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Early Encountersâ"Native Americans and Europeans in New England
From the Papers of W. Sears Nickerson
By Delores Bird Carpenter
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1994 Delores Bird Carpenter
All rights reserved.
Before the Mayflower: The Vikings and the French
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Long before the arrival of W. Sears Nickerson's ancestors on the Mayflower, the coast of North America was visited by Vikings and by French explorers. Nickerson describes the experiences of these earliest visitors in several of his writings, and his descriptions reflect the state of historical discussion of the early twentieth century.
The Wineland of Leif the Lucky
In "The Wineland of Leif the Lucky," Nickerson relates a composite story of Viking sagas from the original sources. In this work, Nickerson tries to prove that Leif's predecessor, Biarni, landed at Cape Cod. The date of composition is unknown, but the idea was clearly fixed in his mind in 1921. As far as sources or notesgo, Nickerson starts his account by writing, "It is based on the authorized Greenland and Icelandic versions of the original Sagas as they are still preserved in the Groenlendinga Pattr and the "Saga of Eric the Red" in the Flatey Book which itself was derived from the Landnamabok, giving the story of the Iceland settlement." There are three manuscripts that carry the accounts of the Vinland voyages: Flatey Book, Hauk's Book, and a third vellum, A.M. 557. I have used Edward F. Gray, Leif Eriksson: Discoverer of America A.D. 1003 and Arthur Middleton Reeves, ed., The Finding of Wineland, the Good: The History of the Icelandic Discovery of America. Ignoring the conflicts among the three manuscripts, I have granted Nickerson his story and refer the interested reader to Gray's book.
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About the year 982 or 983, Eric the Red was banished from his home at Ericsstadir in Iceland because of a quarrel, not of his own choosing but which had resulted in the death of his neighbor Thorgest's two sons. Instead of sailing back to Norway, he resolved to take a look at the land to the west which his countryman Gunnbiorn, son of Ulf the Crow, had sighted some years before, and for which he had left explicit sailing directions.
Eric loaded his cattle, his farm implements, his household goods, and his thralls onto his long-ship and with his wife Thorhild and their children set sail from Iceland on the full of the moon as was the custom among the old Vikings when a voyage was to keep them at sea over night. The old Iceland records say that to reach Greenland one must sail due west for two days and two nights; then one should come in sight of Gunnbiorns-skerries.
Shaping his course by the sun by day and the moon by night, Eric kept his ship's nose to the west through two days and two nights and on the third morning raised the tide-washed ledges known as Gunnbiornsskerries. Still heading to the west, he soon sighted the east coast of Greenland and, keeping the land aboard on the starboard side, rounded its southern tip at Cape Farewell and hauled to the northwest. Before long, he came to the fish-filled, sheltered fiords, the beautiful little islands, and the lush, green meadows of Greenland's west coast.
Scientists tell us that the Greenland area was much warmer at that particular period than at present, and the history of Eric's colony bears this out. As Eric saw it, here was a land free for the taking, wholly uninhabited, with plentiful food for his household and fodder for his cattle, and subject to no laws. He chose one of the many deep and protected inlets as his landing place and settled at Brattahlid in Ericsfirth.
Early in the summer of 985 or 986, the period of his exile from Iceland now being over, he sailed back to try to interest his old friends and neighbors in this green land to the west. Thirty-five ships followed Eric back to the west coast of Greenland; fourteen arrived safely. Among the company was Heriulf, the father of Biarni.
All this time, the softening influence of the Christian religion was gradually driving the pagan gods out of the Northland, but Eric the Red brought his Thor and Woden along with him to Brattahlid, never to forsake them. Only sixteen winters from the time Eric the Red went to colonize Greenland, his oldest son Leif sailed from Greenland to Drontheim, Norway where King Olaf Tryggvason converted him to Christianity and where he was accordingly baptized.
On his return to Ericsfirth in the spring, Leif heard a wonderful story from the lips of his friend Biarni, the son of Heriulf. Biarni, a Norse voyager of note, had, while sailing out of Norway the previous summer, touched at Iceland and then continued on to winter with his father in Greenland, where he had never been before. Before reaching the Greenland coast, he was caught in a howling nor'wester and obliged to scud before it to save his ship and crew. It drove him so far south that neither he nor any of his crew knew where they were except that according to their reckoning a north course should take them back to Greenland in the course of a few days.
At last, the wind changed and came in from the southward. Biarni headed to the north on a course which he calculated should bring them into Greenland waters in six or eight days if the fair wind held. Imagine his surprise when, before nightfall on that very same day, land was sighted on the port bow, a strange, new land, lying low in the west, which no man in his crew had ever seen or heard of before. Biarni hauled in close enough to make sure there were no mountains or glaciers in the backlands, as Greenland had been pictured to him. But the land was level, covered with woods and small hillocks, so he headed north again, and two days later sighted another forested coast, still on the port side and still nothing like what he expected the coast of Greenland to look like. His men wanted to go ashore and look over this new land, but Biarni decided to keep going as long as the south wind held, lest they should get caught in another norther and lose all they had gained.
Three days later, they saw a high, rocky, mountainous coast, with icy glaciers in the distance, but altogether too barren and forbidding to agree with the picture of Greenland he carried in his mind. But when four days later they again sighted land, this time right ahead on the starboard bow, Biarni is quoted as saying: "'This is likest Greenland, according to that which has been reported to me concerning it, and here we will steer to the land.'" And that evening they rounded below a cape and found his father Heriulf's homestead.
Leif Ericsson listened eagerly to Biarni's thrilling story and straightway made a vow to see this new land for himself. He memorized the number of days sailed with a fair wind and carefully estimated the mileage covered ; he fixed in his mind's eye the prominent features peculiar to each landfall, and it was not long before he had a mental picture of the coast-line as sharply etched in his memory as if a modern copy of the Coast Pilot lay open before him.
These old navigators had minds acutely trained to observe and register the details of outstanding landmarks, as well as the faculty of passing that knowledge along to other men. We of today depend so heavily on the printed word and accurate charts that their skill in picking up landmark after landmark would seem to us almost uncanny. With no charts to guide, no instrument with which to shoot the sun and get their position, and no compass to steer by, these old Vikings, by dead reckoning and sheer common sense, took their seventy-five foot long-ships where they wanted to go and brought them home again. No better seamen ever sailed the seven seas.
The next autumn, after the harvests were in, Leif loaded his long-ship with supplies for a winter's cruise and sailed boldly out of Ericsfirth. The Sagas tell us that Leif was a large and powerful man, of a most imposing bearing. It is not difficult to imagine him swaying against the great steering-sweep of his ship, as he strains his eyes ahead to catch the first glimpse of the landmarks which mark the way, resolved that he will land and winter on that new shore which Biarni had only seen from the deck of his vessel.
One by one the landmarks were picked up: "This was a level wooded land, and there were broad stretches of white sand, where they went, and the land was level by the sea." Leif and his men landed on this island while yet the dew was heavy on the grass and "... it so happened that they touched the dew with their hands, and touched their hands to their mouths, and it seemed to them that they had never before tasted anything so sweet as this." And never before, so far as the records show, had a white man ever stepped foot on the east coast of North America.
Back of the island lay a sheltered bay, its channel or river, as the Norsemen called it, leading into it from the eastward. The tide was on the ebb, and when Leif attempted to take his ship in, she grounded on a sand bar. While waiting for the next flood tide to float her, he put over a small boat and went on in to look the harbor over. He found a wide bay full of fish and fowl, lush tidal meadows fed by sweet-water springs, and forests heavily wooded with standing timber such as was extremely rare in his north country and which would make a rich cargo for the homeward-bound trip. But perhaps best of all, Old Tyrker, a member of Leif's crew who came from the wine-growing regions of Germany, discovered an abundance of wild grapes almost begging to be picked and made into wine. Because of this, Leif gave the new country the name of Vinland, or as we say it, Wineland.
The next tide floated the ship, and they brought her in, pulled her ashore, unloaded her, and went to work putting up houses for winter quarters. They were astonished at the mildness of the climate, little if any snow falling all winter long and the grass in the meadow staying green. They loaded their ship with the best cuts of timber, filled the after boat with grapes which Old Tyrker had carefully dried, and with the coming of the first steady spring southerly swung her off before it for home.
There was great rejoicing when they sailed into Ericsfirth in Greenland, and the valuable cargo made Leif a rich man. Because of this voyage to Wineland, he became known to his generation and even down to this day as LEIF the LUCKY.
Eric the Red died about this time, and the management of his farm, with its forty head of cattle, fell to Leif, he being the oldest son. Because of this, he was never able to go back to Wineland again, but his younger brother Thorvald borrowed his ship and his crew of thirty men and in 1007 set sail for the new country. He had no difficulty whatever in finding "Leifsbooths," and it is likely he planned to explore the surrounding country as to its possibility for a permanent settlement. But Thorvald was not as lucky as his brother Leif. Unfortunately, while exploring the coast, he ran his ship ashore on an outlying promontory in a heavy squall and damaged her keel, and it took so long to repair it that they gave the place the name of Kjalarnes or Keelness.
A short time afterwards, during a skirmish with the natives, an arrow flew in between his shield and the gunwale of the ship and struck him in the armpit. Realizing that it was a mortal wound, he asked his men to take his body to a certain headland for burial, where shortly before he had remarked that he would like to make his home there as it was such a pleasant place. "... thus it may be fulfilled, that the truth sprang to my lips, when I expressed the wish to abide there for a time. Ye shall bury me there, and place a cross at my head, and another at my feet, and call it Crossness," that is, Cross Cape.
Another one of Leif's brothers named Thorstein made an attempt in 1008 to reach Leifs-booths (some say with the intention of bringing home the body of Thorvald) but was forced, perhaps because of bad weather, to return empty handed without ever sighting Wineland.
In 1009, Thorfinn Karlsefni, a noted trader, came to Brattahlid to spend the winter with Leif the Lucky, who was his boyhood friend. While there, he fell in love with Gudrid, Leif's widowed sister-in-law, who was making her home in his household. Their wedding was celebrated at New Year's tide with great splendor and feasting because of Leif's generosity and the wealth of Karlsefni, both he and his bride being of noble blood.
After listening to the wonderful tales about the new lands to the southward, Karlsefni resolved to make a voyage there on his own account. Gudrid, true to her marriage vows, went along with him. There are said to have been sixty men and five women in the company, and they took along household goods and cattle. In Wineland, Gudrid gave birth to a son, whom they named Snorri. Karlsefni and Gudrid eventually made their home at Glaumboeiar-land in Iceland after their return from America. After his death, Gudrid ran the farm with the help of Snorri and after Snorri's marriage took the veil, entering the church which he had built in honor of Karlsefni. Many men of renown were descended from Karlsefni and Gudrid through their son Snorri.
Leif's sister Freydis, who seems to have been something of a Viking in her own right, in 1014, made the round trip successfully and also made a name for herself which is still remembered with shame in the annals of the Northmen. Freydis sailed in her own ship and was accompanied by another owned by two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi, who had wintered in Greenland. They agreed to carry a crew of thirty men each, besides a few women, but right from the start Freydis showed her deceitfulness by concealing five extra men aboard her ship. They had no difficulty in finding Leifs-booths, but when they landed, Freydis informed them that Leif had agreed to let only her and her ship's company stay in his houses and that Helgi, Finnbogi, and their men and women would have to build new ones for themselves or go without.
These things bred hard feelings between them, and while the brothers went ahead and built their houses, the bad blood soon developed to the point where all visits between the two crews came to a stop. As winter merged into spring and the time drew near for the trip to Greenland, Freydis devised a devilish plan whereby she could secure for herself all the valuable goods and property of the two brothers. One night she dressed and went barefoot to the house of Helgi and Finnbogi, telling Finnbogi she had come because she would like to trade ships with them, theirs being the larger and she planning to sail for home before long with a large cargo. This he agreed to and then went back to bed, while Freydis returned to her own house.
When she climbed into bed, her husband Thorvard wanted to know where she had been and why her feet were so cold. She told him she had been to the house of the two brothers to ask them to trade ships, but that they had abused and mistreated her. "... what time thou," she said, "poor wretch, wilt neither avenge my shame nor thy own...." At last, unable to stand her taunts any longer, Thorvard called up his men and ordered them to arm and follow him. Catching the brothers and their men totally unarmed and unsuspecting, they slew every one, but when it came to the women, Thorvard's followers refused to murder them in cold blood. Whereupon, Freydis screamed, "Hand me an axe!" and killed them all with her own hands.
She offered heavy bribes and threatened with death any of her own crew who should so much as hint when they got back to Ericsfirth at what had happened. But the story finally got to the ears of Leif, himself, who declared that he had no heart to punish his sister as she deserved. Nevertheless, the name of Freydis has always stood as a blot on the pages of the Old Norse Sagas.
Historians and laymen are still arguing as to the actual landing place of Leif the Lucky. Many harbors and inlets have laid claim to it, all the way from the Cape of Virginia to Greenland. I doubt if the location of Leifs-booths can ever be definitely settled unless some undeniable remains of that camp site are unearthed, such as have been found on the site of his father's farmstead at Brattahlid. Until that day, the possibility that he may have set up those houses right here on Cape Cod has as much in its favor as any other locality, and more than most.
Let us begin with the logical assumption that Leif, when he left Greenland, followed the instructions given him by Biarni and, in effect, back tracked on Biarni's course. He picked up landmark after landmark which had been described to him and finally, after he had run out the estimated distance, made his landing. Seventeen hundred miles down the coast by water from Greenland comes very close to Cape Cod. If Leif got this far and missed the Cape, he is the only Western Ocean navigator who ever did so, but still I doubt if he got any farther south of Chatham. If he had attempted the dangerous stretch of shoals and rips lying off Chatham between Monomoy Point and Nantucket, which nearly wrecked Champlain's ship and turned the Mayflower back, he would have certainly mentioned an experience so totally foreign to his sea-going background, just as the Norse voyagers were so impressed by the long stretches of white sandy beaches, so typical of the Back Side of Cape Cod, that their Sagas still speak of them.
Just before he would reach The Shoals, however, and after he had coasted down by those intriguing white beaches which they tell of, he would come to the almost landlocked harbor of Pleasant Bay, right on the elbow of The Cape. No doubt it lay more open to the sea at that early date than now, but it agrees in almost every characteristic with the description of Leif's landing place. The distance from Greenland is approximately seventeen hundred miles. It lies in behind islands connected by sandy spits and beaches, just as they say. And it is an historical fact that its Inlet, which they call a river coming in from the east, did, as late as the seventeenth century, flow in from the ocean directly east of it. No doubt its channel in the year one thousand was as choked with sand bars on which Leif's ships would find no trouble to get aground, as its counterpart of today.
Excerpted from Early Encountersâ"Native Americans and Europeans in New England by Delores Bird Carpenter. Copyright © 1994 Delores Bird Carpenter. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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