The first Europeans to visit America

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Yes, he did, but he was not the first European to visit America. In fact, he was 500 years too late to claim that distinction. So, who did cross the Atlantic first?

The Icelandic sagas relate that in 985, a merchant, Bjarni Herjolfsson, was the first European to sight America. His ship was one of a fleet of 25 vessels with around 500 settlers who were emigrating from Iceland to Greenland. He claimed that the fleet was blown off course. Eleven of the ships were lost before he eventually sighted land to the far west. However, he did not go ashore and eventually managed to reach Greenland.

In an earlier blog I told the story of “Erik the Red”, who started a Viking Age settlement on Greenland. His son, Leif Eriksson, sailed from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD. He was blown off course and made landfall on the Hebrides. He spent a summer there and married a Hebridean woman before he set off for Norway. There he was converted to Christianity and the Norwegian king instructed him to return to Greenland to win over the people there to the new religion.

On his return voyage to Greenland Leif was blown off course yet again. This time he reached a land where there were, “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. This land was far to the west of Greenland and had to be America. However, Leif was not the first European to set foot on the American continent. On the shore he found two men who had survived a ship wreck. Thus, these two nameless men were probably the first Europeans to land in America.

On his return to Greenland, Leif persuaded Bjarni Herjolfsson to sell him his merchant ship, a type of Viking ship called a knar, which was designed to carry cargo. He recruited a crew of 35 and set off to retrace his 1,800mile voyage and find the land to the west again. His father, Erik the Red, was to have led this expedition. However, as they were making preparations for departure, Erik’s horse slipped on the stoney beach and Erik fell off, injuring himself.

Leif reached America successfully in 1001 and he and his crew built a small settlement, probably in Newfoundland. They overwintered there and explored the surrounding country. Leif had ordered that only twelve men should be away from the camp at one time. One of his companions was a freed slave called Tyrker. Apparently, this slave, who was probably German or Hungarian, had taken care of Leif as a boy during the long periods when Erik the Red was away on his long voyages. Leif regarded Tyrker as his foster-father. One evening twelve of the men, including Tyrker, who were away exploring, did not return. Erik took a party to look for them. Legend has it that he found Tyrker drunk from the over-ripe grapes he had been gorging himself on. Henceforth the place was called “Vinland”, (vine land), because of the profusion of wild grapes. Two other places were named by Leif, “Helluland”, (land of the flat stones, probably Baffin Island) and “Markland”, (land of the forests, possibly Labrador). Leif’s ship returned safely to Greenland with a cargo of timber and grapes. A supply of the former was a very attractive prospect for the inhabitants of barren Greenland. 

In 1004, Leif’s brother Thorvald sailed to Vinland with a crew of 30. After overwintering, his men came into contact with the indigenous people, the Native Americans. Thorvald made the bad mistake of attacking a group of them who were sleeping under their canoes. One managed to escape and later returned with a strong force. In the ensuing fight, Thorvald was killed. 

In 1009, Thorfinn Karlsefni, set off from Greenland with three ships to sail to Vinland. He took with him 160 men and women together with livestock. At first the settlers lived in harmony with the indigenous people. They traded milk and cloth for furs. Eventually however, there was conflict between the two communities. It is unknown how long this colony survived.

Geneticists have discovered 80 living Icelanders with mitochondrial-DNA (a type of DNA passed from mother to child) with signatures similar to Native Americans. The evidence suggests that this DNA entered the Icelandic bloodlines around AD 1000, which means that early Viking explorers and settlers to the New World may have taken at least one Native American woman back to Iceland with them.

Early in the 1960s Norwegian explorers found the remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the tip of Newfoundland. It is believed that this may be the site of Leif’s first settlement. Artefacts have been found in other places too, traces of the first Europeans to visit the American continent.

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