Book I: the legends of the Northmen. (A. D. 985-1008.)

[2] These extracts are taken from two Icelandic works called Thattr Eireks Randa (the piece about Eirek the Red) and Graenlendinga Thatt (the piece about the Greenlanders). These passages were translated by J. Elliot Cabot, Esq., and were published in ‘The Massachusetts Quarterly Review’ for March, 1849.

It is now the general belief of historians, that these legends are mainly correct; and that the region described as Vinland was a part of the North-American Continent. Beyond this we do not know. The poet Whittier has written thus of these early explorers, in his poem called ‘The Norsemen:’—

What sea-worn barks are those which throw
The light spray from each rushing prow?
Have they not in the North Sea's blast
Bowed to the waves the straining mast?
Their frozen sails the low, pale sun
Of Thule's night has shone upon;
Flapped by the sea-wind's gusty sweep,
Round icy drift and headland steep.
Wild Jutland's wives and Lochlin's daughters
Have watched them fading o'er the waters,
Lessening through driving mist and spray,
Like white-winged sea-birds on their way.

Onward they glide; and now I view
Their iron-armed and stalwart crew:
Joy glistens in each wild blue eye
Turned to green earth and summer sky:
Each broad, seamed breast has cast aside
Its cumbering vest of shaggy hide:
Bared to the sun, and soft warm air,
Streams back the Norseman's yellow hair.
I see the gleam of axe and spear;
The sound of smitten shields I hear,
Keeping a harsh and fitting time
To Saga's chant and Runic rhyme.


I.—how the Northmen discovered north America.

[about the year 860, a Danish sailor named Gardar was driven upon the shores of Iceland, after which that island was settled by a colony from Norway. About a hundred years later, Greenland was settled from Iceland; Eirek the red being the first to make the voyage. With him went one Heriulf, whose son Biarni had been in the habit of passing every other winter with his father, and then sailing on distant voyages. Then happened what follows.]

That same summer (985 or 986) came Biarni with his ship to Eyrar (Iceland), in the spring of which his father had sailed from the island. These tidings seemed to Biarni weighty, and he would not unload his ship. Then asked his sailors1 what he meant to do. He answered, that he meant to hold to his wont,2 and winter with his father; ‘and I will bear for Greenland, if you will follow me thither.’ All said they would do as he wished. Then said Biarni, ‘Imprudent they will think our voyage, since none of us has been in the Greenland Sea.’ [4]

Yet they bore out to sea as soon as they were bound,3 and sailed three days, till the land was sunk.4 Then the fair wind fell off, and there arose north winds and fogs, and they knew not whither they fared; and so it went for many days. After that, they saw the sun, and could then get their bearings. Then they hoisted sail, and sailed that day before they saw land; and they counselled with themselves what land that might be.

A Norse ship.

But Biarni said he thought it could not be Greenland. They asked him whether he would sail to the land, or not. ‘This is my counsel, to sail nigh to the land,’ said he. And so they did, and soon saw that the land was without fells,5 and wooded, and small heights on the land; and they left the land to larboard, and let the [5] foot of the sail look towards land.6 After that, they sailed two days before they saw another land. They asked if Biarni thought this was Greenland. He said he thought it no more Greenland than the first; ‘for the glaciers are very huge, as they say, in Greenland.’ They soon neared the land, and saw that it was flat land, and overgrown with wood.7 Then the fair wind fell. Then the sailors said that it seemed prudent to them to land there; but Biarni would not. They thought they needed both wood and water. ‘Of neither are you in want,’ said Biarni; but he got some hard speeches for that from his sailors. He bade them hoist sail, and so they did; and they turned the bows from the land, and sailed out to sea with a west-south wind three days, and saw a third land; but that land was high, mountainous, and covered with glaciers.8 They asked then if Biarni would put ashore there; but he said he would not, ‘for this land seems to me not very promising.’ They did not lower their sails, but held on along this land, and saw that it was an island; but they turned the stern to the land, and sailed seawards with the same fair wind. But the wind rose; and Biarni bade them shorten sail, and not to carry more than their ship and tackle would bear. They sailed now four days, then saw they land the fourth. Then they asked Biarni whether he thought that was Greenland, or not. Biarni answered, ‘That is likest to what is said to me of Greenland; and we will put ashore.’ So they did, and landed under a certain ness9 at evening of the day. And there was a boat at the ness, and [6] there lived Heriulf, the father of Biarni, on this ness; and from him has the ness taken its name, and is since called Heriulfsness. Now fared10 Biarni to his father, and gave up sailing, and was with his father whilst Heriulf lived, and afterwards lived there after his father.

Ii.—The voyage of Leif the Lucky.

[after Biarni had reached the Greenland settlement, and told his story, he was blamed for not having explored these unknown lands more carefully; and Leif the Lucky bought Biarni's vessel, and set sail with thirty-five companions, to see what he could discover.]

(A. D. 999.) First they found the land which Biarni had found last. Then sailed they to the land, and cast anchor, and put off a boat, and went ashore, and saw there no grass. Mickle11 glaciers were over all the higher parts; but it was like a plain of rock from the glaciers to the sea, and it seemed to them that the land was good for nothing. Then said Leif, ‘We have not done about this land like Biarni, not to go upon it: now I will give a name to the land, and call it Helluland (flat-stone land).’12 Then they went to their ship. After that they sailed into the sea, and found another land, sailed up to it, and cast anchor; then put off a boat, and went ashore. This land was flat, and covered with wood and broad white sands wherever they went, and the shore was low. Then said Leif, ‘From its make13 shall a name be given to this land; and it shall be called Markland (Woodland).’14 Then they went quickly [7] down to the vessel. Now they sailed thence into the sea with a north-east wind, and were out two days before they saw land; and they sailed to land, and came to an island that lay north of the land; and they went on to it, and looked about them in good weather, and found that dew lay upon the grass;15 and that happened that they put their hands in the dew, and brought it to their mouths, and they thought they had never known any thing so sweet as that was. Then they went to their ship, and sailed into that sound that lay between the island and a ness16 which went northward from the land, and then steered westward past the ness. There were great shoals at ebb-tide; and their vessel stood up;17 and it was far to see from the ship to the sea. But they were so curious to fare to the land, that they could not bear to bide till the sea came under their ship, and ran ashore where a river flows out from a lake. But, when the sea came under their ship, then took they the boat, and rowed to the ship, and took it up into the river, and then into the lake, and there cast anchor, and bore from the ship their skin-cots,18 and made their booths.

Afterwards they took counsel to stay there that winter, and made there great houses. There was no scarcity of salmon in the rivers and lakes, and larger salmon than they had before seen. There was the land so good, as it seemed to them, that no cattle would want fodder for the winter. There came no frost in the winter, and little did the grass fall off there. Day [8] and night were more equal there than in Greenland or Iceland. . . . But when they had ended their house-building, then said Leif to his companions, ‘Now let our company be divided into two parts, and the land kenned;19 and one half of the people shall be at the house at home, but the other half shall ken the land, and fare not further than that they may come home at evening, and they shall not separate.’ Now so they did one time. Leif changed about, so that he went with them (one day) and (the next) was at home at the house. Leif was a mickle20 man and stout, most noble to see, a wise man, and moderate in all things.

Iii.—Leif finds vines, and goes back to Greenland.

one evening it chanced that a man was wanting of their people; and this was Tyrker, the Southerner.21 Leif took this very ill; for Tyrker had been long with his parents, and loved Leif much in his childhood. Leif now chid his people sharply, and made ready to fare forth to seek him, and twelve men with him. But when they had gone a little way, there came Tyrker to meet them, and was joyfully received. Leif found at once that his old friend was somewhat out of his mind: he was bustling and unsteady-eyed, freckled in face, little and wizened in growth, but a man of skill in all arts. Then said Leif to him, ‘Why wert thou so late, my fosterer,22 and separated from the party?’ He [9] talked at first a long while in German, and rolled many ways his eyes, and twisted his face; but they skilled not what he said. He said then in Norse, after a time, ‘I went not very far; but I have great news to tell. I have found grape-vines and grapes.’—‘Can that be true, my fosterer?’ quoth Leif. ‘Surely it is true,’ quoth he; ‘for I was brought up where there is no want of grape-vines or grapes.’ Then they slept for the night; but in the morning Leif said to his sailors, ‘Now we shall have two jobs: each day we will either gather grapes, or hew grape-vines, and fell trees, so there will be a cargo for my ship;’ and that was the counsel taken. It is said that their long boat was filled with grapes. Now was hewn a cargo for the ship; And when spring came they got ready, and sailed off; and Leif gave a name to the land after its sort, and called it Vinland (Wine-Land). They sailed then afterwards into the sea, and had a fair wind until they saw Greenland, and the fells23 under the glaciers. . . . After that he was called Leif the Lucky. Leif was now both well to do and honored. . . .

Now there was a great talk about Leif's Vinland voyage; and Thorvald, his brother, thought the land had been too little explored. Then said Leif to Thorvald, ‘Thou shalt go with my ship, brother, if thou wilt, to Vinland.’24


IV.—Thorvald, Leif's brother, goes to Vinland.

Now Thorvald made ready for this voyage with thirty men, with the counsel thereon of Leif, his brother. Then they fitted out their ship, and bore out to sea (A. D. 1002): and there is nothing told of their voyage before they came to Vinland, to Leif's booths; and they laid up their ship, and dwelt in peace there that winter, and caught fish for their meat. But in the spring, Thorvald said they would get ready their ship, and send their long-boat, and some men with it, along to the westward of the land, and explore it during the summer. The land seemed to them fair and woody, and narrow between the woods and the sea, and of white sand. There were many islands and great shoals. They found neither man's abode nor beast's; but, on an island to the westward, they found a corn-shed of wood. More works of men they found not; and they went back, and came to Leif's booths in the fall. But the next summer fared Thorvald eastward with the merchant-ship, and coasted to the northward. Here a heavy storm arose as they were passing one of, two capes, and drove them up there, and broke the keel under the ship; and they dwelt there long, and mended their ship. Then said Thorvald to his companions, ‘Now will I that we raise up here the keel on the ness,25 and call it Keelness;’26 and so they did.

After that, they sailed thence, and coasted to the eastward, and into the mouths of the firths27 that were nearest to them, and to a headland that stretched out [11] This was all covered with wood: here they brought the ship into harbor, and shoved a bridge on to the land, and Thorvald went ashore with all his company. He said then, ‘Here it is fair, and here would I like to raise my dwelling.’ They went then to the ship, and saw upon the sands within the headland three heights; and they went thither, and saw there three skin-boats, and three men under each. Then they divided their people, and laid hands on them all, except one that got off with his boat. They killed these eight, and went then back to the headland, and looked about them there, and saw in the firth some heights, and thought they were dwellings. After that there came a heaviness on them so great that they could not keep awake; and all slumbered. Then came a call above them, so that they all awoke. Thus said the call, ‘Awake, Thorvald, and all thy company, if thou wilt keep thy life; and fare thou to thy ship, and all thy men, and fare from the land of the quickest.’28 Then came from the firth innumerable skin-boats, and made toward them.

Throvald said then, ‘We will set up our battle-shields, and guard ourselves the best we can, but fight little against them.’ So they did, and the Skraelings29 shot at them for a while, but then fled, each as fast as he could. Then Thorvald asked his men if any of them was hurt: they said they were not hurt. ‘I have got a hurt under the arm,’ said he; ‘for an arrow flew between the bulwarks and the shield under my arm; and here is the arrow, and that will be my death. Now I counsel that ye make ready as quickly as may be to return; but ye shall bear me to the headland which I [12] thought the likeliest place to build. It may be it was a true word I spoke, that I should dwell there for a time. There ye shall bury me, and set crosses at my head and feet, and call it Krossanes30 henceforth.’ Greenland was then Christianized; but Eirek the Red had died before Christianity came thither.

Now Thorvald died; but they did every thing according as he had said, and then went and found their companions, and told each other the news they had to tell, and lived there that winter, and gathered grapes and vines for loading the ship. Then in the spring they made ready to sail for Greenland, and came with their ship to Eireksfirth, and had great tidings to tell to Leif.

V.—Karlsefni's adventures.

[Karlsefni, a rich Norwegian, came to Greenland, staid at Leif's housemarried a wife, and was finally persuaded to bring a colony of sixty men and five women to Vinland.]

This agreement made Karlsefni and his seamen, that they should have even handed31 all that they should get in the way of goods. They had with them all sorts of cattle, as they thought to settle there if they might. Karlsefni begged Leif for his house in Vinland; but he said he would lend him the house, but not give it. Then they bore out to the sea with the ship, and came to Leif's booths, hale and whole, and landed there their cattle. There soon came into their hands a great and good prize; for a whale was driven ashore, both great and good; then they went to cut up the whale, and [13] had no scarcity of food. The cattle went up into the country; and it soon happened that the male cattle became wild and unruly. They had with them a bull. Karlsefni had wood felled, and brought to the ship, and had the wood piled on the cliff to dry. They had all the good things of the country, both of grapes, and of all sorts of game and other things.

After the first winter came the summer; then they saw appear the Skraelings, and there came from out the wood a great number of men. Near by were their neat-cattle; and the bull took to bellowing, and roared loudly, whereat the Skraelings were frightened, and ran off with their bundles. These were furs and sableskins, and skin-wares of all kinds. And they turned toward Karlsefni's booths, and wanted to get into the house; but Karlsefni had the doors guarded. Neither party understood the other's language. Then the Skraelings took down their bags, and opened them, and offered them for sale, and wanted, above all, to have weapons for them. But Karlsefni forbade them to sell weapons. He took this plan: he bade the women bring out their dairy-stuff32 for them; and, so goon as they saw this, they would have that, and nothing more. Now this was the way the Skraelings traded: they bore off their wares in their stomachs. But Karlsefni and his companions had their bags and skin-wares, and so they parted. Now hereof is this to say, that Karlsefni had posts driven strongly round

Esquimau boat.

[14] about his booths, and made all complete. At this time Gudrid, the wife of Karlsefni, bore a man-child, and he was called Snorri. In the beginning of the next winter the Skraelings came to them again, and were many more than before; and they had the same wares as before. Then Karlsefni said to the women, ‘Now bring forth the same food that was most liked before, and no other.’ And, when they saw it, they cast their bundles in over the fence. . . . [But one of them being killed by one of Karlsefni's men, they all fled. in haste, and left their garments and wares behind.] ‘Now I think we need a good counsel,’ said Karlsefni; ‘for I think they will come for the third time in anger, and with many men. Now we must do this: ten men must go out on that ness,33 and show themselves there; but another party must go into the wood, and hew a place for our neat-cattle when the foe shall come from the wood; and we must take the bull, and let him go before us.’ But thus it was with the place where they thought to meet, that a lake was on one side, and the wood on the other. Now it was done as Karlsefni had said. Now came the Skraelings to the place where Karlsefni had thought should be the battle; and now there was a battle, and many of the Skraelings fell.

There was one large and handsome man among the Skraelings; and Karlsefni thought he might be their leader. Now one of the Skraelings had taken up an axe, and looked at it a while, and struck at one of his fellows, and hit him, whereupon he fell dead; then the large man took the axe, and looked at it a while, and threw it into the sea as far as he could. But after that [15] they fled to the wood, each as fast as he could; and thus ended the strife. Karlsefni and his companions were there all that winter; but in the spring Karlsefni said he would stay there no longer, and would fare to Greenland. Now they made ready for the voyage, and bare thence much goods, namely, grape-vines and grapes and skin-wares. Now they sailed into the sea, and came whole with their ships to Eireksfirth, and were there that winter.

Dutch man-of-war.


1 i.e., his sailors asked.

2 Custom.

3 Or ‘made ready,’ as we say a ship is bound for Liverpool.

4 Disappeared below the horizon.

5 Mountains. This has been supposed to be Cape Cod.

6 i.e., sailed away from the land.

7 Possibly Nova Scotia.

8 Possibly Newfoundland.

9 Cape, or nose, of land.

10 Went.

11 Great.

12 Perhaps Labrador, where flat stones abound, or Newfoundland.

13 Form.

14 Perhaps Nova Scotia.

15 Perhaps honey-dew, a sweet substance left on grass by an insect called aphis.

16 Cape.

17 i.e., was left aground.

18 Cots used to sleep in, and made of skin.

19 Surveyed.

20 Large.

21 German.

22 Foster-father, or perhaps foster-brother.

23 Mountains.

24 There has been much difference of opinion as to where Vinland was. Some think that it was Nantucket; others, the island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay; and others, some place much farther north and east. See Costa's ‘Pre-Columbian Discovery of North America,’ Anderson's ‘Norsemen in America,’ Kohl's ‘History of the Discovery of the East Coast of North America,’ published by the Maine Historical Society.

25 Cape.

26 Possibly Cape Cod.

27 Bays.

28 i.e., as quickly as possible.

29 Probably Esquimaux, or Indians.

30 Cross Cape, or Cape of the Cross.

31 i.e., in equal shares,

32 Milk, butter, &c.

33 Cape.

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