Saturday, March 15, 2014

How the West was Lost: Vikings in North America

Greetings, History Fans! I have been spending the last few months in a constant anxiety, waiting to hear back from the University of Iceland. In the meantime I have been tearing through some of the books on the preparatory reading list, including Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William W. Fitzbugh. The book is a compilation of essays that follow the Vikings as they explore the North Atlantic islands, from Norway to North America. At this point, I am familiar with the stories of the Viking presence in Iceland and England, as well as the Faroes, Shetlands, and the other British islands. But this book takes us further into the heart of the Viking settlements in Greenland and Vinland. This piece of Viking history is quite possibly the most fun to explore but it also creates a handful of burning unanswered questions.

By 930, most of the available and arable land in Iceland had been gobbled up. There was a direct correlation between the wealthy families of Iceland and the first settlers. So when Erik the Red was banished around 982 and heard the stories of more free land to the west, he probably assumed the same rule would apply. Being the first settler of Greenland would ensure he would be one of the more prominent men there. The legend says that Erik named the landmass "Greenland" in order to entice or even trick other Icelanders and Norse to settle in the arctic. In reality, the land that Erik explored was probably very green in the warmer climate of the early middle ages. And so some adventurers decided to follow a murderous outlaw into the wild white north.

 Erik the Red, right after killing someone

When the Vikings began to settle Greenland, it was completely uninhabited. Unlike Iceland, no annoying Irish monks were around to boot out. Greenland was no paradise. The land offered very little space in which humans could live and survive. Between the Western Settlement and the much smaller Eastern Settlement, Greenland boasted a population of around 400-500 people. Around the year 1000, stories of a Bjarni blown of course to a rich wooded land started to circulate. This led to Leif Erikkson's venture to the west, to North America.

Our evidence on the Norse presence in North America is extremely limited. Between Erik the Red's Saga and Greenlander's Saga and the small amount of archaeological discoveries we are left with only a few pieces to an enormous and tantalizing puzzle. For decades, archaeologists searched in vain for Leif's camp and the short-lived Viking settlement. The leading theories pointed south down the Atlantic coast, possibly as far as New York. It wasn't until the 1960s when a couple discovered some remains at the most northern tip of Newfoundland at what is now known as L'anse aux Meadows. An excavation revealed the foundations of multiple buildings, including a large hall. Multiple artifacts were found, all carbon-dated to around 1000-1050.

Was this Leif's camp? The evidence didn't quite stack up. The sagas referred to a Vinland, which, one would think, suggested that the vines of grapes the Vikings observed in the sagas grew there. They did not. Wild grapes grew much further south, in the area of New Brunswick. The sagas described three different lands to the west of Greenland: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. The site at L'anse aux Meadows did not seem to match any of these locations. Historians and archaeologists have determined that the site at the tip of Newfoundland was a base camp, a gateway to the lands of North America and the Canadian Arctic. They determined, through the archaeological evidence and using the descriptions in the sagas, that Helluland is modern day Baffin Island, Markland was the term for the Labrador coast, and Vinland was a general term for the lands surrounding the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Viking explorers would sail from Greenland to North America, using the camp at L'anse aux Meadows as a base before heading west, north, and south. This is partly determined because butternuts were found in Newfoundland in excavations. Butternuts are not native that far north. The Vikings must have travelled south and collected butternuts, as well as those wild grapes, and brought them back north.

After all we have learned about the ambitious sailors and explorers of the Viking Age, one would expect the settlements in North America to last longer than a few seasons. Why did this venture fail, when Iceland, and to some extent, Greenland, succeeded? The easy answer is the natives. Evidence exists of contact between the Norse and the native Dorset and Thule (Inuit) peoples of the Canadian Arctic. Imagining these meetings in my head is hilarious. It's not so funny when people die. Still, the ruthless warrior Vikings coming face to face with ancestors of the Eskimos! How strange! The sagas tell us of both trading ventures and hostile skirmishes. The archaeology too supports both peaceful and violent encounters. In the sagas, the Greenalnders give up on the North American settlement as a bad job, citing the hostile natives as the main purpose for their fleeing.

I think another important reason for the failure in North America is sheer numbers. While the Vikings pushed quickly across the Atlantic, their numbers dwindled the further west they went. This is due mostly to the climate and the amount of land available. The emigration to Iceland from Norway was a huge outpouring of thousands of families. The move from Iceland to Greenland was more a trickle. And from Greendland there was just a sprinkling of people who set foot on American soil. The quality of life also seemed to diminish the further one got from the homeland in Scandinavia. Iceland was an obvious step down in quality, supporting a basic class of farmers. Greenland had an even shorter growing season, causing the farms to barely scrape by. By the fourteenth century, the Norse had given up on Greenland as the climate worsened. It can be assumed, then, that the camps in Newfoundland and elsewhere in the New World were not much to envy. Exploration and settlement is an expensive business, something Greenland would be hard pressed to support. The evidence at L'anse aux Meadows reveals that around 90-100 people lived there at one time. That's one-fifth of the population of Greenland!

The colonies on Iceland and Greenland started out much the same as the failed American venture: explorers set up base camps, sailed around the coast, and explored inland for a handful of years before the first permanent settlers arrived. The biggest difference was that both Iceland and Greenland were virtually empty. No one was around to put up a fight. When they first arrived in Vinland, it was largely unoccupied. Most of area frequented by the Vikings were inhabited by small groups of Dorset, whose temperament and limited numbers posed no threat the Norse explorers. However, there soon came a new group of natives who really rubbed the Vikings the wrong way. At the same time the Norse were pushing further and further west, the Thule peoples, who had settled in Alaska 4,000 years ago, were pushing further and further east. They soon displaced the quiet Dorset people and eventually pushed as far as Northwestern Greenland. A remarkable migration in its own right, the Thule movement threatened the Norse camps, hunting and trading sites.

After the North American settlement was abandoned, the Norse Greenlanders continued to sail back and forth in order to gather timber and other supplies. Over the next three centuries, they traded with and battled with the Thules and other native groups. They finally gave it up altogether in Greenland in the fifteenth century, packing up and heading back to Iceland and the British Isles. It is a lot of fun to think about this time period and speculating on the untold interactions between the Norse and the Native peoples of the Canadian Arctic. One question still bothers me, though: If there was detailed descriptions of Vinland, and the Greenlanders kept in some-what regular contact with the Thules and later Inuits, why did it take until Columbus for another European to "discover" North America? In 1477, Christopher Columbus took a trip to England, and on his way back, stopped in Iceland where he no doubt got wind of the sagas that described the land beyond the sea. It was there for the taking! Surely the rumors had travelled throughout Europe. Heck, the Greenlanders were still visiting the areas surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence less than 100 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Were the natives that gruesome to give up entirely on an American settlement? Was the worsening climate a deterrent? Or were the men and the money just not available from the failing economies and turbulent societies of Greenland and Iceland?

I guess we'll just have to keep on digging.

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