Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Vineland and the Vikings

The year 1000 a.d. was one of strange history. Its advent threw the people of Europe into a state of mortal terror. Ten centuries had passed since the birth of Christ. The world was about to come to an end. Such was the general belief. How it was to reach its end,—whether by fire, water, or some other agent of ruin,—the prophets of disaster did not say, nor did people trouble themselves to learn. Destruction was coming upon them, that was enough to know; how to provide against it was the one thing to be considered.

Some hastened to the churches; others to the taverns. Here prayers went up; there wine went down. The petitions of the pious were matched by the ribaldry of the profligate. Some made their wills; others wasted their wealth in revelry, eager to get all the pleasure out of life that remained for them. Many freely gave away their property, hoping, by ridding themselves of the goods of this earth, to establish a claim to the goods of Heaven, with little regard to the fate of those whom they loaded with their discarded wealth.

It was an era of ignorance and superstition. Christendom went insane over an idea. When the year ended, and the world rolled on, none the worse for conflagration or deluge, green with the spring leafage and ripe with the works of man, dismay gave way to hope, mirth took the place of prayer, man regained their flown wits, and those who had so recklessly given away their wealth bethought themselves of taking legal measures for its recovery.

Such was one of the events that made that year memorable. There was another of a highly different character. Instead of a world being lost, a world was found. The Old World not only remained unharmed, but a New World was added to it, a world beyond the seas, for this was the year in which the foot of the European was first set upon the shores of the trans-Atlantic continent. It is the story of this first discovery of America that we have now to tell.

In the autumn of the year 1000, in a region far away from fear-haunted Europe, a scene was being enacted of a very different character from that just described. Over the waters of unknown seas a small, strange craft boldly made its way, manned by a crew of the hardiest and most vigorous men, driven by a single square sail, whose coarse woollen texture bellied deeply before the fierce ocean winds, which seemed at times as if they would drive that deckless vessel bodily beneath the waves.

This crew was of men to whom fear was almost unknown, the stalwart Vikings of the North, whose oar-and sail-driven barks now set out from the coasts of Norway and Denmark to ravage the shores of southern Europe, now turned their prows boldly to the west in search of unknown lands afar.

Shall we describe this craft? It was a tiny one in which to venture upon an untravelled ocean in search of an unknown continent,—a vessel shaped somewhat like a strung bow, scarcely fifty feet in length, low amidships and curving upwards to high peaks at stem and stern, both of which converged to sharp edges. It resembled an enormous canoe rather than aught else to which we can compare it. On the stem was a carved and gilt dragon, the figurehead of the ship, which glittered in the bright rays of the sun. Along the bulwarks of the ship, fore and aft, hung rows of large painted wooden shields, which gave an Argus-eyed aspect to the craft. Between them was a double row of thole-pins for the great oars, which now lay at rest in the bottom of the boat, but by which, in calm weather, this "walker of the seas" could be forced swiftly through the yielding element.


Viking Ships at Sea.

Near the stern, on an elevated platform, stood the commander, a man of large and powerful frame and imposing aspect, one whose commands not the fiercest of his crew would lightly venture to disobey. A coat of ring-mail encircled his stalwart frame; by his side, in a richly-embossed scabbard, hung a long sword, with hilt of gilded bronze; on his head was a helmet that shone like pure gold, shaped like a wolf's head, with gaping jaws and threatening teeth. Land was in sight, an unknown coast, peopled perhaps by warlike men. The cautious Viking leader deemed it wise to be prepared for danger, and was armed for possible combat.

Below him, on the rowing-benches, sat his hardy crew, their arms—spears, axes, bows, and slings—beside them, ready for any deed of daring they might be called upon to perform. Their dress consisted of trousers of coarse stuff, belted at the waist; thick woollen shirts, blue, red, or brown in color; iron helmets, beneath which their long hair streamed down to their shoulders; and a shoulder belt descending to the waist and supporting their leather-covered sword-scabbards. Heavy whiskers and moustaches added to the fierceness of their stern faces, and many of them wore as ornament on the forehead a band of gold.

They numbered thirty-five in all, this crew who had set out to brave the terrors and solve the mysteries of the great Atlantic. Their leader, Leif by name, was the son of Eirek the Red, the discoverer of Greenland, and a Viking as fierce as ever breathed the air of the north land. Outlawed in Norway, where in hot blood he had killed more men than the law could condone, Eirek had made his way to Iceland. Here his fierce temper led him again to murder, and flight once more became necessary. Manning a ship, he set sail boldly to the west, and in the year 982 reached a land on which the eye of European had never before gazed. To this he gave the name of Greenland, with the hope, perhaps, that this inviting name would induce others to follow him.

Such proved to be the case. Eirek returned to Iceland, told the story of his discovery, and in 985 set sail again for his new realm with twenty-five ships and many colonists. Others came afterwards, among them one Biarni, a bold and enterprising youth, for whom a great adventure was reserved. Enveloped in fogs, and driven for days from its course by northeasterly winds, his vessel was forced far to the south. When at length the fog cleared away, the distressed mariners saw land before them, a low, level, thickly-wooded region, very different from the ice-covered realm they had been led to expect.

"Is this the land of which we are in search?" asked the sailors.

"No," answered Biarni; "for I am told that we may look for very large glaciers in Greenland.

"At any rate, let us land and rest."

"Not so; my father has gone with Eirek. I shall not rest till I see him again."

And now the winds blew northward, and for seven days they scudded before a furious gale, passing on their way a mountainous, ice-covered island, and in the end, by great good fortune, Biarni's vessel put into the very port where his father had fixed his abode.

Biarni had seen, but had not set foot upon, the shores of the New World. That was left for bolder or more enterprising mariners to perform. About 995 he went to Norway, where the story of his strange voyage caused great excitement among the adventure-loving people. Above all, it stirred up the soul of Leif, eldest son of Eirek the Red, then in Norway, who in his soul resolved to visit and explore that strange land which Biarni had only seen from afar.

Leif returned to Greenland with more than this idea in his mind. When Eirek left Norway he had left a heathen land. When Leif visited it he found it a Christian country. Or at least he found there a Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason by name, who desired his guest to embrace the new faith. Leif consented without hesitation. Heathenism did not seem very firmly fixed in the minds of those northern barbarians. He and all his sailors were baptized, and betook themselves to Greenland with this new faith as their most precious freight. In this way Christianity first made its way across the seas. And thus it further came about that the ship which we have seen set sail for southern lands.

This ship was that of Biarni. Leif had bought it, it may be with the fancy that it would prove fortunate in retracing its course. Not only Leif, but his father Eirek, now an old man, was fired with the hope of new discoveries. The aged Viking had given Greenland, to the world; it was a natural ambition to desire to add to his fame as a discoverer. But on his way to the vessel his horse stumbled. Superstitious, as all men were in that day, he looked on this as an evil omen.

"I shall not go," he said. "It is not my destiny to discover any other lands than that on which we now live. I shall follow you no farther, but end my life in Greenland." And Eirek rode back to his home.

Not so the adventurers. They boldly put out to sea, turned the prow of their craft southward, and battled with the waves day after day, their hearts full of hope, their eyes on the alert for the glint of distant lands.

At length land was discovered,—a dreary country, mountainous, icy; doubtless the inhospitable island which Biarni had described. They landed, but only to find themselves on a shore covered with bare, flat rocks, while before them loomed snow-covered heights.

"This is not the land we seek," said Leif; "but we will not do as Biarni did, who never set foot on shore. I will give this land a name, and will call it Helluland,"—a name which signifies the "land of broad stones."

Onward they sailed again, their hearts now filled with ardent expectation. At length rose again the stirring cry of "Land!" or its Norse equivalent, and as the dragon-peaked craft glided swiftly onward there rose into view a long coast-line, flat and covered with white sand in the foreground, while a dense forest spread over the rising ground in the rear.

"Markland [land of forest] let it be called," cried Leif. "This must be the land which Biarni first saw. We will not be like him, but will set foot on its promising shores."

They landed, but tarried not long. Soon they took ship again, and sailed for two days out of sight of land. Then there came into view an island, with a broad channel between it and the mainland. Up this channel they laid their course, and soon came to where a river poured its clear waters into the sea. They decided to explore this stream. The boat was lowered and the ship towed up the river, until, at a short distance inland, it broadened into a lake. Here, at Leif's command, the anchor was cast, and their good ship, the pioneer in American discovery, came to rest within the inland waters of the New World.

Not many minutes passed before the hardy mariners were on shore, and eagerly observing the conditions of their new-discovered realm. River and lake alike were full of salmon, the largest they had ever seen, a fact which agreeably settled the question of food. The climate seemed deliciously mild, as compared with the icy shores to which they were used. The grass was but little withered by frost, and promised a winter supply of food for cattle. Altogether they were so pleased with their surroundings that Leif determined to spend the winter at that place, exploring the land so far as he could.

For some time they dwelt under booths, passing the nights in their leather sleeping-bags; but wood was abundant, axes and hands skilful to wield them were at hand, and they quickly went to work to build themselves habitations more suitable for the coming season of cold.

No inhabitants of the land were seen. So far as yet appeared, it might be a region on which human foot had never before been set. But Leif was a cautious leader. He bade his men not to separate until the houses were finished. Then he divided them into two parties, left one to guard their homes and their ship, and sent the other inland to explore.

"Beware, though," he said, "that you risk not too much. We know not what perils surround us. Go not so far inland but that you can get back by evening, and take care not to separate."

Day after day these explorations continued, the men plunging into the forest that surrounded them and wandering far into its hidden recesses, each evening bringing back with them some story of the marvels of this new land, or some sample of its productions strange to their eyes.

An evening came in which one of the explorers failed to return. He had either disobeyed the injunctions of Leif and gone too far to get back by evening, or some peril of that unknown land had befallen him. This man was of German birth, Tyrker by name, a southerner who had for years dwelt with Eirek and been made the foster-father of Leif, who had been fond of him since childhood. He was a little, wretched-looking fellow, with protruding forehead, unsteady eyes, and tiny face, yet a man skilled in all manner of handicraft.

Leif, on learning of his absence, upbraided the men bitterly for losing him, and called on twelve of them to follow him in search. Into the forest they went, and before long had the good fortune to behold Tyrker returning. The little fellow, far from showing signs of disaster, was in the highest of spirits, his face radiant with joy.

"How now, foster-father!" cried Leif. "Why are you so late? and why have you parted from the others?"

Tyrker was too excited to answer. He rolled his eyes wildly and made wry faces. When words came to him, he spoke in his native German, which none of them understood. Joy seemed to have driven all memory of the language of the north from his mind. It was plain that no harm had come to him. On the contrary, he seemed to have stumbled upon some landfall of good luck. Yet some time passed before they could bring him out of his ecstasy into reason.

"I did not go much farther than you," he at length called out, in their own tongue "and if I am late I have a good excuse. I can tell you news."

"What are they?"

"I have made a grand discovery. See, I have found vines and grapes," and he showed them his hands filled with the purple fruit. "I was born in a land where grapes grow in plenty. And this land bears them! Behold what I bring you!"

The memory of his childhood had driven for the time all memory of the Norse language from his brain. Grapes he had not seen for many years, and the sight of them made him a child again. The others beheld the prize with little less joy. They slept where they were that night, and in the morning followed Tyrker to the scene of his discovery, where he gladly pointed to the arbor-like vines, laden thickly with wild grapes, a fruit delicious to their unaccustomed palates.

"This is a glorious find," cried Leif. "We must take some of this splendid fruit north. There are two kinds of work now to be done. One day you shall gather grapes the next you shall cut timber to freight the ship. We must show our friends north what a country we have found. As for this land, I have a new name for it. Let it be called Vineland, the land of grapes and wine."

After this discovery there is little of interest to record. The winter, which proved to be a very mild one, passed away, and in the spring they set sail again for Greenland, their ship laden deeply with timber, so useful a treasure in their treeless northern home, while the long-boat was filled to the gunwale with the grapes they had gathered and dried.

Such is the story of the first discovery of America, as told in the sagas of the North. Leif the Lucky was the name given the discoverer from that time forward. He made no more visits to Vineland, for during the next winter his father died, and he became the governing head of the Greenland settlements.

But the adventurous Northmen were not the men to rest at ease with an untrodden continent so near at hand. Thorvald, Leif's brother, one of the boldest of his race, determined to see for himself the wonders of Vineland. In the spring of 1002 he set sail with thirty companions, in the pioneer ship of American discovery, the same vessel which Biarni and Leif had made famous in that service. Unluckily the records fail to give us the name of this notable ship.

Steering southward, they reached in due time the lake on whose shores Leif and his crew had passed the winter. The buildings stood unharmed, and the new crew passed a winter here, most of their time being spent in catching and drying the delicious salmon which thronged river and lake. In the spring they set sail again, and explored the coast for a long distance to the south. How far they went we cannot tell, for all we know of their voyage is that nearly everywhere they found white sandy shores and a background of unbroken forest. Like Leif, they saw no men.

Back they came to Vineland, and there passed the winter again. Another spring came in the tender green of the young leafage, and again they put to sea. So far fortune had steadily befriended them. Now the reign of misfortune began. Not far had they gone before the vessel was driven ashore by a storm, and broke her keel on a protruding shoal. This was not a serious disaster. A new keel was made, and the old one planted upright in the sands of the coast.

"We will call this place Kial-ar-ness" [Keel Cape], said Thorvald.

On they sailed again, and came to a country of such attractive aspect that Thorvald looked upon it with longing eyes.

"This is a fine country, and here I should like to build myself a home," he said, little deeming in what gruesome manner his words were to be fulfilled.

For now, for the first time in the story of these voyages, are we told of the natives of the land,—the Skroelings, as the Norsemen called them. Passing the cape which Thorvald had chosen for his home, the mariners landed to explore the shore, and on their way back to the ship saw, on the white sands, three significant marks. They were like those made by a boat when driven ashore. Continuing their observation, they quickly perceived, drawn well up on the shore, three skin-canoes turned keel upward. Dividing into three parties, they righted these boats, and to their surprise saw that under each three men lay concealed.

The blood-loving instinct of the Norsemen was never at fault in a case like this. Drawing their swords, they assailed the hidden men, and of the nine only one escaped, the other being stretched in death upon the beach.

The mariners had made a fatal mistake. To kill none, unless they could kill all, should have been their rule, a lesson in practical wisdom which they were soon to learn. But, heedless of danger and with the confidence of strength and courage, they threw themselves upon the sands, and, being weary and drowsy, were quickly lost in slumber.

And now came a marvel. A voice, none knew whence or of whom, called loudly in their slumbering ears,—

"Wake, Thorvaldt! Wake all your men, if you would save your life and theirs! Haste to your ship and fly from land with all speed, for vengeance and death confront you."

Suddenly aroused, they sprang to their feet, looking at each other with astounded eyes, and asking who had spoken those words. Little time for answer remained. The woods behind them suddenly seemed alive with fierce natives, who had been roused to vengeful fury by the flying fugitive, and now came on with hostile cries. The Norsemen sprang to their boats and rowed in all haste to the ship; but before they could make sail the surface of the bay swarmed with skin-boats, and showers of arrows were poured upon them.

The warlike mariners in turn assailed their foes with arrows, slings, and javelins, slaying so many of them that the remainder were quickly put to flight. But they fled not unrevenged. A keen-pointed arrow, flying between the ship's side and the edge of his shield, struck Thorvald in the armpit, wounding him so deeply that death threatened to follow the withdrawal of the fatal dart.

"My day is come," said the dying chief. "Return home to Greenland as quickly as you may. But as for me, you shall carry me to the place which I said would be so pleasant to dwell in. Doubtless truth came out of my mouth, for it may be that I shall live there for awhile. There you shall bury me and put crosses at my head and feet, and henceforward that place shall be called Krossanes" [Cross Cape].

The sorrowing sailors carried out the wishes of their dying chief, who lived but long enough to fix his eyes once more on the place which he had chosen for his home, and then closed them in the sleep of death. They buried him here, placing the crosses at his head and feet as he had bidden, and then set sail again for the booths of Leif at Vineland, where part of their company had been left to gather grapes in their absence. To these they told the story of what had happened, and agreed with them that the winter should be spent in that place, and that in the spring they should obey Thorvald's request and set sail for Greenland. This they did, taking on board their ship vines and an abundance of dried grapes. Ere the year was old their good ship again reached Eireksfjord, where Leif was told of the death of his brother and of all that had happened to the voyagers.

The remaining story of the discoveries of the Northmen must be told in a few words. The next to set sail for that far-off land was Thorstein, the third son of Eirek the Red. He failed to get there, however, but made land on the east coast of Greenland, where he died, while his wife Gudrid returned home. Much was this woman noted for her beauty, and as much for her wisdom and prudence, so the sagas tell us.

In 1006 came to Greenland a noble Icelander, Thorfinn by name. That winter he married Gudrid, and so allied himself to the family of Eirek the Red. And quickly he took up the business of discovery, which had been pursued so ardently by Eirek and his sons. He sailed in 1007, with three ships, for Vineland, where he remained three years, having many adventures with the natives, now trading with them for furs, now fighting with them for life. In Vineland was born a son to Thorfinn and Gudrid, the first white child born in America. From him—Snorri Thorfinnson he was named—came a long line of illustrious descendants, many of whom made their mark in the history of Iceland and Denmark, the line ending in modern times in the famous Thorwaldsen, the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century.

The sagas thus picture for us the natives: "Swarthy they were in complexion, short and savage in aspect, with ugly hair, great eyes, and broad cheeks." In a battle between the adventurers and these savages the warlike blood of Eirek manifested itself in a woman of his race. For Freydis, his daughter, when pursued and likely to be captured by the natives, snatched up a sword which had been dropped by a slain Greenlander, and faced them so valiantly that they took to their heels in affright and fled precipitately to their canoes.

One more story, and we are done. In the spring of 1010 Thorfinn sailed north with the two ships which he still had. One of them reached Greenland in safety. The other, commanded by Biarni Grimolfson, was driven from its course, and, being worm-eaten, threatened to sink.

There was but one boat, and this capable of holding but half the ship's company. Lots were cast to decide who should go in the boat, and who stay on the sinking ship. Biarni was of those to whom fortune proved kindly. But he was a man of noble strain, fit for deeds of heroic fortitude and self-sacrifice. There was on board the ship a young Icelander, who had been put under Biarni's protection, and who lamented bitterly his approaching fate.

"Come down into the boat," called out the noble-hearted Viking. "I will take your place in the ship; for I see that you are fond of life."

So the devoted chieftain mounted again into the ship, and the youth, selfish with fear, took his place in the boat. The end was as they had foreseen. The boat reached land, where the men told their story. The worm-eaten ship must have gone down in the waves, for Biarni and his comrades were never heard of again. Thus perished one of the world's heroes.

Little remains to be told, for all besides is fragment and conjecture. It is true that in the year 1011 Freydis and her husband voyaged again to Vineland, though they made no new discoveries; and it is probable that in the following centuries other journeys were made to the same land. But as time passed on Greenland grew colder; its icy harvest descended farther and farther upon its shores; in the end its colonies disappeared, and with them ended all intercourse with the grape-laden shores of Vineland.

Just where lay this land of the vine no one to-day can tell. Some would place it as far north as Labrador; some seek to bring it even south of New England; the Runic records simply tell us of a land of capes, islands, rivers, and vines. It is to the latter, and to the story of far-reaching forest-land, and pasturage lasting the winter through, that we owe the general belief that the Vikings reached New England's fertile shores, and that the ship of Biarni and Leif, with its war-loving crews, preceded by six centuries the Mayflower, with its peaceful and pious souls.

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