World History

How do we know the Vikings were in North America?
Answered by Craig C. Freudenrich and Animal Planet
  • Craig C. Freudenrich

    Craig C. Freudenrich

  • Animal Planet

    Animal Planet

  1. Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America, right? Not exactly; there is evidence that the Vikings reached North America nearly 500 years before Columbus [source: Modern History Sourcebook]. The evidence comes from Viking historical stories called the "Sagas of the Greenlanders" and from archaeological evidence.

    According to the "Saga of Erik the Red," Viking Bjarni Herjolfsson's ship was blown off course west of Greenland and he recounted seeing foreign land. He told of his adventure when he returned to Greenland and the story intrigued young Leif, Erik the Red's son. Fifteen years later, Leif Eriksson departed Greenland with a ship and crew of 35 and sailed west until he came upon foreign lands. He made three discoveries:

    • Helluland (Canada's Baffin Island) was uninhabitable.
    • Markland (Labrador) was forested with broad white beaches.
    • Vinland (Newfoundland) was a lush land with pastures, forests and grapes.

    Eriksson had to return to Greenland after his father's death and never returned to Vinland.

    The saga describes subsequent voyages to Vinland over the next 10 years by Eriksson's brothers, Thorvald and Thorsten, his sister Freyis and another Viking named Thorfinn Karlsefni. The Vikings expanded Eriksson's original encampment and traded with the local inhabitants. Altogether, the Vikings made four expeditions to Vinland. The Viking settlers did not get along well with the natives, however, and were under constant threat of attack by the natives, who outnumbered them. The Vikings returned to Greenland and never set foot in America again.

    Historians disagree over the exact location of the Viking settlements, particularly in Vinland. Some historians believe that the Vikings made it as far south as New York. In 1961, archaeologist Helge Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine, excavated a site in Newfoundland called L'Anse aux Meadows. They found eight buildings of Norse construction similar to those found in Iceland. They uncovered numerous artifacts, including iron nails, bone needles, bronze pins and yarn spindles [source: Memorial University of Newfoundland]. The artifacts were dated at around the year 1000 AD. Ingstad believed the site to be Vinland, but other archaeologists were not convinced. The controversy arises from different interpretations of the Norse word vine, which can mean grapes or pastures. Regardless of whether this site was Vinland, the evidence clearly established that the Vikings were in America long before Columbus.

    At L’Anse aux meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, a Viking settlement discovered there in 1961 has been reconstructed to its former state.
    At L’Anse aux meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, a Viking settlement discovered there in 1961 has been reconstructed to its former state. (Courtesy David McLain/Aurora/Getty Images)

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  2. The Vikings, or Norse, traveled to what is today known as North America more than 1,000 years ago. They left evidence of some of their settlements in Newfoundland, Canada. In addition to remnants of their stone outposts, the Vikings also have stories of their encounters with Native Americans in their own folklore. A Viking settlement, discovered in 1961, can be seen in reconstructed form in L'Anse aux meadows in Newfoundland.

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