The Vikings in Greenland and America (part 3 of 4)
Part 1 (Erik the Red) is available here.
The Greenland Vikings mounted several more expeditions to America. These ranged in size and success. But each showed the new world was a place of both potential and peril. The scions of Erik the Red took the lead in most of these early adventures.
Thorvald’s Ill-fated Expedition (1002)
The year after Leif’s return and Thorstein’s unsuccessful expedition, their brother Thorvald set out with one ship. He found Vinland and chose a spot for a settlement.
Thorvald and his men had not been there long when they caught three Native Americans spying on them. When attempts at communication failed, Thorvald simply murdered the strangers. The next day, Thorvald’s Vikings were attacked by hundreds of Native Americans. The Vikings, with their shields and armor, repeled the attack, but Thorvald was shot with an arrow. A quote from the Vinland Sagas: "I have been wounded under my arm,' he said. 'An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow, and this wound will cause my death." The other Vikings buried him at the spot where he had said he wanted to build his home.
Thorvald Erikson was the first recorded European to be killed on American soil. The sad history of violent conflict between Europeans and Native Americans had thus begun from this first contact around 1002, nearly 500 years before Columbus. The sagas refer to these Native Americans as Skrælings, which is a word of uncertain original meaning. Theories range that it referred to the natives' war-whoop to their animal pelt clothing. The saga tellers use the same word for the Thule people (an early Inuit tribe) who also inhabited Greenland at the time of the Vikings. But the Skrælings the Vikings encountered in Vinland were likely the ancestors of the Beothuk, an Algonquin-speaking tribe aboriginal to Newfoundland. The above 'Portrait of Demasduit' is a painting of one of the last surviving Beothuk people before they were wiped out in the 19th century.
Thorfinn Karlsefni’s American Colony (circa 1004)
The Greenlanders were undeterred by the death of Thorvald and perhaps had accurately concluded that the man had brought it on himself. The resources of North America were too valuable to ignore. Another expedition was formed, this time involving 160 Vikings. It was led by two men, Thorfinn Karlsefni and Thorhall the Sportsman. Erik’s daughter, Freydis, and his son-in-law (also named Thorvald) accompanied this expedition. Karlsefni also brought his wife, Gudrid, who had been widowed from Erik the Red’s eldest son, Thorstein. Gudrid, the sagas say, was “a lady without peer.”
This time, the Vikings found Leif’s lands and explored further. They had some success but encountered many obstacles. Strife mounted between crew members, not only because of the stresses of carving a life out of the wilderness but also friction in leadership and religion. Karlsefni had converted to Leif Erikson's Christianity, while Thorhall’s men remained faithful to Thor and their other gods. Everything that went well and everything that went poorly became new occasions for religious arguments. Finally, Thorhall had enough, and his men split off on their own.
Thorhall’s ships were ultimately blown off course to Ireland on the return journey, and Thorhall and his explorers were killed or enslaved by the warring factions there. We can imagine that Thorhall’s survivors told their Irish captors of the lands they had seen. If they did, they were apparently ignored, delaying the full European discovery of the New World by several centuries.
The hundred and forty explorers who stayed with Karlsefni soon encountered Native Americans. Karlsefni was a wiser man than Thorvald had been, so this time when the two peoples made contact, the Vikings sought to trade instead of fight. The interaction seemed like a success, with a lot of goods changing hands and a general sense of goodwill amongst the parties.
However, some days after this peaceful transaction, the Greenlanders' expedition was attacked by a great host. Despite their shields and their steel weapons, the Vikings were very nearly destroyed.
But Freydis Eiriksdottir grabbed a sword from a fallen kinsman and – stripping herself half-naked – beat her breast with the blade and shouted at the Skrælings so fearsomely that the Vikings rallied, and the Natives fled. The Vikings all commended Freydis on her zeal and bravery, saying that it was like a Valkyrie had come and saved them.
The Native Americans were apparently frightened enough by Freydis and the bull corralled in the center of the Greenlanders’ camp. They continued to watch the visitors, but kept their distance.
Karlsefni's expedition spent a while longer in Vinland and the territory they called Markland (“Land of Trees”). Gudrid had a son, named Snorri who was the first recorded European born in America.
Eventually, though, this colony began to lose pace with the demands placed on them by the wild new environment. They returned to Greenland, though some perished along the way.
Some archeologists believe that the Norse settlement found at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is Karlsefni’s colony (possibly the camp the saga calls Hop).
Freydis’s Doomed Expedition (circa 1011)
The last expedition the sagas report was far grimmer than Karlsefni’s expedition. Freydis Eiriksdottir was not back in Greenland for long when she hungered to return to America. Having a shrewd head for business (and living in one of the few medieval places where a woman was free to do so) she entered into a partnership with two brothers from Norway. They agreed they would take two ships with no more than 30 fighting men each and as many colonists as they liked. They would set up a colony in Vinland at the very spot where Leif had wintered (now ten years before). They would use this colony to export goods back to Greenland and would split the profits 50/50.
Whether she entered into the pact duplicitously or simply for her own security, Freydis snuck five additional fighting men aboard her ship. This would give her the advantage should the parties ever come to blows.
The colony reached Vinland around the year 1011. Again, Freydis double-crossed her business partners. When they reached the spot where Leif’s original longhouse stood, Freydis took it for her camp and refused to let the brothers use it.
One can easily see why Freydis would not want an additional 37 people in her family’s house. Nonetheless, the brothers had been expecting to use it, too, since that was how the plan was presented. The brothers and their party then had to make their own longhouse and camp, which cost them valuable time in harvesting goods before winter.
Authentic Viking recreation, Newfoundland, Canada
Not surprisingly, there was the gradual growth of strain between the two factions as the stresses of life in the adverse environment mounted. The two camps attempted to keep working together, and when work stopped for the winter, they tried sharing entertainments and diversions. But their disagreements and discontent proved too strong. Soon the parties were not on speaking terms, and the colonists with the brothers from Norway began to just keep to themselves.
Isolation and hardship do strange things to people, and the annals of explorers throughout the ages have been filled with dark episodes where seemingly ordinary people lost their minds. This may have been the case with Freydis Eiriksdottir, or perhaps the “zeal” she had shown in defeating the Skrælings years before was an earlier manifestation of her deep psychosis. Whatever the reasons, Freydis set up an elaborate scheme to drive her Vikings into a rage and attack the other camp.
Not only were the Norwegian brothers killed, but Freydis herself butchered five surrendered, non-combatant women with an ax. Covered in innocent blood, Freydis walked back to her camp, looking very pleased with herself. By this time, Freydis's men realized they had been lied to and involved in a horrible crime. But Freydis threatened all of them that if they ever spoke of these events that she would kill them, too.
Not surprisingly, Freydis’s colony failed. They returned to Greenland, almost empty-handed. Leif found out about the massacre and tortured three of Freydis’s men until he heard every detail. He refused to raise a hand against Freydis though, and instead laid a curse on her. After that, Freydis and her husband were ostracized by the community.
Some modern writers have questioned the Freydis story as anti-pagan, chauvinist slander by medieval church writers. Gudrid, the dutiful wife and mother, is made to look good while Freydis the natural-born leader is made to look like a monster. However, The Saga of Erik the Red never mentions Freydis’s religion one way or the other. Norse sagas and poetry are replete with strong women and heroic people of all persuasions. Whether the story of Freydis’s doomed expedition is true or embellished, it illustrates that life on the frontier was arduous and consumed more people than it blessed.
Click here for Part 4 of The Vikings in America.
Map image Source:
Finn Bjørklid - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorvald_Eiriksson#/media/File:Vinland-travel.jpg
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David Gray Rodgers is a college lecturer, and author of several books, including Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome. He is co-author of Sons of Vikings: History, Legend, and Impact of the Viking Age. Viking History Book.