Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

The Norse in Newfoundland

L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is the only authenticated Norse settlement in North America, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn more about this fascinating history—from Leif Eriksson and the Icelandic Viking sagas to archaeologist Anne Stine who discovered the site.
L Anse aux Meadows behind fence

© Dennis Minty

Replica of Norse longhouse and smaller structures, L’Anse aux Meadows

An Inevitability

As the Vikings pushed west from Norway in the ninth and tenth centuries—first to Orkney, Shetland, and Scotland, then to the Hebrides and the Faroes, and still further to Iceland and Greenland—it seems inevitable that they would reach North America. After all, it is about fifteen hundred kilometres from Norway to Greenland, and only two hundred and fifty more to cross the Davis Strait to Baffin Island.

They had the ships, the skill, the need for resources, a culture rooted in the north, and an adventurous spirit. From their colonies in southern Greenland, they would most certainly have sailed north along its west coast in search of walrus and polar bear, all the while sailing closer to present-day Nunavut. Did they sail close enough to see the towering cliffs of Baffin Island? Possibly!

Hvalsey church Eastern Settlement Greenland

© Dennis Minty

Hvalsey Church, a Norse ruin that was part of the Eastern Settlement near Qaqortoq, Greenland

The Evidence

The primary documentary evidence that they reached North America comes from two Icelandic Sagas: The Saga of Erik the Red and the Grœlendinga Saga (Saga of the Greenlanders), both written in the thirteenth century some two hundred or more years after the events. Each Saga speaks of the journey to “Vinland”, but they are not fully congruent with each other.

Centuries later, these Sagas intrigued two Norwegians—Anne Stine, an archaeologist, and Helge Ingstad, an explorer—who thought that northern Newfoundland was a likely spot to search for hard evidence of the Norse. They used clues from the Sagas to deduce where they should begin their search.

Busts of Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad

© Dennis Minty

Busts of Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad, L'Anse aux Meadows

The “Wunderstrand” that is described in the Sagas was most likely the forty-kilometre white sand beach now known as the Porcupine Strand in Labrador, a highly visible landmark from sea. About two days sail to the south is L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

There, a grassy terrace rises about four metres above a cobble and sand beach. Black Duck Brook empties itself mid-way along the beach—great for freshwater and salmon fishing. Inland the terrain forms a bog, laden in the fall with bakeapples (known in Norway as cloudberries, which would have been familiar to the Norse Vikings landing here). Still further inland, a wooded ridge forms the skyline.

Black Duck Brook L Anse aux Meadows

© Dennis Minty

Black Duck Brook, L'Anse aux Meadows

In 1960 the Ingstads sailed into L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, attracted by the grassy meadowlands on shore. They knew that as farmers of cattle and sheep, the Norse would have been attracted by the same thing. Talking with a local resident, George Decker, they learned of mounds over in the meadow areas.

Grassy mounds Lanse aux Meadows

© Dennis Minty

Grassy mounds at L'Anse aux Meadows

That was enough to prompt Anne to begin her archaeological investigation, which eventually involved scholars from five countries. Many local people from the nearby community were also involved. Over the next eight years of archaeological work, led by Anne, they found proof that the Norse were here around 1000 CE—about five hundred years before Columbus landed at Hispaniola.

Anne and her team found the remains of eight complete buildings (dwellings, workshops, and an iron forge), that were constructed of timber frames overlaid with sod. Their construction was like that used by the Norse in Greenland and Iceland of the same period. At the site of the smithy, they found evidence of bog iron ore smelting and forging that was common in Greenland and Iceland at the time, as well as broken nails from ship repair.

Norse cloak pin

© Dennis Minty

This bronze ring-headed cloak pin confirmed the Norse presence at L'Anse aux Meadows.

In other locations, they unearthed a spindle whorl—thus confirming the presence of Norse women at the site—a whetstone, and, most important of all, a bronze ring-headed cloak pin typical of the Viking Age that confirmed the Norse presence. One of the more curious findings were butternuts, a tree nut which grow only as far north as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick—a likely an indication that the Norse travelled further to the south.

Bucket of butternuts

© Dennis Minty

Evidence of butternuts suggests that the Norse travelled further south from Newfoundland.

Perhaps Grapes Had Nothing to Do with It

There are still some inconsistencies unaccounted for. Both Sagas speak of grapes and vines growing at this settlement, hence the name: Vinland. But this mention of grapes is a source of contention, because grapes don’t grow so far north—not now, not then. Some historians, like Kirsten A. Seaver, author of The Last Vikings, argue that Vinland was not just referring to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, but rather to a broader area extending perhaps as far south as the St. Lawrence River.

L Anse aux Meadows

© Dennis Minty

L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

Helge Ingstad, meanwhile, explains that the reference to grapes may be due to a mistranslation in a document written by Adam of Bremen, the German medieval chronicler who referred to Vinland in his writings from 1075. His document, written long before the Sagas and much closer to the time of the exploratory events, could have sowed the seed for the misunderstanding. Ingstad argues that “vin” (pronounced with a short “i”) had nothing to do with wine, vines, or grapes. Rather it is a prefix or suffix from old Norse meaning meadow, grass, or pastureland. Apparently, many place names in Norway include “vin” with this meaning.

Grapes or no grapes, Vinland or not, the fact is that L’Anse aux Meadows is the only site of proven settlement by the Norse in North America.

Who Were They?

So, who were these Norse who came to Newfoundland? We don’t know with certainty where the first Norse landed. We can only assume that it was at L’Anse aux Meadows because it is the only site where archaeological evidence was found of the corresponding age. So, based on that assumption, we can relate who they may have been based on the Sagas.

Viking actor facing away from camera

© Dennis Minty

Our assumptions of which Norse came to Newfoundland are based on the Sagas and corroborating evidence from L'Anse aux Meadows.

Erik the Red, (Erik Thorvaldsson) was banished from Iceland for killing some folks and sailed west to establish settlements in south Greenland. Erik and his wife Tjodhilde had one daughter, Freydís, and three sons, one of whom was Leif. They grew up at Brattahlíð in southern Greenland, which was part of what was known as the Eastern Settlement. Eventually Leif held considerable sway there and became the chieftain.

Viking man and woman actors at work

© Dennis Minty

The discovery of a spindle whorl at L'Anse aux Meadows confirms the presence of Norse women living at the site.

Regardless of the differing accounts in the Sagas of Leif’s travels to Vinland (which we now deduce was perhaps Newfoundland), most historians agree that he did get there and began the establishment of a settlement, probably at L’Anse aux Meadows. Most likely he had heard about new land to the west from fellow Norse Bjarni Herjólfsson, who, according to one of the Sagas, sighted it after being blown off course during one of his voyages.

Apparently, neither Leif, nor anyone else, was inspired enough to jump in a ship and investigate right away. The story goes that about ten years later, Leif bought a ship from Bjarni, assembled a crew and then followed Bjarni’s course in reverse, first landing at Helluland (south Baffin), then Markland (Labrador) and finally Vinland (Newfoundland). Leif probably built the first houses, but he did not stay long.

Statue Leif Erikson

© Dennis Minty

Statue of Leif Erikson, L'Anse aux Meadows

Leif’s brother Thorvald came next, but was reportedly killed by the Indigenous peoples of the area, becoming the first European known to die in North America.

He was followed on the third expedition by Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, accompanied by more men and women as well as livestock, indicating perhaps their intention to sink deeper roots. Thorfinn and Gudrid bore a son in the new land named Snorri, the first known child of European descent to be born in North America. However, skirmishes with the Indigenous peoples continued, eventually instigating the Norse departure from their settlement after a few years.

Viking actors inside long house

© Dennis Minty

Along with Leif Erikson, it is believed that his brother Thorvold and sister Freydis also travelled to Newfoundland.

Freydis, Leif’s sister, probably led her own expedition (the fourth) to Vinland along with her husband, Thorvald, while partnering with two Icelandic Vikings, Helgi and Finnbogi. Once in Vinland, ill-fated and treacherous disputes arose among the partners, along with continued troubles with the Indigenous peoples, eventually leading to the end of the Norse settlement of Vinland. (Leif’s sister Freydis may have been with him on the first expedition, too. The Sagas differ on this matter.)

Viking legs in doorway

© Dennis Minty

L'Anse aux Meadows is the only authenticated site of Norse settlement in North America.

In total, it seems likely that there were four Viking expeditions to the ‘New World’ from Greenland, but none seem to have lasted more than a few years. Most scholars today believe that Vinland was a much larger region, with L’Anse aux Meadows serving as a basecamp for up to ninety people and a gateway for further exploration south in summer. That said, it is the earliest, and only authenticated, site of Norse settlement in the Americas and is the first evidence of European presence.

Reconstructed Viking buildings

© Dennis Minty

Reconstructed Norse buildings, L'Anse aux Meadows

The little grassy terrace lacks the scale and air of permanence that is found at the Greenland settlements, even though they too eventually failed after nearly five hundred years. The Vikings came from Greenland’s Eastern Settlement, which itself was in its pioneering days and perhaps was not well enough established to support a satellite community so far away. Indeed, according to Thomas McGovern who wrote The Archaeology of the Norse North Atlantic, “Greenland simply did not produce enough people or riches to act as a successful base for sustained colonization attempts…”

Full Circle

The most intriguing part of this story for me is the notion of “closing the circle”. It goes something like this: as the first humans migrated north out of Africa around a hundred thousand years ago, some tribes turned left into Europe, while others turned right into Asia. Those turning left were eventually stopped by the uncrossable Atlantic Ocean. Some who turned right eventually crossed the Bering Strait becoming the Indigenous people of North America.

Replica display of Beothuk encampment Boyds cove Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

A replica display of a Beothuk camp, Boyd's Cove, Newfoundland

Each group broke into their own societies with the Atlantic between them. When the Norse encountered the Indigenous peoples in the Vinland region, those people that had turned left, finally met with those that had turned right, making first contact and thus closing the circle.

Meeting of two worlds statue

© Dennis Minty

"The Meeting of Two Worlds" sculpture by Luben Boykov and Richard Brixel

In recognizing the full circle, it is vital to acknowledge that L’Anse aux Meadows was inhabited by Indigenous peoples at least 4,000 years before the arrival of the Norse. The earliest peoples were the Maritime Archaic, followed by the Groswater and Dorset cultures, as well as the ancestors of the now culturally extinct Beothuk. Today, L’Anse aux Meadows also significantly serves to preserve the archaeological record of these peoples as well as the Norse.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.