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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Discovery and Settlement of “Vinland” by the Northmen

By Henry Wheaton (1785–1848)

[Born in Providence, R. I., 1785. Died at Roxbury, Mass., 1848. From History of the Northmen. 1831.]

THERE was formerly, say the ancient Sagas, a man named Herjolf, who was descended from Ingolf, the first settler of Iceland. This man navigated from one country to another with his son Bjarne, and generally spent the winters in Norway. It happened once on a time that they were separated from each other, and Bjarne sought his father in Norway, but not finding him there, he learnt that he was gone to the newly discovered country of Greenland. Bjarne resolved to seek and find out his father, wherever he might be, and for this purpose set sail for Greenland (A.D. 1001), directing himself by the observation of the stars, and by what others had told him of the situation of the land. The three first days he was carried to the west, but afterwards the wind, changing, blew with violence from the north, and drove him southwardly for several days. He at last descried a flat country, covered with wood, the appearance of which was so different from that of Greenland, as it had been described to him, that he would not go on shore, but made sail to the north-west. In this course, he saw an island at a distance, but continued his voyage, and arrived safely in Greenland, where he found his father established at the promontory, afterwards called Herjolfs-nœs, directly opposite to the south-west point of Iceland.

In the following summer, Bjarne made another voyage to Norway, where he was hospitably received by Erik, a distinguished Jarl of that country. The Jarl, to whom he related his adventures, reproached him for not having explored the new land towards which he had been accidentally driven. Bjarne having returned to his father in Greenland, there was much talk among the settlers of pursuing his discovery. The restless, adventurous spirit of Leif, son of Erik the Red, was excited to emulate the fame his father had acquired by the discovery of Greenland. He purchased Bjarne’s ship, and manned it with thirty-five men. Leif then requested his father to become the commander of the enterprise. Erik at first declined, on account of the increasing infirmities of his old age, which rendered him less able to bear the fatigues of a seafaring life. He was at last persuaded by his son to embark, but as he was going down to the vessel on horseback, his horse stumbled, which Erik received as an evil omen for his undertaking:—“I do not believe,” said he, “that it is given to me to discover any more lands, and here will I abide.” Erik returned back to his house, and Leif set sail with his thirty-five companions, among whom was one of his father’s servants, a native of the South-countries, named Tyrker (Dieterich-Dirk), probably a German.

They first discovered what they supposed to be one of the countries seen by Bjarne, the coast of which was a flat, stony land, and the background crowned with lofty mountains, covered with ice and snow. This they named Helluland, or the flat country. Pursuing their voyage farther south, they soon came to another coast, also flat, covered with thick wood, and the shores of white sand, gradually sloping towards the sea. Here they cast anchor and went on shore. They named the country Markland, or the country of the wood, and pursued their voyage with a north-east wind for two days and nights, when they discovered a third land, the northern coast of which was sheltered by an island. Here they again landed, and found a country, not mountainous, but undulating and woody, and abounding with fruits and berries, delicious to the taste. From thence they re-embarked, and made sail to the west to seek a harbor, which they at last found at the mouth of a river, where they were swept by the tide into the lake from which the river issued. They cast anchor, and pitched their tents at this spot, and found the river and lake full of the largest salmon they had ever seen. Finding the climate very temperate, and the soil fruitful in pasturage, they determined to build huts and pass the winter here. The days were nearer of an equal length than in Greenland or Iceland, and when they were at the shortest, the sun rose at half-past seven, and set at half-past four, o’clock. Supposing this computation to be correct, it must have been in the latitude of Boston, the present capital of New England.

It happened one day soon after their arrival, that Tyrker, the German, was missing, and as Leif set a great value upon the youth, on account of his skill in various arts, he sent his followers in search of him in every direction. When they at last found him, he began to speak to them in the Teutonic language, with many extravagant signs of joy. They at last made out to understand from him in the North tongue, that he had found in the vicinity vines bearing wild grapes. He led them to the spot, and they brought to their chief a quantity of the grapes which they had gathered. At first, Leif doubted whether they were really that fruit, but the German assured him he was well acquainted with it, being a native of the southern wine countries. Leif thereupon named the country Vinland….

The native inhabitants found by the Northmen in Vinland resembled those on the western coast of Greenland. These Esquimaux were called by them Skrœlingar, or dwarfs, from their diminutive and squalid appearance, in the same manner as their Gothic ancestors had given a similar appellation to the Finns and Laplanders. They found these aborigines deficient in manly courage and bodily strength.

Erik left another son named Thorstein, who, having learnt the death of his brother Thorwald, embarked for Vinland with twenty-five companions and his wife Gudrida, principally for the purpose of bringing home the body of his deceased brother. He encountered on his passage contrary winds, and after beating about for some time, was at last driven back to a part of the coast of Greenland, far remote from that where the Northmen colony was established. Here he was compelled to pass the winter, enduring all the hardships of that rigorous season in a high northern latitude, to which was added the misfortune of a contagious disease which broke out amongst the adventurers. Thorstein and the greater part of his companions perished, and Gudrida returned home with his body.

In the following summer, there came to Greenland from Norway a man of illustrious birth and great wealth, named Thorfin, who became enamored of Thorstein’s widow Gudrida, and demanded her in marriage of Leif, who had succeeded to the patriarchal authority of his father, Erik the Red. The chieftain determined to effect a settlement in Vinland, and for that purpose formed an association of sixty followers, with whom he agreed to share equally the profits of the enterprise. He took with him all kinds of domestic animals, tools, and provisions to form a permanent colony, and was accompanied by his wife Gudrida, and five other women. He reached the same point of the coast formerly occupied by Leif, where he passed the winter. In the following spring, the Skrœlingar came in great multitudes to trade with the Northmen in peltries and other productions. Thorfin forbade his companions from selling them arms, which were the objects they most passionately desired; and to secure himself against a surprise, he surrounded his huts with a high palisade. One of the natives seized an axe, and ran off with his prize to his companions. He made the first experiment of his skill in using it by striking one of his companions, who fell dead on the spot. The natives were seized with terror and astonishment at this result, and one of them, who, by his commanding air and manner seemed to be a chief, took the axe, and after examining it for some time with great attention, threw it indignantly into the sea.

After a residence of three years in Vinland, Thorfin returned to his native country with specimens of the fruits and peltries which he had collected. After making several voyages, he finished his days in Iceland, where he built a large mansion, and lived in a style of patriarchal hospitality, rivalling the principal chieftains of the country. He had a son named Snorre, who was born in Vinland; and Gudrida, his widow, afterwards made a pilgrimage to Rome, and on her return to Iceland, retired to a convent, situated near a church which had been erected by Thorfin….

No subsequent traces of the Norman colony in America are to be found until the year 1059, when it is said that an Irish or Saxon priest, named Jon or John, who had preached for some time as a missionary in Iceland, went to Vinland, for the purpose of converting the colonists to Christianity, where he was murdered by the heathens. A bishop of Greenland, named Erik, afterwards (A.D. 1121) undertook the same voyage, for the same purpose, but with what success is uncertain. The authenticity of the Icelandic accounts of the discovery and settlement of Vinland were recognized in Denmark shortly after this period by king Svend Estrithson, or Sweno II., in a conversation which Adam of Bremen had with this monarch. But no farther mention is made of them in the national annals, and it may appear doubtful what degree of credit is due to the relations of the Venetian navigators, the two brothers Zeni, who are said to have sailed in the latter part of the fourteenth century, in the service of a Norman prince of the Orcades, to the coasts of New England, Carolina, and even Mexico, or at least to have collected authentic accounts of voyages as far west and south as these countries. The land discovered and peopled by the Norwegians is called by Antonio Zeni, Estotoland, and he states, among other particulars, that the princes of the country still had in their possession Latin books, which they did not understand, and which were probably those left by the bishop Erik during his mission. Supposing these latter discoveries to be authentic, they could hardly have escaped the attention of Columbus, who had himself navigated in the Arctic seas, but whose mind dwelt with such intense fondness upon his favorite idea of finding a passage to the East Indies, across the western ocean, that he might have neglected these indications of the existence of another continent in the direction pursued by the Venetian adventurers. At all events, there is not the slightest reason to believe that the illustrious Genoese was acquainted with the discovery of North America by the Normans five centuries before his time, however well authenticated that fact now appears to be by the Icelandic records to which we have referred. The colony established by them probably perished in the same manner with the ancient establishments in Greenland. Some faint traces of its existence may, perhaps, be found in the relations of the Jesuit missionaries respecting a native tribe in the district of Gaspé, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, who are said to have attained a certain degree of civilization, to have worshipped the sun, and observed the position of the stars. Others revered the symbol of the cross before the arrival of the French missionaries, which, according to their tradition, had been taught them by a venerable person who cured, by this means, a terrible epidemic which raged among them.