came into conflicts with the natives, and in one of these he lost his life, an arrow from one of the aborigines piercing his heart. His comrades buried him in Vinland, and Thorwald's was the first Christian grave made in this Western World. His grave was marked by two crosses, one at the head and one at the foot. Then the little band of Norsemen, having lost their leader, returned to Greenland.
Two years later, 1005, it was decided that the youngest brother, Thorstein, should proceed to Vinland, partly for the purpose of bringing back the body of his brother Thorwald. Thorstein's wife was Gudrid, a noble, refined, intelligent and enterprising woman, and an ornament to her sex. Gudrid went with her husband on this expedition, but the party did not reach Vinland. The weather was unfavorable and the vessel drifted far to the north. Thorstein was taken sick and died, and the widow, Gudrid, took the vessel back to Erik's fjord in Greenland.
Leif Erikson and his sister-in-law, Gudrid, lived at the farm Brattahlid in Greenland, and if the reader now will go with me to that northern country in the year 1006 we will find that there had just arrived in the colony a distinguished and wealthy man from Norway. His
name was Thorfin Karlsefni. He visited frequently at Brattahlid, and with each visit his admiration of Gudrid increased. The spark of love soon grew into an uncontrollable flame and he asked the young widow to become his wife. The matter was referred to Leif Erikson, who had the disposal of his sister-in-law, and he at once consented, and accordingly the nuptials of Gudrid and Thorfin were celebrated in grand style during the Christian holidays of the year 1006. The honeymoon was spent in Greenland, and I fancy that when the sun's rays began to warm the atmosphere the following spring that the young couple took many a walk on the sea shore, and I take it also that much of their conversation turned on Vinland, the Good, and the prospects offered for founding a settlement in that beautiful and fertile country. Gudrid was a bright and enterprising young woman and, while there is no record of the fact, I can imagine that she looked smiling into Thorfin's face and talked to him somewhat in this fashion: "I wonder that you, Thorfin, with all your wealth and with all your splendid men should choose to live in this Godforsaken country instead of seeking out the famous Vinland and planting a colony there. Just think what an agreeable change it would be for all of us! Thick and leafy woods instead of these willow bushes that are good for nothing except to save our cattle from starvation when the hay crop gives out. Longer summers and shorter and less cold winters instead of the barren wastes of this country. Surely, I think this land was woefully misnamed when Erik the Red called it Greenland."
Of course Gudrid pleaded as only a woman can plead, and Thorfin was persuaded. He resolved to plant a colony in Vinland, and in the summer of 1007 he organized a party of one hundred and fifty-one men and seven women, who sailed in three ships from Greenland to Vinland. That Thorfin and Gudrid intended to make a permanent settlement in Vinland is also, evident from the fact that they took cattle and sheep with them. The party reached Vinland in safety, and remained there three years, but the frequent conflicts with the aborigines made their life a very precarious one, and they finally decided to, abandon the colony, and return to Greenland. Powder and firearms had not yet been invented, and the superior intelligence of the Norsemen was not sufficient to protect them against the swarms of natives that surrounded them and were as well armed as the Norsemen. It is, however, to be recorded that during their stay in Vinland, Thorfin and Gudrid got a son. They named him Snorre. He was born in the summer of 1008, and was the first white and the first Christian child who saw the light of day in America.
The sagas--that is to, say, the histories--written in Iceland, describing these voyages of the Norsemen, give very full accounts of the daily life in the Vinland colony, of the explorations, of the natives of America, of the various kinds of products of the soil, of the climate, etc., and it is interesting to read these first recorded descriptions of a land that has since become so prominent in the history of the world, and which is now so dear to all of us who call it our home.
The sagas tell of various other voyages to Vinland, particularly of one in the year 1011. In 1121 it is stated, in various places in the sagas, that a bishop named Erik Upse went to find Vinland. It is nowhere stated whether he actually reached Vinland or returned and we are simply left to conjecture as to the purpose and result of his journey. All we know with certainty is that he "started for Vinland." However, it is by no means likely that the church would send a bishop to Vinland before a colony was planted there. We know now by the manuscript reports shown among the Vatican Exhibits at the World's Fair, 1904, that the Catholic See of Greenland extended its jurisdiction over all the new discoveries of Lief and Thorvald, and Karlsefni. It was common for priests to accompany voyages, but bishops took charge of the Church interests of colonies and, therefore, by the sending of bishop Erik Upse to Vinland it is reasonably certain that a colony had been planted there and was maintained for several years. This inevitable conclusion is fortified, if not confirmed, by references contained in official reports made by the bishops of Greenland to the Church at Rome.
The last expedition mentioned in the sagas was in 1347, 145 years before the rediscovery by Columbus. In that year it is stated that a vessel came from Markland (Nova Scotia) to Iceland with a cargo of wood. But this, as the reader will see, carries us down to a memorable period in European history. It brings us to the breaking out of the terrible black plague, or black death. The ravages of the black plague were so enormous, they
so much decimated the population of all European countries that much time was required for recuperation. It took more than one hundred years for Europe to recover sufficiently to be able to engage in new enterprises either at home or abroad. We can form some conception of the character of the black death when we learn that it reduced the population of Norway alone from 2,000,000 to 300,000. The black death has been handed down in tradition from generation to generation, even to the present time. The Norwegian peasants speak of it as an old hag marching through the country with a rake in one hand and a broom in the other. If she came to a valley in Norway where there were a few good people she used the rake and the virtuous would escape between the fingers of the rake. But when she found a valley where all the people were wicked she used the broom and did not leave a soul to tell the tale of what had happened. Some of the remote valleys thus swept clean have been rediscovered within the last century. The black death also visited Iceland and Greenland and committed similar depredations there. It is evident that this scourge left no surplus population for exploring and colonizing lands beyond the sea.
If the communication between the north of Europe and Greenland and Vinland could have been continued a hundred years longer, that is, until the middle of the fifteenth century, or until the countries had recuperated from the ravages of the black plague and until after the discovery of the compass and of powder and fire arms, then there is no doubt but that the Norse colonies would
have become permanent, and America would have become the scene of Norse settlements and Norse enterprises. The Norse language would have taken possession of this country from sea to sea and there is little doubt that his article of mine would have been written in the Norse tongue instead of in English. Meanwhile it is certain that Bjarne Herjulfson was the first European whose eyes beheld the American continent, that Leif Erikson was the first pale-faced man whose feet trod on American soil, that his brother Thorvald was the first Christian buried beneath our sod, that Thorfin Karlsefni was the first to attempt the planting of a colony on our shores, that the noble and intelligent Gudrid was the first white woman to honor America with her presence, and that Thorfin's and Gudrid's son Snorre was the first white child born in America.
In this connection it is interesting to note the fact that the first white man to visit the extreme western part of America was the Dane, Vitus Bering, after whom Bering Strait bears its name. Bering discovered the extreme western coast of this country in 1728. The Norwegian, Leif Erikson, stands at the rising, and the Dane, Vitus Bering, at the setting sun, and clasp the great American continent in their strong Scandinavian arms. The Swedes, too, should be remembered, for when this country was in the throes of the great civil war, did not Sweden give us her great son, John Ericsson, who invented for us the Monitor?
"Truth crushed to earth will rise again." The facts of these Norse voyages have long lain darkened and hid
in old neglected libraries, and so truth may long lie unknown under the dust and rubbish of the ages; but it is like a ray of light from a star in some far-off region of the universe. After thousands of years that ray reaches some other heavenly body and gives it light.