It’s a well-known fact of history that the Vikings got around, both figuratively and literally. They reached distant lands, as far as Bagdad in the Middle East and Newfoundland in North America, and they tended to leave behind far more than their trade goods. Vikings, as we best understand them, were prolific progenitors all across the world. They took wives in distant lands, they sometimes brought those wives back to Scandinavia, but predominantly they left behind their genes where they roved. Considering all of this, one question about the American Vikings* remains an elusive mystery to us all: did they take Native American wives in North America?
To answer this question, it is essential to explore the evidence we have for Viking settlements in North America, as well as the sagas, which tell the story of the activities of the American Vikings. From the evidence, we may then deduce the plausibility of whether or not they took native brides.
*A quick note about nomenclature: throughout this article, I will be using the term “American Vikings” to describe the Greenland Norse who established colonies in the Americas. I have used the term interchangeably with “Greenlanders” and “Greenland Norse” in certain portions, particularly those where the Greenlanders were forced to abandon their colonization attempts. All of these terms refer to the same group of people who attempted to establish themselves on the American continent.
The American Vikings: Origins
The story of the American Vikings begins in Norway in the second half of the tenth century when a man named Thorvald found himself on the wrong side of the law. Little is known about what exactly he did to land himself in that position, but we do know it involved the killing of a few people. Thorvald fled into exile and moved to Iceland where he believed he would have a fresh start.
Thorvald found redemption in Iceland where he became a farmer and raised a family. After his death, his son Erik took charge of the farm. It did not take long for his likeness to his father to shine through. The Sagas of the Icelanders tell us this of Erik’s first run-in with the law:
Then did Eirik’s thralls cause a landslip on the estate of Valthjof, at Valthjofsstadr. Eyjolf the Foul, his kinsman, slew the thralls (slaves) beside Skeidsbrekkur (slopes of the race-course), above Vatzhorn. In return Eirik slew Eyjolf the Foul; he slew also Hrafn the Dueller, at Leikskalar (playbooths). Gerstein, and Odd of Jorfi, kinsman of Eyjolf, were found willing to follow up his death by a legal prosecution; and then was Eirik banished from Haukadalr.
Erik’s spat with his neighbor over a few slain slaves landed him in exile, just like his father. According to Icelandic law of the time, his property would be confiscated, and no one would be allowed to shelter him. Others could kill him without cause and with impunity. Interestingly, the court who decided his punishment for the murder of Eyjolf agreed against full outlawry; they instead sentenced him to a lesser sentence and ordered him to pay a fine and leave Iceland for at least three years. The lesser punishment allowed Erik to gather his property, family, and kinsman and move.
With no land and no option to return to Iceland or Norway, Erik had to find a new place for his family to live and thrive. He had heard through stories told in Iceland of a man named Gunnbjørn Ulfsson who, while sailing from Norway to Iceland, was blown off course. When Gunnbjørn finally arrived in Iceland, he reported having discovered a new land far in the north where none had ever before sailed. Left with few other options, Erik followed a rumor across the northern Atlantic and made landfall in what would one day be called Greenland.
According to Erik’s Saga, Erik spent three years exploring Greenland’s coastline. Having satisfied his sentence with Icelandic law, he returned to Iceland and reported what he had discovered. His saga reads:
“In the summer Eirik went to live in the land which he had discovered, and which he called Greenland, ‘Because,’ said he, ‘men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.’”
Thus began three centuries of colonization of Greenland by Scandinavians. It is from this colony that the first voyages to, and colonization attempts of, America got their start. The story of the Greenland colony is a fascinating one, but what is essential to understand for this article is that Scandinavians had colonized Greenland and began to push evermore West.
The First European Settlements in America
A few years later, a man named Bjarni Herjolfson set sail for Greenland to visit his father. He drifted off course and found himself a long way off from where he had intended to sail. When he corrected his course and continued along his journey, he spotted new land to the west, which he reported to the Greenlanders when he arrived. His accidental discovery inspired attempts by the Greenlanders to find and to explore the western lands. The Saga of the Greenlanders relates to us five separate voyages of discovery, led by Erik’s son Leif.
Leif Erikson is perhaps the most famous Viking Age Scandinavian of them all. He is credited with discovering the American continent centuries before Columbus and has earned a place in popular culture in both North America and Europe. For all the attention he receives, the Saga of Erik the Red gives him little credit. In contrast to the Saga of the Greenlanders, where Leif plays a central role, the Saga of Erik the Red condenses the account of the discovery of America into a single voyage and credits a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni with leading the expedition and with the discovery of Vinland, even though the first Greenlander to set foot in the Americas was Leif.
When the Greenlanders set sail for North America, they searched for ideal locations to establish a new colony. They named the places they found on their way in ways that have allowed historians to figure out their modern equivalents, and to piece together the trajectory of their voyage. For example, they named one place Helluland, or Land of Stone Slabs, which historians have associated with Baffin Island. Next, they discovered a land with thick forests of spruce and larch, which they called Markland, and further on they sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they discovered a land they called Vinland.
The Saga of the Greenlanders names only one settlement in America, Leifsbudir, or Leif’s camp. No one knows for sure where it was, but historians have placed the settlements of the American Vikings named by the Saga of Erik the Red. The first was Straumfjord, and it is the settlement mentioned in the sagas most likely to have been the one found in archeological digs in L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. A second settlement, called Hóp, was used transiently to launch expeditions for timber to ship home to Greenland.
L’Anse aux Meadows has proven an exceptionally rich archeological site that has greatly informed our understanding of the American Vikings. We know from the evidence that they brought cattle and other livestock, built houses made of turf, and had ironworks. Interestingly, no barns or structures for livestock have been found, which has led some historians to theorize that the settlements in North America were never meant to be permanent colonization, but rather a logging operation to send timber home to Greenland where there were no trees.
The sagas spend little time describing life in the North American settlement, but quickly move to describe the interactions between the Greenlanders and the Native Americans who already lived in the area. They called the natives “Skrælling,” and at first relations between them were amicable. It did not last.
The American Vikings’ Relations With the Skrælling Turns Sour.
Relations with the Skrælling began on as positive a note as one might have hoped at the time. The Saga of Erik the Red tells of a vast host of Skrælling in canoes who appeared near the Norse settlement of Hóp one morning to investigate them. The Greenlanders set up a market and traded cloth for pelts and other goods. All was well until one of the bulls, who roamed the grasslands freely with the other cattle, charged at some of the Skrælling and sent them running.
“Now it came to pass that a bull, which belonged to Karlsefni’s people, rushed out of the wood and bellowed loudly at the same time. The Skrælingar, frightened, rushed away to their canoes, and rowed south along the coast. There was then nothing seen of them for three weeks together.”
When the Skrælling returned, they attacked the Greenlanders with strange and frightening weapons. Caught off guard by the attack, the Greenlanders retreated. Sole Karlsefni’s wife, Freydis, stood her ground. She called out to the men and said, “Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are, when, as seems to me likely, you might slaughter them like so many cattle? Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you.”
She faced the Skrælling, pounded her breast with her sword, and sent them running for their canoes.
Eventually, the Greenlanders realized that they would not endure long with constant attacks from the Skrælling, so they abandoned the settlement of Hóp to return with their livestock to the main settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. It is here that the mention Greenlander-Skrælling interactions end in the Saga of Erik the Red, and the fate of the main settlement remains unknown.
Did the Vikings take Native American Wives?
The Saga of the Greenlanders mentions that the Vinland colony had a major demographic problem: most of those who moved there were men. With women in short supply, and considering the Vikings’ reputation for proactive procreation, it would not be a considerable stretch of the imagination to think that they may have satisfied their needs and desires with the locals. However, the evidence for Viking-Skrælling coupling is close to nil, and the accounts given in the sagas do not inspire confidence.
Let’s start first with the archeological evidence. At L’Anse aux Meadows, there is evidence of trade between the American Vikings and the Skrælling in the form of nuts that only exist many miles to the south. Perhaps the Greenlanders sailed further inland, but the more plausible explanation is that the natives traded the nuts for other goods. From an archeological perspective, there were Viking-Skrælling relations, the extent of which is unclear.
With little evidence archeologically, we must turn to the sagas for answers. Nowhere in the sagas is there any mention that a Greenlander took a Skrælling wife. We do, however, have some thin evidence on how the Greenlanders viewed the Skrællings. Recall the incident where the men fled a Skrælling attack, and the only one brave enough to face them was Freydis. She called the Skrælling “worthless creatures” which tells us that there may have been a measure of dehumanization propagated by the Greenlanders. More disturbing is the account in the Saga of Erik the Red where Greenlanders happened upon some sleeping Skrælling and just slaughtered them. If there is evidence for anything in the sagas, it’s that the Greenlanders were unequivocally hostile toward the Skrælling.
If there is no archeological evidence and no textual evidence in the primary sources, what was the point of going through the whole story of the American Vikings? A recent paper published by Agnar Helgason of deCODE Genetics and the University of Iceland turned up some surprising and controversial evidence that at least one Skrælling bride may have been brought back to Iceland. The proof is in the DNA of today’s Icelanders. The findings have sparked all manner of rumor and conspiracy theories, and have led to a lot of people asking the question: Did the Vikings take Native American Wives?
The study, which dates back to 2010, found 80 living Icelanders with a genetic marker that is only found in Native American populations. Agnar Helgason proposes that the variation began with a single woman who passed down the variant through the generations. Genetic testing is still in its infancy, and even Helgason admits that his findings are not concrete. In a 2010 National Geographic article, he explained, “It’s possible that the DNA variation came from mainland Europe, which had infrequent contact with Iceland in the centuries preceding 1700. But this would depend on a European, past or present, carrying the variation, which so far has never been found.”
There is no clear and straightforward answer to the question of whether the Vikings took Native American brides. To date, there is no evidence, genetic or otherwise, that any Greenlander DNA was passed along in Native American populations. What we can say is that from the archeological and textual evidence, there is no indication that this was the case. Especially in regards to the Sagas, it appears the Vikings had no interest in the natives except to slaughter them. Even if the recent genetic evidence proposed by Agnar Helgason proves correct — and it’s relatively shoddy evidence — it would only indicate that one Native American made it into the Icelandic gene pool, which would mean whatever the story, it was an isolated incident and does not constitute any trend.
Did the Vikings take Native American wives? For now, the answer is probably not. The answer could change, however, if new evidence emerges to prove otherwise. As always, check out my selected bibliography to find out more about the Vikings and their history.