Who Was the First European to Discover North America?

W. B. Bartlett

Middle Ages Vikings
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It is well known that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ North America in 1492. Except, of course, he didn’t.

Indigenous peoples had been making their way across what was then a land bridge from Asia for perhaps 20,000 years before him. And we now know that he was not even the first European to become aware of the continent. That claim belongs to Viking voyagers and we are lucky that several surviving sagas tell us what happened.

Understandably, historians are sometimes sceptical of relying on such accounts. Often they were written up hundreds of years after the events they discuss, and sometimes include some highly suspect references to supernatural goings-on which are very unlikely to have happened in real life.

Luckily, recent archaeological discoveries have given us firm evidence to back up the saga stories.

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Bjarni Herjólfsson sets off for Greenland

The name of the first European to sight North America has been largely forgotten. It was not Leif Eriksson, whose fame was largely secured by his expeditions to the continent, nor was it Erik the Red (who indeed never went there). It was rather Bjarni Herjólfsson who journeyed from Norway to his home in Iceland in the year 985.

Arriving back in Iceland, he learned that his parents had recently sailed west to Greenland with an adventurer (and something of a rogue), the aforementioned Erik the Red. Bjarni decided to go after them and set out for Greenland. Unfortunately the journey quickly started to go wrong.

Carl Rasmussen’s painting depicting the Viking voyages to Greenland.

The first issue was that there was insufficient wind for the ship to make good speed. Then the curse of all mariners, fog, descended on them. They lost track of time, meandering around aimlessly in the mist without a clue where they were.

At last the fog lifted and they caught sight of land. Any euphoria they felt was short-lived, for it quickly became apparent that this was a land no one from Europe had ever seen before. Unlike Greenland, it was carpeted in thick forests and there were no glaciers in sight.

To some Vikings this might have been exactly the kind of excitement that they were searching for. We think of them of being spurred on by a spirit of adventure, an everlasting quest for the unknown. Bjarni however was not of this type.

Rather than putting ashore to find out more, he ordered the ship to turn around and head for Greenland – or where they thought Greenland to be. They soon arrived at their destination. As far as we know, Bjarni never set eyes on North America – for it is now generally thought this is what he caught a glimpse of – again.

Leif Eriksson sets foot in North America

It was on Bjarni’s return that Leif Eriksson enters the story. He heard of Bjarni’s epic voyage and bought his ship off him, determined to find out more about the unexplored lands in the west.

Leif was very much an adventurer. He had spent time in Norway before heading for Greenland and now he wished for another thrilling voyage into the unknown.

Thanks to two surviving accounts, The Greenlanders’ Saga and Erik the Red’s Saga, some details of his (and others) journeys to North America have survived.

Three geographical regions are named as being visited by Vikings; Helluland (‘slab-stone land’ – possibly Baffin Island), Markland (‘forest land’) and most famously Vinland (‘wine land’).

‘The Landing of the Vikings’ by Arthur C. Michael, painted 1919. It must be noted that Vikings did not wear horned helmets, contrary to this image.

Leif did not stay on the continent for long. He over-wintered there and then returned to Greenland along with a welcome supply of timber, vital in the Viking world for ships, houses and furniture amongst other things. Others followed in his footsteps though. His brother Thorvald did so and stayed for several years.

However, it soon became apparent that they did not have the country to themselves. They came across an indigenous population, the skrӕlings as they became known (the word translates approximately as ‘barbarians’).

There was soon a clash between them in which all but one of the indigenes in the party they came across was killed. In response, the indigenes attacked the Vikings with a flotilla of boats. One of their warriors loosed an arrow which struck Thorvald in an armpit. He soon after died of his wounds.

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Another brother of Leif Eriksson’s, Thorstein, also led an expedition to the continent but atrocious weather conditions meant that it was aborted.

Thorstein’s death during an epidemic in Greenland soon after meant that he did not try again. His place was taken by Thorfinn Thordarson (known as Karlsefni). Not only did Karlsefni decide to try again in Vinland but he also married Thorstein’s widow, Gudrid.

He took with him sixty men, five women (including Gudrid) and livestock. They also met parties of skrӕlings when they put shore. There was initially some trading between the two groups but they soon came to blows too.

Eventually, Karlsefni’s group returned to Greenland – after Gudrid gave birth to a son called Snorri, the first-known European child to be born in North America.

Eiríksstaðir, the home of Erik the Red in Haukadalur, Iceland. Image source: Bromr / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The last expedition

One last expedition followed, led by Thorvard. He was married to Freydis, the uncontrollable daughter of Erik the Red.

Freydis showed herself to be the archetypal villainess. With their party was a group of Icelanders who Freydis later decided to murder. She had previously been in Karlsefni’s party and, when they were attacked, she had fought off the skrӕlings using unconventional tactics involving the baring of her breasts in the general direction of the indigenous warriors.

Historians are slightly sceptical about these accounts of Freydis, noting the resemblance of her name to the Norse god Frey/Freyr (male/female twins in the Viking pantheon). Similarly, Gudrid, whose actions are generally portrayed as being exemplary, has a name that is suspiciously similar to that of the Christian God.

In this period the old pagan Viking religion and recently arrived Christian religion were fighting for supremacy. Therefore, it is possible that some of these accounts may be allegorical rather than literal.

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A modern assessment

Doubts about the accuracy of the sagas force us to look at other forms of evidence for the Vikings in North America. This came to a head in the 20th century. It is now time to turn our attention to the so-called Vinland Map and a remarkable husband and wife archaeological team.

The map appeared in 1965. It purported to show Viking settlements in North America and made specific reference to Leif Eriksson and Bjarni Herjólfsson. Vinland, Helluland and Markland were clearly marked. H

istorians were overjoyed at the discovery; that is until it was revealed that it was a fake, probably crafted by a 20th century Yugoslav professor of history, Luka Jelič.

The Vinland Map.

It was the husband and wife team who gave real cause for excitement. A Norwegian couple, Helge and Ann Stine Ingstad, were curious about the origins of an apparent archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland.

Extensive investigation over a number of seasons revealed buildings constructed in a distinctive Norse style which were radiocarbon-dated to around the year 1000.

The site was never large but the discovery of ships’ rivets there suggests that this was something of a stopover point from which perhaps Viking trading (or raiding) parties could push on, possibly to the North American mainland.

An authentic Viking settlement in Newfoundland, Canada. Image source: Dylan Kereluk / CC BY 2.0.

From time to time new evidence emerges in North America that hints at a wider Viking presence in the continent beyond the rather peripheral position of Newfoundland.

So far, any evidence has been inconclusive. Perhaps one day more conclusive archaeological finds will be uncovered, proving that the Vikings pushed further into the continent.

As they say, watch this space.

W. B. Bartlett has worked across the globe in over thirty countries and has spent time in over seventy. He is the author of many history books including titles on the Titanic, Medieval History, King Cnut and the Dam Busters. Vikings, A History of the Northmen is his most recent work and will be published on 15 November, by Amberley Publishing.

W. B. Bartlett