Was There A Lasting Colony?


The possibility of the existence of twelfth-century Norse settlement in America is so far-reaching, not to say romantic, that it has hitherto—when the sole documentary evidence was the entry in the Icelandic Annals for 1121 that “Bishop Eirik set out for Vinland”—been rightly regarded with the gravest skepticism. The suggestion has often been made, by way of obviating the need for this startling hypothesis, that Eirik went to convert the American Skraelings, the native dwellers in Vinland (and Markland) who figure prominently in the saga-narratives, but who thereafter, from a period at least a century before Bishop Eirik’s voyage, make little further appearance in existing documentary records until the early Icelandic maps of Sigurdur Stefânsson, about 1590, and Bishop Resen, in 1605. On examination, however, this conjecture seems to be no true alternative. A purely altruistic missionary journey to convert distant savages dwelling out of all contact with European civilization or commerce is not only inconceivable in a twelfth-century context but manifestly impracticable owing to language difficulties. If, as may willingly be granted, Eirik’s duties as “bishop legate of the Apostolic See in Greenland and the neighboring regions” included the conversion of American Skraelings, then his journey surely implies the contemporary existence of Norse settlers in Vinland. This alone would provide a sufficient motive for his mission, in the facilitation of peaceful relations with hostile tribes, together with adequate means of interpretation, in the availability of Skraelings who had learned to speak Norwegian, or Norsemen who had learned to speak Skraeling. Conversely, if we grant the existence of Norse settlers, then the conversion of their predatory and warlike Skraeling neighbors would become an urgent necessity, which could well have been mentioned in the Greenlanders’ petition for a bishop legate, and be alluded to in the wording of his title.

The probable nature of the hypothetical Vinland settlements may be inferred from our knowledge of the parent colony in Greenland. In Vinland, too, there would be the same pattern of the chieftain’s holding, with its main building consisting of hall and smaller rooms, and outhouses including cattle byres, hay barns, smithy, corn mill (for wild Iyme grass or other grain), and perhaps even a church.

It may be doubted whether the need for self-supporting farmland away from the population pressure of Greenland could alone suffice to motivate settlement in so unfriendly a country. The saga-narratives suggest stronger motives in exploitation and export of the natural resources of the country, and in fur trade with the Skraelings. The Skraelings, indeed, dangerous as they were, were not so much an obstacle as a necessary condition for commercial settlement.