Mappa delle Svalbard, 1758, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin


Erik Thorvaldsson, known as the Red for the color of his hair, was a Viking born around 940 (or around 950, as his later events would suggest), in Jaeren, Norway’s Rogaland County, close to the current Stavanger city. His father Thorvald was one of the local leaders. His family owned a rich farm in one of the most beautiful and fertile places in Norway. He was involved in a fight between his clan and a family opposite. He killed a man in the clash, with the complicity of his father. He had to leave his lands to escape the revenge of the killed man’s relatives.

Around the year 980 Erik left with his family and reached Iceland, where he settled on the west coast, founding some villages. Erik found his new life quite boring. He soon resumed his old habits and killed another man during the usual fight. This time he was sentenced to three years of exile from Iceland. Not being able to head to Norway, he headed west with his drakkar, on which he had embarked his wife, his four sons and his servants, besides cattle and sheep. He hoped to find lands where he could spend the three years of exile. Lands of which he knew the existence through the tales of Viking sailor Gunnbjorn who in 960, due to a storm, had lost the route to Iceland going to a distant island that was then called Greenland.

In 985, after a lucky sailing in the calm sea, I landed on the south coast of Greenland with all his dumped drakkar. The soil of Greenland seemed to him almost like a terrestrial paradise. It was green of pastures and also allowed a small survival farming. The seas were very fishy. In that period, glacial lands were much further north due to the warm medieval climate. All the south of Greenland was covered with vegetation. The name “Groenland” was given by Erik. It meant “green earth” in old Norse language. He founded his village on that land.

Erik and his relatives spent the three years of exile on that island. When he returned to Iceland he told his countrymen the beauties and riches of that distant land. He managed to convince many Vikings to follow him in a new expedition to Greenland. Thirty-five drakkar were to the expedition, with two thousand men, women and children aboard. But, because of some storms, only seventeen boats managed to reach the promised land.

Erik founded his village in a fjord on the western shore of the southern promontory of the island, a place today called Brattahlid, in the fjord which was named Eriksfjord in his honor. The other Vikings found other villages always on the southwest coast, the most welcoming and fishy because of the hot current that affected the sea arm facing those lands. In the following years Erik and his wife raised their four sons, the Freydis female and three males: Leif, Thornvald and Thornstein.

Leif Eriksson, the eldest of Erik’s sons, was sailed from his father in Norway to have an education and to contact King Olav I of Denmark in order to receive aid to arrange expeditions in Greenland to increase the number of Vikings in the island. He could not convince the sovereign to arrange sea expedition in so far afield and out of control. Leif, during his stay in Norway, converted to Christianity. When he returned to Greenland, he was accompanied by a priest, and by a southern man, a German named Tyrkir, whom he had known during his journeys between Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Father Erik was not particularly happy with the presence of the priest. He considered the priest as a “good at nothing” and refused to convert to Christianity. His wife, other children, and many villagers in Viking villages in Greenland became Christians. Two churches were built, the first in the “Eastern” village, which was located almost on the southern promontory of the island, where the clan of Erik the Red and the second neighboring the western village created by the fellow countrymen of Erik to the north, on the east side of the island.

One of the villagers in the western village, Bijarne Herjolfsson, because of the storm, went off course with his boat to the west, where he spotted the lands that emerged. He had no way of landing but, returning among his own, told what he had seen, giving precise directions on the route. Leif, who had a great spirit of adventure, wanted to arrange an expedition to visit those unknown lands. His father, due to his advanced age, and a horseback that had caused him considerable physical damage, could not take part in the expedition.

It was the year 1000 when Leif and his comrades headed to discover new lands. The shipment was formed by Leif, by his German friend Tyrkir and another 35 Normans. After four days of sailing in which they also had to face a storm, the land that Bijarne was described. Its shores were high and steep and it was not possible to moor with the drakkar. Leif called that inhospitable land “Helluland”. It was today’s “Baffin Land”. Erik’s son pointed to the south in search of more hospitable lands and more mild climatic conditions. After several days of sailing, he saw a land covered with vegetation and several bays that allowed a shelter for the boat and easy landing. This land was called “Markland” and it was the current Labrador. But Erik was looking for a place that allowed farming and had a milder climate.

He went south where he finally found a place that seemed to match his desires. He had arrived on the island of Newfoundland. He landed in a bay on the northern side of the island where he created a village named Leifsbudir. That land was called by the Viking “Vinland”, from the old Norse language “vin”, pasture.

The Vinland was particularly welcoming: rivers full of fish, pasture for livestock, the opportunity to practice farming, trees. The island of Newfoundland at that time was inhabited by Beothuk, a people of Native Americans of peaceful indole who, in a small number, lived in a few villages. They were not a problem for Viking invaders.
Leif, after wintering in Vinland, returned to his village in Greenland. Father Erik was died during the winter and Leif became the village’s chief and had to abandon his intention of returning to the island of Newfoundland.

Brother Thornvald took Leif’s seat by organizing an expedition to return to Leifsbudir, the village left in Vinland’s land. 30 men were at his command. When they arrived in Newfoundland they spent the first winter, mainly eating fish, abundant in the rivers of the island. In the following summer, Thornvald embarked again to explore other territories. He went in with his small ship inside the San Lorenzo estuary. He probably climbed up the river as far as Quebec City is today. Unfortunately, the Native Americans, the Mikmac, who lived on the shores of St. Lawrence, were not as peaceful as the Beothuk met in Newfoundland. The Mikmac, the “long houses” indigenous, since tribe members all lived together in long huts, even 60 meters, had a retention instinct that made them wary of foreigners. The Viking group landed to explore the mainland was attacked by indigenous people. Thornvald was hit by an arrow and died. His companions withdrew and returned to their village in Vinland. After the winter season, the shipment components returned to Greenland.

The adventures of the Vikings in North America were not over. Thorfin Karlsefni, an Icelandic Viking who had married a goddaughter of Erik the Red, wanted to organize another expedition to Newfoundland, accompanied by 160 men and women, with supplies and breeding animals. Thorfinn survived three years in the village of Laifsbudir, although in this third expedition the Vikings had been engaged in bloody battles with the locals. In the third summer following their arrival they climbed on the drakkar and returned to Greenland at the end of their rope and reduced by number.

The life of Greenland Vikings continued quietly. In 1099 Pope Paschal appointed Icelandic Erik Gnupsson as bishop of Greenland and Newfoundland. As time went on, contacts with Iceland and Norway became less and less. Around the year 1200 the Inuit, a Siberian people, arrived in Greenland. They moved from the cold went more and more southward. The encounter with the Vikings was inevitable. Violent hostilities developed between the two groups, but also exchanges between Inuit, skilled fishermen, and Vikings with their livestock products.

Viking boats, which, because of the arctic storms, were sunk, could not be replaced by the scarcity of wood as the trees were stunted to grow for the harsh climate. Little by little memory of Greenland Vikings was lost in Europe. The last written testimony of Erik’s descendants is derived from the documents found in the ruins of the church of the eastern village that speak of a wedding celebrated in the same church on September 16, 1408. The small glaciation that lowered the island’s temperatures did not allow their survival. To the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century there was the extinction of Greenland Vikings.

In 1721 Frederick IV, king of Denmark and Norway, not knowing the fate of fellow countrymen in distant Greenland, fearing that the population of that island had abandoned Christianity and had fallen into paganism, organized a naval expedition involving missionaries, tending to find the villages of the ancient Vikings. The expedition came to Greenland but did not find any descendants of the Icelandic colonizers. Missionaries devoted themselves to the conversion of Inuit populations. The sailors founded commercial colonies on the southwest coast of the island, resuming regular contacts with Scandinavia. Greenland became a possession of Denmark.

In the second half of the 20th century archaeological research revealed the ruins of three Viking villages in Greenland and two in Canada.

On the west coast of Greenland, the ruins of a Viking settlement (Vestribyggd), a village that had accommodated up to 3000 inhabitants and its church, were found. The inhabitants of that settlement, according to the finds of researchers, mingles with the Inuit around the middle of the 14th century. In the village a melting pot was created between the two populations. Research on the DNA of bodies found inside the tombs shows that the two peoples did not cross with mixed marriages. Research has also shown that the inhabitants of this village abandoned the Christian religion by returning to idolizing the pagan gods. Another small village, which was located in an intermediate position between the two larger villages, had the same fate as the first one even though the coexistence with the Inuit began some decades later.

The research on the western village (Eystribyggd), founded and driven by Erik and its descendants, which was in fact situated on the same meridian but much closer to the extreme southern of Greenland, revealed that it did not mix with the Inuit population and maintained its identity, even Christian, to the natural extinction of its inhabitants. Analysis of the remains of the ancient inhabitants showed that their diet, in recent times of their survival, had shifted from a primary consumption of sheep meat and bovine meat to a diet mainly consisting of seals meat. In 1960, Norwegian Helge Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking settlement on the island of Newfoundland, at the northern side of the island, in an area called Anse aux Meadows. The remains of eight buildings, various metal gears, including those suitable for building and repairing boats were found. The village has been identified as what Erik the Red’s Saga call Vinland and was built by his son Leif after the first clashes with the Native Americans, which the Vikings called “Skaeling” (screaming straps). It was also used by Leif’s brother, Thornvald, in the second expedition to Canada and by Thorfin Karlsefni in his sailing to the San Lorenzo mouths. The legend of Algonquian Indians, direct descendants of the Mikmac, who tells of a Saguenay kingdom formed by tall, blond and hairy men, seems to refer to the inhabitants of Anse aux Meadows.

Recently, Canadian archaeologist Pat Sutherland discovered in the southern part of Baffin Island, a place called Nanook, ruins belonging to a defensive system featuring the characteristics of Viking buildings, as well as metallic objects typical of the Nordic people. The study found that the remains date back to the 14th century, when the decadence of Viking villages in Greenland had already begun.

A recent study based on the DNA analysis (which retains the matrilineal characteristics) found that there were genetic traces of Native Americans in several Icelandic individuals. It should be noted that the traces found were relate to indigenous inhabitants of Canada and not to Inuit. The study showed that the interested Icelanders descended from four women who lived in the late 1700s, descending in turn by a single woman lived in the 18th century. In addition, according to the time required to reveal a genetic variant present in these individuals, it was hypothesized that genetic contamination occurred around the year 1000. This led to the assumption that a woman, probably of Algonquian origin (Mikmac), traveled with Vikings in one of the return journeys in Greenland, and then moved to Iceland where she would have children with an inhabitant of the Island.

(Image at the top: Mappa della regione settentrionale di Abraham Ortelius, 1573)