Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: John Fiske  | Date: Pre-1000

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Pre-Columbian Voyages

THERE is something very solemn and most impressive in the spectacle of human life going on for countless ages in the eastern and western halves of our planet, each all unknown to the other and uninfluenced by it. The contact between the two worlds practically begins in the year 1492.

By this statement it is not meant to deny that occasional visitors may have come and did come before that famous date from the Old World to the New. On the contrary I am inclined to suspect that there may have been more such occasional visits than we have been wont to suppose. For the most part, however, the subject is shrouded in the mists of obscure narrative and fantastic conjecture. When it is argued that in the fifth century of the Christian era certain Buddhist missionary priests came from China by way of Kamchatka and the Aleutian islands, and kept on till they got to a country which they called Fusang, and which was really Mexico, one cannot reply that such a thing was necessarily and absolutely impossible; but when other critics assure us that, after all, Fusang was really Japan, perhaps one feels a slight sense of relief. So of the dim whispers of voyages to America undertaken by the Irish, in the days when the cloisters of sweet Innisfallen were a center of piety and culture for northwestern Europe, we may say that this sort of thing has not much to do with history, or history with it. Irish anchorites certainly went to Iceland in the seventh century, and in the course of this book we shall have frequent occasion to observe that first and last there has been on all seas a good deal of blowing and drifting done. It is credibly reported that Japanese junks have been driven ashore on the coasts of Oregon and California; and there is a story that in 1488 a certain Jean Cousin, of Dieppe, while sailing down the west coast of Africa, was caught in a storm and blown across to Brazil. This was certainly quite possible, for it was not so very unlike what happened in 1500 to Pedro Alvarez de Cabral, as we shall hereafter see; nevertheless, the evidence adduced in support of the story will hardly bear a critical examination.

It is not my purpose to weary the reader with a general discussion of these and some other legends or rumors of pre-Columbian visitors to America. We may admit, at once, that "there is no good reason why any one of them may not have done" what is claimed, but at the same time the proof that any one of them did do it is very far from satisfactory. Moreover the questions raised are often of small importance, and belong not so much to the serious workshop of history as to its limbo prepared for learned trifles, whither we will hereby relegate them.

But when we come to the voyages of the Northmen in the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is quite a different affair. Not only is this a subject of much historic interest, but in dealing with it we stand for a great part of the time upon firm historic ground. The narratives which tell us of Vinland and of Leif Ericsson are closely intertwined with the authentic history of Norway and Iceland. In the ninth century of our era there was a process of political consolidation going on in Norway, somewhat as in England under Egbert and his successors. After a war of twelve years, King Harold Fairhair overthrew the combined forces of the Jarls, or small independent princes, in the decisive naval battle of Hafursfiord in the year 872. This resulted in making Harold the feudal landlord of Norway. Allodial tenures were abolished, and the Jarls were required to become his vassals. This consolidation of the kingdom was probably beneficial in its main consequences, but to many a proud spirit and crafty brain it made life in Norway unendurable. These bold Jarls and their Viking followers, to whom, as to the ancient Greeks, the sea who’ not a barrier, but a highway, had no mind to stay at home and submit to unwonted thraldom. So they manned their dragon-prowed keels, invoked the blessing of Wodan, god of storms, upon their enterprise, and sailed away. Some went to reenforce their kinsmen who were making it so hot for Alfred in England and for Charles the Bald in Gaul; some had already visited Ireland and were establishing themselves at Dublin and Limerick; others now followed and found homes for themselves in the Hebrides and all over Scotland north of glorious Loch Linnhe and the Murray frith; some made their way through the blue Mediterranean to "Micklegard," the Great City of the Byzantine Emperor, and in his service wielded their stout axes against Magyar and Saracen; some found their amphibious natures better satisfied upon the islands of the Atlantic ridge,—the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faeroes, and especially noble Iceland. There an aristocratic republic soon grew up, owning slight and indefinite allegiance to the kings of Norway. The settlement of Iceland was such a wholesale colonization of communities of picked men as had not been seen since ancient Greek times, and was not to be seen again until Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts Bay. It was not long before the population of Iceland exceeded 50,000 souls. Their sheep and cattle flourished, hay crops were heavy, a lively trade—with fish, oil, butter, skins, and wool, in exchange for meal and malt—was kept up with Norway, Denmark, and the British islands, political freedom was unimpaired, justice was (for the Middle Ages) fairly well administered, naval superiority kept all foes at a distance; and under such conditions the growth of the new community in wealth and culture was surprisingly rapid. In the twelfth century, before literature had begun to blossom in the modern speech of France or Spain or Italy, there was a flourishing literature in prose and verse in Iceland. Especial attention was paid to history, and the "Land-nama-bok, or statistical and genealogical account of the early settlers, was the most complete and careful work of the kind which had ever been undertaken by any people down to quite recent times. Few persons in our day adequately realize the extent of the early Icelandic literature or its richness. The poems, legends, and histories earlier than the date when Dante walked and mused in the streets of Florence survive for us now in some hundreds of works, for the most part of rare and absorbing interest. The "Heimskringla," or chronicle of Snorro Sturleson, written about 1215, is one of the greatest history books in the world.

Now from various Icelandic chronicles we learn that in 876, only two years after the island commonwealth was founded, one of the settlers named Gunnbjorn was driven by foul weather to some point on the coast of Greenland, where he and his crew contrived to pass the winter, their ship being locked in ice; when the spring set them free, they returned to Iceland. In the year 983 Eric the Red, a settler upon Oxney (Ox-island) near the mouth of Breidafiord, was outlawed for killing a man in a brawl. Eric then determined to search for the western land which Gunnbjorn had discovered. He set out with a few followers, and in the next three years these bold sailors explored the coasts of Greenland pretty thoroughly for a considerable distance on each side of Cape Farewell. At length they found a suitable place for a home, at the head of Igaliko fiord, not far from the site of the modern Julianeshaab. It was fit work for Vikings to penetrate so deep a fiord and find out such a spot, hidden as it is by miles upon miles of craggy and ice-covered headlands. They proved their sagacity by pitching upon one of the pleasantest spots on the gaunt Greenland coast; and there upon a smooth grassy plain may still be seen the ruins of seventeen houses built of rough blocks of sandstone, their chinks calked up with clay and gravel. In contrast with most of its bleak surroundings the place might well be called Greenland, and so Eric named it, for, said he, it is well to have a pleasant name if we would induce people to come hither. The name thus given by Eric to this chosen spot has been extended in modern usage to the whole of the vast continental region north of Davis strait, for the greater part of which it is a flagrant misnomer. In 986 Eric ventured back to Iceland, and was so successful in enlisting settlers for Greenland that on his return voyage he started with five and twenty ships. The loss from foul weather and icebergs was cruel. Eleven vessels were lost; the remaining fourteen, carrying probably from four to five hundred souls, arrived safely at the head of Igaliko fiord, and began building their houses at the place called Brattahlid. Their settlement presently extended over the head of Tunnudliorbik fiord, the next deep inlet to the northwest; they called it Ericsfiord. After a while it extended westward as far as Immartinek, and eastward as far as the site of Friedrichsthal; and another distinct settlement of less extent was also made about four hundred miles to the northwest, near the present site of Godthaab. The older settlement, which began at Igaliko fiord, was known as the East Bygd; the younger settlement, near Godthaab, was called the West Bygd.

This colonization of Greenland by the Northmen in the tenth century is as well established as any event that occurred in the Middle Ages. For four hundred years the fortunes of the Greenland colony formed a part, albeit a very humble part, of European history. Geographically speaking, Greenland is reckoned as a part of America, of the western hemisphere, and not of the eastern. The Northmen who settled in Greenland had, therefore, in this sense found their way to America. Nevertheless one rightly feels that in the history of geographical discovery an arrival of Europeans in Greenland is equivalent merely to reaching the vestibule or ante-chamber of the western hemisphere. It is an affair begun and ended outside of the great world of the red men.

But the story does not end here. Into the world of the red men the voyagers from Iceland did assuredly come, as indeed, after once getting a foothold upon Greenland, they could hardly fail to do. Let us pursue the remainder of the story as we find it in our Icelandic sources of information, and afterwards it will be proper to inquire into the credibility of these sources.

One of the men who accompanied Eric to Greenland was named Herjulf, whose son Bjarni, after roving the seas for some years, came home to Iceland in 986 to drink the Yuletide ale with his father. Finding him gone, he weighed anchor and started after him to Greenland, but encountered foggy weather, and sailed on for many days by guess-work without seeing sun or stars. When at length he sighted land it was a shore without mountains, showing only small heights covered with dense woods. It was evidently not the land of fiords and glaciers for which Bjarni was looking. So without stopping to make explorations he turned his prow to the north and kept on. The sky was now fair, and after scudding nine or ten days with a brisk breeze astern, Bjarni saw the icy crags of Greenland looming up before him, and after some further searching found his way to his father’s new home. On the route he more than once sighted land on the larboard.

This adventure of Bjarni’s seems not to have excited general curiosity or to have awakened speculation. Indeed, in the dense geographical ignorance of those times there is no reason why it should have done so. About 994 Bjarni was in Norway, and one or two people expressed some surprise that he did not take more pains to learn something about the country he had seen; but nothing came of such talk till it reached the ears of Leif, the famous son of Eric the Red. This wise and stately man spent a year or two in Norway about 998. Roman missionary priests were then preaching up and down the land, and had converted the King, Olaf Tryggvesson, great-grandson of Harold Fairhair. Leif became a Christian and was baptized, and when he returned to Greenland he took priests with him who converted many people, though old Eric, it is said, preferred to go in the way of his fathers, and deemed boisterous Valhalla, with its cups of wassail, a place of better cheer than the New Jerusalem, with its streets of gold.

Leif’s zeal for the conversion of his friends in Greenland did not so far occupy his mind as to prevent him from undertaking a voyage of discovery. His curiosity had been stimulated by what he had heard about Bjarni’s experiences, and he made up his mind to go and see what the coasts to the south of Greenland were like. He sailed from Brattahlid—probably in the summer or early autumn of the year 1000—with a crew of five and thirty men. Some distance to the southward they came upon a barren country covered with big flat stones, so that they called it Helluland, or "slate-land." There is little room for doubt that this was the coast opposite Greenland, either west or east of the strait of Belle Isle; in other words, it was either Labrador or the northern coast of Newfoundland. Thence, keeping generally to the southward, our explorers came after some days to a thickly wooded coast, where they landed and inspected the country. What chiefly impressed them was the extent of the forest, so that they called the place Markland, or "wood-land." Some critics have supposed that this spot was somewhere upon the eastern or southern coast of Newfoundland, but the more general opinion places it somewhere upon the coast of Cape Breton island or Nova Scotia. From this Markland our voyagers stood out to sea, and running briskly before a stiff northeaster it was more than two days before they came in sight of land. Then, after following the coast for a while, they went ashore at a place where a river, issuing from a lake, fell into the sea. They brought their ship up into the lake and cast anchor. The water abounded in excellent fish, and the country seemed so pleasant that Leif decided to pass the winter there, and accordingly his men put up some comfortable wooden huts or booths. One day one of the party, a "south country" man, whose name was Tyrker, came in from a ramble in the neighborhood making grimaces and talking to himself in his own language (probably German), which his comrades did not understand. On being interrogated as to the cause of his excitement, he replied that he had discovered vines loaded with grapes, and was much pleased at the sight inasmuch as he had been brought up in a vine country. Wild grapes, indeed, abounded in this autumn season, and Leif accordingly called the country Vinland. The winter seems to have passed off very comfortably. Even the weather seemed mild to these visitors from high latitudes, and they did not fail to comment on the unusual length of the winter day. Their language on this point has been so construed as to make the length of the shortest winter day exactly nine hours, which would place their Vinland in about the latitude of Boston. But their expressions do not admit of any such precise construction; and when we remember that they had no accurate instruments for measuring time, and that a difference of about fourteen minutes between sunrise and sunset on the shortest winter day would make all the difference between Boston and Halifax, we see how idle it is to look for the requisite precision in narratives of this sort, and to treat them as one would treat the reports of a modern scientific exploring expedition.

In the spring of 1001 Leif returned to Greenland with a cargo of timber. The voyage made much talk. Leif’s brother Thorvald caught the inspiration, and, borrowing Leif’s ship, sailed in 1002, and succeeded in finding Vinland and Leif’s huts, where his men spent two winters. In the intervening summer they went on an exploring expedition along the coast, fell in with some savages in canoes, and got into a fight in which Thorvald was killed by an arrow. In the spring of 1004 the ship returned to Brattahlid. Next year the third brother, Thorstein Ericsson, set out in the same ship, with his wife Gudrid and a crew of thirty-five men; but they were sore bestead with foul weather, got nowhere, and accomplished nothing. Thorstein died on the voyage, and his widow returned to Greenland.

In the course of the next summer, 1006, there came to Brattahlid from Iceland a notable personage, a man of craft and resource, wealthy withal and well born, with the blood of many kinglets or jarls flowing in his veins. This man, Thorfinn Karlsefni, straightway fell in love with the young and beautiful widow Gudrid, and in the course of the winter there was a merry wedding at Brattahlid. Persuaded by his adventurous bride, whose spirit had been roused by the reports from Vinland and by her former unsuccessful attempt to find it, Thorfinn now undertook to visit that country in force sufficient for founding a colony there. Accordingly in the spring of 1007 he started with three or four ships, carrying one hundred and sixty men, several women, and quite a cargo of cattle. In the course of that year his son Snorro was born in Vinland, and our chronicle tells us that this child was three years old before the disappointed company turned their backs upon that land of promise and were fain to make their way homeward to the fiords of Greenland. It was the hostility of the natives that compelled Thorfinn to abandon his enterprise. At first they traded with him, bartering valuable furs for little strips of scarlet cloth which they sought most eagerly; and they were as terribly frightened by his cattle as the Aztecs were in later days by the Spanish horses. The chance bellowing of a bull sent them squalling to the woods, and they did not show themselves again for three weeks. After a while quarrels arose, the natives attacked in great numbers, many Northmen were killed, and in 1010 the survivors returned to Greenland with a cargo of timber and peltries. On the way thither the ships seem to have separated, and one of them, commanded by Bjarni Grimolfsson, found itself bored by worms (the teredo) and sank, with its commander and half the crew.

Among Karlsefni’s companions on this memorable expedition was one Thorvard, with his wife Freydis, a natural daughter of Eric the Red. About the time of their return to Greenland in the summer of 1010, a ship arrived from Norway, commanded by two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. During the winter a new expedition was planned, and in the summer of 1011 two ships set sail for Vinland, one with Freydis, Thorvard, and a crew of 30 men, the other with Helgi and Finnbogi, and a crew of 35 men. There were also a number of women. The purpose was not to found a colony but to cut timber. The brothers arrived first at Leif’s huts and had begun carrying in their provisions and tools, when Freydis, arriving soon afterward, ordered them off the premises. They had no right, she said, to occupy her brother’s houses. So they went out and built other huts for their party a little farther from the shore. Before their business was accomplished "winter set in, and the brothers proposed to have some games for amusement to pass the time. So it was done for a time, till discord came among them, and the games were given up, and none went from one house to the other; and things went on so during a great part of the winter." At length came the catastrophe. Freydis one night complained to her husband that the brothers had given her evil words and struck her, and insisted that he should forthwith avenge the affront. Presently Thorvard, unable to bear her taunts, was aroused to a deed of blood. With his followers he made a night attack upon the huts of Helgi and Finnbogi, seized and bound all the occupants, and killed the men one after another in cold blood. Five women were left whom Thorvard would have spared; as none of his men would raise a hand against them, Freydis herself took an ax and brained them one and all. In the spring of 1012 the party sailed for Brattahlid in the ship of the murdered brothers, which was the larger and better of the two. Freydis pretended that they had exchanged ships and left the other party in Vinland. With gifts to her men, and dire threats for any who should dare tell what had been done, she hoped to keep them silent. Words were let drop, however, which came to Leif’s ears, and led him to arrest three of the men and put them to the torture until they told the whole story. "’I have not the heart,’ said Leif, to treat my wicked sister as she deserves; but this I will foretell them [Freydis and Thorvard] that their posterity will never thrive.’ So it went that nobody thought anything of them save evil from that time."

With this grewsome tale ends all account of Norse attempts at exploring or colonizing Vinland, though references to Vinland by no means end here. Taking the narrative as a whole, it seems to me a sober, straightforward, and eminently probable story. We may not be able to say with confidence exactly where such places as Markland and Vinland were, but it is clear that the coasts visited on these southerly and southwesterly voyages from Brattahlid must have been parts of the coast of North America, unless the whole story is to be dismissed as a figment of somebody’s imagination.

THE only discredit which has been thrown upon the story of the Vinland voyages, in the eyes either of scholars or of the general public, has arisen from the eager credulity with which ingenious antiquarians have now and then tried to prove more than facts will warrant. It is peculiarly a case in which the judicious historian has had frequent occasion to exclaim, Save me from my friends! The only fit criticism upon the wonderful argument from the Dighton inscription is a reference to the equally wonderful discovery made by Mr. Pickwick at Cobham; and when it was attempted, some sixty years ago, to prove that Governor Arnold’s old stone windmill at Newport was a tower built by the Northmen, no wonder if the exposure of this rather laughable notion should have led many people to suppose that the story of Leif and Thorfinn had thereby been deprived of some part of its support. But the story never rested upon any such evidence, and does not call for evidence of such sort. There is nothing in the story to indicate that the Northmen ever founded a colony in Vinland, or built durable buildings there. The distinction implicitly drawn by Adam of Bremen, who narrates the colonization of Iceland and Greenland, and then goes on to speak of Vinland, not as colonized, but simply as discovered, is a distinction amply borne out by our chronicles. Nowhere is there the slightest hint of a colony or settlement established in Vinland. On the contrary, our plain, business-like narrative tells us that Thorfinn Karlsefni tried to found a colony and failed; and it tells us why he failed. The Indians were too many for him. The Northmen of the eleventh century, without firearms, were in much less favorable condition for withstanding the Indians than the Englishmen of the seventeenth; and at the former period there existed no cause for emigration from Norway and Iceland at all comparable to the economic, political, and religious circumstances which, in a later age, sent thousands of Englishmen to Virginia and New England. The founding of colonies in America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was no pastime; it was a tale of drudgery, starvation, and bloodshed, that curdles one’s blood to read; more attempts failed than succeeded. Assuredly Thorfinn gave proof of the good sense ascribed to him when he turned his back upon Vinland. But if he or any other Northman had ever succeeded in establishing a colony there, can anybody explain why it should not have stamped the fact of its existence either upon the soil, or upon history, or both, as unmistakably as the colony of Greenland? Archeological remains of the Northmen abound in Greenland, all the way from Immartinek to near Cape Farewell; the existence of one such relic on the North American continent has never yet been proved. Not a single vestige of the Northmen’s presence here, at all worthy of credence, has ever been found. The writers who have, from time to time, mistaken other things for such vestiges, have been led astray because they have failed to distinguish between the different conditions of proof in Greenland and in Vinland. As Mr. Laing forcibly put the case, nearly half a century ago, "Greenland was a colony with communications, trade, civil and ecclesiastical establishments, and a considerable population," for more than four centuries. "Vinland was only visited by flying parties of woodcutters, remaining at the utmost two or three winters, but never settling there permanently. . . To expect here, as in Greenland, material proofs to corroborate the documentary proofs, is weakening the latter by linking them to a sort of evidence which, from the very nature of the case,—the temporary visits of a ship’s crew,—cannot exist in Vinland, and, as in the case of Greenland, come in to support them."


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Chicago: John Fiske, "Pre-Columbian Voyages," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in America, Vol.1, Pp.17-34 Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Fiske, John. "Pre-Columbian Voyages." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in America, Vol.1, Pp.17-34, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Fiske, J, 'Pre-Columbian Voyages' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , America, Vol.1, Pp.17-34. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from