Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Leif the Lucky

The Northmen and Leif the Lucky

WAY, way in the far north, in the land of ice and snow, dwelt the Norsemen or Northmen. A bold, daring race, they knew no fear. They plowed the mighty waves of the sea in their small open vessels and made war on the strongest nations, with no thought of the dangers that they faced.

The Northmen had blue eyes and golden hair. They were so tall and powerfully built that when they went into battle they seemed almost like an army of giants. Imagine how they must have looked in their coats of mail, sharp swords hanging from their belts, and on their heads helmets of iron or steel. The sides of these helmets were adorned with wings, and between the wings was an image of some fierce-looking animal. Is it to be wondered that these Northmen were the most dreaded of fighters?

On the sea they were the bravest of sailors. Their ships were small and open, only about fifty feet long, but strongly built and seaworthy. They were low in the center, curving up toward the stern and the bow; and on the bow was carved either a dragon or a sea monster. They carried terror—these little vessels—to the people who watched their ugly bows plunging slowly through the waves and coming toward their shores.

Even France learned to dread the daring ventures of these Northmen or Vikings. There seemed no limit to what they would attempt. One of their leaders, called Rollo, forced from the French king a province on the northern coast of France. Rollo named it Normandy, and his descendants have lived there ever since.

Nor was France the only land which the Northmen molested. Even before Rollo seized his French province, his countrymen had raided the English coast. But these Vikings were not so lucky as Rollo. Although they conquered large districts north of the Thames River, they were soon driven away by England's good King Alfred.

And, strange as it may seem, these bold sailors were the first white men to visit the coasts of the great continent which lay across the sea, as yet undreamed of by any European race.

It happened in this way. Out to the west of the Northmen's land lay the island of Iceland. Here the Northmen planted a flourishing colony of happy, prosperous people. And here dwelt Eric the Red and his family.

This Eric the Red was as brave and fierce a warrior as ever lived, with a temper hard to control. Once upon a time he fell out with a neighbor, and in his anger killed the man. Such actions would not do, even in the Northmen's republic; so Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, as was just and right.

Soon a little Norse ship was plowing the angry waves of the Atlantic Ocean under the command of the exiled Eric. He was determined to seek his fortune in some new land, and daringly headed his vessel for the west, not knowing what lay before him.

Finally one day the outlines of a rough, forbidding coast came in sight. "This country, bleak as it is, may answer our purpose," reasoned Eric. So for three years he and his followers explored the shores of the land they had found.

At last they chose the pleasantest place they had seen, and there decided to make their home. Eric the Red named the new country Greenland; for, as he wisely said, "It is well to give it a pleasing name, you know, if we want others to be tempted to join us here."

This was just what Eric did want. He wanted to found a colony in Greenland. So he returned to Iceland and told the people wonderful tales about the beautiful land he had discovered. His stories so appealed to the adventurous spirit of his people that, when he set sail from Iceland the second time, twenty-five ships were needed to carry the colonists who went with him. Sad to say, eleven of the twenty-five ships were lost on the way. The other fourteen reached Greenland in safety, and the new colonists went busily to work building themselves homes.

Among Eric's colonists there was a certain man who had a devoted but roving son, named Biarni. After having made a long voyage this son went back to Iceland, full of enthusiasm in the thought of seeing his father again. Picture his disappointment on reaching his old home and being told that his father had moved to the new colony in Greenland!

But Biarni was not to be cheated out of his great desire and at once set sail for Greenland. He had scarcely left Iceland when a terrible storm arose, and the winds blew his vessel toward the south. For days and days he sailed on without knowing where he was. Then he came in sight of a thickly wooded land very different from what he had heard Greenland to be. His sailors wished to go ashore, but Biarni said, "No, I shall not rest until I have seen my father, who is with Eric the Red."

So they turned the ship northward and sailed until at last they reached Greenland. Little did Biarni suspect that he had seen a new world!

Biarni naturally talked of the strange lands he had seen on his trip to Greenland. He told the colonists about them; and later, when he went to Norway, he told about them there.

What Biarni reported in Norway of these lands reached the ears of Eric the Red's eldest son, Leif, who lived in Norway at the time. Leif found Biarni's tales so interesting that he determined to go himself to see the new country.

First, Leif went to Greenland and there made ready for his voyage of discovery. Then he and his sailors set sail for the south. Many days passed before they saw land. Early one morning the eager cry of "Land! land!" was raised; and great was the excitement when they saw before them a low, sandy coast covered with fine forests.

"This land shall be called Markland," said Leif. "It must be the land that Biarni saw. Let us go ashore."

The Northmen did not remain any length of time in Markland, but sailed on till they came to a river that flowed into a channel. They sailed slowly up the river and soon came to a lake. Here they cast anchor. Some of the men went ashore and explored the new-found region. Everything seemed so charming that they decided to put up wooden huts and to spend the winter in them.

Explorations were cautiously made, but no inhabitants were to be seen. One night one of the men who had wandered off failed to come back. A party was sent out to find him. They became more and more anxious. After searching a long time, they came upon their lost comrade; and to their surprise, he was in a state of happy excitement.

Where had he been and what had happened? Everyone wanted to know. The man replied that he had been for a ramble and, wonderful to tell, had discovered countless vines loaded with grapes; and if the others had been Germans, as he was, and had been brought up in the land of luscious grapes, they would understand his joy.

The Northmen had never seen or tasted grapes before, but you can imagine that they soon shared with the German sailor his love for them. On account of the vines, Leif named the land Vinland.

All this was in the year 1000. When the next spring came, the Northmen went home to Greenland, their ship filled with timber and dried grapes. Leif received the name of "The Lucky," and after his father's death became head of the colony in Greenland.

Thorvald and Karlsefin

THE voyage of Leif the Lucky greatly impressed the Greenland colonists. So much so, in fact, that Leif's brother, Thorvald, became very enthusiastic over the wonders of Vinland; and in the year 1002 he and thirty companions set sail in Leif's ship.

They soon arrived at Vinland and, finding Leif's huts, spent two winters there. Early in the second spring they sailed farther south. In coasting thus, the explorers came upon a beautiful land covered with woods. All went ashore. On seeing how attractive the place was, Thorvald said, "I should like to build myself a home here."

Up to this time the Northmen had met no inhabitants; but, as they were wandering along the sands, they came upon three canoes turned bottom upward. They lifted these. Hidden under each canoe was a man. The Northmen killed two of the men, but the third escaped. Then being weary, Thorvald and his companions foolishly lay on the beach and went to sleep.

Suddenly, and without warning, one of his men cried out, "Arise, Thorvald! Tarry no longer, but haste to your ship! Arise, Thorvald!"

The men sprang to their feet and saw the woods alive with fierce natives who had come to avenge the death of their comrades. The Northmen ran to their boats and rowed swiftly to the ship. A few well-aimed arrows sent the natives fleeing.

But a sad thing had happened. A swift arrow had struck Thorvald and wounded him mortally. All the men gathered sorrowfully around their chief. Realizing that he was dying, Thorvald said to them, "Bury me here on these shores, the place where I have said I should like to build myself a home. Return to Greenland." They buried him as he had directed, and placed two crosses on his grave. Then they went back to Greenland with their sad tale.

Not long after Thorvald's death, there came to Greenland from Iceland a handsome, wealthy, and most energetic young man. His name was Karlsefin. He married a beautiful young woman; and together they hit upon the plan of trying to found a colony in Vinland. Others gladly promised to go with them; and in the spring the expedition set sail with all that was necessary to start their colony, even to the cattle to supply milk.

In due time the colonists reached Vinland, and there still stood Leif's huts to offer them a shelter. A little fishing and hunting showed that fish and game were plentiful, and that it would be easy enough to get food in their new home.

For a year the settlers had things their own way. Then the natives began to pay them visits. Of course these natives were really what we call Indians, but the colonists called them Skraelings, meaning "inferior people."

The first time the Skraelings came was early one morning. Some of the Northmen saw them approaching in canoes. They were ugly-looking men, with coarse, unkempt black hair and black eyes. They looked in wonder at the tall blond Northmen, and after a while paddled away. For several months nothing more was seen of these strange visitors.

Then suddenly one day a great number of natives appeared in their canoes. They had come to trade with the Northmen. They proved to be especially fond of the red cloth that the Northmen had. In exchange for it the Skraelings gave skins of animals.

The Skraelings continued to come in such great numbers that the Northmen were soon short of red cloth, so Karlsefin divided what they had into narrow strips. Some were not more than an inch in width, but the natives gave as much for these narrow strips as they had given for the wider.

After a while something happened which changed this peaceful relation between the Northmen and the Skraelings. Karlsefin had a bull. Now, it is difficult to see how a bull could bring on a war, but that is what this bull did. Once when the Indians were trading with the settlers, it ran, loudly bellowing, out of the field in which it had been kept. Terribly frightened, the natives fled to their canoes.

For fully three weeks they were not seen. When they did appear, there was no more peace for the settlers. Quarrel after quarrel with the savage Indians kept them in constant terror. They never knew when to look for an attack. At last, after many of his brave men had been killed in these fights with the Skraelings, Karlsefin decided to give up his colony and go back to Greenland.

When the disappointed settlers sailed away from Vinland, just ten years had gone by since Leif's discovery of this beautiful country—his land of grapes, which most likely lay somewhere on the New England coast.

Still later, other expeditions came to its shores; but before long the Norsemen lost their interest in the new world. All trace of the white man's visits gradually faded away, and once more the Skraelings held full sway.