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The Legend of the Norsemen

There are many stories of the coming of white men to the coasts of America and of their settlements in America long before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Even in the time of the Greeks and Romans there were traditions and legends of sailors who had gone out into the 'Sea of Darkness' beyond the Pillars of Hercules--the ancient name for the Strait of Gibraltar--and far to the west had found inhabited lands. Aristotle thought that there must be land out beyond the Atlantic, and Plato tells us that once upon a time a vast island lay off the coasts of Africa; he calls it Atlantis, and it was, he says, sunk below the sea by an earthquake. The Phoenicians were wonderful sailors; their ships had gone out of the Mediterranean into the other sea, and had reached the British Isles, and in all probability they sailed as far west as the Canaries. We find, indeed, in classical literature many references to supposed islands and countries out beyond the Atlantic. The ancients called these places the Islands of the Blessed and the Fortunate Isles. It is, perhaps, not unnatural that in the earlier writers the existence of these remote and mysterious regions should be linked with the ideas of the Elysian Fields and of the abodes of the dead. But the later writers, such as Pliny, and Strabo, the geographer, talked of them as actual places, and tried to estimate how many Roman miles they must be distant from the coast of Spain.

There were similar legends among the Irish, legends preserved in written form at least five hundred years before Columbus. They recount wonderful voyages out into the Atlantic and the discovery of new land. But all these tales are mixed up with obvious fable, with accounts of places where there was never any illness or infirmity, and people lived for ever, and drank delicious wine and laughed all day, and we cannot certify to an atom of historic truth in them.

Still more interesting, if only for curiosity's sake, are weird stories that have been unearthed among the early records of the Chinese. These are older than the Irish legends, and date back to about the sixth century. According to the Chinese story, a certain Hoei-Sin sailed out into the Pacific until he was four thousand miles east of Japan. There he found a new continent, which the Chinese records called Fusang, because of a certain tree--the fusang tree,--out of the fibres of which the inhabitants made, not only clothes, but paper, and even food. Here was truly a land of wonders. There were strange animals with branching horns on their heads, there were men who could not speak Chinese but barked like dogs, and other men with bodies painted in strange colors. Some people have endeavored to prove by these legends that the Chinese must have landed in British Columbia, or have seen moose or reindeer, since extinct, in the country far to the north. But the whole account is so mixed up with the miraculous, and with descriptions of things which certainly never existed on the Pacific coast of America, that we can place no reliance whatever upon it.

The only importance that we can attach to such traditions of the discovery of unknown lands and peoples on a new continent is their bearing as a whole, their accumulated effect, on the likelihood of such discovery before the time of Columbus. They at least make us ready to attach due weight to the circumstantial and credible records of the voyages of the Norsemen. These stand upon ground altogether different from that of the dim and confused traditions of the classical writers and of the Irish and Chinese legends. In fact, many scholars are now convinced that the eastern coast of Canada was known and visited by the Norsemen five hundred years before Columbus.

From time immemorial the Norsemen were among the most daring and skilful mariners ever known. They built great wooden boats with tall, sweeping bows and sterns. These ships, though open and without decks, were yet stout and seaworthy. Their remains have been found, at times lying deeply buried under the sand and preserved almost intact. One such vessel, discovered on the shore of Denmark, measured 72 feet in length. Another Viking ship, which was dug up in Norway, and which is preserved in the museum at Christiania, was 78 feet long and 17 feet wide. One of the old Norse sagas, or stories, tells how King Olaf Tryggvesson built a ship, the keel of which, as it lay on the grass, was 74 ells long; in modern measure, it would be a vessel of about 942 tons burden. Even if we make allowance for the exaggeration or ignorance of the writer of the saga, there is still a vast contrast between this vessel and the little ship Centurion in which Anson sailed round the world.

It is needless, however, to prove that the Norsemen could have reached America in their ships. The voyages from Iceland to Greenland which we know they made continually for four hundred years were just as arduous as a further voyage from Greenland to the coast of Canada.

The story of the Norsemen runs thus. Towards the end of the ninth century, or nearly two hundred years before the Norman conquest, there was a great exodus or outswarming of the Norsemen from their original home in Norway. A certain King Harold had succeeded in making himself supreme in Norway, and great numbers of the lesser chiefs or jarls preferred to seek new homes across the seas rather than submit to his rule. So they embarked with their seafaring followers--Vikings, as we still call them--often, indeed, with their wives and families, in great open ships, and sailed away, some to the coast of England, others to France, and others even to the Mediterranean, where they took service under the Byzantine emperors. But still others, loving the cold rough seas of the north, struck westward across the North Sea and beyond the coasts of Scotland till they reached Iceland. This was in the year 874. Here they made a settlement that presently grew to a population of fifty thousand people, having flocks and herds, solid houses of stone, and a fine trade in fish and oil with the countries of Northern Europe. These settlers in Iceland attained to a high standard of civilization. They had many books, and were fond of tales and stories, as are all these northern peoples who spend long winter evenings round the fireside. Some of the sagas, or stories, which they told were true accounts of the voyages and adventures of their forefathers; others were fanciful stories, like our modern romances, created by the imagination; others, again, were a mixture of the two. Thus it is sometimes hard to distinguish fact and fancy in these early tales of the Norsemen. We have, however, means of testing the stories. Among the books written in Iceland there was one called the 'National Name-Book,' in which all the names of the people were written down, with an account of their forefathers and of any notable things which they had done.

It is from this book and from the old sagas that we learn how the Norsemen came to the coast of America. It seems that about 900 a certain man called Gunnbjorn was driven westward in a great storm and thrown on the rocky shore of an ice-bound country, where he spent the winter. Gunnbjorn reached home safely, and never tried again to find this new land; but, long after his death, the story that there was land farther west still lingered among the settlers in Iceland and the Orkneys, and in other homes of the Norsemen. Some time after Gunnbjorn's voyage it happened that a very bold and determined man called Eric the Red, who lived in the Orkneys, was made an outlaw for having killed several men in a quarrel. Eric fled westward over the seas about the year 980, and he came to a new country with great rocky bays and fjords as in Norway. There were no trees, but the slopes of the hillsides were bright with grass, so he called the country Greenland, as it is called to this day. Eric and his men lived in Greenland for three years, and the ruins of their rough stone houses are still to be seen, hard by one of the little Danish settlements of today. When Eric and his followers went back to Iceland they told of what they had seen, and soon he led a new expedition to Greenland. The adventurers went in twenty-five ships; more than half were lost on the way, but eleven ships landed safely and founded a colony in Greenland. Other settlers came, and this Greenland colony had at one time a population of about two thousand people. Its inhabitants embraced Christianity when their kinsfolk in other places did so, and the ruins of their stone churches still exist. The settlers raised cattle and sheep, and sent ox hides and seal skins and walrus ivory to Europe in trade for supplies. But as there was no timber in Greenland they could not build ships, and thus their communication with the outside world was more or less precarious. In spite of this, the colony lasted for about four hundred years. It seems to have come to an end at about the beginning of the fifteenth century. The scanty records of its history can be traced no later than the year 1409. What happened to terminate its existence is not known. Some writers, misled by the name 'Greenland,' have thought that there must have been a change of climate by which the country lost its original warmth and verdure and turned into an arctic region. There is no ground for this belief. The name 'Greenland' did not imply a country of trees and luxuriant vegetation, but only referred to the bright carpet of grass still seen in the short Greenland summer in the warmer hollows of the hillsides. It may have been that the settlement, never strong in numbers, was overwhelmed by the Eskimos, who are known to have often attacked the colony: very likely, too, it suffered from the great plague, the Black Death, that swept over all Europe in the fourteenth century. Whatever the cause, the colony came to an end, and centuries elapsed before Greenland was again known to Europe.

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915


Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada

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