The Mapping Of Vinland


In A.D. 986 Bjarni Herjolfsson, sailing from Iceland for Greenland, is driven to the south of his course by “the persistent northerly and easterly winds which often prevail in the North Atlantic during the early summer months.” He sights land, wooded and not mountainous, and knowing himself to be south of his latitude, turns northward, leaving it to port; after two days’ sailing he comes to another land, flat and wooded; sailing out to sea for three days before a southwesterly wind, he comes to a third land, mountainous and with ice upon it, which he takes to be an island; and the same wind, strengthened in force, brings him in four days’ sail to Cape Herjolfsnes in the south of Greenland.

Fourteen years later Bjarni goes to Norway, where he tells his story. On his return to Greenland in A.D. 1001, he sells a ship to Leif Eiriksson for a voyage to the lands discovered in the west. Leif, sailing the other way along Bjarni’s homeward track, comes to the country which Bjarni found last, a flat, rocky coast with glaciers behind, which Leif names Helluland; and then to Bjarni’s second land, low and wooded with wide expanses of white sand, which he calls Markland. Sailing out to sea for two days, he discovers another mainland, with an island north of it, and, entering “the sound which lay between the island and the cape which ran north from the mainland,” he runs west past the cape; after running aground, the Norsemen take their ship up a river and into a lake, where they erect houses. Here “day and night were more equally divided than in Greenland or Iceland,” as they note from observation of azimuths of the midwinter sun in the forenoon and afternoon. If these bearings refer precisely to sunrise and sunset, they indicate a northern limit of roughly 50° latitude for the position. The country has no frost in winter and bears vines, so that it is given the name Vinland. After wintering there, Leif returns “with a fair wind” to Greenland in the next spring.

In the following year (1004) Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, takes a ship to Vinland and winters in Leif’s old camp. In the next summer the country to the west is explored by boat and found to be wooded, with white sands and many islands. The summer after, Thorvald sails east “and along the more northerly part of the country,” to a cape which he names Kjalarnes (Keelness) and eastward to fjords and a headland, where Thorvald is killed in an affray with natives and buried, so that the headland is called Krossanes (Crossness). After the winter his crew returns to Greenland.

A year later (1008) Thorstein Eiriksson sets out for Vinland in his brother Thorvald’s ship, but is carried by weather far out into the Atlantic and finally reaches the Western Settlement in Greenland, where he dies.

About the year 1019 the Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni comes to Greenland, where in the next year he marries Thorstein’s widow and sets out on an expedition with two ships to make a settlement in Vinland. They sail north to the Western Settlement and the Bjarneyar (Bear Isles), and after two days at sea with a north wind they come to land with many flat stones and with arctic foxes; they thought this was Leif’s HeIluland. Sailing thence for two days, still with a north wind, and changing course “from south to southeast,” they reach a wooded land, which they call Markland, with an island offshore. Coasting southward for two days, they come to Keelness, naming the long sandy beaches Furdustrands; and while they lie at anchor in one of the bays, grapes and self-sown wheat are found. Sailing on, they come to a fjord with an island and strong currents, which they name Straumsfjord; here they winter. In the spring Thorhall, a member of the expedition, takes one ship north in search of Leif’s Vinland. Karlsefni with his companions in the other ship coasts southward “a long time” until they come to a river flowing through a lake across a gravel bar to the sea; on this estuary, which they call Hop, they find vines and self-sown wheat. After wintering there, they return to Straumsfjord, where they pass the third winter before returning with a south wind to Markland and Greenland.

Next year (ca. 1024) Freydis, Leif’s sister, goes with two ships to his camp in Vinland.

Such, in barest outline, are the geographical data which the narratives of the Vinland voyages yield and which have been the subject of widely differing interpretations and identifications.

As to the discovery of three distinct land masses or sections of continental coast, Hovgaard prudently observes that “different names may have been given to the same land, and the same name may have been applied to different lands by different explorers. Thus … the Markland of one expedition may have been the Vineland of another, and the Helluland of one expedition may not have been the Helluland of another.”

The conditions of climate and vegetation ascribed to the three lands, while by no means consistent, indicate certain limits of latitude. Thus the wild vines found by Leif in Vinland and by Karlsefni at Hop would today locate these regions south of Nova Scotia, as would the reference to winters free of frost; but evidence of this kind must be interpreted in the light of climatic changes, and allow for the milder climate which (as meteorologists agree) prevailed in the eleventh century.