The Discoveries of the Vikings
The love of adventure drove many Vikings across the sea in search, not only of treasures of gold and silver, but in search of new lands.
Iceland was thus discovered by a Viking named Naddod in 861. He called the island Snowland, because the mountains were covered with snow. When he went back to Norway and told people of the land he had discovered, a Viking named Gardar thought he, too, would go in search of Snowland. When he found it, he was much pleased with the great forests which stretched from the mountains to the shore. For one winter Gardar dwelt in Snowland, then he went back to Norway, and as the people listened to his tales of the new country, they began to call it Gardar's island.
Six years later Floki, another Viking, reached the island. Floki climbed the peak of a mountain, and whichever way he looked he saw large blocks of drifting ice, and it was then that he called Gardar's isle Iceland, by which name it has ever since been known.
None of these men, Naddod, Gardar, or Floki, settled in this new country. It was three years later, in 870, that Ingolf and Leif, two foster-brothers, fled from Norway, where Harald Fairhair was then ruling, and settled in Iceland. The brothers were soon followed by other Vikings who had taken refuge from Harald's tyranny in the British Isles, but had been hunted out of their refuges there by the Norse king.
About one hundred years later the descendants of these Iceland settlers set out in search of yet other countries.
Thorvald and his son Eirik the Red were the first Norsemen to discover Greenland. Being banished from Iceland, Thorvald sailed westward until he found a new land, where he settled with his men. For two years he stayed there, journeying across the island and giving names to many mountains and fiords. The country itself Thorvald called Greenland, for he thought that if it had so pleasant a name, many men would wish to visit it.
At the end of two years Thorvald went back to Iceland and told Red Eirik, his son, about the country he had discovered. The following summer Eirik got ready his ship, and when it was well manned he set sail for Greenland, and dwelt there ever after.
Others, when they heard that Red Eirik had settled in Greenland, also prepared to follow him to this new country. But though thirty-five ships set out at different times on the perilous voyage between Iceland and Greenland, only fourteen ever reached the new country. Some of the ships were driven back by storm and wind to Iceland, others foundered in the heavy seas and were seen no more.
And now listen to the greatest discovery of these bold sea-roving Vikings. You have been told that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, but long years before, in 986, the Vikings had found this great continent.
A band of sea-roving Vikings, on their way to Greenland, were driven out of their way by a great storm, and sighted strange lands. They did not stay to explore these countries, but when, some years later, they were in Norway, they told the people that they had seen them.
Then Leif, a son of Red Eirik, manned a vessel and said that he would sail to these strange lands. Among his crew was a man named Tyrker, who had come from the south.
One morning, when the sea was calm, Leif and his men came to an island lying north of a large tract of land. As they sailed up a channel toward the mainland their vessel ran aground, for it was ebb-tide. Leif and his crew were too eager to go ashore to wait till the tide had turned and floated their ship, so they leaped out on to the beach. Here a river flowed out of a lake into the sea. When their ship was once more floating with the tide, the men towed it up the river into this lake. There, by the side of the lake, the Vikings built booths in which they might dwell until they had built larger houses. There was no need to build barns, for the climate was so warm, and the land so fruitful, that the cattle were able to live and also to find food in the forests and plains.
To the Icelanders it seemed strange that during the winter months there was no frost to nip the grass or trees, which were almost as green then as in summer. Day and night, too, were divided more equally in this country than in Greenland or Iceland.
In the lake and the river Leif found salmon larger than any he had seen before, and these they caught and used for food.
When at length their houses were built, Leif divided his men into two parties, one to explore the country, the other to guard the houses.
One evening when the explorers came home, Tyrker, the man from the south, was missing. Leif at once set out with twelve men to seek for his lost comrade. They had gone but a short way, however, when they saw him coming toward them. "I have news for you!" he cried. "I have found a vine and grapes. I know them well, for I was born where grapes were never lacking."
From that day Leif and his men began to load their ship with grapes and timber, and when this was done, they sailed back to Greenland. Leif named the country Vinland, because of the vines which grew there. Now Vinland was really North America.
When Leif reached Greenland with his shipload of grapes and timber, his brother Thorvald thought he, too, would like to see so fruitful a land as Vinland. He therefore got ready a ship and a crew of thirty men, and sailed away on his perilous voyage. He reached Vinland in safety, and for a time dwelt in the booths which Leif had built.
As he journeyed here and there throughout the land, he came one day to a sandy beach on which he saw footprints. As he gazed at these in astonishment, three canoes came into the bay. In the canoes were nine Indians, and eight of these Thorvald killed. One, however, escaped, and roused his comrades, who speedily came back with him to avenge the death of their companions.
In the fight that followed Thorvald was wounded, and shortly afterwards died.
His men buried him, putting crosses at his head and feet as he had desired. Then having lost their leader, they filled their ship with vines and timber and sailed away to Greenland.
The next voyage to Vinland was undertaken by a Viking named Karlsefni. He manned his ship with sixty men, and hoping to settle in the land because of its great fruitfulness, he took with him cattle, among which was a large bull. This bull, as you shall hear, was of great service to the Viking band.
When the company landed at Vinland there was no need to search for food, for a large whale had been driven ashore by a storm, and Karlsefni and his men cut it into pieces and cooked it. This was their first meal in the new land.
The settlers were soon at work, cutting down trees, spreading the timber on the rocks to dry, and building houses. While they laboured they fed on the produce of the land, especially on grapes. Fish, too, they had in abundance.
Before many months had passed, the Indians heard of the new settlers in the land, and they came out of the forest to sell their gray furs, sables, and other skins. But the bull of which I told you began to bellow so loudly that the Indians were frightened, and fled with their packs of skins on their backs.
However, they soon ventured back again, and though neither the settlers nor the Indians could understand the language in which the other spoke, they began to make signs to one another, and in this way each soon knew what the other wished to say.
The Indians had furs which they wished to exchange for weapons, but these the Vikings refused to give them. Instead of weapons they bade the women offer them milk, eggs, butter, and these things pleased the Indians well, as they had never seen them before.
After they had gone, Karlsefni and his men put strong wooden palings round their houses. For they felt sure that the Indians would return and perhaps demand the weapons which they had before been refused. And indeed before long they came in greater numbers, and in their war-dress.
Then Karlsefni, knowing that the bull had already frightened the Indians, put it in the front of his little force as he drew it up in battle array.
No sooner did the bull bellow than, as Karlsefni expected, many of the Indians fled, but many more remained to fight. Karlsefni gained the victory, but he knew that he would no longer be able to live in peace or in safety in Vinland, for the Indians would return again and again in ever increasing numbers.
The Viking therefore ordered his men to load the ship with grapes and skins, and when this was done he sailed away to Greenland.
Except for one other short Viking expedition to Vinland, we do not hear of this land again until it was rediscovered by Christopher Columbus on Friday the 3rd of August 1492.