With apologies to Chris Columbus, the Vikings were the first honkeys to have contact with the Native Americans. Other than impart their love for impulse shopping, the Norsemen didn’t have much of an impact over here. Until they all moved to Minnesota about 850 or so years later. On their first pass, they seemed to have no real sense of what, exactly, they’d stumbled upon. Largely because they had to be drunk to find it in the first place.
In 1002 or 1003, Leif Ericsson, the son of local Big Man Eric the Red, was old enough to drive, so he bought a second-hand boat from a man named Bjarni Herjulfsson. Bjarni was out of the sailing game because, as he related to Leif, he cruised from Norway to Iceland to visit his father, who’d since moved to Greenland (the Norse were a restless bunch). Making the short hop to Greenland he’d possibly gotten sideways with the mead, got lost in the mist, and managed to run into Canada by mistake. Bjarni didn’t know that the place was called that, he just knew that he didn’t like it there.
Even this wasn’t the first account of white guys in America. According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani somewhere between 512-530, St. Brendan set off in a 32-foot leather canoe, called a curragh, with some other monks to find a “promised land” in the mists beyond Greenland. Stretching the credibility of the account is the reports of sea-monsters and camping out on the backs of sleeping whales. It should be noted one of the monks who sailed with Brendan on a later voyage was St. Columba, who not only invented scotch, was also the first to record a sighting of a monster at Loch Ness. Draw your own conclusions.
Irish writer Tim Severin proved that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in a huge football in 1978. While this doesn’t prove that St. Brendan actually made it to America, it does prove that the Irish are insane.
Whereas the Vikings had contented themselves with running amuck over Ireland and Scotland, with the rise of Christianity, the raids slowed. By then Scandinavia was absolutely lousy with Scottish and Irish monks telling on the tall blonde people that it was sin to go sack Ireland and Scotland.
So, they colonized Iceland, largely because there wasn’t anyone there. The same goes for Greenland. True, there were people in Greenland. Generally, they coexisted peacefully, although it would be an overstatement to say they got along. They seem to have just avoided each other. Still, the Vikings knew that something was west of Greenland.
By 1000, that trip of Irish fancy was ancient history. Leif, being an adventuresome sort of millennial, filled his wooden boat with friends and family who had nothing better to do and set sail to see what was out there. Leif had high hopes for a new country because he had it on good authority (read: Bjarni) that, like Iceland and Greenland no one was living there. At least no one you had to talk to.
Following Bjarni’s hazy directions, the gang found the place and named the place Helluland. They meant it to sound like that. Bjarni did get one aspect of the accidental continent wrong, there were people living there (just like Greenland). They called the folks they met Skraelings (just like Greenland). The under-appreciated historian Will Cuppy, in his book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody gives the best idiomatic definition of the word: “Whenever the Norsemen didn’t know what to call someone, they called him a Skraeling. Fairies, elves, and Eskimos were also called Skraelings.”
Then they did what has become something of a habit for white people on running afoul of brown people: they fled to Martha’s Vineyard. It got dubbed Vineland, or Wineland the Good. The crew spent the summer there and although none of the Icelandic Sagas specifically mentions a crab boil, it seems pretty obvious. While pleasant enough, the Norsemen made no attempt to settle the island as they lacked the appropriate technology and topsiders. Then they went on back to Greenland.
Word of the clambake got out and Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid, who was something of pistol even by Viking standards, nagged her husband (Lief’s little brother Thorvald) into taking her to Martha’s Vineyard for a Cape Cod summer. And there, reportedly, she had a son, Snorri Thorvaldsson. The first honkey born in America, with apologies to Virginia Dare.
At first the Vikings didn’t have much trouble with the natives who saw boatloads of drunken, unwashed see-thru people washing up on shore, and treated them like the nomadic fans of the Grateful Dead or Phish. They just dined elsewhere for the duration and waited for the little vagabonds to leave.
Then the Skraelings got fed up with Norsemen for their name calling and refusal to clean up their campsites. The yearly messes got to be too much and the natives had to say something. You can guess how well that went. What little the Norse left behind were the odd scrap of chain mail – left not for prosperity but because, at the time, said mail was full of dead Viking. You can’t really blame the locals; a boatload of Vikings must leave behind a hell of a mess.
And truly, my apologies to your history teacher.
Originally appeared in Whiskey/Barrel