American Journeys
Home Find a Document Images Advanced Search Highlights Teachers Help  
Document Number: AJ-056
Author:
Title: The Saga of Eric the Red
Source: Olson, Julius E. and Edward G. Bourne (editors). The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The Voyages of the Northmen; The Voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 14-44.
Pages/Illustrations: 33 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-056/

Author Note:

The author of The Saga of Eric the Red is unknown, as is much about the Vikings who came to North America. The landing by Norse voyagers in America five hundred years before Columbus has led to so much conjecture and hypothesis that it is useful to simply state the facts, so far as they are known.

Norse Expeditions, circa 1000.

By the tenth century, Norwegian settlers had migrated from island to island across the North Atlantic, settling first in Iceland, then in Greenland, and lastly in Canada. Archaeological evidence shows that about 1000 A.D., mariners from Greenland built a village at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. The first documentary evidence of Norse contact with lands west of Greenland is a brief mention written around 1130 A.D. in the Islendiga-bok (AJ-059). Adam of Bremen (see AJ-058) wrote the first datable description of any significant length in the 1070s. Two lengthy texts, known as the Vinland sagas, were written down between 1200 and 1300 A.D. but are thought to reflect earlier oral traditions. The Groenlandinga saga (AJ-057) and this text, Eiríks saga rauda (The Sage of Eric the Red), give somewhat conflicting accounts of the events of 980-1030 A.D. The last datable mention of Norse colony on the American mainland is to events that occurred in 1161 A.D., although indirect references are made in slightly later documents (see AJ-060). Scholars suspect that climatic change may have doomed the Vikings’ western settlements; steadily falling temperatures throughout the region after 1200 A.D. would have shortened both the navigation and growing seasons in Arctic Canada. By the 1500s, Greenland also was empty of Norse settlers and mariners.

The Saga of Eric the Red recounts a version of the colonization of Greenland by Eirík Rauda Thorvaldsson and the exploration of North America by Thorfinn. Thorfinn makes his base at Straumford, and makes voyages to the north, perhaps to the Labrador coast and later, another journey to the south and east, perhaps the eastern side of Newfoundland’s northern tip. Scholars generally believe that the Helluland of these documents is Baffin Island and that Markland was somewhere on the coast of Labrador. The possible locations of Vinland, Leifsbudir, Straumsfjord, and other places named in the texts are still hotly debated, with candidates ranging as far south as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Despite its rich archaeological record, L’Anse aux Meadows cannot be positively identified with any place mentioned in the documents.

Document Note

These documents were preserved in a manuscript volume compiled about 1387 A.D. called Flateyjarbok, or Flat Island Book, from the location in Iceland where it was found about the year 1650. This manuscript volume of some 1,700 pages is now in the Royal Library at Copenhagen, Denmark. It was first printed in the 1860s, photographic facsimiles were prepared in the 1890s, and it was translated into English in 1906. The translations given here are from The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The National Library of Canada maintains a site at http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/history/24/h24-1210-e.html with information on the Vikings excursions to North America.

The Parks Canada website for the National Historic site of L’Anse aux Meadows at http://parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows/index_E.asp contains useful background information on the history of Norse exploration where you can learn more.

The Viking Network, at http://viking.no/e/ewww.htm maintains a website intended for schools that provides maps, background information, and data about the literary and archaeological evidence of Norse settlement in North America.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History offers an online exhibit at http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/ called “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” which contains photographs of the L’Anse aux Meadows site and artifacts unearthed there.

Librarian Steve Smith maintains “VNLND: The Online Bibliography, Materials On & About the Norse Discovery of North America” at http://www.vnlnd.net/ which not only lists additional sources but also describes their history and contents in some detail.

Read this Document
Print or Download
Read Background
View Reference Map (PDF)
How to Cite
Copyright and Permissions
© 2014 Wisconsin Historical Society Feedback | Site Help
Wisconsin history