In the first decade of the 11th century, several Nordic adventurers were said to have led expeditions to North America. Leif Eiriksson was reportedly the first of these explorers to set foot in the New World, setting up his camp somewhere on the southeastern Canadian coast, presumably in the vicinity of Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. Leif was lucky in picking the location of his camp, for he was apparently far enough away from native settlements to preclude any aggression from the locals. Instead, Leif Eiriksson gathered exotic North American merchandise in peace, and then set sail back to Greenland to sell his wares and tell tales about his adventure. Other adventurers who followed Leif Eiriksson’s stead in the early 11th century had less luck avoiding the natives of North America. Among these later adventurers was Thorfinn Karlsefni, leader of one of the more ambitious expeditions to the land that Leif called Vinland.
From the loose timeline that can be formed from Icelandic sagas and folkloric tradition, the expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni can be dated to around 1003-1006 or 1007-1009. As the story goes, Thorfinn and his new wife, Gudrid, led a large group of people to the New World, hoping to start a settlement or trading hub. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, sixty-five people were said to have signed up for Thorfinn’s expedition. Eirik the Red’s Saga, however, claimed that Thorfinn Karlsefni’s crew was only the leading piece of a larger effort, with the total number of settlers being 140 people divided between three ships.
Stocked with supplies and some livestock, Thorfinn Karlsefni and the expedition members set sail for North America. Wind and waves did little to hamper the sailors as they made their way to the New World, and the crews soon found themselves sailing along the coast of the vast lands that Leif had enthusiastically described. Thorfinn Karlsefni decided to make his camp at a spot dominated by grassy fields, which eventually gave way to deer-filled forests, crisscrossed by streams full of fish. The site, with its access to resources from the plains, forests and water, was a perfect location for settlement—as such, the region was already settled by the North American natives, and these locals were curious and concerned about the new foreign presence sailing up to their shore.
After observing the Nordic settlers for a time, the natives eventually made contact. Arriving by boat or on foot, bands of natives peacefully approached Thorfinn Karlsefni’s settlement. Although there was a language barrier, the two peoples were able to create a limited level of communication through hand signals and other means. Using diligent pointing and gesturing, the natives and settlers began bartering. According to the sagas, the natives often brought animal pelts, which the Greenlanders took in exchange for dairy products and cloth.
Milk and its derivative products were allegedly a great hit with the locals near Thorfinn’s settlement. Yet, despite enjoying the byproducts of the settlers’ livestock, the natives reportedly found the actual animals brought by the Greenlanders to be incredibly bizarre and frightening. In particular, an ornery bull belonging to Thorfinn Karlsefni was said to have been the thing of nightmares for native traders who saw it. Thorfinn and the settlers made note of that fear, and their perceptiveness would be helpful when the good relations between natives and foreigners inevitably broke down.
Why the settlers and the natives began fighting varies from tale to tale. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, hostilities erupted after one of the native traders was killed in a bartering dispute. Eirik the Red’s Saga, in contrast, curiously placed blame on the ill-tempered bull, saying that the beast so frightened and outraged the natives that they rallied an army and attacked the settlement to rid the world of the horned devil and its owners.
According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the bull would play a pivotal role in the battle. Knowing that the natives feared the creature, Thorfinn Karlsefni reportedly had the bull dragged into battle. As the story goes, he lured the native forces into a natural bottleneck, with water on one side and dense forest on the other. When the native force advanced through this carefully chosen narrow corridor, Thorfinn prodded the bull forward and sent it charging against the army of locals. As much of the cloth traded to the natives by the settlers had been red, the previous bartering perhaps made the bull’s rampage all the more effective. Seizing the momentum, the Greenlanders readied their weapons and followed the bull’s wake of carnage into battle. Thorfinn Karlsefni, with his Viking Age weaponry and rampaging bull, won the skirmish and forced the natives to retreat. Yet, the Greenlanders now found the atmosphere in Vinland to be too hostile for a long-term settlement and, after filling their ships with North American goods, they decided to set sail back to Greenland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Vinland Sagas (Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga) translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.