Vikings in America

That America was visited early in the tenth century by the adventurous Northmen from Greenland (Vikings), and that its geography and people continued to be known to them so late as the twelfth century, is admitted by all who have examined with attention, the various documents which have been published, during the last twelve years, by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries at Copenhagen. There are evidences which every candid and right-minded historian will admit, that the hardy and bold mariners of Scandinavia, of that period, crossed freely, in vessels of small tonnage, the various channels, gulfs, and seas of the Northern Atlantic, and were familiar with the general islands and coasts stretching from Iceland to the northern parts of the continent. They visited from Greenland, not only the adjacent coasts of what are now called Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, but held their way to more southerly latitudes, which they denominated Vinland, a term that is, by an interpretation of the sea journals and nautical and astronomical observations of those times, shown, with much probability, to have comprised the present area of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They appear to have made attempts to plant a colony in this area.

Finding the trending of this land to favor the spirit of adventure, they ran down to more southerly latitudes; reaching, it is thought, to near the present site of St. Augustine, in Florida; the bays of New York, Delaware, and Chesapeake, not appearing, however, to have attracted notice. It is certain that their primitive maps of this part of the coast, as published at Copenhagen, bare a name that is translated Great Ireland.

Thus much, the learned of the present day admit. There is no pretense that the Scandinavians considered it a new continent, or that they verified any geographical theory, by their bold voyages. But these feats had attracted attention at home, and the fame of them reached other parts of Europe; for it is known that Columbus himself had been attracted by them, and visited Iceland for the purpose of verifying what he had heard, and increasing the sum of facts on which his great theory was based.

The leading evidences serve to attest that Vinland was the present very marked seaboard area of New England. The nautical facts have been carefully examined by Professors Rafn and Magnusen, and the historical data adapted to the configuration of coast which has Cape Cod as its distinguishing trait. All this seems to have been done with surprising accuracy, and is illustrated by the present high state of the arts in Denmark and Germany.

The principal error in the minutiae, from which historical testimony is drawn, appears to be in the interpretation of a descriptive monument, found in the area of the colony, which was attempted to be formed at the head of Narragansett Bay, within the chartered limits of Massachusetts. It will serve, probably, to strengthen the claim to discovery, by distinguishing, and so abstracting from the consideration of this inscription, so much of it as appears to be due to the Indians, and is, manifestly, done in their rude pictographic characters; and leaving what is clearly Icelandic to stand by itself. This has been done in the following paper, which embraces the results of a study by an Algonquin chief in 1839, of the inscription of Drs. Baylies and Goodwin, as published at Copenhagen. Chingwauk, the person alluded to, having rejected, in his interpretation, every character but three, of the number of those which have been generally supposed to be northern, or in old Saxon; and these not being essential to the chief s interpretation, but closely involved with others important to the Scandinavian portion; I have restored them to that compartment of the rock. Two distinct and separate inscriptions thus appear, of which it is evident that the Icelandic is the most ancient. The central space which it occupies could not have been left, if the face of the rock had been previously occupied by the Indian or pictographic part.

That the native Algonquins recorded, on the same rock, and at the same era, the defeat of the Northmen, as acknowledged by the latter, by the use of the balista described, is hardly probable, yet possible. The inscription was more likely, as is shown by Chingwauk, a triumph of native against native; yet it is remarkable, that a balista is among the native figures employed. But the circumstance most conclusive is the want of European symbols in the right hand side of the inscription relative to the defeated enemy. Could it be shown, by archaeological evidence, that swords, flats, &c., in this part of the drawing, were used by the invaders, or that hats were unknown to Northmen of the tenth century, the objection would be obviated. The ceremonial observances of the sachem-priest, MONO, and the attack led by the chief, Pizh-u, or Panther, are not inconsistent with Indian theories of mystical influences, on White or Ked men, known to their religion, mythology, and peculiar Manito worship.

The second paper is founded on the determination of M. Jomard, of Paris, of Libyan characters upon one of the tumuli of Western Virginia. To others these characters have appeared to be Celtiberic. This is the opinion expressed by Professor Rafn, of Copenhagen, in the Memoirs of the Northern Antiquarian Society. This opinion was concurred in by the American Ethnological Society. 1 The imperfection, however, of the several copies of the inscription heretofore examined, furnishes the occasion of presenting a perfect copy, taken from the original stone in 1850.

Traditions of the other hemisphere, which have been variously urged upon our notice, render it desirable to scrutinize our antiquities very closely for evidences of early voyages, and we should not be surprised at finding even a Grecian and Persic element of an early intrusive population. The increased knowledge of, and attention given to, the laws and theories of winds, currents, and temperature, which must have, in early ages as now, much affected the material intercommunication of nations navigating the shores, and visiting the islands of the Indian, Pacific, and Polynesitin seas, commend that class of facts very strongly to the attention of American ethnologists. Trade-winds, monsoons, oceanic streams, like that of the Mexican Gulf, and other forms of the laws of motion generated by mere temperature, (for both wind and water obey it,) have had, apparently, a greater agency in settling the globe than has been awarded to them. If nations stumbled upon both the Atlantic and Pacific shores by accident, the student of races should not wonder. We applaud Columbus because he meant to make a discovery. But the veriest tyro must admit that he too stumbled upon America in looking for India and China.


  1. Vol. I. Transactions.[]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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