Standard 5.2 >

Describe the earliest explorations of the New World by the Vikings, the period and locations of their explorations, and the evidence for them.

viking longship.jpg
"Sea Stallion" Worlds Largest Reconstruction of a Viking Age Warship

Topics on the Page

Overview of the Vikings
The Little Ice Age in Europe
Viking Settlements in North America
Leif Erikson and Vinland
Special Topic Page on The Peopling of the Americas

Focus Question: Who were the Vikings?

Discovering North America, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Vikings, 800 to 1066 from the BBC provides an overview of Viking culture and exploration.

Crash Course provides and overview of Viking culture in World History, via author John Green.

Varangians from the New World Encyclopedia provides information on Vikings in the service of the Byzantine Emperors.

An article about the old Pagan religion of the Vikings.

external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.pngA timeline of the Viking voyages from the 8th century to the 11th century

Coming to America: Who Was First? NPR (October 8, 2007).

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Ireland Regrow Them? The New York Times (October 20, 2017)

game_icon.svg.pngClick here for the game "Viking Quest" from BBC. In this game, you have to build a ship, chose your crew and route, and go to raid a monastery. The game gives a good overview of how Vikings raided other lands.
Leif Ericson Discovers Vinland; Painting from 1892
Leif Ericson Discovers Vinland; Painting from 1892

lessonplan.jpgTeaching Resources

  • Click here for links and resources on the Vikings for 3-6 graders from e-Themes, University of Missouri.
  • Click here for instructions for building a Viking ship for a school project.
  • Click here for guiding questions for teaching about the Vikings

The first evidence of Vikings was written in the 1300s, so researchers have relied on textual and archeological evidence to construct a picture of the Viking age.

The Little Ice Age in Europe

Climate change during the late 700s through 900s caused food shortages throughout much of Northern Europe.
  • For more background, see The Little Ice Age in Europe from Scott Mandia, Suffolk County Community College.
    • The people who lived there, Vikings, were forced to go in search of food and land in some other way.
      • They raided Great Britain starting in the summer of 793, and sailed up the rivers into the heart of Europe every summer thereafter, looting and pillaging.
        • They brought all of their pirated goods back to their home settlements. Eventually though, this was not enough to sustain their growing population, so large populations were forced to leave. Some settled further south, in modern day Norway and Sweden.
          • Some set up island colonies north of Great Britain, and in Iceland. Another group however, led by Eric the Red, settled Greenland, starting in 980s

Focus Question: What evidence is there of a Viking presence in early North America?

1. Viking Map Wikimedia Commons, "Territories and voyages of the Vikings".
1. Viking Map Wikimedia Commons, "Territories and voyages of the Vikings".

The Norse had two main settlements in Greenland, one in the North called “West Settlement,” and one in the South called “East Settlement.”
  • Farmland was, and still is, relatively poor in Greenland, and it is difficult to sustain large populations. The growing season is only 5 to 7 months and the only crops that can be grown are hearty ones, like cabbages, beets, lettuce, and much later, potatoes.
  • The colonists mostly ate seal, walrus and birds that migrate to Greenland to breed at predictable parts of the year. They also kept cows, but they were very hard to maintain because it was difficult to grow enough hay to keep them alive through the very long and cold winters.
  • The population of Greenland likely never exceeded 5,000 because of the difficulty in finding food. The colonists in Greenland also kept up steady trade with Europe because Greenland does not have a lot of readily accessible natural resources such as metals and lumber.
  • The fall of Norse Greenland was likely due to the “Little Ice Age” which started in the early 1300s and didn’t end till the 1800s. The Greenland settlement lasted from the 980s CE to the middle of the 1400s.

Erik the Red
Erik the Red

Click Here for an article on Erik the Red, the Viking leader who settled Greenland.
Hvalsey, a stone church built in East Settlement
Hvalsey, a stone church built in East Settlement

Leif Erikson and Vinland

The scarcity of lumber is what caused Viking explorers to venture further west into modern day Canada, which is abundant in natural resources like timber and furs.

Quill_and_ink.png Leif Erikson,
  • They made visits every summer for up to two decades starting just after they colonized Greenland. They set up small temporary camps that could house no more than a few dozen people, one of which has been found and excavated by archaeologists.
  • They called this new land “Vinland,” likely in reference to the one of the small settlements that they founded in open meadowland (Vin can mean either meadow or wine in their language, depending on the way the i is stressed).
  • Unfortunately for the settlers, the land they had “discovered” was already occupied by the Native Americans. As already described, the Vikings were a violent culture by our standards, and invasion and warfare was nothing new to them. They attacked the Native Americans, but their numbers were not great enough to defend themselves for long.
  • Their hostility to the Native Americans, and their distance from Greenland and especially from their European metropole made it impossible to set up a permanent settlement south of Greenland.
1986 U.S. postage stamp
1986 U.S. postage stamp

primary_sources.PNGProclamation 3610: Leif Erikson Day (Issued by President Lyndon Johnson, September 2, 1964)

Map icon.pngIs the Vinland Map a Fake?from NPR examines the controversy surrounding a supposed map showing Viking presence in the New World.

multicultural.pngThe Vinland Sagas are the first known European narratives about encounters with native peoples in North America.
File:L'Anse aux Meadows, recreated long house.jpg
File:L'Anse aux Meadows, recreated long house.jpg

How the Norse likely viewed the New World in relationship to Europe.
How the Norse likely viewed the New World in relationship to Europe.

The Skalholt Map, made in 1570.
The Skalholt Map, made in 1570.

There has been evidence found of the Vikings in North America, mainly in parts of Canada.
  • In 1999 archeologist Patricia Sutherland found what she believed to be Viking yarn on Baffin Island. It was not similar to the Arctic yarn, but identical to the yarn that Viking women made in the 14th century. When reviewing this area, they found more Viking yarn,a whalebone shovel, and pelts from Old World rats. These are all associated with the Vikings.
  • In 2012 Sutherland announced she and her team had discovered whetstones with grooves to sharpen blades. The grooves had traces of copper alloys, metals the Vikings had been known to use.
  • In 2000, Agnar Helgason and Sigridur Sunna Ebenesersdottir were researching the population of Iceland. They found that some Icelanders had a linage that is usually found in Asians and Native Americans. Once tracing the linage, they found that it descended from a woman from around 1700. It is hypothesized that she was a Native American woman who encountered the Vikings and was brought to Iceland. This theory is still under investigation, but is interesting to note.

Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada for the story on Sutherland from National Geographic.

Click here for an interactive article that allows one to examine the Viking map of Vinland and see evidence on whether or not it is authentic.

book.pngClick here for the Wikipedia page on "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. This book uses evidence to provide a history of Viking expansion and speculates on what might have led to the downfall of their colonies. (Pages 178-277).

Female_Rose.pngViking Women Colonized New Lands, Too, an article from LiveScience about Viking women and colonization (December 7, 2014).

  • The Vikings from Nova offers information about the Vikings including a video tour of a Viking village.
  • Click here for a youtube video about the L'Anse aux Meadow site as a modern tourist attraction.
    • Click here to read about the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage site for L'Anse aux Meadows

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.31.08 AM.pngThe Children of Erik the Red Explore the West: The Norsemen Encounter Indigenous People of North America

multicultural.pngHere is the link to Gary Sanderson columns at the Greenfield Recorder newspaper about native american settlers of western Massachusetts hundreds of years before European contact. He posts his columns on his blog, Tavern Fare. Students and teachers can search under the keywords local history or Indians or South Deerfield.