The first Europeans known definitely to set foot in Newfoundland were the Norse. Beginning in the eighth century, they burst out of their cultural homeland in Scandinavia (particularly Norway) in a series of expansionist waves of migration triggered by unknown causes -- possibly overpopulation, possibly political unrest. Their notorious war galleys, known as "longships," were fast and maneuverable, perfect for swift hit-and-run raids in the sheltered seas and waterways of Europe. Going on such raiding expeditions was known as going "a-Viking," and it was by that name that the Norsemen became feared throughout Europe.
Yet the Norse who came to Newfoundland were not fierce raiders in search of pillage and plunder. The Norse appearance here was the final step in a relatively peaceful expansion of livestock farmers across the North Atlantic, taking in parts of the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and finally Vinland.
Iceland, discovered by the Norse in 860, appears to have been settled by ca. 874 and was fully occupied by 930. Indeed, the occupation of Iceland was so rapid that the island soon felt the pressures of overpopulation. By 975 a major famine had struck, so that interest in finding new lands for expansion remained strong. Rumours of lands to the west, possibly fed by earlier Irish voyages, led to the discovery of Greenland in 982 by Erik the Red. Three years later, a major colonizing expedition of several hundred people was organized in Iceland and sailed to Greenland.
The Norse Settle in Greenland
Eventually around 300 farmsteads were established in southeastern Greenland, clustered into two settlements. The oldest was the Eastern Settlement. The more suitable of the two for livestock farming, it was the most heavily populated region, with about 3,000-4,500 people.
Though their culture was a violent one by our own standards and blood feuds were common, the Greenland colonists were not bloodthirsty sea-raiders. Nor were their vessels the classic "longships" used by Vikings in the sheltered waters of Europe on their raiding expeditions. In the North Atlantic, the Norse used stout, sea-worthy vessels known as "knarrs." Although there were limits to how much they could carry, they were more suited for carrying cargo. The knarr was also open to the elements and, though driven by a sail, it was small enough to be rowed.
The people of Iceland and Greenland supported themselves through livestock farming and trading. The region was not suited to growing grain, and so the raising of sheep and goats dominated. Stock-raising of this type, together with the impact of substantial numbers of people moving into Iceland and Greenland, caused environmental degradation. Trees were felled to heat homes and smelt iron, and turf was stripped from the thin soils. The result was erosion and soil damage. To make matters worse, after 1250 AD, a period of climatic cooling known as the "Little Ice Age" began, causing the agricultural economy of the region to deteriorate dramatically.
It is necessary to explain all these developments if we are to understand why the Norse failed to colonize North America successfully, for it was from these Greenland settlements, and not the Norse homeland in Europe, that the Norse explorers of North America came, around the year 1000.
According to the sagas, a merchant-shipowner named Bjarni was making his way from Iceland to Greenland in 986 AD when he was blown off course by a severe storm. When the storm ended, he found himself off an unfamiliar shore. He recognized that this was not his intended landfall. The land was too forested, and he was too far south. Bjarni therefore headed north, arriving in Greenland about a week later. During the return trip, he noted a changing landscape as he progressed north, from forested hills, to a flat, heavily forested coastline, to glaciated mountains.
This had not been an intentional voyage of discovery, nor was Bjarni interested in following through on his discovery. As a merchant, he was interested primarily in trading with established communities, not investing in risky and speculative efforts to establish new ones.
The Greenland colonists were not interested in immediately exploiting the new discovery, for they had just recently arrived in Greenland. Because they were still busy establishing themselves, Bjarni's voyage did not inspire a return trip for nearly a decade. Then Leif, the son of Erik the Red, retraced Bjarni's route in reverse. He passed a land of rock and ice, which he called Helluland - probably Baffin Island - and then a country that was flat and wooded, which he called Markland This was probably part of southern Labrador. He eventually reached a land which the sagas describe as a land of grassy meadows, with rivers full of salmon, and enough other resources to encourage over-wintering. Leif gave this land the name "Vinland." The men proceeded to build houses in typical Greenland Norse fashion, with sod-walls and peaked roofs of timber and sod. When Leif and his crew returned to Greenland, their reports of this new land aroused interest in further exploration.
Was Vinland in Newfoundland?
Where was Vinland? The location is difficult to determine because the details provided in the sagas often seem to conflict. The sailing directions suggest Newfoundland, but descriptions of lush vegetation, including grain and self-sown wheat, together with the discovery at L'Anse aux Meadows of butternuts (which have never grown further north than New Brunswick) suggest a more southerly location.
The discovery of the Norse habitation at L'Anse aux Meadows gave powerful support for those who believed that Vinland was in Newfoundland. Yet L'Anse aux Meadows appears to have been a small settlement of about eight buildings and no more than 75 people, mostly sailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, hired hands and perhaps even serfs or slaves. It is probable therefore that the settlement was a base camp for repairing and maintaining Norse ships. One bloomery and one smithy have been identified, where local bog iron was apparently smelted into "sponge iron," then subsequently purified and made into nails, rivets, and other iron work. The settlement was probably also a base camp for expeditions further south. During the summer, possibly two-thirds of the camp would have been off exploring as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Some women must have been present -- artifacts found there, such as a spindle whorle, bone needle, and a small whetstone for sharpening, were a typical part of a Norse woman's everyday possessions.
The consensus among scholars today (1997) is that "Vinland" was not a specific site, but a region which included Newfoundland and extended south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far as Nova Scotia and coastal New Brunswick.Excerpts from the article by Olaf Janzen. ©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project.
Canada's first Orthodox parish?
The tiny community of L'Anse aux Meadows at the far northern tip of Newfoundland is distinguished among Canadian heritage sites as the oldest European settlement in Canada. Scarcely a dozen buildings remain of this Viking settlement, constructed over one thousand years ago by a group of Scandinavian settlers who appeared ready to make a new home in the frigid northlands of what would later become Canada.
It is almost certain that the tiny group was led by a Viking named Karlsefni, an associate of Leif Erikson (called Leif the Lucky, for his many extraordinary successes), one of the first Norsemen to accept baptism within a largely pagan culture. By the time these settlers arrived in Canada, Christianity and paganism were living side by side in northern Europe, and had not yet had the opportunity to discover the differences which would inevitably lead to conflict. The Norse were a pragmatic lot, whose religious zeal was usually focused on doing whatever it took to survive and to win. And the Christian God was the ultimate Victor...
We know that the Norse seafaring parties who traveled to North America contained mixed crews of Thor-worshipers and Christians (Erikson himself started out as the former, and ended up, rather early in life, as the latter). We also know that one of the parties of settlers his adventures produced the first Canadian-born child of European extraction, a boy named Snorri, whose grandchildren included three bishops right around the time of the Great Schism (news of which traveled very slowly to Viking lands, in any case).
Perhaps here we have a glimpse of the first Christian community in Canada: a tiny one, to be sure, and not organized as far as the Church is concerned. Their firstborn child was almost certainly baptized, although probably back in the old country, once his parents joined their companions and fled from the North American natives who never seemed to take a liking to the Norse tendency to attack on sight. Outnumbered, far from home, and cold (yes, even Vikings get cold), it was perhaps inevitable that the first Orthodox settlement in Canada was not to last...
It is almost certain that no Orthodox priest was present at the first settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows. Yet archaeological digs further northwest on Baffin Island present an interesting possibility. A thirteenth-century Thule native site produced an intriguing relic: a tiny carved figure dressed in European clothing, with evidence of a cape over the shoulders, and a long cloth draped around the neck, hanging down to the feet - and marked with a cross. Robert McGhee, who specializes in Arctic archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, suggests this figure shows a crusader who served as a retainer for a viking captain. This is based on the theory that Christian clergy in northern Europe did not wear pectoral crosses until a much later period.
Yet we know both Saints Cuthbert and Adamnan, saints of the Orthodox west, both wore such crosses, as we can see today on display at the cathedral in Durham, in the north of England. It seems more difficult to believe that a crusader would have traveled thousands of miles with pagan Vikings, rather than a Christian priestmonk, seeking out mission territory, or more likely, seeking a remote monastic home, as we know the Celts did in Greenland centuries before. Whether this figure represented an Orthodox priest or a cleric of the western Latins after the Schism, we'll likely never know.