ALMOST nine hundred years ago, a famous Norwegian sailor named Eric--called Eric the Red because he had red hair and florid complexion--settled in Iceland, the northern shores of which touch the Arctic Circle. Whilst he was on a voyage westward from that far north country, he discovered Greenland and made it his home. His son Lief, an ambitious young man, wished to become a discoverer, like his father. He bought a ship--one of those queer little Norwegian vessels which were moved some-times by sails and sometimes by oars. They were used by those old Sea-kings, as they were called, of Northern Europe, who spread terror by their piracies over the British Islands and the coasts of Western Europe from the Rhine to the Straits of Gibraltar, more than a thousand years ago.
Lief's ship was stout and tight. She had made many voyages safely. He furnished her with twenty-five strong men, and invited his father to go with him as the commander. Eric thought himself too old for such an undertaking, but was persuaded to go. Embracing his younger sons Thorwald and Thorstein, and his fiery daughter Freydisa, he bade them farewell, mounted his horse and rode toward the ship. The animal stumbled. Eric thought it was an omen of evil. "I do not believe it is given to me to discover any more lands, and here I will abide," said the old navigator, and he returned to his house.
Lief and his companions sailed southwesterly. It was in the early summer of the year of our Lord 1002. They were soon fighting the storms and waves of the North Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Labrador, and were sometimes chilled by slow-drifting icebergs. At length they saw land. It was flat and stony near the shore, with high snow-capped mountains a little back from the sea. They did not land, but sailing southward they soon came to another country, flat, and covered thickly with woods. It had a broad beach of white sand sloping gently to the sea. The adventurers anchored their little ship, went on shore, and fed themselves with sweet berries. A few hours later they sailed away southward.
These bold seamen soon came in sight of another land. It was hilly--gently so--and mostly covered with trees. Its northerly shores were sheltered by an island. They found there an abundance of small fruits, delicious to the taste. No traces of human beings were found excepting some burnt wood and the bones of large fishes: and no sounds were heard but the songs of birds and the chirping of squirrels. Charmed by the soft climate, they sought a harbor, and found one at the mouth of a river where the vessel was swept by the tide into a bay. The waters were filled with the finest salmon, and wild deer abounded in the woods. The days and nights were nearly equal in length, at first. As they remained all winter, they noticed that when the days were the shortest, the sun rose at half-past seven o'clock and set at half-past four o'clock.
A young German of Lief's company, who was Eric's servant, was missing one day. They searched for him in all directions. He had wandered deep into the forest, and when they found him he was full of joy because he had discovered grapes, delicious and abundant, such as grew in his own country. So Lief named the country Vincland. He and his company built huts and wintered there, and in the spring they returned to Greenland. Eric had lately died, and Lief, his eldest son, came into the possession of his estate and patriarchal office. Eric's family were Christians, but Eric died a pagan.
Thorwald, Lief's younger brother, bought the good ship and, with thirty companions, sailed for Vineland. They passed the winter there, occupying the huts built by Lief and his companions, and subsisting as they had done, upon fish. In the spring, Thorwald and a part of his company explored the neighboring coasts, finding many sandy islands, on which there were no traces of wild beasts and few of human beings. The summer was spent in these explorations, and the next was passed at their old quarters in Vineland. Other explorations were made the following summer, by the whole company. In the early autumn they entered a large inlet. There were high lands on each side, thickly wooded. "Here," said Thorwald, "is a goodly place; here I will make my abode." They found there some natives--dusky people, of small stature, like the Esquimaux of Greenland. They were in canoes, and were timid and harmless. The Northmen caught them and cruelly put them to death, excepting one who escaped to the hills and aroused his countrymen. The angry Indians went silently in their canoes and surprised Thorwald and his company. A sharp fight ensued. Arrows flew thick and fast. Thorwald was mortally wounded, but his companions escaped unhurt. The Indians fled to the wooded hills, and Thorwald's companions buried the body of their chief on the promontory where he intended to settle, with a cross at its head and another at its feet. The survivors passed the winter in Vineland, in mortal fear of the enraged Indians, and in the spring they returned to Greenland.
Thorstein, Eric's third son, on hearing of the death of his brother, sailed for Vineland, with twenty-five companions and his young wife, Gudrida, a beautiful blonde, to whom he had been married only a few weeks. Adverse winds drove their little vessel on a desolate shore of Greenland, far up the eastern border of Baffin's Bay. There the company suffered dreadfully, and were compelled to stay until spring. A contagious disease broke out among them, and Thorstein and a greater portion of his companions perished. Sadly the young wife carried home the body of her husband. So died two of the brave sons of the valiant Eric the Red, leaving their wayward sister, Freydisa, alone with Lief.
During the next summer, a rich citizen of Norway, young and comely, arrived in Greenland. His name was Thorfin. He saw and loved Gudrida, and demanded her in marriage, of Lief, her patriarchal brother-in-law. They were wedded; and the Norwegian, accompanied by his bride and five other young women with their husbands and other men, sailed for Vineland, to plant a colony there. They landed near the spot where Lief had passed the winter. Upon the shore, with the little Norwegian vessel anchored near, that company of sturdy emigrants presented a picturesque group. Thorfin, stout, but not very tall, was clad, on that occasion, we may imagine, in the costume of the Norwegian nobility. If so, over his linen shirt he probably wore a dark woolen tunic that descended to the knees, with long sleeves reaching to the wrists. The borders of the skirt, the collar, and the ends of the sleeves were ornamented with various colored cloth in a variety of devices. Around his waist was a girdle or belt of dressed leather, ornamented with bosses of silver and gold; and over all was a short cloak of rich stuff made of silk and woolen, of a purple color, fastened to his shoulder by a brooch of gold and precious stones. His legs were covered with white hose, bandaged with crossed fillets of gay colors from the ankle to the knee; and on his feet were black buskins, open in front, and secured by thongs of silk, with tasseled ends depending from the top of the shoe. His long, dark wavy hair fell upon his back and shoulders, and his flowing beard covered his bosom.
The beautiful Gudrida, tall and slender but muscular and lithe, stood by the side of Thorfin, whilst he audibly thanked God for their deliverance from the perils of the waters; and near them in the shadows of great trees were gathered the rest of the company, silently uniting in the thanksgiving. Gudrida, we may imagine, was dressed in a manner befitting the rank of her husband. She might have worn, in the costume of that day in Norway, a white linen tunic that descended to the instep. Over this a black grown of silk reaching only to the knees, with short flowing sleeves that left half the arm bare below the elbow, and clasped by a golden bracelet. A broad band of gold embroidery extended from the waist to the lower edge and around the bottom of the gown, and also around the edges of the sleeves; and over all hung gracefully a gray woolen mantle of fine and light texture, fastened at the throat with a brooch of gold and pearls. It hung in graceful folds to her waist, in front, and behind as low as the gown. Upon her head was a veil or hood of silk, loosely and tastefully arranged over the portion back of the ears, and falling in folds upon her shoulders and bosom. In front of this hood hung her beautiful auburn hair in a rich profusion of curls and ringlets. On her feet were black buskins, their open fronts laced with silken cords, showing her white hose.
Thorfin remained with the colony in Vineland about three years, when he and Gudrida, with a part of the company, sailed for Norway, with specimens of fruits and furs which they had gathered in the new country. After making several voyages Thorfin settled in Iceland, where he built a fine mansion, and lived in a style unrivalled by the richest chieftain in that country. There Thorfin died. Gudrida, who had become the mother of a son, whilst she was in Vineland, then went with her boy, on a pilgrimage to Rome, where she told the stories of the adventurers in the ears of Pope Benedict. After her return, she entered a convent. Her son, whose name was Snorre, became, in time, master of his father's estates, and the ancestor of a long line of descendants. Among these was Albert Thorwaldsen, the great Danish sculptor of our day.
Those of Thorfin's colony who remained in Vineland, were joined by two brothers, named Helgi and Fiombogi, with about thirty followers. They were Icelandic chieftains, who fitted out their expedition in Greenland. Freydisa, the daughter of Eric the Red, obtained a willing permission to go with them, and share in the profits of the voyage. She was an artful, intriguing, deceitful and fiery-tempered woman, and Lief and his family hoped she would remain in Vineland and be decently buried there. She was a fury and a firebrand among the colonists. Where peace had reigned she enthroned discord. Quarrels ensued which ended in a fight and the death of thirty persons. Then Freydisa, finding her own life in peril, returned to Greenland, where she died universally detested.
Such is the substance of the accounts of these adventurers, given in the chronicles of Iceland. They reveal the fact that Norwegians discovered America almost five hundred years before Columbus sailed westward from Spain, in search of India. The stony land with the snow-capped mountains was, doubtless, Labrador. The flat, wooded land, with its white beach, must have been Newfoundland; and the time given of the rising and the setting of the sun at the winter solstice--the shortest day at about Christmas time--indicates some point on the New England coast between Boston harbor and Narragansett bay, as the spot where the German lad discovered the grapes, and Lief named the country Vincland.
Where Thorwald was buried, or where Thorfin and Gudrida landed and lived, nobody knows. The best informed students of the subject believe it to have been on Rhode Island, and that the mysterious stone tower at Newport, with its massive cylindrical walls resting on seven columns, whose foundation stones are wrought spheres, was built by these Norwegian colonists. It was there when the English settlers came, and the Indians had no knowledge of its origin. If the Northmen did not build it, who did? Perhaps Gudrida's son was born there. Who knows?
All positive traces of that colony in America, after the departure of Freydisa, are lost. Icelandic histories called Sagas, and poems called Eddas, give us glimpses of it for a few years, when it fades into utter forgetfulness. These histories and poems tell us that a navigator named Gudlief made a trading voyage from Iceland to Ireland at about the year of our Lord 1030. Whilst he was sailing along the western shores of Iceland, a strong wind blew his ship far into the Atlantic Ocean toward the southwest. After many days he and his crew saw land, anchored their ship in a safe harbor, and were made prisoners by dark-colored people who came from the woods in great numbers. Their captors took them into the forest, where they were met by a white chieftain who spoke to them in Icelandic, and procuring their release, advised them to depart immediately, for the dark people were cruel to strangers. He refused to tell them his name, but inquired after Snorre and other well-known persons in Iceland. Taking a gold ring from his finger, he asked Gudlief to present it to Thurida, Snorre's sister. Gudlief bore the jewel to the daughter of Gudrida. It was believed that the white chief was Bjorn, a famous Icelandic bard, who had been a lover of Gudrida and a rival of Thorfin, and who left his country in the year 998. If this story be true, Bjorn the bard and Lief the navigator, may fairly contend in the halls of Odin for the honor of having been the first of all Europeans to discover America.
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