The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America

The Icelandic house of what is likely the first European-American baby has scholars rethinking the Norse sagas

Vikings sailing to Iceland (H. A. Guerber)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

According to the sagas, Erik eventually set up a farmstead on the west coast of Greenland. The incongruous name for this barren, frigid island dominated by a vast ice cap comes from the outcast’s attempt to lure other settlers, demonstrating “a genius for advertising that made him prophetically American,” Stefansson wrote. Erik heard tales of strange lands to the west from a Norse sailor blown off course en route to Greenland, and it was his son Leif who led the first expedition to the New World. Another was led by Erik’s son Thorvald (who died in Vinland from an arrow wound). Thorfinn Karlsefni led a third.

Thorfinn’s assumed lineage is distinguished: one ancestor was Aud the Deepminded, a queen from the British Isles, and another was Ugarval, a king of Ireland. Thorfinn had grown up in Iceland on a farm not far from Glaumbaer. A wealthy merchant notorious for his cleverness, Thorfinn was also a good leader. On a trading voyage to Greenland, he met and married Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, the beautiful and charismatic widow of Erik’s son Thorvald. (A history of Iceland written around 1120, as well as scattered church records, back up the genealogies and dates in the sagas.) During the winter of 1005 at Brattahlid, Erik’s manor in Greenland’s eastern colony, Thorfinn played board games and planned his trip to Vinland. Erik the Red’s saga makes the planning sound boisterous and somewhat haphazard, noting that various other Norse chiefs decided to join the expedition seemingly on the spur of the moment.

While Leif Eriksson is the Viking name most familiar to Americans, the sagas devote as much space to Thorfinn and his voyage. Steinberg’s discovery supports a long-held theory that Thorfinn was the principal teller of the sagas. (That would explain why he plays such a major role in them.) Steinberg notes that knowing the source of a text helps historians weigh the assertions.

Whoever their author was, the stories have challenged scholars to match the place names mentioned in them to real topography. For example, Thorfinn called two crucial places where he and his group camped in the New World Straumfjord (stream fiord) and Hop (lagoon) and described the first as having strong currents. Scholars have variously located Straumfjord, where Snorri was born, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts; Long Island Sound; the Bay of Fundy; and L’Anse auxMeadows (the Norse site discovered by Helge and Anne Ingstad on the northern tip of Newfoundland). Different advocates have placed Hop near New York City, Boston and points north.

If in fact Thorfinn and company traveled as far south as Gowanus Bay in New York Harbor, as asserted by the British scholar Geoffrey Gathorne-Hardy in 1921, they would have sailed past some of the greatest stands of primeval hardwoods on the planet, not to mention grapes—treasured by Norse chiefs who cemented their status with feasts accompanied by copious amounts of wine—and unlimited fish and game.

Why would the Norse have abandoned them or similar inducements farther north? Perhaps the Vikings’ Vinland was like Alexander the Great’s India: a land of fabulous wealth so far from home that it was beyond the limits of his ability to impose his will. Both Norse sagas have Thorfinn beating a retreat north after some humbling battles with Native warriors. (See “Why Didn’t They Stay?”)

Thorfinn never went back to Vinland, but other Norse subsequently did. Evidence continues to accumulate that Norse traded with both Inuit and more southern tribes for skins, and that they regularly brought back wood and other items from the New World. Over the years, various accounts have placed Norse colonies in Maine, Rhode Island and elsewhere on the AtlanticCoast, but the only unambiguous Norse settlement in North America remains L’Anse aux Meadows.

Icelanders, for their part, need no persuading of the Viking’s preeminence among Europeans in the New World. Asked who discovered America, 8-year-old Kristin Bjarnadottir, a third grader in Holar, Iceland, answers with complete confidence: “Leifur,” naming the celebrated Viking explorer. She and other Icelandic kids often play a game called Great Adventurer, in which they take on the roles of the saga heroes. Steinberg’s ongoing investigation of the turf house in Glaumbaer and other structures could well give Kristin and her friends rich new exploits of their Viking ancestors to act out.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus