Ancient America: Vikings and Indians

More than a thousand years ago, the Norse—commonly called Vikings—had expanded their settlements west from Scandinavia into Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Both Ireland and Britain were, of course, occupied by farming peoples and the establishment of Norse settlements required the force of arms. Iceland was uninhabited (though some sources indicate that there may have been a handful of hermit Irish monks) and Greenland was sparsely populated by nomadic hunter-gatherers. In North America, the Norse encountered natives whom they called Skraelings who were not always friendly.

The Norse sagas describe a number of conflicts with Skraelings. The Norse word saga means both “what is said” and “story, tale, or history.” While the sagas have been written down, they were originally oral histories and their accuracy in describing historic events are hotly debated by scholars.

There was a time when many historians doubted that the Norse had explored North America, but archaeology has verified the existence of one permanent Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and there is some evidence of other settlements and camps.

While the Norse are often stereotyped as fierce warriors who raided monasteries and towns, this was not how they saw themselves. The designation Viking refers to only one Norse activity: raiding. The Norse were also traders, farmers, shipbuilders, explorers, merchants, manufacturers, and statesmen. In his article in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, William Fitzhugh writes:

“Despite their reputation as shipbuilders, sailors, and warriors, the Norse identified themselves as farmers rather than as fishermen, hunters, trappers, or traders, even though individual Vikings might spend considerable periods of the year engaged in these tasks.”

Cattle were an important food source which provided the Norse with dairy products including cheese, butter, and skyr. The cattle, which were relatively small—standing less than 48” at the shoulder—could be transported in their longships.

Archaeology

L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site located in Newfoundland, was settled about 1000 CE and was occupied for only about a decade. At L’Anse aux Meadows, archaeologists have uncovered eight buildings which are grouped into three complexes. The structures indicate that this was not a temporary campsite, but a settlement which was occupied year-round. It is estimated that the settlement had a population of 70-90 people. While the sagas indicate that the Norse carried cattle with them, there are no indications that the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows had cattle: there do not appear to have been any outbuildings, corrals, or animal pens. If the Norse had cattle with them, they must have been left in the open.

The Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows did some iron smelting at the site, probably to produce boat nails to be used in repairing their longships.

One of the intriguing clues from L’Anse aux Meadows is the presence of butternuts, a butternut burl that was cut with iron tools, and grapes at the site. Butternut trees, also called white walnut, have never grown in Newfoundland and the butternuts must have come from someplace farther south. The closest area for butternuts is the Saint Lawrence River Valley, just east of present-day Quebec City. Archaeologist Birgitta Wallace, in an article in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, reports:

“The significance of the nuts is that they indicate that the people who lived at L’Anse aux Meadows made excursions to regions farther south. Butternuts grow in the same areas as wild grapes, so whoever picked the nuts must have come across grapevines as well. This was the first archaeological proof that the saga stories of the Norse encountering wild grapes are not myth but based on reality.”

Birgitta Wallace summarizes the archaeological data from L’Anse aux Meadows this way:

“Putting all the evidence together, we find that L’Anse aux Meadows was not a colonizing venture but a base at which a large group of people, perhaps three ship crews, stayed for a short time.”

The Sagas

At L’Anse aux Meadows there is little evidence of contract between the Norse and Native Americans. Turning from archaeology to the sagas, however, we see that the Norse did have some contact.

The Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions. They are stories of events which took place in the period between 930 and 1030, an era known as söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The stories describe voyages, migrations, and feuds. The sagas focus on history, particularly genealogical and family history. Sometime after 1190, these stories were written down in Old Norse.

According to the sages, the Norse under Karlsefni, Snorri, and Bjarni, sailed south to the land they called Hop at the mouth of a river. Here they found wild wheat as well as grapes. They had been here a couple of weeks, allowing their cattle to graze freely, when nine canoes made of hides came into view. The Norse made peaceful contact with the Skraelings, who are described in the sagas as:

“They were short men, ill-looking, with their hair in disorderly fashion on their heads; they were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks.”

According to the sagas, the Norse constructed dwellings and remained at Hop through the winter. They let their cattle graze freely without keepers. In the spring, a large number of canoes appeared and a market was held in which the Norse traded cloth for furs. While the Skraelings wanted to trade for iron swords and lances, Karlsefni and Snorri did not allow it. At one point in the market, a bull belonging to Karlesefni ran out of the woods and bellowed loudly. The Skraelings viewed this as a threat and hurriedly left.

Three weeks later, a large group of Skraelings appeared and there was a battle with the Norse. In the initial attack, the Skraelings drove the Norse back, but Freydis, who was pregnant, picked up a sword from a dead Norse warrior, banged in on her naked breast, and counter-attacked, driving the Skraelings off. Following the battle, the Norse decided that this was not a good place to settle, so they moved on.

Karlsefni journeyed south with forty men for about two months. They reported seeing nothing but wilderness and returned home.

Summary

       What we know at the present time is that the Norse were in North America more than a thousand years ago. Their contacts with the Native Americans appear to have involved some limited trade and probably some violence. The sagas and the archaeological evidence at L’Anse aux Meadows show that they journeyed south of Newfoundland. What we don’t know is how far south they traveled—some writers feel that they sailed as far south as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Archaeological data confirming their southern journeys is difficult to find as it would be in the form of temporary campsites with no permanent structures.

While the sagas provide us with some possible clues about what might be locations of Norse sites in North America, there is also some puzzling information. The archaeological data from L’Anse aux Meadows and the saga’s description of Hop, sound as though there should be a Norse site along the Saint Lawrence River. However, the saga indicates that the Skraelings used hide-covered canoes, which may indicate Inuit craft from farther north. At the time of later European contact in the Saint Lawrence area, Native Americans were using dugout canoes and bark-covered canoes, but not hide-covered canoes. This may indicate: (1) that Native watercraft in that part of North America changed during the six centuries between initial Norse contact and later European contact; or (2) the Norse saga was mistaken about the covering used on the canoes.

 

Massachusetts Prior to 1620

It is not uncommon to encounter the assumption that the history of Massachusetts began with arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. However, Indians had lived in the area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. Furthermore, the Indians of Massachusetts had had contact with Europeans prior to 1620.

Possible Contacts

While the seventeenth century marks the beginning of the European invasion in Massachusetts, there are some possible interactions between Europeans and Indians prior to this. Many historians consider these earlier contacts to be unverified and dismiss these accounts. However, it should be noted that there was a time when some historians were skeptical about Viking settlements in North America, but current archaeological findings show that Viking contact was fairly frequent. There are archaeologically verified settlements in Newfoundland and archaeologist Birgitta Wallace, in her report in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga writes:

“From L’Anse aux Meadows, expeditions were launched to explore areas farther away. We have proof that they went south to warmer, more hospitable areas where butternuts grew on large trees and grapes grew wild, for the archaeological evidence is unequivocal.”

In 1002, a Viking group under the leadership of Thorvald, the brother of Leif Eriksson, named present-day Cape Cod Kiarlanes (Keel-Cape) because it looks like the keel of a ship. The group then arrived at a heavily wooded promontory. Here they found three Indian canoes camouflaged with brush. There was a conflict in which eight Indians were killed and Thorvald was wounded. His wound proved to be fatal and he was buried at a place which the Vikings call Krossanes (Cape of the Cross). Writer Leo Bonfanti, in his book Biographies and Legends of the New England Indians, reports:

“Since there are so many promontories, both large and small, along the New England coast, ‘Krossanes’ could be any one of them, for its exact location has never been determined.”

Early Contacts

In 1602, the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed at Cape Cod and traded with the Wampanoag. He reported that the Indians were in good health: they were free of epidemic diseases and they had good nutrition. When he returned to England he promoted the establishment of British colonies in the area.

The following year the English under the leadership of Martin Pring, built a palisaded trading camp at Cape Cod in Wampanoag territory. While the English entertained the Wampanoag with small gifts and guitar music, they also stole a large birchbark canoe. As a result, the relations between the English and the Indians deteriorated. The English fired their muskets and loosed mastiffs at Wampanoag warriors before abandoning the trading camp.

Pring reported that the Indians had gardens which were larger than an acre in size. He also described the large strawberries. His crew loaded sassafras to be sold in Europe as a high-priced medical panacea.

The theft of the canoe suggested to the Indians that the English were perhaps not honorable people and that their greed for material possessions was perhaps greater than the hospitality which they offered.

In 1605, French explorers led by Samuel de Champlain explored the Massachusetts coast. the explorers meet Indians in large dugout canoes, some of which carry 40 men.

Just north of the present-day city of Plymouth, the explorers were met by the Massachusett under the leadership of Honabetha. On the shore, Champlain admired the abundant crops of corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and Jerusalem artichokes which were being raised by the Indians. The Massachusett, on the other hand, were eager to obtain the French metal cooking pots and one sailor was killed for his pot.

In 1606, French explorers attempted to impress the Wampanoag in the village of Monomoy with their guns and swords. The French also erected a large cross as a symbol of their religious superiority. The Wampanoag response was to kill four of the landing party, tear down the cross, and jeer at the retreating French.

In 1611, English sea captains captured six Indians, including the Capawake sachem Epinow, at Martha’s Vineyard. Epinow was taken to England where he learned English language and culture. The English described him as “cunning” and “artful.”

In 1614, the English returned with Capawake sachem Epinow who was supposed to act as their guide and interpreter. Epinow, however, escaped from the ship by jumping into the water and swimming toward some Indian canoes. The Indians in the canoes fired a volley of arrows at the ship to aid his escape.

English Captain Thomas Hunt captured 26 Wampanoag, including a young man known as Squanto. The Indians were taken to Spain and sold as slaves. However, Squanto escaped and found his way to England where he learned to speak English.

Five years later, Squanto returned from England with Captain Thomas Dermer. He searched for his Wampanoag relatives and found that they had died in an epidemic.

Disease

Perhaps the greatest impact of the arrival of Europeans in Massachusetts came from the diseases which they brought with them. The diseases brought to this continent by the Europeans included bubonic plague, chicken pox, pneumonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. The native population lacked immunity to viruses and germs that had evolved in Europe. Consequently, Indians succumbed in large numbers.

In 1614, a series of three epidemics began to sweep through the Indian villages in Massachusetts. At least ten of the 40 Wampanoag villages had to be abandoned because there were no survivors. Wampanoag population decreased from 12,000 to 5,000. The Massachusett were nearly exterminated. Between 1616 and 1619, it is estimated that at least three fourths of the Indian population in Massachusetts died from European epidemic diseases. Some authorities estimate the death toll at 90%.

It is not known what the actual disease was that caused this epidemic. Various writers have suggested bubonic plague, smallpox, and hepatitis A. There is strong evidence supporting all of these theories.

The Pilgrims would later look upon these epidemics as evidence of God’s grace and His intention for them to occupy this country.

The Pilgrims

When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they encountered few living people but saw evidence of many Indian graves. In some instances, the Pilgrims opened the graves and stole the grave goods which they contained. In one instance, the Pilgrims steal two bearskins from the fresh grave of the mother of Massachusett leader Chickataubut.

In finding a place that looked like a grave covered with wooden boards, the Pilgrims dug and found several layers of household goods and personal possessions. They also found two bundles. In the smaller bundle they found the bones of a young child wrapped in beads and accompanied by a small bow. In the larger bundle they found the bones of a man. The man’s skull still had fine yellow hair and with the bone were a knife, a needle, and some metal items. Historian William Cronon, in his book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, reports:

“A blond European sailor, shipwrecked or abandoned on the Massachusetts coast, had lived as an Indian, had perhaps fathered an Indian child, and had been buried in an Indian grave.”

In another instance, the Pilgrims stumbled into a Nauset graveyard where they found baskets of corn which had been left as gifts for the deceased. As the Pilgrims were gathering this bounty for themselves, they were interrupted by a group of angry Nauset warriors. The Pilgrims retreated back to the Mayflower empty-handed.