The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE Icelandic discovery of America was first announced, in print, more than two centuries and a half ago. Within the past fifty years of this period, the discovery has attracted more general attention than during all of the interval preceding,--a fact, which is no doubt traceable to the publication, in 1837, of a comprehensive work upon the subject prepared by the Danish scholar, Carl Christian Rafn. Although it is now more than half a century since this book was published, Rafn is still very generally regarded as the standard authority upon the subject of which he treats. But his zeal in promulgating the discovery seriously prejudiced his judgment. His chief fault was the heedless confusing of all of the material bearing directly or indirectly upon his theme,--the failure to winnow the sound historical material from that which is unsubstantiated. Rafn offered numerous explanations of the texts which his work contained, and propounded many dubious theories and hazardous conjectures. With these the authors, who have founded their investigations upon his work, have more concerned themselves than with the texts of the original documents. If less effort had been applied to the dissemination and defence of fantastic speculations, and more to the determination of the exact nature of the facts which have been preserved in the Icelandic records, the discovery should
not have failed to be accepted as clearly established by sound historical data. Upon any other hypothesis than this it is difficult to account for the disposition American historians have shown to treat the Icelandic discovery as possible, from conjectural causes, rather than as determined by the historical records preserved by the fellow-countrymen of the discoverers.
Bancroft, in his History of the United States, gave form to this tendency many years ago, when he stated, that:
"The story of the colonization of America by Norsemen rests on narratives mythological in form, and obscure in meaning, ancient yet not contemporary. The intrepid mariners who colonized Greenland could easily have extended their voyages to Labrador, and have explored the coasts to the south of it. No clear historic evidence establishes the natural probability that they accomplished the passage, and no vestige of their presence on our continent has been found."
The latest historian of America, traversing the same field, virtually iterates this conclusion, when he says:
"The extremely probable and almost necessary pre-Columbian knowledge of the northeastern parts of America follows from the venturesome spirit of the mariners of those seas for fish and traffic, and from the easy transition from coast to coast by which they would have been lured to meet more southerly climes. The chances from such natural causes are quite as strong an argument in favor of the early Northmen venturings as the somewhat questionable representations of the Sagas."
The same writer states, elsewhere, in this connection, that:
"Everywhere else where the Northmen, went they left proofs of this occupation on the soil, but nowhere in America, except on an island on the east shore of Baffin's Bay, has any authentic runic inscription been found outside of Greenland."
If the authenticity of the Icelandic discovery of America is to be determined by runic inscriptions or other archælogical remains left by the discoverers, it is altogether probable that the discovery will never be confirmed. The application of this same test, however, would render the discovery of Iceland very problematical. The testimony is the same in both cases, the essential difference between the two discoveries being, after all, that the one led to practical results, while the other, apparently, did not ( 1). The absence of any Icelandic remains south of Baffin's Bay makes neither for nor against the credibility of the Icelandic discovery,--although it may be said, that it is hardly reasonable to expect that, in the brief period of their sojourn, the explorers would have left any buildings or implements behind them, which would be likely to survive the ravages of the nine centuries that have elapsed since the discovery.
The really important issue, which is raised by the paragraphs quoted, is the broader one of the credibility of the Icelandic records. These records, in so far as they relate to the discovery, disentangled from wild theories and vague assumptions, would seem to speak best for themselves, It is true that Icelandic historical sagas do
differ from the historical works of other lands, but this difference is one of form. The Icelandic saga is peculiarly distinguished for the presentation of events in a simple, straightforward manner, without embellishment or commentary by the author. Fabulous sagas there are in Icelandic literature, but this literature is by no means unique in the possession of works both of history and romance, nor has it been customary to regard works of fiction as discrediting the historical narratives of a people which has created both. It is possible to discriminate these two varieties of literary creation in other languages, so is it no less possible in Icelandic. There is, indeed, no clear reason why the statements of an historical saga should be called in question, where these statements are logically consistent and collaterally confirmed.
The information contained in Icelandic literature relative to the discovery of America by the Icelanders, has been brought together here, and an attempt has been made to trace the history of each of the elder manuscripts containing this information. Inconsistencies have been noted, and discriminations made in the material, so far as the facts have seemed to warrant, and especially has an effort been made to avoid any possibility of confusion between expressions of opinion and the facts.
It is not altogether consistent with the plan of this book, to suggest what seems to be established by the documents which it presents, these documents being offered to bear witness for themselves, but a brief recapitulation of the conclusions to which a study of the documents has led may not be amiss, since these conclusions
differ radically, in many respects, from the views advanced by Rafn and his followers, and are offered with a view to point further enquiry, rather than to supplant it.
The eldest surviving manuscript containing an account of the discovery of Wineland the Good, as the southernmost land reached by the Icelandic discoverers was called, was written not later than 1334. This, and a more recent manuscript containing virtually the same saga, present the most cogent and consistent account of the discovery which has been preserved. Many of the important incidents therein set forth are confirmed by other Icelandic records of contemporary events, and the information which this saga affords is simply, naturally and intelligibly detailed. This information is of such a character that it is natural to suppose it to have been derived from the statements of those who had themselves visited the lands described; it is not conceivable from what other source it could have been obtained, and, except its author was gifted with unparalleled prescience, it could not have been a fabrication. According to this history, for such it clearly is, Wineland was discovered by a son of Eric Thorvaldsson, called the Red, the first Icelandic explorer and colonist of Greenland. This son, whose name was Leif, returning from a voyage to Norway, probably not later than the year 1000, was driven out of the direct track to Greenland, and came upon a country of which he had previously had no knowledge. He returned thence to Greenland, and reported what he had found, and all ineffectual attempt was made soon after to reach this
strange land again. A few years later one Thorfinn Thordarson, called Karlsefni, an Icelander, who, had recently arrived in Greenland, determined to renew the effort to find and explore the unknown country which Leif had seen. He organized an expedition and sailed away from Greenland toward the south-west. He first sighted a barren land, which, because of the large flat stones that lay strewn upon its surface, received the name of Helluland. Continuing thence, with winds from the north, the explorers next found a wooded land, to which they gave the name of Markland, from its trees, which, to these inhabitants of a treeless land, were a sufficiently distinguishing characteristic. Proceeding thence, they next described a coast-land, along which they sailed, having the land upon their starboard side. The first portion of this land-fall proved to be a long, sandy shore, but when they had followed it for some time, they found it indented with bays and creeks, and in one of these they stopped, and sent two of their company inland to explore the country. These explorers, when they returned, brought with them, the one a bunch of grapes, the other an ear of wild ["self-sown"] grain. They hoisted anchor then, and sailed on until they came to a bay, at the mouth of which was an island with strong currents flowing about it. They laid their course into the bay, and, being pleased with the country thereabouts, decided to remain there the first winter, which proved to be a severe one. In the following year, Karlsefni, with the greater portion of his company, continued the advance southward, halting finally at a river, which flowed down from the land into, a lake and thence into
the sea. About the month of this river was shoal water, and it could only be entered at flood-tide; they proceeded up the river with their ship, and established themselves not far from the sea, and remained here throughout the second winter. There were woods here, and in low-lands fields of wild "wheat," and on the ridges grapes growing wild. Here for the first time they encountered the inhabitants of the country, to whom they gave the name of Skrellings, a name which seems to bear evidence of their opprobrium. In the spring after their arrival at this spot, they were visited for the second time by the Skrellings, with whom they now engaged in barter; their visitors, however, becoming alarmed at the bellowing of a bull, which Karlsefni had brought with him, fled to their skin-canoes and rowed away. For three weeks after this, nothing was seen of the natives; but, at the end of this interval, they returned in great numbers and gave battle to Karlsefni and his companions. The Skrellings filially withdrew, having lost several of their number, while two of Karlsefni's men had fallen in the affray. The explorers, although they were well content with the country, decided, after this experience, that it would be unwise for them to attempt to remain in that region longer, and they accordingly returned to the neighbourhood in which they had passed the first winter, where they remained throughout the third winter, and in the following spring set sail for Greenland.
In a manuscript written probably between 1370 and 1390, but certainly before the close of the fourteenth century, are two detached narratives which, considered together,
form another version of the history of the discovery and exploration of Wineland. In this account the discovery is ascribed to one Biarni Heriulfsson, and the date assigned to this event is fixed several years anterior to that of Leif Ericsson's voyage; indeed, according to this account, Leif's voyage to Wineland is not treated as accidental, but as the direct result of Biarni's description of the land which he had found. This version differs further, from that already described, in recounting three voyages besides that undertaken by Leif, making in all four voyages of exploration--the first headed by Leif, the second by Leif's brother, Thorvald, the third by Karlsefni, and the fourth and last led by Freydis, a natural daughter of Eric the Red. This account of the discovery is treated at length, and certain of its inconsistencies pointed out in another place, and it is, therefore, not necessary to examine it more particularly here. The statement concerning the discovery of Wineland by Biarni Heriulfsson is not confirmed by any existing collateral evidence, while that which would assign the honour to Leif Ericsson is; moreover, beyond the testimony of this, the Flatey Book, version, there is no reason to believe that more than a single voyage of exploration took place, namely, that of Thorfinn Karlsefni. So far as the statements of this second version coincide with that of the first, there seems to be no good reason for calling them in question; where they do not, they may well receive more particular scrutiny than has been directed to them, hitherto, since the Flatey Book narrative is that which has generally been treated as the more important, and
its details have, in consequence, received the greater publicity.
Especially has one of the statements, which appears in this second version, claimed the attention of writers, who have sought to determine from it the site of Wineland. Rafn, by the ingenious application of a subtile theory, succeeded in computing from this statement the exact latitude, to the second, of the southernmost winter-quarters of the explorers, and for nearly fifty years after its publication Rafn's method of interpretation remained essentially unassailed. In 1883, however, Professor Gustav Storm, of Christiana, propounded a novel, but withal a simple and scientific interpretation of this passage, which can hardly fail to appeal to the discernment of any reader who may not in advance have formed his conclusions as to where Wineland ought to have been. Professor Storm's method of interpretation does not seek to determine, from the passage the exact spot which the explorers reached (for which, it may be remarked, the passage does not afford sufficiently accurate data), but he is enabled by his process of reasoning to determine a limit, north of which Wineland could not have been, and this limit is approximately A90. A region not far removed to the southward of this latitude conforms sufficiently well to the description of the country, given in the narratives of the exploration, to serve to confirm Professor Storm's result, and also the relative accuracy of the mooted passage itself. It will be apparent from an examination of this author's treatise that it is not necessarily proven that Wineland may not have been situated to the
southward of latitude 49°, but it would seem to be well-nigh certain that thus far south it must have been.
There is no suggestion in Icelandic writings of a permanent occupation of the country, and after the exploration at the beginning of the eleventh century, it is not known that Wineland was ever again visited by Icelanders, although it would appear that a voyage thither was attempted in the year 1121, but with what result is not known. That portion of the discovery known as Markland was revisited however, in 1347, by certain seamen from the Icelandic colony in Greenland.
It will be seen from this summary that the Wineland history is of the briefest, but brief as it is, it has been put in jeopardy no less by those who would prove too much, than by those who would deny all. It may not be unprofitable in the present aspect of the question to appeal to the records themselves.
ARTHUR M. REEVES.