By Martyn Whittock
For a thousand years, legends claimed that Vikings settled in North America. In my book American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America, I explore the evidence for this in the literary sources and archaeology; and, also, in the way this idea has fed into the cultural DNA of North America and especially the USA.
What’s in a word?
First, a matter of terminology. “Viking” is something you did rather than what you were. In Old Norse, going “viking” involved taking part in muscular free enterprise. However today, in popular usage, “Viking” has come to describe both those involved in raiding expeditions, as Scandinavians originally used the term, and Scandinavians generally during the “Viking Age” (as it was never used in the past). Nevertheless, it is now the label-of-choice for most people. However, we need to remember that Scandinavian merchants and settlers would not have thought that it applied to them, since it was not what they did. Many modern experts prefer the term “Norse” to that of “Vikings” as a group term, but I have used “Norse” when describing the language or culture (as in “Norse mythology”), but “Viking” for the people and the period (as in the “Viking Age”) in reflection of popular usage.
The basis of the American claim: the discovery of “Vinland”
Old Norse sagas, first recorded in Iceland, tell of voyages to a land west of Greenland. Accounts are found in two sagas: Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. The earliest surviving manuscript dates from shortly after 1264, in the case of Erik the Red’s Saga, and 1387, in the case of The Saga of the Greenlanders. However, both clearly drew on much earlier material.
This earlier material was not harmonized. Plus they are works of literature, in which material was filtered through the decisions of unknown editors. Consequently, we must assume a measure of imagination and artistry in their composition. However, while they differ over details, the role of individuals, and the ordering of events, they never disagree about the central claim: Viking settlers moved from Iceland to Greenland; and from there to a land, they describe as “Vinland.”
The lands described in the sagas appear under the names Helluland (Stone-slab Land), Markland (Forest Land), and Vinland (Vine Land or Wine Land). The location of each is a subject of debate. The most likely location of Helluland is the east coast of Baffin Island. It may also have included the mountainous region of northern Labrador. Markland almost certainly refers to the southern coast of Labrador. Vinland, with its reference to winemaking fruits, probably refers to the area from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to as far south as northern New England. The sagas say that wild grapes and wheat were located there. The matter may be further complicated by the possibility that the name may be derived from any wine-making fruits, rather than grapes.
Several settlement sites are referred to by name in the sagas and for each of them there are several contested possible locations. What is clear is that the western explorers were operating at the extreme end of their supply lines and constituted a very small number of settlers. Relationships between them and indigenous peoples ranged from trade to conflict (including unprovoked killings carried out by some of the Scandinavians). The saga evidence indicates that long-term settlement was unsustainable. However, the matter may be a little more complex.
Continuing voyages to Vinland?
It seems that Scandinavian involvement with Vinland did not end with the failure of the settlements described in the sagas. The Annals of the Kings of Iceland record: “1121 Bishop Erik from Greenland went to look for Vinland.” This reference is in a source which was compiled in 1300–28. It is, itself, likely based on earlier, thirteenth-century, histories. The Law Man’s Annals mention Erik leaving Iceland in 1112, with the enigmatic words: “Voyage of Bishop Erik.” This tells us nothing more about Vinland or anything else for that matter. It was probably written sometime after 1412.
Other medieval accounts also refer to ongoing connections with North America. It seems that these voyages went as far as the coast of Labrador, to collect wood that was lacking in Greenland. Voyages also took place to Helluland (probably Baffin Island). The intention here may have been to trade with indigenous peoples. The Elder Skalholt Annals, compiled c. 1362, contain an entry (under 1347) that reads: “There came also a ship from Greenland . . . It was without an anchor. There were seventeen men on board, and they had sailed to Markland, but had afterward been driven hither by storms at sea.”
Helluland appears, in passing, in mythical sagas, which illustrate how the far-west had entered a twilight world where history mixed with mythology. An example can be found in the Saga of Halfdan Eysteinsson, c.1350. It contains an enigmatic statement that “[a ruler named] Raknar brought Helluland’s deserts under his sway, and destroyed all the giants there . . .”
What all this evidence reveals is that the connection of Viking adventurers with North America did not end with the abandonment of the settlements there, as recorded in the famous sagas, which tell of its discovery around the year 1000. Subsequent journeys there may well have occurred. The idea of Vinland was kept alive.
The archaeological evidence for “American Vikings”
It is in Newfoundland that securely dated evidence of this settlement has been unearthed. The site in question— L’Anse aux Meadows—lies at the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Several archaeological investigations have occurred there. These confirm the existence of four building complexes.
The construction styles, combined with a limited number of artifacts, indicates that the site was Norse. Finds of wood and butternuts (or white walnuts) suggest voyages occurred down the eastern coast of what is today Canada and the USA. How far south – and how far into the North American continent – is a matter for conjecture, sometimes heated.
Tree-ring analysis of three pieces of worked-wood from the site dated them to the year 1021. However, research published in 2018 suggests that Viking activity at the site could have lasted for a century. This conclusion does not imply a continuous Viking occupation. That, given the sparse evidence left behind, seems highly unlikely. Instead, it indicates the possibility that occasional Norse activity occurred there beyond the early eleventh century. We can imagine the final Viking ships putting in at L’Anse aux Meadows as late as the first quarter of the twelfth century, having originally established the settlement c. 1021.
While L’Anse aux Meadows is the most famous site with archaeological evidence of Norse activity west of Greenland, it is not alone. On Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northern island, stray finds suggest indigenous people trading with the Norse from as early as the twelfth century. Similarly, an indigenous site at Port Refuge, on Devon Island, situated between Ellesmere Island and the northern coast of Baffin Island, was the find-spot of part of a cast bronze bowl and some smelted iron. The context has been dated to the fifteenth century. On Baffin Island, a carved wooden figure appears to depict a Scandinavian wearing a characteristic hooded robe.
Similar material has been identified from two other sites on Baffin Island and another one in northern Labrador. Whether these indicate the actual presence of Scandinavians, or items traded over a long distance, is open to question.
As striking, is the coin found at a Native American site at Naskeag Point, in Maine. It is a coin of Olaf Kyrre, king of Norway, and was minted by 1080. It was probably traded down to its find-spot via indigenous intermediaries.
The hunt continues for more archaeological evidence to compare with that found at L’Anse aux Meadows. So far, this has eluded investigators. However, along the eastern coast – from Cape Code to New Brunswick – it may just be a matter of time before more is discovered.
The continuing “journey” of American Vikings
Currently, it seems that none of the other objects and sites, claimed to be Viking in North America (especially in the USA), are genuine. Rather, these items – mostly runestones – are almost certainly fakes, manufactured from the nineteenth century onwards to make connections with medieval Norse explorers.
Nevertheless, the ongoing popularity of the Norse in US comic-book culture, films, games, and branding, owes a great deal to a particular American interest in the historic “Vinland Vikings,” alongside stimulus from the wider global fascination with the Viking Age.
In addition, Norse symbolism is also now being utilized by some alt-right groups as part of modern culture wars. This is evidence of how much further “American Vikings” have sailed into some modern imaginations, compared with their actual journeys into the North American continent itself.
You can get American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America, from Pegasus Books
Martyn Whittock has written numerous educational and history books, including titles on Viking and Anglo-Saxon history. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he writes for several print and online news platforms, and has been interviewed on TV and radio news programs exploring the impact of history on current events in the USA, the UK, and globally. His latest book, American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America, is published by Pegasus Books, New York, in November, distributed by Simon and Schuster.
Top Image: L’Anse aux Meadows. Photo by Dylan Kereluk / Wikimedia Commons