Sailing from Greenland, a Viking cargo ship approaches the coast of Newfoundland in this illustration by Hervey Garrett Smith.

Vikings in North America? Here's what we really know

Viking sagas of transatlantic journeys have thrilled people for centuries. Historians are sorting fact from fiction—from accounts of clashes with the First Nations to where the Norse really settled.

Sailing from Greenland, a Viking cargo ship approaches the coast of Newfoundland in this illustration by Hervey Garrett Smith.
Hervey Garrett Smith/National Geographic Image Collection

Anyone standing today by the wind-swept shore of Epaves Bay at the northern tip of Newfoundland might find it hard to comprehend the enormity of the modest archaeological site that extends around them. Here, at L’Anse aux Meadows—the name is probably a garbled reference to an old French naval vessel—lies what is still the only known Norse settlement in North America. A few humps and bumps in the grass, a replica building, and a fine museum mark the point of first contact between human populations across the Atlantic. It is an astonishing place, but its significance was only recognized in relatively recent decades.

Until as late as the 1960s, the Viking adventure in North America was known only second-hand from the Icelandic sagas, the great epic tales that form one of the jewels of northern medieval literature. These stories mostly concern the Viking age of roughly A.D. 750-1050, but they were written down hundreds of years later, primarily in the 13th century. The degree to which they preserve genuine memories of the saga-writers’ ancestors, or whether they are more a form of historical fiction, still divides scholars today. The entire narrative of Norse voyages to North America is contained in just two of these texts, the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga saga) and the Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).

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Sagas and sources

Although the two sagas describe events in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, they are preserved as separate collections of shorter tales in very late medieval manuscripts. The Saga of Erik the Red is generally agreed to be originally a 13th-century composition, but there is disagreement as to the date of the Saga of the Greenlanders—some scholars argue for the early 1200s, while others go as late as the 14th century.

This dispute aside, both sagas tell the story of an unknown country west of Greenland, found by ships blown off course, with exploring expeditions and the brief settlement that follows. In fact, the two sagas frequently contradict each other, with different versions of who first sighted land, who was the first to sail there, and even the number of separate voyages involved.

The route they took, however, is clear in both sources: west from Greenland for two days to a country of flat stones that the Norse called Helluland (probably Baffin Island), then south past a long stretch of coastal forests and pristine beaches they called Markland (probably Labrador), and then finally to Vinland, the“land of [wild] vines.” Its location is never entirely clear, not least whether it refers to Newfound- land or—more likely—to somewhere farther west or south.

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In the Saga of the Greenlanders, the picture is credible in its complexity and involves multiple journeys to Vinland. Acting on the reports of one Bjarni Herjólfsson, who finds the new land but does not go ashore, the first landfall is made by one of the most famous individuals of the late Viking age: Leif Eriksson, aka Leif the Lucky. He founds a settlement called Leifsbuðir, “Leif’s houses,”which he then lends out to subsequent travelers. 

There are several voyages mentioned after Leif’s: first by his brother Thorvald, who remains there for three winters; then a major effort at settlement by the prosperous trader Thorfinn Karlsefni (Karlsefni, a nickname, means something like “a real man”) and his wife Gudríd Thorbjarnardóttir; and finally a voyage jointly led by Leif’s sister, Freydís, and two partners who were brothers.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, which seems to have been written slightly later, all this is compressed into a single Vinland voyage. This time it is Leif himself who first sights Vinland, but does not go ashore. Instead, the attempt at settlement is entirely by Thorfinn and Gudríd, who bring three ships with 160 settlers. This time two camps are mentioned, an overwintering site called Straumfjord and a longer-lasting place called Hop.

It is not hard to combine the two sagas into a tale of several voyages with a more or less reliable cast of characters. It seems likely that the Norse established themselves in more than one place, perhaps making one substantial settlement with temporary way stations set up as they explored further.

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All the stories are vivid and rich with detail, human drama, and description, but one thing shines through to modern eyes: That this was no “discovery,” because Vinland was already inhabited. In both sagas, the Norse repeatedly encounter local people whom they call Skraelingar, a derogatory term meaning something like “savages.”

In the Erik saga, the two groups initially trade in peace before violence eventually breaks out over a misunderstanding; in the Greenlanders version, there is lethal conflict from the start. There are deaths on both sides, and a common theme is that the Norse are ultimately forced to flee because of the indigenous resistance to their presence.

From the literary record, it appears that the Norse community in Vinland was quite short-lived, a few years at most. It quickly became only a memory preserved by the Greenlanders, which eventually found its way into the Icelandic sagas.

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Facts on the ground

Archaeological finds have corroborated the sagas’ accounts of a short-lived Norse settlement in North America. The new finds are shedding light on which aspects of the sagas have a basis in historical reality, and which, perhaps, do not. The breakthrough came in the discovery of the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada by the Norwegian wife-and-husband team of Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad in 1960.

The Norse dwellings uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows are modest: eight buildings of turf, clustered in three groups. Excavations at the site, undertaken first by the Ingstads, and later by Birgitta Linderoth Wallace and others, identified workshops and a smithy located at a distance from the other structures (both for access to running water and to minimize the risk of fire). One might be a boat shed, and there is clear evidence for woodworking and ship repair.

Two finds above all confirm the site as Norse: A ringed cloak pin of a classic type, and a steatite spindle whorl. There is also a bone needle, jasper fire-starters that probably came from Greenland or Iceland, and wood debitage (material produced in the process of whittling or carving) that has been worked with metal tools.

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The site has excellent sea views and access to marine resources, especially rich cod fisheries and eider colonies. It was the perfect place on the southward coastal route of ships coming from Greenland, at the point where they could then sail on in several directions. Perhaps a hundred people could have lived there, or a little more—a number that fits quite well with the saga descriptions. The settlement could easily survive the winters, with its familiar windproof and insulated architecture adapted to the North Atlantic.

It seems almost certain that L’Anse aux Meadows was not the only Norse settlement in North America; too many aspects of the site argue against it being the sole foothold: Where, for example, are the burials, or the evidence for animal husbandry? The sagas mention livestock, but if true, there is no sign of them on this site. Archaeologists and others have long looked for more sites of this kind, but nothing has been confirmed so far. 

A few years ago, hopes were briefly raised with some promising signs from Point Rosee, in an approximately equivalent location to L’Anse aux Meadows but on the southwest coast. Sadly, further fieldwork confirmed that all features on the site were natural, and the search for an elusive second site continues.

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Most scholars think it likely that L’Anse aux Meadows was a long-term base camp: a place to rest up, to resupply and provision, and to prepare for the winter ahead. In the spring and summer, expeditions could have set out to explore, looking for trade items, including exotic foods like butternuts, and perhaps above all for timber to fell—a vital commodity in the treeless landscapes of Greenland and Iceland. Permanent settlement does not seem to have been an objective of these Norse explorers.

First Nations

It is clear that L’Anse aux Meadows was also intermittently occupied by indigenous peoples. They were there before the newcomers, and they returned afterward. The Norse buildings were destroyed by fire, but it is not clear who did this. Was it the last of the voyagers as they sailed away, or an entirely different act by the local people? These indigenous peoples are believed to be the ancestors of the Beothuk, though this is unconfirmed. Today they are visible only in fragmentary glimpses in the sagas and a few objects recovered from the excavations.

The presence of the First Nations people is felt in other ways too. A Norseman buried in Greenland was found to still have a stone arrowhead in his body. He must at least have lived long enough to make it home. Fur from the North American bison, a plains species not native to Newfoundland, has been found in another Greenland grave. The pelt’s presence is evidence for trade over long distances. 

Most dramatically, a coin minted for King Olaf III Haraldsson of Norway in the late 11th century was found on a Native American settlement in Maine that was occupied more than a hundred years later. The coin was much eroded and pierced for suspension as a pendant. Who knows how many hands it passed through, and for how long, to get there?

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Traces of Vinland

Norse sagas that describe these North American voyages are unclear about dates, and, of course, they were composed centuries after the events they claim to relate. There is a general consensus that the action takes place sometime either side of the year 1000. The earliest secure reference to Vinland—with confirmation that the name related to wild grapes—comes from the 1070s, when it was mentioned in passing by the German cleric Adam of Bremen in his ecclesiastical history.

Interestingly, he describes it as an island, notes that it was a place “visited by many” and that he had heard about it from “the reliable reports of the Danes.” Since the majority of the North Atlantic voyagers seem to have come from Iceland and Greenland, this report implies that a basic knowledge of a land across the Atlantic was fairly widespread in northern Europe within decades of the first Norse landfall.

Until recently, the archaeological material from L’Anse aux Meadows had only a broad chronology, with objects of general late Viking-age type and a radiocarbon date range from about 990 to 1050. However, in 2021, a remarkable study by Margot Kuitems and colleagues was published in the journal Nature, detailing the use of a new kind of radiocarbon calibration based on spikes in solar radiation, which meant objects could be dated to exact years. Several pieces of wood relating to the Norse occupation were all shown to have been cut in the same year: A.D. 1021, a decade or so later than the previous best estimate, though it is not too far off from the sagas. It is wise not to become too fixated with this precise year. Clearly it marks a period of major activity on the site, but it may have been established earlier, and can equally have been reoccupied afterward.

Something of this intermittent nature has been revealed in studies by Paul Ledger and colleagues, analyzing samples from a peat bog near the site. Telltale organic matter (which archaeologists call “ecofacts”) and cultural deposits suggest that the Norse occupation may have lasted well over a century, though not continuously. Indigenous occupation spans an even longer period, and it is possible that the area may at times have been a shared place of interaction.

This idea aligns well with an Icelandic annal that refers to Norse ships collecting timber in Markland as late as the year 1347, an activity that was apparently thought unremarkable. In an exciting development, the same region, rendered as Marckalada, was recently identified by Paolo Chiesa in the Cronica universalis, a Milanese work from about 1340. Clearly, rumors of a place west of Greenland really had reached the Mediterranean world, 150 years before Christopher Columbus went west.

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There is no doubt whatsoever that the Vikings journeyed to North America in the early 11th century, and made a major camp in northern Newfoundland. They probably sailed to unknown lands beyond, still to be explored. Equally certain is that there is also a First Nations story of this encounter, and this too may one day emerge from the archaeological record.

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