Norse Expansion into North America
In 985 or 986, with the Norse expansion west from Iceland into Greenland, the Icelanders met with a distant world, different from what they had left. Opportunities for agriculture were grimmer but game resources infinitely greater. Livestock farmers by preference, the newcomers spent their first decade clearing land for pastures and nursing their herds to increase the limited number of cattle, sheep and goats they had been able to ship over from Iceland. For a while, intriguing tales of lands yet farther west must wait to be pursued.
As the fledgling settlement gained in self-sufficiency, able-bodied men could be spared from the normal chores and expeditions mounted to explore distant regions. Vast herds of walrus were discovered around Disko Island. Their meat was of little interest, but excellent leather could be made from their hides, and, above all, their ivory tusks had immense value in Europe.
Time had also come to search for the lands discovered by Bjarni Herjolfsson west and south of Greenland the same year as the Greenland colony was founded. An expedition was organized under the sponsorship of Erik the Red and led by his son Leif Eriksson to explore and exploit these unknown areas. His and subsequent explorations have been described in the Vinland Sagas.
The Vinland Sagas describe three distinct locations investigated by the Norse. Farthest to the north was Helluland, Land of Stone. Two days of sailing in a southerly direction brought the expedition to Markland, Land of Woods, and another two days to VÌnland, Land of Wine. Vinland was described as a land rich in resources, salmon, game of all kinds, excellent lumber, and, to the astonishment and delight of everyone, wild grapes. Winters were mild, and during the winter, there were more hours of daylight than in Iceland or Greenland. The Norse also observed great tidal differences and landlocked lagoons where halibut could be caught in puddles on the shore as the tide retreated. Unfortunately for the Norse, this wonderful land was already inhabited. Skirmishes ensued in which the Norse were outnumbered. Feeling threatened, they retreated home, and Vinland was abandoned.
According to the sagas, the first expedition to Vinland was headed by Leif Eriksson. His voyage was followed by that of his brother Thorvald, who died in a clash with the Aboriginal inhabitants. Another brother, Thorstein, attempted a journey but was foiled by inclement weather. An Icelandic shipowner, Thorfinn Karlsefni, who had married Leif Eriksson's widowed sister-in-law, later made an extended journey to Vinland as did Leif's sister Freydis and two Icelandic merchants. The starting date for these voyages was about the year 1000, the rest taking place over the following decade. After that they seem to have ceased.
The Vinland adventures were never forgotten. In 1520, Christian II tried to reestablish his influence in the New World with an expedition to Greenland, an expedition that did not come to pass. Peter Kalm described the Norse voyages to an intrigued Benjamin Franklin (Lyle 1968:176). When in 1837 Latin translations of the sagas were published in Europe and North America, the rest of the world could read about them, too. They sparked an enormous interest throughout the scholarly world, especially in North America and Scandinavia, and speculations on the location of Vinland (searches for Vinland) began almost immediately. Since then, the pursuit of Vinland has never ceased, and claims for its finding have been numerous, in locations along the Atlantic coast of North America ranging from Virginia on latitude 38° in the south to Newfoundland 2,500 km farther north, on latitude 51°. In general, all these claims have proved spurious. It is therefore not strange that when in 1960, the Norwegian explorer and writer Helge Ingstad announced to the press that he had discovered a Norse site in the small fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows at the...
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