Leif Eriksson came from a long line of Norse explorers and discoverers: his distant relative Naddod discovered Iceland, his father Erik the Red discovered, explored and settled Greenland, and Leif himself went down in history as the first European to reach North America, which he called Vinland, five centuries before Columbus. For this accomplishment, Leif Eriksson has been celebrated accordingly, having over a dozen statues erected in his honor across the territory of the USA, and being commemorated annually on October 9 – Leif Eriksson Day. On the other hand, Thorvald Eriksson, Leif’s brother, is all but forgotten despite his determination and ambition to explore and settle the newly-discovered lands. Thorvald also had the great misfortune of being the first European to die in the New World.
The Greenland Saga describes (without much detail) the ill-fated voyage of Thorvald and his demise in North America, telling us how he set out on his quest because he thought “that the land had been much too little explored.” His brother Leif offered him his own ship, and Thorvald quickly assembled a crew of thirty men, setting sail for Leifsbudir, the settlement Leif founded in Vinland. It is presently believed that Leifsbudir has been located at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Regardless of its location, Thorvald and his crew spent the winter there, surviving on fish until spring when they manned the ship once more and set out westwards on their quest to explore the land. We do not know how far they reached, but they spent some six months on their voyage of exploration.
According to the Greenland Saga, Thorvald came upon vast forested areas and many islands off the coast, but found no signs of life or habitation except for an abandoned corn storing hut – “they found neither dwellings of men nor beasts, except upon an island, to the westward, where they found a corn-shed of wood.” By autumn,as the weather was worsening and the day decreasing, Thorvald returned to the relative comfort and safety of Leifsbudir. Just as before, he remained there until spring, when he set out to explore the eastern and northern parts of the land. This time, Thorvald would face some serious obstacles, and soon after he left Leifsbudir a heavy storm nearly destroyed the ship and forced its crew to unknown shores.
The stranded men needed “a long time” to repair all the damage inflicted on their ship, but as soon as they could sail again they set out to continue their journey. Not long afterwards they came upon a pleasant forested area where Thorvald wanted to “raise his dwelling.” No dwellings were ever raised however, as the men spotted “three elevations” close-by on the beach and decided to examine them closer. As they were approaching these elevations, the explorers realized they were in fact “skin-boats”, Native American canoes, and underneath each one there were three men. Thorvald decided to attack, so he divided his men and fell upon the Natives, but one of them managed to escape in his canoe. The other eight were all killed.
It is impossible to know what motivated Thorvald to attack the Native Americans, or what his true intentions were. Perhaps he wanted to capture them for questioning, to learn more about Vinland and its inhabitants, or to take them back to his homeland, but when one of the Natives escaped he decided to slay the rest out of fear. Thorvald only had thirty men, so he must have been aware of how vulnerable he was in case of an attack, and could not afford the eight captives to cause any trouble. Either way, what happened next is quite surprising, according to the Greenland Saga.
Thorvald and his men made their way back to the place where they had landed and “looked around them”, noticing a large Native American settlement in the distance. This should had been a fearsome sight to behold for the thirty Norse explorers, and a strong deterrent to their presence in those lands. However, Thorvald did not return to the ship and neither did any of his crewmen. For inexplicable reasons, the Norsemen, instead of sailing away to safety, especially after the fatal attack they had just inflicted upon the Natives, and the grave danger posed by the one survivor who escaped, “they all fell asleep” out in the open. The explorers would not sleep for too long, however, as the Natives assembled a war-band and set out to avenge their fallen brethren.
The Norsemen were awakened by the Native’s war-cries and got up to see “an innumerable crowd of skin-boats” approaching the shore. Thorvald and his men, finally realizing the great danger they had exposed themselves to, made it for their ship, where they barricaded themselves. Thorvald specifically instructed his men not to get out and fight, but to defend themselves as best they could. The tribal Natives amassed in front of the Norse vessel, and laid siege to it. The warriors fired many arrows at the Norsemen, but none of them tried to board the ship, and after some time they all fled, disappearing as quickly as they had first appeared.
After the assault was over and the Natives finally gone, Thorvald asked his men if they had gotten any wounds, but all of them replied they were unharmed. Thorvald was, in fact, the only one injured:
I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.
He was right, and the wound did prove to be fatal. Thorvald did not give way to desperation, however, and went on instructing his men to bury him where he wanted to raise his dwelling, and raise crosses over his grave, and call the place Krossaness. Thus Thorvald became the first European to die in the New World, where his remains are still waiting to be discovered.
Following Thorvald’s death his crew went back to Greenland, and as far as we know there have been no other attempts to explore the greater parts of the country. Thorvald’s more obscure brother named Thorstein eventually planned an expedition to retrieve Thorvald’s corpse, but died himself before even setting sail from Greenland. In fact, there was only one last attempt to colonize Vinland, five years after Thorvald’s death.
The enterprise was spearheaded by the famed Thorfinn Karlsefni who set sail for Vinland with three ships carrying around 100 men and women, and enough supplies, including livestock, to build a permanent outpost. No voyages of exploration were undertaken by him or his followers, however, and Karlsefni was ultimately forced to abandon his colony as frigid weather and violent clashes with the Natives made it impossible to remain.
Thus ended the history of Norse colonization of the New World and the saga of Thorvald, the first American pioneer.
There has been some debate over how far Thorvald’s expedition reached and where Krossaness, his final resting place, might be. Fringe theories assert that Thorvald made it as far as present-day Massachusetts or Rhode Island, although this is highly unlikely. The original proponents of these theories and those who popularized them throughout the 19th century took great poetic license with history, sometimes quite literally.
For example, the famous American Fireside Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was among those who believed that the Vikings visited New England, and popularized the idea through some of his poems. Eben Norton Horsford, who is best remembered today for reformulating baking powder, was also convinced that the Vikings reached as far as Massachusetts, and in his zeal, he even created fake Norse etymologies for Algonquian place-names from the aforementioned state. Regardless, Krossaness is yet to be discovered, and so are any traces of a Norse presence outside Newfoundland.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Short, W. R. (2010). Icelanders in the Viking Age. McFarland.
- Haugen, E. (2007). Voyages to Vinland – The First American Saga Newly Translated and Interpreted. Barzun Press.
- Jones, G. (1983). The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Oxford University Press.
- Smiley, J.; Kellogg, R. (2000). The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin Books Limited.
- Fleming, R. (1995). Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America. The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 4. Oxford University Press.