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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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In the year 985, the Viking Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Eric the Red) founded a colony in Greenland. The following year, Bjarni Herjólfsson set sail from Norway to join his family in the new colony. As the compass was not yet in existence and as navigation by the stars was difficult in cloudy weather or during the bright northern nights, Bjarni likely drifted, towards what we now call Newfoundland. He is the first European known to have seen North America, but Bjarni was unaware that what he saw was a separate continent from Greenland. Nonetheless, his voyage brought about the first explorations on the shores of what, today, is Canada.

Towards the year 1 000, intrigued by Bjarni's experience, Leifr, son of the Viking chief Eric the Red, bought Bjarni's ship and decided to go looking for this previously unknown land. He travelled the same route along the coast as Bjarni, but north to south, rather than south to north. First he came to what he called "Helluland" ("land of the flat stones"). This could have been a part of Baffin Island or of northern Labrador. Next, Leifr saw a low and wooded shore bordered by white sand, which he called "Markland" ("wood land"). This was probably the shore of Labrador south of Hamilton Inlet. Two days of sailing further, Leifr and his companions explored a third land, covered in fields, trees and vines, which they called "Vinland" ("wine land"). They spent the winter there, before returning to Greenland, where their discovery was of interest to many people. Four expeditions followed this discovery.

The first expedition was led by Thorvaldr, Leifr's brother, who spent two winters in shelters that had been built by Leifr and his companions the previous year. He explored the nearby shores before being killed by an arrow during a fray with the Native people of Markland, whom the Norse called "Skraelings". The following year, Thorsteinnr, another son of the same family, made a second expedition to explore this territory more thoroughly and to bring back Thorvaldr's body, but storms prevented his reaching his goal.

The third and biggest expedition was aimed at setting up a colony. Led by Thorfinnr Karlsefni, an Icelander, approximately 160 Greenlanders (many of them accompanied by their families) left in three ships, carrying with them cattle and foodstuffs. For three years, the colonists explored the coast of present-day Newfoundland and Labrador and traded furs with the Native people there. However, their relations with the "Skraelings" turned sour, and after two bloody battles, they decided to return home.

Despite this, Freydis  --  Eric the Red's daughter  --  returned to Vinland with two brothers from Iceland the following year. During the winter, there was great conflict between the Greenlanders and the Icelanders, which ended with Freydis ordering the murder of the Icelanders. When her men refused to kill the Icelandic women, Freydis killed them herself with an axe. The survivors returned to Greenland. After Freydis's expedition, the Vinland sagas no longer mention the New World; however, Norse objects dated later than the year 1 000 and found on First Nations and Inuit sites lead historians to believe that the Norse made other trips to trade furs and other articles with the Native peoples.


During a "Skraeling" attack at Vinland: "She [Freydis] found a dead man in her path, Thorbrand Snorrason  --  he had a flat stone sticking out of his head. His naked sword lay beside him; she picked it up and prepared to defend herself. The Skraelings were making for her. She pulled out her breasts from under her clothes and slapped the naked sword on them, at which the Skraelings took fright, and ran off to their boats and rowed away. Karlsefni's men came up to her, praising her courage. Two of Karlsefni's men had fallen, and a multitude of Skraelings. [...]"

(Jones 1961, 153)

L'Anse aux Meadows, in the northern part of Newfoundland, is the only known former Norse colony in North America. Some four centuries after the Norse, the Europeans who dropped their fishing nets along these shores took great care not to reveal anything about the area and its surroundings, but the search for a passage to Asia led explorers across their sea route, and many traders were soon to follow.

Photograph: Re-creation of Norse sod home

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