Was There A Lasting Colony?


The saga-narratives, as we have seen, may legitimately be used by extrapolation to suggest conditions prevailing a century later, since the motives, practices, and experiences of the twelfth-century settlers would not differ greatly from those of the eleventh-century discoverers. The further possibility arises that the sagas, which evolved over the whole period, may well emphasize or select elements common to both epochs; or even that features and incidents belonging historically to the twelfth-century settlements may then have been anachronistically embodied in the narratives of the age of discovery. Such a possibility seems especially inviting in the accounts of Karlsefni’s alternate battles and fur trading with the natives and the capture in Markland of native boys, whom the voyagers took home to Greenland, christened, and taught to speak Norwegian, and from whom they in turn picked up a few words of the Skraeling tongue. This last incident, though quite credible in itself, may be held to foreshadow the establishment of communication with the Skraelings through native interpreters, which was perhaps available to Bishop Eirik a century later. Karlsefni’s prohibition against parting with iron weapons would often be circumvented, either by illegal trading or in war; and this might possibly account for some of the many alleged finds of Norse weapons on the American continent, if any of these are indeed authentic. (See H. R. Holand, Explorations in America Before Columbus , 1956, pp. 137-38, 195-206, and references.) Such finds sometimes show a suspicious correlation with areas of nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigration, and genuine medieval ironware may well have been brought from Scandinavia and planted in modern times. The so-called “small halbards” are known to have been manufactured in the iSgo’s for cutting plug tobacco! Finds made in Minnesota and other districts far inland have been used to substantiate the fraudulent runic inscription on the Kensington Stone and the fantastic theory of a fourteenth-century Norse land expedition through the heart of the continent. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if Norse ironware acquired by Indians from trading settlements on the Vinland coast should have passed from tribe to tribe far inland. The whole rather scabrous question of these alleged finds perhaps deserves more serious investigation than it has hitherto received. We may conjecture, then, that the Vinland settlements were homesteads adapted from the Greenland model, made self-supporting through the cattle rearing, hunting, fishing, and food gathering of which the Karlsefni narratives have so much to tell, and installed chiefly for the export of timber and for fur trade with the Skraelings. The above hypothesis and discussion of the existence and nature of these settlements is perhaps nothing more than a more or less profitable exercise in speculation. On the other hand, it may be claimed that the concept is supported by testimony of real strength and abundance, including the new evidence of the Vinland Map caption, arguments of probability from the saga-narratives, and the suggestion that the sagas themselves contain material reflecting conditions in Vinland subsequent to the generation of the first Norse discoveries. The hypothesis requires further testing by a full reassessment in this light of all existing evidence concerning the Greenland colony and the Norse discovery of America, and by search for new evidence, both documentary and archaeological. As to the number and duration of the settlements, our present evidence can imply only that they existed in the first quarter of the twelfth century, and were sufficiently important to receive a protracted visit from Bishop Eirik at the express order of Pope Paschal, half the world away.