Chronicles of America 

The Norseman

The Indians were not the only primitive people who were driven from central Asia by aridity. Another group pushed westward toward Europe. They fared far better than their Indian cousins who went to the northeast. These prospective Europeans never encountered benumbing physical conditions like those of northeastern Asia and northwestern America. Even when ice shrouded the northern part of Europe, the rest of the continent was apparently favored with a stimulating climate. Then as now, Europe was probably one of the regions where storms are most frequent. Hence it was free from the monotony which is so deadly in other regions. When the ice retreated our European ancestors doubtless followed slowly in its wake. Thus their racial character was evolved in one of the world's most stimulating regions. Privation they must have suffered, and hardihood and boldness were absolutely essential in the combat with storms, cold, wild beasts, fierce winds, and raging waves. But under the spur of constant variety and change, these difficulties were merely incentives to progress. When the time came for the people of the west of Europe to cross to America, they were of a different caliber from the previous immigrants.

Two facts of physical geography brought Europe into contact with America. One of these was the islands of the North, the other the trade-winds of the South. Each seems to have caused a preliminary contact which failed to produce important results. As in the northern Pacific, so in the northern Atlantic, islands are stepping-stones from the Old World to the New. Yet because in the latter case the islands are far apart, it is harder to cross the water from Norway and the Lofoten Islands to Iceland and Greenland than it is to cross from Asia by way of the Aleut ian Islands or Bering Strait. Nevertheless in the tenth century of the Christian era bold Norse Vikings made the passage in the face of storm and wind. In their slender open ships they braved the elements on voyage after voyage. We think of the Vikings as pirates, and so they were. But they were also diligent colonists who tilled the ground wherever it would yield even the scantiest living. In Iceland and Greenland they must have labored mightily to carry on the farms of which the Sagas tell us. When they made their voyages, honest commerce was generally in their minds quite as much as was plunder. Leif, the son of that rough Red Eric who first settled Greenland, made a famous voyage to Vineland, the mainland of America. Like so many other voyagers he was bent on finding a region where men could live happily and on filling his boats with grapes, wood, or other commodities worth carrying home.

In view of the energy of the Norsemen, the traces of their presence in the Western Hemisphere are amazingly slight. In Greenland a few insignificant heaps of stones are supposed to show where some of them built small villages. Far in the north Stefansson found fair-haired, blue-eyed Eskimos. These may be descendants of the Norsemen, although they have migrated thousands of miles from Greenland. In Maine the Micmac Indians are said to have had a curious custom which they may have learned from the Vikings. When a chief died, they chose his largest canoe. On it they piled dry wood, and on the wood they placed the body. Then they set fire to the pile and sent the blazing boat out to sea. Perhaps in earlier times the Micmacs once watched the flaming funeral pyre of a fair-haired Viking. As the ruddy flames leaped skyward and were reflected in the shimmering waves of the great waters the tribesmen must have felt that the Great Spirit would gladly welcome a chief who came in such a blaze of glory.

It seems strange that almost no other traces of the strong Vikings are found in America. The explanation lies partly in the length and difficulty of the ocean voyage, and partly in the inhospitable character of the two great islands that served as stepping-stones from the Old World to the New. Iceland with its glaciers, storms, and long dreary winters is bad enough. Greenland is worse. Merely the tip of that island was known to the Norse --and small wonder, for then as now most of Greenland was shrouded in ice. Various Scandinavian authors, however, have thought that during the most prosperous days of the Vikings the conditions in Greenland were not quite so bad as at the present day. One settlement, Osterbyden, numbered 190 farms, 12 churches, 2 monasteries, and 1 bishopric. It is even stated that apple-trees bore fruit and that some wheat was raised. "Cattle-raising and fishing," says Pettersson, "appear to have procured a good living . . . . At present the whole stock of cattle in Greenland does not amount to 100 animals." (O. Pettersson, "Climatic Variations in Historic and Prehistoric Times." Svenska Hydrogrifisk--Biologiska Kommissioneur Skrifter, Haft V. Stockholm.) In those days the ice which borders all the east coast and much of the west seems to have been less troublesome than now. In the earliest accounts nothing is said of this ice as a danger to navigation. We are told that the best sailing route was through the strait north of Cape Farewell Island, where today no ships can pass because of the ice. Since the days of the Norsemen the glaciers have increased in size, for the natives use to say that certain ruins were buried beneath the ice, while elsewhere ruins could be seen which had been cut off from the rest of the country by advancing glacial tongues.

Why the Norsemen disappeared from the Western Hemisphere we do not exactly know, but there are interesting hints of an explanation. It appears that the fourteenth century was a time of great distress. This time period became known as the Little Ice Age. In Norway the crops failed year after year because of cold and storms. Provinces which were formerly able to support themselves by agriculture were obliged to import food. The people at home were no longer able to keep in touch with the struggling colony in Greenland. No supplies came from the home land, no reinforcements to strengthen the colonists and make them feel that they were a part of the great world. Moreover in the late Norse sagas much is said about the ice along the Greenland coast, which seems to have been more abundant than formerly. Even the Eskimos seem to have been causing trouble, though formerly they had been a friendly, peaceable people who lived far to the north and did not disturb the settlers. In the fourteenth century, however, they began to make raids such as are common when primitive people fall into distress. Perhaps the storms and the advancing ice drove away the seals and other animals, so that the Eskimos were left hungry. They consequently migrated south and, in the fifteenth century, finally wiped out the last of the old Norse settlers. If the Norse had established permanent settlements on the mainland of North America, they might have persisted to this day. As it was, the cold, bleak climate of the northern route across the Atlantic checked their progress. Like the Indians, they had the misfortune of finding a route to America through regions that are not good for man.

Though islands may be stepping-stones between the Old World and the New, they have not been the bringers of civilization. That function in the history of man has been left to the winds. The westerlies, however, which are the prevailing winds in the latitude of the United States and Europe, have not been of much importance. On the Atlantic side they were for many centuries a barrier to contact between the Old World and the New. On the Pacific side they have been known to blow Japanese vessels to the shores of America contrary to the will of the mariners. Perhaps the same thing may have happened in earlier times. Asia may thus have made some slight contribution to primitive America, but no important elements of civilization can be traced to this source.

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