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31.01.2020

North America

The first Vikings to see North America were (again, according to the sagas) a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson and his crew, who were blown off course while attempting to reach Greenland. They never stepped ashore, though, and turned back to Greenland when the weather improved.

Shortly after Greenland was settled – sometime in the late tenth century – Erik’s son, Leif Eriksson “the Lucky,” was so moved by Bjarni’s story that he decided to set sail for this westward land. He may have been particularly interested in finding wood and other resources that were lacking in Greenland’s harsh climate.

Leif and his crew first stepped foot on North America at a place they called Helluland, “Flat Stone Land,” a desolate land of mountains and glaciers. This was probably Baffin Island off the northeastern coast of Canada. From there, Leif and his crew sailed south, and came to Markland (“Forest Land”), probably the Labrador coast. Two more days of sailing southwest brought them to Vínland, “Vine Land.” “Vinland” seems to have encompassed modern-day Newfoundland to New Brunswick – basically the coastal areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada. Leif and his crew overwintered in Vinland before returning to Greenland in the spring. In the following years, others retraced his route and attempted to settle in this new land, but all were driven out by the natives after having stayed no more than a few years.

Despite the briefness of their stay, the Vikings who reached North America have left traces of their presence in the archaeological record. Two Viking sites have been discovered on Newfoundland: one at L’Anse Aux Meadows near the island’s northern tip, and one further south and west. It’s highly likely that the Vikings attempted to settle elsewhere along the northeastern coast of North America. But if so, all traces of their settlements have vanished with the arrival of other Europeans many centuries later, who would have settled in many of the same areas.

Intriguingly, a late Viking Age Norwegian coin has been found in an Indian settlement in the present-day US state of Maine. It could have gotten there as a result of Vikings attempting to settle in the area, or it could have been the product of trade between that Indian group and others further north. Thus, it doesn’t provide conclusive evidence that the Vikings made it that far south.

 

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