Viking Settlement of the Americas

The possibility or probability of Viking exploration and possible settlement of the Americas at the time this text was written was based entirely on entirely on circumstantial conjecture.

That the Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland has been known. The decline of the Viking colony in Greenland is largely a mystery with evidence tending to a radical change in climate resulting in the decline of agriculture and famine to eventual abandonment of the colony. The colony in Iceland survives to this day.

At the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, lies the first known evidence of European presence in the Americas proper. Today we know that Viking settlement in Canada occurred at least in Newfoundland where a village has been rebuilt at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Here, a Norse expedition is thought to have sailed from Greenland, building a small encampment of timber-and-sod buildings over 1000 years ago. Against a stunning backdrop of rugged cliffs, bog, and coastline, discover the fascinating archaeological remains of the Viking encampment, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, its discovery credited to the efforts of Norwegian explorer and writer, Helge Ingstad who came upon the site in 1960.

Having sailed at least as far as the northern tip of Newfoundland, could the Vikings have gone further south? The possibility that Viking engagement with the Americas is more extensive than presently credited is mostly without physical evidence (at the moment). At the time this article was written, even the evidence of the Newfoundland encampment was unknown. The argument for Viking engagement with the Americas was based on circumstantial and logical inferences, and is intriguing for the body of evidence it musters.

What follows is from The Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen, Illustrated by Translations from Icelandic Sagas, edited with Notes and General Introduction by Benjamin Franklin de Costa.

Benjamin Franklin DeCosta or de Costa (July 10, 1831 – November 4, 1904) was an American clergyman and historical writer. He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1856 at the Biblical Institute at Concord, New Hampshire (later part of Boston University), became a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1857, and during the next three years was a rector first at North Adams, and then at Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts. After serving as chaplain in the 18th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and one other Massachusetts regiment during the first two years of the American Civil War, he became editor (1863) of The Christian Times in New York City, and subsequently edited The Episcopalian and The Magazine of American History. He was rector of the Church of St John the Evangelist in New York City from 1881 to 1899, at which time he resigned while converting to Roman Catholicism.
— Orly

HISTORIC FANCIES.

Before the plains of Europe, or even the peaks of Choumalarie, rose above the primeval seas, the Continent of America emerged from the watery waste that encircled the whole globe, and became the scene of animate life. The so-called New World is in reality the Old, and bears abundant proofs of hoary age. But at what period it became the abode of man we are unable even to conjecture. Down to the close of the tenth century of the Christian era it had no written history. Traces of a rude civilization that suggest a high antiquity are by no means wanting. Monuments and mounds remain that point to periods the contemplation of which would cause Chronos himself to grow giddy; yet among all these great and often impressive memorials there is no monument, inscription, or sculptured frieze, that solves the mystery of their origin. Tradition itself is dumb, and the theme chiefly kindles when brought within the realm of imagination. We can only infer that age after age nations and tribes continued to rise to greatness and then fall into decline, and that barbarism and a rude culture held alternate sway.

Nevertheless, men have enjoyed no small degree of satisfaction in conjuring up theories to explain the origin of the early races on the Western Continent. What a charm lingers around the supposed trans-Atlantic voyages of the hardy Phenician, the luxurious sailors of Tyre, and, later, of the bold Basque. What stories might the lost picture-records of Mexico and the chronicles of Dieppe tell. Now we are presented with the splendid view of great fleets, the remnant of some conquered race, bearing across the ocean to re-create in new and unknown lands the cities and monuments they were forever leaving behind; and now it is simply the story of some storm-tossed mariner who blindly drives across to the western strand, and lays the foundation of empire. Again it is the devotee of mammon, in search of gainful traffic or golden fleece. How romantic is the picture of his little solitary bark setting out in the days of Roman greatness, or in the splendid age of Charlemagne, sailing trustingly away between the Pillars of Hercules, and tossing towards the Isles of the Blessed and the Fountains of Eternal Youth. In time the Ultima Thule of the known world is passed, and favoring gales bear the merchant-sailor to new and wondrous lands. We see him coasting the unknown shores passing from cape to cape, and from bay to inlet, gazing upon the marvels of the New World, trafficing with the bronzed Indian, bartering curious wares for barbaric gold; and then shaping his course again for the markets of the distant East to pour strange tales into incredulous ears. Still this may not be all fancy.

 

THE SEA OF DARKNESS.

In early times the Atlantic ocean, like all things without known bounds, was viewed by man with mixed feelings of fear and awe. It was called the Sea of Darkness. Yet, nevertheless, there were those who professed to have some knowledge of its extent, and of what lay beyond. The earliest reference to this sea is that by Theopompus, in the fourth century before the Christian era, given in a fragment of Ælian, where a vast island is described, lying far in the west, and peopled by strange races. To this we may add the reference of Plato to the island called Atlantis, which lay west of the Pillars of Hercules, and which was estimated to be larger than Asia and Africa combined. Aristotle also thought that many other lands existed beyond the Atlantic. Plato supposed that the Atlantis was sunk by an earthquake, and Crantor says that he found the same account related by the Priests of Sais three hundred years after the time of Solon, from whom the grandfather of Critias had his information. Plato says, that after the Atlantis disappeared navigation was rendered too difficult to be attempted by the slime which resulted from the sinking of the land. It is probable that he had in mind the immense fields of drifting sea-weed found in that locality, and which Humboldt estimates to cover a portion of the Atlantic ocean six times as large as all Germany.

It is thought that Homer obtained the idea of his Elysium in the Western ocean from the voyages of the Phenicians, who, as is well known, sailed regularly to the British Islands. They are also supposed by some to have pushed their discoveries as far as the Western Continent. Cadiz, situated on the shore of Andalusia, was established by the Tyrians twelve centuries before the year of Christ; and when Cadiz, the ancient Gadir, was full five hundred years old, a Greek trader, Colæus, there bought rare merchandise, a long and severe gale having driven his ships beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

 

THE PHENICIANS.

In the ninth century before the Christian Era, the Phenicians had established colonies on the western coast of Africa; and three hundred years later, according to Herodotus, Pharaoh Necho, son of Psammiticus, sent an expedition, manned by Phenician sailors, around the entire coast of Africa. Vivien de St. Martin fixes the date of this expedition at 570 before Christ. St. Martin, in his account of the voyage, improves slightly upon the views of Carl Müller, and is followed by Bougainville.This voyage, performed by Hanno under the direction of Pharaoh, was inscribed in the Punic language in a Carthagenian temple, being afterwards translated into Greek, and was thus preserved.

That the Canary Islands were discovered and colonized by the Phenicians, there need be no doubt. Tradition had always located islands in that vicinity. Strabo speaks of the Islands of the Blessed, as lying not far from Mauritania, opposite Gadir or Cadiz. And he distinctly says, "That those who pointed out these things were the Phenicians, who, before the time of Homer, had possession of the best part of Africa and Spain." And when we remember that the Phenicians sought to monopolize trade, and hold the knowledge of their commercial resorts a secret, it is not surprising that we should hear nothing more of the Fortunate Isles until about eighty-two years before Christ, when the Roman Sertorius met some Lusitanian sailors on the coast of Spain who had just returned from the Fortunate Isles. They are described as two delightful islands, separated by a narrow strait, distant from Africa five hundred leagues. Twenty years after the death of Sertorius, Statius Sebosus drew up a chart of a group of five islands, each mentioned by name, and which Pliny calls the Hesperides, including the Fortunate Isles. This mention of the Canaries was sixty-three years before Christ.

 

JUBA'S EXPEDITION.

When King Juba II returned to Mauritania, he sent an expedition to the Fortunate Isles. A fragment of the narratives of this expedition still survives in the works of Pliny. They are described as lying southwest, six hundred and twenty-five miles from Purpurariæ. To reach them from this place, they first sailed two hundred and fifty miles westward and then three hundred and seventy-five miles eastward. Pliny says: "The first is called Ombrios, and contains no traces of buildings. There is in it a pool in the midst of mountains, and trees like ferules, from which water may be pressed, which is bitter from the black kinds, but from the light kinds pleasant to drink. The second is called Junonia, and contains a small temple built entirely of stone. Near it is another smaller island having the same name. Then comes Capraria, which is full of large lizards. Within sight of these is Nivaria, so called from the snow and fogs with which it is always covered. Not far from Nivaria is Canaria, so called on account of the great number of large dogs therein, two of which were brought to King Juba. There were traces of buildings in these islands. All the islands abound in apples, and in birds of every kind, and in palms covered with dates, and in the pine nut. There is also plenty of fish. The papyrus grows there, and the silurus fish is found in the rivers." The author of Prince Henry the Navigator, says that in Ombrios, we recognize the Pluvialia of Sebosus. Convallis of Sebosus, in Pliny, becomes Nivaria, the Peak of Teneriffe, which lifts itself up to the majestic height of nine thousand feet, its snow-capped pinnacle seeming to pierce the sky. Planaria is displaced by Canaria, which term first applied to the great central island, now gives the name to the whole group. Ombrios or Pluvialia, evidently means the island of Palma, which had "a pool in the midst of mountains," now represented by the crater of an extinct volcano. This the sailors of King Juba evidently saw. Major says: "The distance of this island [Palma] from Fuerteventura, agrees with that of the two hundred and fifty miles indicated by Juba's navigators as existing between Ombrios and the Purpurariæ. It has already been seen that the latter agree with Lancerote and Fuerteventura, in respect of their distance from the continent and from each other, as described by Plutarch. That the Purpurariæ are not, as M. Bory de St. Vincent supposed, the Madeira group, is not only shown by the want of inhabitants in the latter, but by the orchil, which supplies the purple dye, being derived from and sought for especially from the Canaries, and not from the Madeira group, although it is to be found there. Junonia," he continues, "the nearest to Ombrios, will be Gomera. It may be presumed that the temple found therein, was, like the island, dedicated to Juno. Capraria, which implies the island of goats, agrees correctly with the island of Ferro, ... for these animals were found there in large numbers when the island was invaded by Jean de Bethencourt, in 1402. But a yet more striking proof of the identity of this island with Capraria, is the account of the great number of lizards found therein. Bethencourt's chaplains, describing their visit to the islands, in 1402, state: 'There are lizards in it as big as cats, but they are harmless, although very hideous to look at.'"

We see, then, that the navigators of Juba visited the Canaries at an early period, as Strabo testifies was the case with the Phenicians, who doubtless built the temple in the island of Junonia. And, for aught we know, early navigators may have passed over to the Western continent and laid the foundation of those strange nations whose monuments still remain. Both Phenician and Tyrian voyages to the Western Continent, have been warmly advocated; while Lord Kingsborough published his magnificent volumes on the Mexican Antiquities, to show that the Jews settled this continent at an early day. And if it is true that all the tribes of the earth sprang from one central Asiatic family, it is more than likely that the original inhabitants of the American continent crossed the Atlantic, instead of piercing the frozen regions of the north, and coming in by the way of Behring Straits. From the Canaries to the coast of Florida, it is a short voyage, and the bold sailors of the Mediterranean, after touching at the Canaries, need only spread their sails before the steady-breathing monsoon, to find themselves wafted safely to the western shore.

 

TRADITIONS.

There was even a tradition that America was visited by St. Columba, and also by the Apostle St. Thomas, who penetrated even as far as Peru. This opinion is founded on the resemblance existing between certain rites and doctrines which seem to have been held in common by Christians and the early inhabitants of Mexico. The first Spanish missionaries were surprised to find the Mexicans bowing in adoration before the figure of the cross, and inferred that these people were of a Christian origin. Yet the inference has no special value, when we remember that Christianity is far less ancient than the symbol of the cross, which also existed among the Egyptians and other ancient people.

Claims have also been made for the Irish. Broughton brings forward a passage in which St. Patrick is represented as sending missionaries to the Isles of America. Another claim has been urged of a more respectable character, which is supported by striking, though not conclusive allusions in the chronicles of the North, in which a distant land is spoken of as "Ireland the Great." The Irish, in the early times, might easily have passed over to the Western continent, for which voyage they undoubtedly had the facilities. And Professor Rafn, after alluding to the well known fact that the Northmen were preceded in Iceland by the Irish, says, that it is by no means improbable that the Irish should also have anticipated them in America. The Irish were a sea-faring people, and have been assigned a Phenician origin by Moore and others who have examined the subject. If this is so, the tradition would appear to be some what strengthened. Even as early as the year 296, the Irish are said to have invaded Denmark with a large fleet. In 396, Niall made a descent upon the coast of Lancashire with a considerable navy, where he was met by the Roman, Stilicho, whose achievements were celebrated by Claudian in the days of the Roman occupation of England. At that period the Irish were in most respects in advance of the Northmen, not yet having fallen into decline, and quite as likely as any people then existing to brave the dangers of an ocean voyage.The Icelandic documents, possibly referring to the Irish, will be given in their proper place, and in the meanwhile it need only to be added that the quotation given by Beamish from such an authority as the Turkish Spy will hardly tend to strengthen their claims, especially where its author, John Paul Marana, says that in Mexico "the British language is so prevalent," that "the very towns, bridges, beasts, birds,[Pg xx] rivers, hills, etc., are called by the British or Welch  names." In truth, as the wish is so often father to the thought, it would be an easy task to find resemblance in the languages of the aborigines to almost any language that is spoken in our day.

But notwithstanding the probabilities of the case, we have no solid reason for accepting any of these alleged voyages as facts. Much labor has been given to the subject, yet the early history of the American continent is still veiled in mystery, and not until near the close of the tenth century of the present era can we point to a genuine trans-Atlantic voyage.

 

THE NORTHMEN.

The first voyage to America, of which we have any account, was performed by Northmen. But who were the Northmen?

The Northmen were the descendants of a race that in early times migrated from Asia and traveled towards the north, finally settling in what is now the kingdom of Denmark. From thence they overran Norway and Sweden, and afterwards colonized Iceland and Greenland. Their language was the old Danish (Dönsk túnga) once spoken all over the north,[20] but which is now preserved in Iceland alone, being called the Icelandic or old North, upon which is founded the modern Swedish, Danish and Norse or Norwegian.

After the Northmen had pushed on from Denmark to Norway, the condition of public affairs gradually became such that a large portion of the better classes found their life intolerable. In the reign of Harold Harfagr (the Fair-haired), an attempt was made by the king to deprive the petty jarls of their ancient udal or feudal rights, and to usurp all authority for the crown. To this the proud jarls would not submit; and, feeling themselves degraded in the eyes of their retainers, they resolved to leave those lands and homes which they could now hardly call their own. Whither, then, should they go?

 

THE COLONIZATION OF ICELAND.

In the cold north sea, a little below the arctic circle, lay a great island. As early as the year 860, it had been made known to the Northmen by a Dane of Swedish descent named Gardar, who called it Gardar's island, and four years later by the pirate Nadodd, who sailed thither in 864 and called it Snowland. Presenting in the main the form of an irregular elipse, this island occupies an area of about one hundred and thirty-seven square miles, affording the dull diversity of valleys without verdure and mountains without trees. Desolation has there fixed its abode. It broods among the dells, and looks down upon the gloomy fiords. The country is threaded with streams and dotted with tarns, yet the geologist finds but little evidence in the structure of the earth to point to the action of water. On the other hand, every rock and hillside is covered with signs that prove their igneous origin, and indicate that the entire island, at some distant period, has already seethed and bubbled in the fervent heat, in anticipation of the long promised Palingenesia. Even now the ground trembles in the throes of the earthquake, the Geyser spouts scalding water, and the plain belches mud; while the great jokull, clad in white robes of eternal snow—true priest of Ormuzd—brandishes aloft its volcanic torch, and threatens to be the incendiary of the sky.

The greater portion of the land forms the homestead of the reindeer and the fox, who share their domain with the occasional white bear that may float over from Greenland on some berg. Only two quadrupeds, the fox and the moose, are indigenous. Life is here purchased with a struggle. Indeed the neighboring ocean is more hospitable than the dry land, for of the thirty-four species of mammalia twenty-four find their food in the roaring main. The same is true of the feathered tribes, fifty-four out of ninety being water fowl. Here and there may be seen patches of meadow and a few sheep pastures and tracts of arable land warmed into fruitfulness by the brief summer's sun; yet, on the whole, so poor is the soil that man, like the lower orders, must eke out a scanty subsistence by resorting to the sea.

It was towards this land, which the settlers called Iceland, that the proud Norwegian jarl turned his eyes, and there he resolved to found a home.

The first settler was Ingolf. He approached the coast in the year 875, threw overboard his seat-posts, and waited to see them touch the land. But in this he was disappointed, and those sacred columns, carved with the images of the gods, drifted away from sight. He nevertheless landed on a pleasant promontory at the southeastern extremity of the island, and built his habitation on the spot which is called Ingolfshofdi to this day. Three years after, his servants found the seat-posts in the southwestern part of the island, and hither, in obedience to what was held to be the expressed wish of the gods, he removed his household, laying the foundation of Reikiavik, the capital of this ice-bound isle. He was rapidly followed by others, and in a short time no inconsiderable population was gathered here.

But the first settlers did not find this barren country entirely destitute of human beings. Ari Frode, than whom there is no higher authority, says: "Then were here Christian people, whom the Northmen called papas, but they afterwards went away, because they would not be here among heathens; and left behind them Irish books,  and bells, and croziers, from which it could be seen that they were Irishmen." He repeats substantially the same thing in the Landanama Book, the authority of which, no one acquainted with the subject, will question, adding that books and other relics were found in the island of Papey and Papyli, and that the circumstance is also mentioned in English books. The English writings referred to are those of the Venerable Bede. This is also stated in an edition of King Olaf Tryggvesson's Saga, made near the end of the fourteenth century.

The monks or Culdees, who had come hither from Ireland and the Isles of Iona, to be alone with God, all took their departure on the arrival of the heathen followers of Odin and Thor, and the Northmen were thus left in undisputed possession of the soil. In about twenty years the island became quite thickly settled, though the tide of immigration continued to flow in strongly for fifty years, so that at the beginning of the tenth century Iceland possessed a population variously estimated from sixty to seventy thousand souls. But few undertook the voyage who were not able to buy their own vessels, in which they carried over their own cattle, and thralls, and household goods. So great was the number of people who left Norway at the outset that King Harold tried to prevent emigration by royal authority, though, as might have been predicted, his efforts were altogether in vain. Here, therefore, was formed a large community, taking the shape of an aristocratic republic, which framed its own laws, and for a long time maintained a genuine independence, in opposition to all the assumptions and threats of the Norwegian king.

 

THE SETTLEMENT OF GREENLAND.

But as time passed on, the people of Iceland felt a new impulse for colonization in strange lands, and the tide of emigration began to tend towards Greenland in the west. This was chiefly inaugurated by a man named Eric the Red, born in Norway in the year 935. On account of manslaughter, he was obliged to flee from Jardar and take up his abode in Iceland. The date of removal to Iceland is not given, though it is said that at the time the island was very generally inhabited. Here, however, he could not live in peace, and early in the year 982, he was again outlawed for manslaughter by the public Thnig, and condemned to banishment. He accordingly fitted out a ship, and announced his determination to go in search of the land lying in the ocean at the west, which, it was said, Gunnbiorn, Ulf Krage's son, saw, when, in the year 876, he was driven out to sea by a storm. Eric sailed westward and found land, where he remained and explored the country for three years. At the end of this period he returned to Iceland, giving the newly discovered land the name of Greenland,[27] in order, as he said, to attract settlers, who would be favorably impressed by so pleasing a name.

The summer after his return to Iceland, he sailed once more for Greenland, taking with him a fleet of thirty-five ships, only fourteen of which reached their destination, the rest being either driven back or lost. This event took place, as the Saga says, fifteen winters[28] before the introduction of Christianity into Iceland, which we know was accomplished in the year A. D. 1000. The date of Eric's second voyage must therefore be set down at 985. 

But, before proceeding to the next step in Icelandic adventure, it will be necessary to give a brief sketch of the progress of the Greenland colony, together with a relation of the circumstances which led to its final extinction.

 

THE PROGRESS OF THE GREENLAND COLONIES.

There is but little continuity in the history of the Icelandic occupation of Greenland. We have already seen that the second voyage of Eric the Red took place in the year 985. Colonists appear to have followed him in considerable numbers, and the best portions of the land were soon appropriated by the principal men, who gave the chief bays and capes names that indicated the occupants, following the example of Eric, who dwelt in Brattahlid, in Ericsfiord.

In the year 999, Leif, son of Eric, sailed out to Norway and passed the winter at the court of King Olaf Tryggvesson, where he accepted the Christian faith, which was then being zealously propagated by the king. He was[Pg xxvii] accordingly baptized, and when the spring returned the king requested him to undertake the introduction of Christianity in Greenland, urging the consideration that no man was better qualified for the task. Accordingly he set sail from Norway, with a priest and several members of the religious order, arriving at Brattahlid, in Greenland, without any accident.His pagan father was incensed by the bringing in of the Christian priest, which act he regarded as pregnant with evil; yet, after some persuasion on the part of Leif, he renounced heathenism and nominally accepted Christianity, being baptized by the priest. His wife Thorhild made less opposition, and appears to have received the new faith with much willingness. One of her first acts was to build a church, which was known far and wide as Thorhild's church.These examples appear to have been very generally followed, and Christianity was adopted in both Iceland and Greenland at about the same period, though its acceptance did not immediately produce any very radical change in the spiritual life of the people. In course of time a number of churches were built, the ruins of which remain down to our own day.

In the year 1003, the Greenlanders became tributary to Norway. The principal settlement was formed on the western coast, and what was known as the eastern district, did not extend farther than the southern extremity towards[Pg xxviii] Cape Farewell. For a long time it was supposed that the east district was located on the eastern coast of Greenland; but the researches of Captain Graah, whose expedition went out under the auspices of the Danish government, proved very conclusively that no settlement ever existed on the eastern shore, which for centuries has remained blocked up by vast accumulations of ice that floated down from the arctic seas. In early times, as we are informed by the Sagas, the eastern coast was more accessible, yet the western shores were so superior in their attractions that the colonist fixed his habitation there. The site of the eastern settlement is that included in the modern district of Julian's Hope, now occupied by a Danish colony. The western settlement is represented by the habitation of Frederikshab, Godthaab, Sukkertoppen and Holsteinborg.

 

THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH.

In process of time the Christians in Greenland multiplied to such an extent, both by conversions and by the immigration from Iceland, that it was found necessary, in the beginning of the twelfth century to take some measures for the better government of the church, especially as they could not hope much for regular visits from the bishops of Iceland. They therefore resolved to make an effort to secure a bishop of their own. Eric Gnupson, of Iceland, was selected for the office, and proceeded to Greenland about the year 1112, without being regularly consecrated. He returned to Iceland in 1120, and afterwards went to Denmark, where he was consecrated in Lund, by Archbishop Adzer. Yet he probably never returned to his duties in Greenland, but soon after resigned that bishopric and accepted another, thus leaving Greenland without a spiritual director.

In the year 1123, Sokke, one of the principal men of Greenland, assembled the people and represented to them that both the welfare of the Christian faith and their own honor demanded that they should follow the example of other nations and maintain a bishop. To this view they gave their unanimous approval; and Einar, son of Sokke, was appointed a delegate to the court of King Sigurd, of Norway. He carried a present of ivory and fur, and a petition for the appointment of a bishop. His mission was successful, and in the year 1126 Arnald, the successor of Eric,[34] came into Greenland, and set up the Episcopal seat at Gardar. Torfæus and Baron Holberg, give a list of seventeen bishops who ruled in Greenland, ending with Andrew. The latter was consecrated and went thither in 1408, being never heard of afterwards.

The history of Old Greenland is found in the Ecclesiastical Annals, and consists of a mere skeleton of facts. As in Iceland and Norway there was no end of broils and bloodshed. A very considerable trade was evidently carried on between that country and Norway, which is the case at the present time with Denmark. As the land afforded no materials for ships, they depended in a great measure upon others for communication with the mother countries, which finally proved disastrous.

 

MONUMENTS AND RUINS.

Their villages and farms were numerous. Together they probably numbered several hundred, the ruins now left being both abundant and extensive. Near Igaliko, which is supposed to be the same as the ancient Einarsfiord, are the ruins of a church, probably the cathedral of Gardar. It is called the Kakortok church. It was of simple but massive architecture, and the material was taken from the neighboring cliffs. The stone is rough hewn, and but few signs of mortar are visible. It is fifty-one feet long and twenty-five wide. The north and south walls are over four feet thick, while the end walls are still more massive.

Nor are other monuments wanting. At Igalikko, nine miles from Julian's Hope, a Greenlander being one day employed in obtaining stones to repair his house, found among a pile of fragments a smooth stone that bore, what seemed to him, written characters. He mentioned the circumstance to Mr. Mathieson, the colonial director at Julian's Hope, who inferred that it must be a runic stone. He was so fortunate as to find it afterwards, and he accordingly sent it to Copenhagen, where it arrived in the year 1830. The runes, which were perfectly distinct, showed that it was a tombstone. The inscription was translated as follows:

"Vigdis Mars Daughter Rests Here.
May God Gladden Her Soul."

Another found in 1831, by the Rev. Mr. De Fries, principal of the Moravian Mission, bore the following inscription in the runic letter:

"Here Rests Hroar Kolgrimsson."

This stone, now in the museum at Copenhagen, was found built into the wall over the entrance of a Greenland house, having been taken for that purpose from a heap of ruins, about two miles north of Friederichsthal. This stone is more than three feet long, being eighteen inches wide in the narrowest part, and about five inches thick. It bears every sign of a high antiquity.

But one of the most interesting remains which prove the Icelandic occupation of Greenland is the runic stone found by Parry, in 1824, in the island of Kingiktorsoak, lying in 72° 55´ N. and 56° 51´ W. It contained a somewhat lengthy inscription, and copies of it were sent to three of the first scholars of the age, Finn Magnusson, Professor Rask, and Dr. Bryniulfson, who, without consultation, at once arrived at the same conclusion and united in giving the following translation:

"Erling Sighvatson and Biorn Thordarson and
Eindrid Oddson, on Saturday before
Ascension week, raised these
marks and cleared
ground. 1135."

The Icelandic colonists in Greenland do not appear to have been confined to a small portion of territory. We find considerable relating to this subject in the chronicle attributed to Ivar Bert,[38] the steward of one of the bishops of Greenland; yet, though used extensively by Torfæus, modern researches in this country prove that it is in some respects faulty. In this chronicle, as in the Sagas, the colonists are spoken of as possessing horses, sheep and oxen; and their churches and religious houses appear to have been well supported.

 

EXPLORATIONS IN GREENLAND.

Much was done, it appears, in the way of exploring the extreme northern portions of the country known as Nordrsetur. In the year 1266, a voyage was made under the auspices of some of the priests, and the adventurers penetrated north of Lancaster sound, reaching about the same latitude that was attained by Parry in 1827. This expedition was of sufficient importance to justify some notice of it here. The account is found in Antiquitates Americanæ and it sets out with the statement that the narrative of the expedition was sent by Haldor, a priest, to Arnald, the chaplain of King Magnus in Norway. They sailed out of Kroksfiardarheidi in an open boat, and met with southerly winds and thick weather, which forced them to let the boat drive before the wind. When the weather cleared, they saw a number of islands, together with whales and seals and bears. They made their way into the most distant portion of the sea, and saw glaciers south of them as far as the eye could reach. They also saw indications of the natives, who were called Skrællings, but did not land, on account of the number of the bears. They therefore put about, and laid their course southward for nearly three days, finding more islands, with traces of the natives. They saw a mountain which they call Snæfell, and on St. James day, July 25, they had a severe weather, being obliged to row much and very hard. It froze during the night in that region, but the sun was above the horizon both day and night. When the sun was on the southern meridian, and a man lay down crosswise in a six-oared boat, the shadow of the gunwale towards the sun would reach as far as his feet, which, of course, indicates that the sun was very low. Afterwards they all returned in safety to Gardar. Rafn fixes the position of the point attained by the expedition in the parallel of 75° 46´. Such an achievement at that day indicates a degree of boldness quite surprising.

 

THE DECLINE OF GREENLAND.

Of the reality and importance of the Greenland colony there exists no doubt, notwithstanding the records are so meagre and fragmentary. It maintained its connection with the mother countries for a period of no less than four hundred years; yet it finally disappeared and was almost forgotten.

The causes which led to the suspension of communication were doubtless various, though it is difficult to account for the utter extinction of the colony, which does not appear ever to have been in much danger from the Skrællings. On one occasion, in 1349 or later, the natives attacked the western settlement, it is said, and killed eighteen Greenlanders of Icelandic lineage, carrying away two boys captives.

We hear from the eastern colony as late as the middle of the fifteenth century. Trade was carried on with Denmark until nearly the end of the fourteenth century, although the voyages were not regular. The last bishop, Andreas, was sent out in 1406, and Professor Finn Magnussen has established the fact that he officiated in the cathedral at Gardar in 1409.

From this time the trade between Norway and Greenland appears to have been given up, though Wormius told Peyrere of his having read in a Danish manuscript that down to the year 1484 there was a company of more than forty sailors at Bergen, in Norway, who still traded with Greenland. But as the revenue at that time belonged to Queen Margaret of Denmark, no one could go to Greenland without the royal permission. One company of sailors who were driven upon the Greenland coast, came near suffering the penalty of the law on their return. Crantz says, that "about the year 1530, Bishop Amund of Skalholt in Iceland is said to have been driven by a storm, on his return from Norway, so near the coast of Greenland by Heriulfness, that he could see the people driving in their cattle. But he did not land, because just then a good wind arose, which carried the ship the same night to Iceland. The Icelander, Biærnvon Skardfa, who relates this, also says further, that a Hamburgh mariner, Jon Greenlander by name, was driven three times on the Greenland island, where he saw such fisher's huts for drying fish as they have in Iceland, but saw no men; further, that pieces of shattered boats, nay, in the year 1625, an entire boat, fastened together with sinews and wooden pegs, and pitched with seal blubber, have been driven ashore at Iceland from time to time; and since then they found once an oar with a sentence written in Runic letters: 'Oft var ek dasa, dur elk drothik,' that is, 'Oft was I tired when I drew thee.'"

 

LOST GREENLAND FOUND.

But, whatever may be the value of the preceding extract, it is clear that Greenland was never wholly forgotten. The first person who proposed to reopen communication was Eric Walkendorf, Archbishop of Drontheim, who familiarized himself with the subject, and made every preparation necessary in order to reestablish the colony; but, having fallen under the displeasure of King Christian II, he left the country and went to Rome, where he died in the year 1521. Thus his plans came to nothing. Christian III abrogated the decree of Queen Margaret, prohibiting trade with Greenland without the royal permission, and encouraged voyages by fitting out a vessel to search for Greenland, which, however, was not found. In 1578, Frederic II sent out Magnus Henningsen. He came in sight of the land, but does not appear to have had the courage to proceed further. Crantz, in his work on Greenland, gives an account of a number of voyages undertaken to the coast, but says that "at last Greenland was so buried in oblivion that one hardly would believe that such a land as Greenland was inhabited by Christian Norwegians."

It remained, therefore, for Hans Egede, in 1721, to reopen communication, and demonstrate the reality of the previous occupation. Columbus himself did not meet with greater trials and mortification than did this good man for the space of eleven years, during which period he labored to persuade the authorities to undertake the rediscovery. But his faith and zeal finally overcame all hostility and ridicule, and on the second day of May, 1721, he went on board the Hope, with his wife and four young children, and landed at Ball's river in Greenland on the third of the following month. Here he spent the best portion of his life in teaching the natives Christianity, which had been first introduced seven centuries before, and in making those explorations the results of which filled the mind of Europe with surprise, and afforded a confirmation of the truthfulness of the Icelandic Sagas.

 

THE CHARACTER AND ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE NORTHMEN.

Let us now return to the consideration of the Icelandic voyages to the American Continent, though not without first seeking a better acquaintance with the men by whom they were performed.

We have already seen that the Northmen were a people of no inferior attainments. Indeed, they constituted the most enterprising portion of the race, and, on general principles, we should therefore view them as fitted even above all the men of their time for the important work of exploration beyond the seas. They had made themselves known in every part of the civilized world[48] by their daring as soldiers and navigators. Straying away into the distant east from whence they originally came, we see them laying the foundation of the Russian empire, swinging their battle-axes in the streets of Constantinople, carving their mystic runes upon the Lions of the Areopagus, and filling the heart of even the great Charlemagne with dismay. Says Dasent, when summing up their achievements: "In Byzantium they are the leaders of the Greek emperor's body guard, and the main support of his  tottering throne. From France, led by Rollo, they tear away her fairest province and found a long line of kings. In Saxon England they are the bosom friends of such kings as Athelstane, and the sworn foes of Ethelred the Unready. In Danish England they are the foremost among the thanes of Canute, Swein and Hardicanute, and keep down the native population with an iron heel. In Norman England," he continues, "the most serious opposition the conqueror meets with is from the colonists of his own race settled in Northumbria. He wastes their lands with fire and sword, and drives them across the border, where we still find their energy, their perseverance, and their speech existing in the lowland Scotch. In Norway they dive into the river with King Olaf Tryggvesson, the best and strongest champion of his age, and hold him down beneath the waves so long that the bystanders wonder whether either king or Icelander will ever reappear on the surface. Some follow Saint Olaf in his crusades against the old [pagan] faith.[50] Some are his obstinate foes, and assist at his martyrdom. Many follow Harold the Stern to England when he goes to get his 'seven feet' of English earth, and almost to a man they get their portion of the same soil, while their names grow bright in song and story." And finally, "From Iceland as a base, they push on to Greenland and colonize it: nay, they discover America in those half-decked barks."

 

THE SHIPS OF THE NORTHMEN.

The Northmen were excellent navigators. They were, moreover, it has been claimed, the first to learn the art of sailing on the wind. They had good sea-going vessels,[Pg xxxviii] some of which were of large size. We have an account in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvesson of one that in some respects was remarkable. It is said that "the winter after King Olaf Tryggvesson came from Halogeland. He had a great ship built at Ledehammer,  which was larger than any ship in the country, and of which the beam-knees are still to be seen. The length of the keel that rested upon the grass was seventy-four ells. Thorberg Skafting was the man's name who was the master builder of the ship, but there were many others besides; some to fell the wood, some to shape it, some to make nails, some to carry timber, and all that was used was the best. The ship was both long and broad and high sided, and strongly timbered.... The ship was a dragon, built after the one that the king had captured in Halogaland, but it was far longer and more carefully put together in all her parts. The Long Serpent [her name] had thirty-four benches for rowers. The head and arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ever built in Norway."

Laing computes the tonnage of this ship at about nine hundred and forty-two tons, thus giving a length of about one hundred feet, which is nearly the size of a forty-two gun ship. By steam tonnage it would give a capacity of a little less than three hundred tons, and one hundred and twenty horse power. We apprehend, however, that the estimate is sufficiently large; yet we are not concerned to show any great capacity for the Icelandic ships. All the vessels employed in the early times on the American coasts were small. Cabot sailed in Baffins Bay with a vessel of thirty tons; and the Anna Pink, the craft that accompanied Lord Anson in his expedition around the world, was only sixteen tons.The vessels possessed by the Northmen were everyway adapted for an ocean voyage.

In nautical knowledge, also, they were not behind the age. The importance of cultivating the study of navigation was fully understood. The Raudulf of Oesterdal, in Norway, taught his son to calculate the course of the sun and moon, and how to measure time by the stars. In 1520 Olaus Magnus complained that the knowledge of the people in this respect had been diminished. In that noble work called Speculum Regale the Icelander is taught to make an especial study of commerce and navigation, of the divisions of time and the movements of the heavenly bodies, together with arithmetic, the rigging of vessels and morals. Without a high degree of knowledge they could never have achieved their eastern voyages.

 

THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.

We find that the Northmen were well acquainted with other parts of the world, and that they possessed all the means of reaching the continent in the west. We come, therefore, to the question: Did the Northmen actually discover and explore the coast of the country now known as America?

No one can say that the idea wears any appearance of improbability; for there is certainly nothing wonderful in the exploit. And after conceding the fact that the colonies of the Northmen existed in Greenland for at least three hundred years we must prepare ourselves for something of this kind. Indeed it is well nigh, if not altogether unreasonable, to suppose that a sea-faring people like the Northmen could live for three centuries within a short voyage of this vast continent, and never become aware of its existence. A supposition like this implies a rare credulity, and whoever is capable of believing it must be capable of believing almost anything.

But on this point we are not left to conjecture. The whole decision, in the absence of monuments like those of Greenland, turns upon a question of fact. The point is this: Do the manuscripts which describe these voyages belong to the pre-Columbian age? If so, then the Northmen are entitled to the credit of the prior discovery of America. That these manuscripts belong to the pre-Columbian age, is as capable of demonstration as the fact that the writings of Homer existed prior to the age of Christ. Before intelligent persons deny either of these points they must first succeed in blotting out numberless pages of well known history. The manuscript in which we have versions of all the Sagas relating to America is found in the celebrated Codex Flatöiensis, a work that was finished in the year 1387, or 1395 at the latest. This collection, made with great care and executed in the highest style of art, is now preserved in its integrity in the archives of Copenhagen. These manuscripts were for a time supposed to be lost, but were ultimately found safely lodged in their repository in the monastery library of the island of Flatö, from whence they were transferred to Copenhagen with a large quantity of other literary material collected from various localities. If these Sagas which refer to America were interpolations, it would have early become apparent, as abundant means exist for detecting frauds; yet those who have examined the whole question do not find any evidence that invalidates their historical statements. In the absence, therefore, of respectable testimony to the contrary, we accept it as a fact that the Sagas relating to America are the productions of the men who gave them in their present form nearly, if not quite, an entire century before the age of Columbus.

It might also be argued, if it were at all necessary, that, if these Sagas were post-Columbian compositions drawn up by Icelanders who were jealous of the fame of the Geneose navigator, we should certainly be able to point out something either in their structure, bearing, or style by which it would be indicated. Yet such is not the case. These writings reveal no anxiety to show the connection of the Northmen with the great land lying at the west. The authors do not see anything at all remarkable or meritorious in the explorations, which were conducted simply for the purpose of gain. Those marks which would certainly have been impressed by a more modern writer forging a historical composition designed to show an occupation of the country before the time of Columbus, are wholly wanting. There is no special pleading or rivalry, and no desire to show prior and superior knowledge of the country to which the navigators had from time to time sailed. We only discover a straightforward, honest endeavor to tell the story of certain men's lives. This is done in a simple, artless way, and with every indication of a desire to mete out even handed justice to all. And candid readers who come to the subject with minds free from prejudice, will be powerfully impressed with the belief that they are reading authentic histories written by honest men.

FINIS

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