Viking Colonization in Canada

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Leif Ericcson Discovers the Americans Canada’s First European Colony

Viking attempts to colonize North America began in the late 10th Century, when Norse sailors began exploring the northeast coast of North America.

The Viking colony in Greenland, which was founded by Eric the Red, lasted for 500 years, with last the recorded event occurring in 1408. In comparison, the Viking settlements established on Canada’s east coast lasted less than two years and did not evolve into permanent colonies. Nevertheless, it is believed that seasonal voyages to Newfoundland and Labrador may have continued until sometime in the 1300s. These voyages, usually sealing expeditions or foraging trips, would have made the Greenland Vikings the first Europeans to visit the New World on a regular basis.

The Vikings in Greenland

According to the Saga of the Icelanders, Greenland was first settled by Eric the Red, sometime in the 980s. Eric was banished from Iceland for committing manslaughter. He spent three years exploring Greenland, at the end of which time, he returned to Iceland seeking colonists to settle in Greenland.

At its peak, Eric’s Greenland colony had a population of approximately 5,000 in two settlements, along with several hundred farms. Greenland was also used by the Vikings as a jumping off point for expeditions to Canada’s Atlantic coast.

Viking Activities in Canada

It is believed that Canada’s east coast was referred to as Vinland by the Vikings, from about 1000 onward.

Archaeological evidence unearthed in 1960 conclusively proved that the Vikings visited North America 500 years before the voyages of John Cabot and Henry Hudson.

Vinland

The name Vinland is traditionally interpreted one of two ways. According to some sources, Vinland got its name due to the wild grapes found growing in the region. More recently, Vinland has been interpreted as meaning pasture land. This definition is believed to have been derived from the Norwegian word for farm.

Vinland first appears in the historical record in 1075, when the voyages of Eric the Red and Leif Ericsson were written down by Adam of Bremen in his book, Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis

Most of the information describing the Viking activities on the east coast of Canada is found in two sources, the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. However, both of these Sagas were written 250 years after the events they describe. Therefore, they are open to a wide variety of interpretations. When read together they describe two separate attempts to establish a Norse presence in North America. However, neither colony lasted more than two years. The exact reason why the colonies failed is not known, but disputes among the colonists, disease and conflicts with the First Nations, called Skraelings by the Vikings have all been put forth by experts at one time or another.

The primary sources claim that after the colonization of Greenland, a merchant named Bjarni Herjolfson set sail from Iceland to visit his father in Greenland. During the voyage, a storm blew up and Bjarni was blown off course. When the storm abated, he found himself off the coast of eastern Canada, most likely somewhere off the coast of what is now Labrador. Not wanting to spend the winter in the new land he had discovered, Bjarni did not land and instead continued on to Greenland, where he told the story to Leif Ericsson, who mounted an expedition with the intent of founding a colony.

The exact location of Vinland is not known today. Around the turn of the 20th Century, the few historians who took the Icelandic Sagas seriously believed that Vinland was located somewhere in New England. Newfoundland historian, William Munn argued that Vinland was located somewhere on Canada’s east coast. Munn’s hypothesis was proven correct in 1960 when Norwegian archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad unearthed conclusive evidence of a Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

L’Anse aux Meadows

The settlement uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows is believed by some researchers to be a gateway settlement. They argue that this site was a staging point for expeditions further south. This theory is supported by the discovery of butternuts at L’Anse aux Meadows. Butternuts can not be grown north of the St. Lawrence River.

However, it has also been argued that the establishment of settlements farther south would have been unlikely, as they would have been too far from the Viking homelands in Northern Europe. Additionally, Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the New England area in the United States also lacked sufficient quantities of iron, which would have been used by the Vikings to make weapons, armour and tools. It is also believed that grapes may have grown in Newfoundland during the time Vikings attempted to settle there. In 2002, a vineyard was successfully established in Gambo, Newfoundland. The timeframe in which the Vikings visited Canada also corresponds to the Medieval Warm Period, in which there were vineyards in northern England and along the Baltic coast.

Today, the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sources

Irwin, Constance; Strange Footprints on the Land; Harper&Row, New York, 1980;

Anderson, Rasmus B.; John Bruno Hare, ed., February 18th, 2004 (1906). “Norse voyages in the tenth and following centuries“. The Norse Discovery of America. Nov.4/09

Ingstad, Helge; Ingstad, Anne Stine (2001). The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Checkmark Books.

Jones, Gwyn (1986). The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Oxford University Press

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