The Vikings reached the
northern coasts of the American continent long before Columbus.
Image above: Vikings land at Vinland on Newfoundland. Paint by Tom Lovell.
The image may not be downloaded or otherwise copied or used. Visit Scandinavia has purchased a license for this image file.
The Vikings ship building capability was fundamental to their overseas exploration, trading, conquest and settlement.
Leif Erikson or Leif Ericson (c. 970 – c. 1020) was a Norse explorer and was the first known European to have set foot on continental North America (excluding Greenland), before Christopher Columbus. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L'Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur), both of Norwegian origin. His place of birth is not known, but he is assumed to have been born in Iceland, which had recently been colonized by Norsemen mainly from Norway. He grew up in the family estate Brattahlíð in the Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Leif had two known sons: Thorgils, born to noblewoman Thorgunna in the Hebrides; and Thorkell, who succeeded him as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.
Vinland, Vineland or Winland (Old Norse: Vínland) is the name for North American land explored by Norse Vikings, where Leif Erikson first landed c. 1000, approximately five centuries prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot. Vinland was the name given to North America as far as it was explored by the Vikings, presumably including both Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as northeastern New Brunswick (where the eponymous grapevines are found).
In 1960, archaeological evidence of a Norse settlement in North America (outside Greenland) was found at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. Before the discovery of archaeological evidence, Vinland was known only from Old Norse sagas and medieval historiography. The 1960 discovery conclusively proved the pre-Columbian Norse colonization of North American lands and islands beyond Greenland. L'Anse aux Meadows may correspond to the camp Straumfjörð mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red.
Vinland or "Winland" was the name given to part of North America by the Icelandic Norseman Leif Eiríksson, about year 1000. The exact meaning of this Norse toponym has not been established. Two likely translations of the name have been advanced by linguists:
"land of meadows"
The earliest record of the name Winland is found in Adam of Bremen's Descriptio insularum Aquilonis ("Description of the Northern Islands", ch. 39), written c. 1075. To write it he visited the King of Denmark, Sweyn II Estridsson who had knowledge of the northern lands. The name contains Old Norse vin which means meadow. Adam implies that the name should be mistranslated via Latin (a language not significantly related to Old Norse) vinum to "wine" (rendered as Old High German win):
Moreover, he has also reported one island discovered by many in that ocean, which is called Winland, for the reason that grapevines grow there by themselves, producing the best wine.
This etymology is retained in the 13th-century Grœnlendinga saga, which provides a circumstantial account of the discovery of Vinland and its being named from the vínber, i.e. "wineberry", a term for grapes or currants (black or red), found there.
There is a long-standing Scandinavian tradition of fermenting berries into wine. The question whether the name refers to actual grapevines (as implied by Adam of Bremen) or just to berries was addressed in a 2010 excavation report on L'Anse aux Meadows. The discovery of butternuts at the site implies that the Norse explored Vinland further to the south, at least as far as St. Lawrence River and parts of New Brunswick, the northern limit for both butternut and wild grapes (Vitis riparia).
Another proposal for the name's etymology, was brought up by Sven Söderberg in 1898 (first published in 1910)
This suggestion involves interpreting the Old Norse name not as vín-land but as vin-land, with a short vowel. Old Norse vin (from Proto-Norse winju) has a meaning of "meadow, pasture".
This interpretation of Vinland as "pasture-land" rather than "vine-land" was accepted by Valter Jansson in his classic 1951 dissertation on the vin-names of Scandinavia, by way of which it entered popular knowledge in the later 20th century. It was rejected by Einar Haugen (1977), who argued that the vin element had changed its meaning from "pasture" to "farm" long before the Old Norse period. Names in vin were given in the Proto-Norse period, and they are absent from places colonized in the Viking Age. Haugen's basis for rejection has since been challenged.
There is a runestone which may have contained a record of the Old Norse name slightly predating Adam of Bremen's Winland. The Hønen Runestone was discovered in Norderhov, Norway shortly before 1817, but it was subsequently lost. Its assessment depends on a sketch made by antiquarian L. D. Klüwer (1823), now also lost but in turn copied by Wilhelm Frimann Koren Christie (1838). The Younger Futhark inscription was dated to c. 1010–50. The stone had been erected in memory of a Norwegian, possibly a descendant of Sigurd Syr. Sophus Bugge (1902) read part of the inscription as
uin (l)a(t)ią isa
Vínlandi á ísa
"from Vinland over ice"
This is highly uncertain; the same sequence is read by Magnus Olsen (1951) as
uin ka(lt)ą isa
vindkalda á ísa
"over the wind-cold ice"