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Leif Ericson
About 1000

      The story of the Finding of Wineland the Good is contained, in somewhat differing versions, in two parchment books, the one belonging to the first, and the other to the last, quarter of the fourteenth century. Both agree in attributing the discovery to Leif the Lucky, the son of Eric the Red; though the Flatey Book says that he was induced to undertake this voyage by a certain Bjarne Herjulfson, who, having been driven out of his course by storms, had seen strange lands, but had not explored them.

      Leif's father, Eric the Red, was, like most Norsemen of his day, an unruly and turbulent man, whose sword sat loosely in its sheath. He was born about the middle of the tenth century at Jaederen, in Norway, but was outlawed on account of a manslaughter, and set sail for Iceland, where he married a certain Thorhild, the daughter of Jorund and Thorbjorg the Ship-chested. But the same high temper and quarrelsome spirit which had compelled him to leave Norway got him into trouble also in his new home. He was forced by blood-feuds and legal acts of banishment to change his abode repeatedly, and finally he was declared an outlaw. Knowing that his life was forfeited, Eric, as a last desperate chance, equipped a ship, and sailed "in search of that land which Gunbjoern, the son of Ulf the Crow, had seen when he was driven westward across the main;" and promised, in case he found it, to return and apprise his friends of the discovery. Fortune favored him, and he found a great, inhospitable continent, which (in order to allure colonists) he called Greenland; "for," he said, "men would be more easily persuaded thither, if the country had a good name." He landed in three or four places, but, being dissatisfied, broke up and started in search of more favorable localities. At the end of three years he returned to Iceland fought his foes and was defeated, but finally succeeded, by the backing of friends, in effecting a reconciliation with them. He spent the winter in Iceland, and sailed the following spring for Greenland, where he settled at a place called Brattahlid (Steep Lea) in Ericsfirth. Thirty-five ship-loads of people followed him, but only fourteen arrived safely. The remainder were shipwrecked, or driven back to Iceland.

      The interest now shifts from Eric to his son, Leif the Lucky, who becomes the hero of the Saga. Sixteen years after his father's settlement in Greenland, Leif, as behooved the son of a chieftain, equipped a ship and set out to see the world, and gather fortune and experience. He must then have been between twenty and twenty-five years old. He arrived in Drontheim, Norway, in the autumn, and met there King Olaf Tryggveson. The king, who had been baptized in England, was full of zeal for the Christian faith, and was employing every means in his power to christianize the country. But the peasantry, who were worshippers of Odin and Thor, refused to listen to him, and even compelled him to eat horse-flesh and participate in pagan rites. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that he took kindly to the handsome young Icelander who displayed such an interest in the new religion, and listened attentively while the king expounded the faith to him. For Leif was a courteous and intelligent man, of fine presence, good address, and indomitable spirit. The king, says the Saga, "thought him a man of great accomplishments." It was not long before he concluded to accept Christianity, whereupon he was baptized, with all his shipmates. King Olaf then charged him to return to Iceland and induce the people to abandon idolatry and accept the true faith. Leif, knowing how deeply attached the Icelanders were to their old gods, was very reluctant to undertake this mission, but finally yielded to the king's persuasions, "provided the king would grant him the grace of his protection."

Leif Ericson off the Coast of Vineland.

      He accordingly put to sea; but encountered heavy weather and was driven out of his course. For a long while he was tossed about by the tempest, until he came upon "lands of which he had previously no knowledge. There were self-sown wheat-fields and vines growing there. There were also those trees which are called masur (maples?). And of all these things they took samples."

      The other version to which I have alluded is much more explicit, and recounts how Leif went to Greenland to visit his father, Eric the Red, and how there he heard the account of Bjarne Herjulfson's voyage, and of the unknown lands to the westward which he professed to have seen. The people, we read, blamed Bjarne for his lack of enterprise in failing to explore the territories of which he had caught glimpses, "so as to be able to bring some report of them." Leif, being of an adventurous spirit, was fired by this talk, and resolved to accomplish what the incurious Bjarne had left undone. He gathered together a crew of thirty-five men, and invited his father to command the expedition. Eric at first declined, saying that he was well stricken in years, and unable to endure the exposure of such a voyage. Leif insisted, however, that "he would be most apt to bring good luck," and the old man, yielding to his son's solicitation, mounted his horse and rode forth at the head of the ship-crew. But when he was nearing the beach, the horse stumbled and Eric was thrown and wounded his foot. This was held to be a bad omen, and as he was trying to rise, he exclaimed:

      "It is not destined that I shall discover any more lands than the one in which we are now living; nor can we now continue longer together."

      Leif, knowing persuasion to be vain, pursued his way alone, and embarked with his thirty-five shipmates.

      "When they were ready, they sailed out to sea and found first that land which Bjarne and his shipmates found last."

      It is not stated how long they had been at sea when this land was found. The account goes on as follows:

      "They sailed up to the land and cast anchor, and launched a boat and went ashore, and saw no grass there. Great ice mountains lay inland, back from the sea, and it was as a [table land of] flat rocks all the way from the sea to the ice mountains; and the country seemed to them to be entirely devoid of good qualities. Then said Leif: 'It has not come to pass with us in regard to this land as with Bjarne, that we have not gone upon it. To this country I will now give a name and call it Helluland' (i.e., The Land of Flat Rocks).

      "They returned to the ship and put out to sea, and found a second land. They sailed again to the land, came to anchor, launched a boat, and went ashore. This was a level wooded land, and there were broad stretches of white sand, where they went, and the land was level by the sea. Then said Leif: 'This land shall have a name according to its nature, and we will call it Markland' (i.e., Wood Land). They returned to the ship forthwith and sailed away upon the main, with northeast winds, and were out two 'doegr' before they sighted land. They sailed toward this land and came to an island which lay to the northward off the land. There they went ashore and looked about them, the weather being fine, and they observed that there was dew upon the grass; and it so happened that they touched the dew with their hands, and touched their hands to their mouths; and it seemed to them that they had never tasted anything so sweet as this. They went aboard their ship again, and sailed into a certain sound, which lay between the island and a cape which jutted out from the land on the north, and they stood in westering past the cape. At ebb-tide there were broad stretches of shallow water there, and they ran their ship aground; and it was a long distance from the ship to the ocean. Yet were they so anxious to go ashore that they could not wait until the tide should rise under their ship, but hastened to the land, where a certain river flows out from a lake. As soon as the tide rose beneath their ship, however, they took the boat and rowed to the ship, which they towed up the river, and then into the lake, where they cast anchor and carried their hammocks ashore, and built themselves booths there. They afterward determined to establish themselves there for the winter, and they accordingly built a large house. There was no lack of salmon either in the river or in the lake, and larger salmon than they had ever seen before. The country thereabouts seemed to be possessed of such good qualities that cattle would need no fodder there during the winter. There was no frost there during the winter, and the grass withered but little. The days and the nights were of more nearly equal length than in Greenland or Iceland."

      Now follows an account of the exploring parties which Leif sent out, some of which he joined, while at other times he remained behind to guard the house. Here occurs, with curious abruptness, this graphic bit of characterization: "Leif was a large and powerful man, and of most imposing bearing, a man of sagacity, and a very just man in all things."

      A very pretty incident is now related of the German Tyrker, who had been one of the thralls of Eric the Red, and of whom Leif was very fond. It was the custom in the households of Norse chiefs to give children into the special charge of a trusted thrall, who was then styled the child's foster-father. Sometimes the thrall was presented to the child as a "tooth-gift," i.e., in commemoration of its cutting its first tooth.

      "It was discovered one evening that one of their company was missing; and this proved to be Tyrker, the German. Leif was sorely troubled by this; for Tyrker had lived with Leif and his father for a long time, and had been very devoted to Leif when he was a child. Leif severely reprimanded his companions and prepared to go in search of him. They had proceeded but a short distance from the house when they were met by Tyrker, whom they received most cordially. Leif observed at once that his foster-father was in lively spirits.... Leif addressed him and asked: 'Wherefore art thou so belated, foster-father mine, and astray from the others?'

      "In the beginning Tyrker spoke for some time in German, rolling his eyes, and grinning, and they could not understand him. But after a time he addressed them in the Norse tongue.

      "'I did not go much farther [than you]; yet I have something novel to relate. I have found grapes and vines.'

      "'Is this indeed true, foster-father?' asked Leif.

      "'Of a certainty it is true' replied he; 'for I was born where there is no lack of either grapes or vines.'

      "They slept the night through, and on the morrow Leif said to his shipmates:

      "'We will now divide our labors; and each day will either gather grapes, or cut vines, or fell trees, so as to obtain a cargo of these for my ship.'

      "They acted upon this advice, and it is said that their after-boat was filled with grapes. A cargo sufficient for the ship was cut, and when the spring came they made their ship ready and sailed away. And from its products Leif gave the land a name and called it Wineland.

      "They sailed out to sea and had fair winds until they sighted Greenland, and the fells below the glacier; then one of the men spoke up and said: 'Why do you steer the ship so close to the wind?' Leif answered: 'I have my mind upon my steering and upon other matters as well. Do you not see anything out of the common?' They replied that they saw nothing unusual. 'I do not know,' says Leif, 'whether it is a ship or a skerry that I see.' Now they saw it, and said that it must be a skerry. But he was so much more sharp-sighted than they, that he was able to discern men upon the skerry. 'I think it best to tack,' says Leif, 'so that we may draw near to them and be able to render them assistance, if they stand in need of it. And if they should not be peaceably disposed, we shall have better command of the situation than they.'

      "They approached the skerry, and lowering their sail, cast anchor and launched a second small boat, which they had brought with them. Tyrker inquired who was the leader of the party. He replied that his name was Thare, and that he was a Norwegian. 'But what is thy name?' Leif gave his name. 'Art thou a son of Eric the Red, of Brattahlid?' says he. Leif replied that he was. 'It is now my wish,' Leif continued, 'to take you all into my ship, and likewise as much of your possessions as the ship will hold.'

      "This offer was accepted, and [with their ship] thus laden, they held their course toward Ericsfirth, and sailed until they arrived at Brattahlid. Having discharged his cargo, Leif invited Thare, with his wife, Gudrid, and three others to make their home with him, and procured quarters for the other members of the crew, both for his own and Thare's men. Leif rescued fifteen men from the skerry. He was from that time forth called Leif the Lucky."

      The time of Leif's voyage to Wineland has been fixed at 1000 a.d. For we learn that it took place while Olaf Tryggveson (995-1000 a.d.) was king in Norway; and scarcely less than four or five years could have elapsed since Leif's first meeting with the king in Drontheim, shortly after the death of his predecessor, Earl Hakon.

      The remainder of the Saga of Eric the Red is occupied with an account of the successive Wineland voyages of Thorwald Ericson, the brother of Leif, Thorfinn Karlsefne, and of Leif's sister, Freydis, who was as quarrelsome, proud, and pugnacious as her father. The Indians (called by the Norsemen Skrellings), who had failed to disturb Leif, made demonstrations of hostility against Thorfinn Karlsefne, and after the loss of several of his men, compelled him to abandon the attempt at a permanent settlement.

      The tradition of these Wineland voyages continued, however, to be transmitted from generation to generation in Iceland, and in the early part of the fourteenth century was committed to writing.

      It will be seen that the saga to which I have referred was not written primarily with a view to establish Leif's claim to be the discoverer of Wineland. In the first place the story, in the shape in which we have it, is more than a century and a half older than the Columbian discovery, and there could, accordingly, be no great glory in having found a country which had since been lost. Secondly, the saga is (like most Icelandic sagas) a family chronicle, purporting to relate all matters of interest pertaining to the race of Eric the Red. The Wineland voyages are treated as remarkable incidents in this chronicle, but they hardly occupy any more space than properly belongs to them in a family history which is concerned with a great many other things besides. The importance of this as corroborating the authenticity of the narrative, can scarcely be over-estimated.

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