The word “Viking” was the English name given to a group of fierce warriors whose ships appeared out of the mists of the Atlantic to pillage Western Europe. For the English, the word meant “men who came from Viken (present-day Sweden)”, but for the Franks and other Western Europeans, they were simply known as Danes or Northmen. They started to spill out from their homeland in western Sweden, Denmark, and Norway during the eighth century and proceeded to become raiders and colonizers. The first of these fierce raiders to venture out of their homeland were the Norwegians, and the Danes quickly followed them beyond the sea. This led to Leif Ericson’s explorations around 1000 AD according to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History.
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Reasons for Expansion
The Vikings sailed out of their homelands for several reasons. First was the shortage of land available for farming after the Vikings experienced explosive growth in population. Some men simply sought the wealth of Western Europe, such as precious stones, gold, silver, and coins that came from tribute or plunder. The ransom money exchanged for prominent captives, and the profit from selling slaves in Muslim Spain and North Africa were also important additional sources of income for the Vikings. Many Vikings also willingly sailed away from Scandinavia to prove their reputation as mighty warriors or to show their strength and gain a loyal following of fellow warriors. Others were exiled for one reason or another, and the possibility of going home was simply out of the question.
The New “Scourge of God”
Just as Attila and the Huns were considered by the Romans as the God’s brutal punishment for their sins, the Vikings, too, were feared in Britain and Western Europe for their ferocity. Their favorite targets were monasteries on British islands and those constructed near the coast as these were commonly unguarded. Their first raid in England was on the island of Lindisfarne and its monastery in 793 AD. They followed it up with attacks on the abbeys on Jarrow, Iona, the Isle of Skye, and Rathlin.
By 799, groups of Vikings had ventured into the western coast of Europe, and their first victim was the Frankish monastery located near the estuary of Loire river, the St. Philibert on the island of Noirmoutier. Viking attacks were also recorded in southern England during the ninth century. These raids became so severe that both the English and the Franks considered them a very serious threat. Throughout the ninth century, the Vikings conducted lightning raids on coastal areas of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Western Francia. They also tried Iberia, but they were repelled when the caliph of Cordoba built a navy, so they continued on to North Africa.
The Vikings were slightly repelled from sailing further into the Seine and Loire when the Franks built bridges on the banks of the two rivers. Deprived of the opportunity to plunder the Franks, the Vikings returned to raiding the English and Irish coasts. This time, they brought a “Great Army” to conquer the land. During the early years, the Vikings usually spent winter on land but went home in spring to tend to their farms in Scandinavia. But this time, the Vikings chose to stay in England and Ireland which was bad news for the locals as it meant that they planned to settle permanently on the islands.
The search for additional farmland drove the Norwegian Vikings to sail further west at the same time their compatriots were settling in England. They landed in Iceland in 874 AD followed by the Vikings who had settled in Ireland. They immediately claimed any available farmlands. Sixty or so years later, there were few available lands for the newcomers to claim so they, led by the Norse Viking Eric the Red, sailed further west into Greenland which was where Leif Ericson’s North American saga began.
First Europeans in North America
Rumors of a land west of Greenland first reached Eric the Red and his son Leif Ericson in 985 AD when the wealthy Norse merchant Bjarni Herjolfsson’s ship got lost in the North Atlantic waters. He was on his way from Iceland to Greenland to see his parents, but his ship got trapped in fog and the north wind. When the sun came out again, they saw a forested, mountainous coast, so they requested to explore the land. The captain refused, so they turned back east and landed this time in Greenland where he told stories to other Vikings of his little adventure.
Leif Ericson wanted to see whether the stories about a land further west were true or not, so he bought Bjarni’s ship and asked his father (as well as other Vikings) to accompany him west. Eric the Red was a middle-aged man by then, but he agreed when his son asked him to come for another adventure. Eric the Red, however, was not fated to sail west when his horse threw him off the saddle as they rode to board the ship and was injured. He took it as a sign that he was not meant to leave, so his son, Leif Ericson, took over the expedition.
The Vikings sailed northwest and saw land just as Bjarni Herjolfsson told them. They skirted the coast as they sailed south and Leif named the islands they passed by (Helluland for Baffin Island, Markland for Labrador, and Vinland or Wineland for Nova Scotia after they saw grapevines there). They spent the winter in Vinland. They were amazed at how abundant the salmons were in this new found land. They brought with them timber and wine when they sailed back to Greenland in spring the following year.
The Temporary Immigrants
When Leif’s brother, Thorvald, heard the news that land was available west of Greenland, he immediately launched another expedition to establish a permanent colony in what is now North America. They settled on Leif’s original colony in Vinland and started to partition the land for farms on a place that they thought was uninhabited. Thorvald and his men saw no other settlers during the first year, but the next summer proved fatal for him and his men when they explored the northeastern part of their new territory. The men were on their way back to their boats they came across three hide-covered boats sheltered in a cove. They saw nine men hidden inside the boats and proceeded to kill eight of them except for one who got away. Thorvald and his men fell asleep on the shore, but they were woken up by arrows being shot at them by the inhabitants of the place. Their leader, Thorvald, was pierced in his armpit and died there, but the rest of his men were safe and made it back to their settlement in Vinland. They stayed there until winter, gathered more grapes, and went back to Greenland next winter.
Picture By Public Domain, Link
Haugen, Einar, and Arthur Middleton Reeves. Voyages to Vinland, The First American Saga. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1942.
Helle, Knut, E. I. Kouri, and Jens E. Olesen, eds. The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume 1: Prehistory to 1520. 1st ed. Vol. I. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Horsford, Eben Norton. The Landfall of Leif Erikson, A.D. 1000, and the Site of His Houses in Vineland. Boston: Damrell and Upham, 1892.
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