Vikings in America

This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program Eeplorations. Today we tell the story of the first European explorers to visit North America one thousand years ago. And we tell about a new museum show that describes that exploration. We begin our story a little more than one-thousand years ago on the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. A young man named Bjarni Herjolfsson is the captain of a large boat. He is sailing from Norway to Greenland in the summer months of the year Nine-Eighty-Five. He is carrying supplies to his father's farm in Greenland. His father is one of the island's first settlers.

Bjarni is concerned. He has never sailed to Greenland before. Friends have told him how to do it. He has followed their directions. However, he has spent too many days at sea fighting storms with fierce winds. Thick fog has slowed his progress. Bjarni is a good sailor, but he must be able to see the stars at night and the sun in the day to find his way across the ocean. He has seen neither now for some time.

At last, the weather clears. To the west Bjarni sees land. He has been told to look for huge mountains of ice in Greenland. He sees mountains, but no ice. He also sees forests and many tall trees near the water. He has been told that Greenland lacks trees. He is sure that he is lost. Bjarni moves his boat close to this new land. He continues his trip for several days but does not stop to explore the land. He never sees any people or farms. At last he turns north and east. The wind blows strongly in this direction. After a long trip he sees land again. This time it seems to be the place he has been seeking. He tells the ship's crew they will land. This time they have reached Greenland. Bjarni Herjolfsson finds his father almost immediately and gives him the supplies.

This simple story is about the man who may have been the first European to see what would become known as North America. Researchers now believe the story is very possible. The story comes from a series of books called the Icelandic sagas. The word saga means to say or to tell. The sagas are stories written between seven to nine-hundred years ago, several hundred years after the events took place. Information for the Icelandic sagas came from stories that people told each other for centuries.

The travels of Bjarni Herjolfsson took place only a few years after a Norwegian sailor named Eirik the Red first discovered Greenland. He was responsible for taking the first settlers to Greenland from their colony in Iceland. Later, Eirik the Red's son visited Bjarni Herjolfsson. He asked for sailing directions to this land Bjarni had seen but not explored. Bjarni told him the details of his last trip and the sailing directions. The sagas also say he bought Bjarni's ship to make the trip. This man's name was Leif Eiriksson.

Leif Eiriksson followed Bjarni Herfolfsson's directions. Within a few days after leaving Greenland he found land. Leif and his crew left their boat to explore the land. Leif named the place Helluland. Researchers today believe Leif Eiriksson and his crew had found and explored Baffin Island, west of Greenland. They did not find much of interest and quickly left.

They sailed south and a few days later found an area covered with tall green trees. Again they left their ship and explored. Leif named this place Markland. Researches say this may have been along the coast of what is now Labrador. The Icelandic sagas say Leif and his crew then sailed south for about two days and saw more land. They stopped again and this time built very small temporary shelters to sleep in.

The sagas say the rivers in this place were full of huge fish. They say Leif and his crew also found grapes -- the kind of fruit used to make the alcoholic drink wine. Life Eiriksson named this place Wineland, or Vinland.

Leif Eiriksson and his crew spent the winter in this new land. They built several houses using rock and earth as building materials. The sagas say the winter passed quickly. Leif then decided to return to Greenland. His trip had been a success. Later, others would make the trip and use the small houses Leif and his crew had built. The sagas say Thorfinn Karlsefni led the largest group of one-hundred-sixty men and women in three ships. They stayed in Vinland for three years.

For many years history experts had no proof that the Icelandic sagas about Leif Eiriksson were true. They said no evidence existed to prove that any European explorers had ever visited North America. They said the old stories about the explorers commonly known as the Vikings were interesting. But, the experts said, the first known European explorer was Christopher Columbus who made the trip in Fourteen-Ninety-Two. Not everyone agreed.

In Nineteen-Sixty, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, decided to investigate the old stories. After careful study, they decided the area visited by the old Norse explorers had to be in Canada, probably the island of Newfoundland near the coast of Labrador.

The Ingstads went to Newfoundland to explore a place called L'Anse aux Meadows. They asked the people about any areas that showed evidence of people living there long ago. They were told about some ancient Indian buildings. The Ingstads were taken to an area where the remains of several buildings could be seen. The buildings were covered with grass.

The Ingstads quickly decided American Indians did not build houses that way. These houses were very similar to the kind of building used by Norse settlers in Greenland, Iceland and Norway. After several years of research, the Ingstads found evidence of eight buildings left by the Norse explorers. Three are long houses, five are smaller storage buildings.

Researchers at the L'Anse aux Meadows area discovered more than eight-hundred objects left behind by the people who built the houses. These include stone oil lamps, pieces of iron, bone needles, iron boat nails, and other objects used by old Norse explorers.

Scientific tests of wood objects showed the wood was from about the year One-thousand, about the same time that Leif Eiriksson reached the area. This evidence now strongly suggests that the Norse explorers did reach North America long before Columbus.

Experts now believe that L'Anse aux Meadows was not a permanent settlement. It was used by several groups that came from Greenland. But most people never stayed for very long. The experts say people lived there for less than ten years. They say it was used as a base to explore this new country. Researchers say they will never really know how far the old Norse explorers sailed or in what direction.

The old Icelandic sagas may suggest why the Norse explorers did not build a permanent settlement. The sagas say the explorers traded with the American Indians. They exchanged cloth for animal skins made of fur. They also fought with the Indians more than once.

Experts say the Norse knew they did not have enough people to defend against the Indians. They may not have wanted to risk moving their families to this new land.

There may have been another important reason the Norse explorers did not go back to the area they discovered. By the year Twelve Hundred, their settlements in Greenland were having problems. The Earth had entered a period of severe cold weather that continued for several years. It was impossible to grow enough food. The Smithsonian Institution has opened a show in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, about the Norse explorers. It celebrates their arrival in North America one-thousand years ago. The show is called, gVikings, The North American Saga.h

It explains the travels of Leif Eiriksson. In the show are objects that were left in North America by the explorers. There are weapons, clothing, jewelry -- and a small copy of the kind of ship used by the explorers.
Visitors can see pictures of L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, and a small copy of the eight buildings used by Leif Eiriksson and the other early explorers. There also is a museum store where you can buy copies of the old Icelandic Sagas in English.

As you read these ancient stories, you are transported to the waters of the cold North Atlantic as a Norse long ship makes its way toward a new land.

This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Efim Drucker. This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another Explorations program on the Voice of America.