The theory that a Scandinavian expedition reached the heart of North America in the
mid 14th century raises a fascinating diversity of dimensions: A 350 year old community
vanishes mysteriously; a multinational party exploring in the New World more than
a century before Columbus; Scandinavians in the Canadian/American midwest in 1362; a
tribe of fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Indians already living in a European-style
fortified town when the first European explorers encountered them; a bitter scholarly controversy over an alleged major artifact; etc. etc. It all sounds pretty fanciful,
ERIC THE RED AND THE GREENLAND COLONIES
Eric Thorwaldsson, better known as "The Red," founded two separate colonies of expatriate
Icelanders on the southwest coast of Greenland in 986. The larger and more southerly
"Eastern" settlement eventually numbered some 3,000 souls (c. 1,100), while the "Western" settlement, 300 miles to the northwest in the region of present day Godthaab
never grew to more then 300-350 population.
For the first century or so of their Greenland colonization, the Vikings and their
descendants enjoyed a reasonably prosperous and pleasant life there. Greenland's
climate c. 1000 A.D. was in an extraordinarily warm phase, and the name Eric chose
for his new land may not have been quite the real-estate promoter's con-job as has been assumed.
Even 350 years later, after a general global cooling had altered Greenland's climate
for the worse, Ivar Bardson wrote that "On the mountains and lower down grow the
best of fruits, as big as apples and good to eat. There also grows the best wheat that
exists." Life in Greenland was hardly the rough outpost existance we might expect.
Colonists dressed in the same clothing fashions worn in European cities, although
perhaps a couple of years out of date. Gowns worn by Greenland ladies incorporated hoop
skirts -- sometimes as much as 15 feet in circumference.
After Eric the Red's son Lief brought Christianity to Greenland from Norway in 999,
churches were built -- the first one by Lief's mother Tjodhild near the Eric family's
estate, Brattahlid. Eventually there were 16 churches throughout the two settlements,
large, well-built structures of stone. The cathedral at Gardar was said to have been
a fine edifice; it's surviving foundation shows that it was 84' long and 60' wide.
The bishop's residence, built after a resident bishop was appointed in 1112 ("Bishop
of Greenland and Vinland in partibus infidelum"), was even larger than the cathedral.
Trade with Europe was brisk in the early years. Ships from Norway, Iceland, and the
Hanseatic city-states called regularly. For awhile, Greenland walrus tusks almost
pushed elephant ivory off the market. Hides including elk, bear, beaver, otter, ermine,
lynx, and wolf were popular exports. Greenland eiderdown was in great demand, and her
falcons were considered the best in the world -- sold as far away as Baghdad. Even
polar bears were prized by European nobility as "exotic pets."
However by 1200, climatic change allowed the arctic ice pack to creep farther southward,
making navigation in Greenland waters increasingly hazardous -- even in summer. Ships
came now only sporadically, and some years none called at all. In 1261, the Greenlanders felt obliged to accept union with Norway and subjection to the Norwegian crown,
in return for which two ships would be sent per year. This effectively shut the Hansa
markets off from Greenland trade, and sometimes even the promised Norwegian vessels didn't make it through the ice. The colonies' decline accelerated.
By 1340, nearly all of the Western Settlement's 190 farms had been expropriated by
the corrupt Church in lieu of payments for indulgences, special masses for the departed,
etc., and the once free and independent Greenlanders were reduced to the status of
serfs and tenant farmers on their own former holdings. Apparently in 1342 the people
of the Eastern Settlement decided en masse that they'd had a bellyful of declining
living standards and clerical oppression. They cleared out for parts unknown, leaving
their houses and churches intact and their livestock to go wild. An ancient account says:
"The inhabitants of Greenland fell voluntarily away from the true faith and the Christian
religion, and after having given up all the good manners and true virtues, turned
to the people of America ('ad Americae populos se converteunt') Some say that Greenland lies away near the western lands of the world."
THE KNUTSON EXPEDITION
Around this time, Magnus Eriksson, a devout and zealous Christian, was king of Norway
and Sweden. In 1347, King Magnus donated a large sum of money the Greenland Cathedral,
so he was less than enchanted when, a year later, a ship with 17 Greenlanders arrived in Bergen bearing news of the Western Settlement's apostasy and disappearance.
It took a while for Magnus to get around to doing something about the Greenlanders'
perfidy, but in 1354 he commissioned Paul Knutson, a judge and member of the Royal
Council, to mount an expedition for the purpose of finding the fugitives and restoring
them to the true Christian faith--by force if necessary.
Knutson was given a commission to choose an elite cohort of men, both Norse and Swedes,
from the king's armed forces and honour guard. The party set sail to the west in
a knorr (royal trading vessel) Did they stop at Lynn, England, to enlist the services
of Nicholas, a Franciscan friar from Oxford who was famous as an astronomer? Bishop
Gislrikt of Bergen was an Englishman, and may have recommended Nicholas to Knutson
as a navigator.
Surviving members of the Knutson expedition returned to England and Norway in 1363
or 1364 with Ivar Bardson, a priest from Greenland. Nicholas of Lynn presented himself
to the kings of England and Norway with a written account of the voyage entitled
Investo Fortunato, which regrettably has been lost.
LA VERENDRYE AND THE "WHITE, BLUE-EYED INDIANS"
In 1738, Pierre Gautier de Varennes, Sieur de Verendrye (b. 1683 at Trois Rivieres,
Quebec), took an expedition from his forts in present-day Manitoba into what is now
North Dakota, in search of a rumoured tribe of "white, blue-eyed Indians"--the now-extinct Mandans. Along the banks of the Missouri River La Verendrye found a stone cairn
with a small stone tablet inscribed on both sides with unfamiliar characters. Later,
Jesuit scholars in Quebec described the writing on the stone as "Tartarian"--a runic
script similar to Norse runes. In 1749, Professor Peter Kalm of the Swedish Royal Academy
of Sciences interviewed Captain La Verendrye in Quebec about his discovery on the
La Verendrye had found the Mandan village in what is now MacLean Co., North Dakota,
between Minot and Bismarck, on Dec. 3, 1738. It was a large and well-fortified town
with 130 houses laid out in streets. The fort's palisades and ramparts were not unlike
European battlements, with a dry moat around the perimeter. More remarkable, many of
the Mandans had light skin, fair hair, and "European" features. La Verendrye described
their houses as "large and spacious," clean, with separate rooms.
OTHER EARLY REPORTS OF THE MANDAN ENIGMA
On Aug. 24, 1784, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser reported that "a new
nation of white people" had been discovered about 2000 miles to the west of the Appalachians,
"acquainted with the principles of the Christian religion" and "extremely courteous and civilized."
In 1804 the explorers Lewis and Clark wintered near the Mandan town. Clark later reported
that the Mandans were "half-white."
In 1806, fur trader Alexander Henry reported that the Mandan's fortified town had
been destroyed by a coalition of hostile Indian tribes. Henry also noted the Mandans'
In 1932, the famous frontier painter George Catlin lived with the Mandans for several
months, subsequently writing and illustrating highly detailed accounts of the Mandan
people and their culture. His description of Mandan architecture approximates that
of medieval Norse dwellings remarkably. Catlin documented (and painted) Mandans with
blond hair; hazel, grey, and blue eyes; and Nordic features. "I am fully convinced
that they have sprung from some other origin than that of other North American tribes,
or that they are an amalgam of natives with some civilized race," wrote Catlin, "one-fifth
or one-sixth of the Mandans were nearly white and had light blue eyes."
In 1833-'34, A.P. Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, wintered at Fort Clark -- a
few hundred feet from the Mandan village. He also wrote that some of the Mandans
were "almost white," with noses and cheek structure non-typical of other tribes.
Maximilian noted that "some of their traditions have a resemblance to revelations in the Bible,
for instance, Noah's Ark and the Deluge, the story of Samson, etc."
The Mandans had a culture-hero whom they considered their early ancestor --a "white
man" who had come in a big canoe. A symbolical representation of this canoe occupied
a prominent place in their public square. This was especially remarkable inasmuch
as the plains-dwelling Mandans had little use for canoes, and their own watercraft were
primitive, round "bullboats" of wicker covered with hides, used only for crossing
The Indians also attributed some of their religious beliefs to this white ancestor
who had instructed their medicine men. Many Mandan traditions, as Maximilian observed,
embodied a more or less confused and garbled memory of Christian beliefs, including
the virgin birth of a child who later performed miracles -- including feeding a multitude
with a small amount of food, leaving fragments as great as when the feeding began;
a personal devil; a fall from grace due to the transgression of a primal mother,
and a Biblical-style Deluge story with a dove being sent out in search of land--returning
with a twig in his beak.
In 1866, remains of a small vessel were found buried in sand and clay during excavation
of a marshy pond in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. According to an eyewitness, the boat was
about 25 feet long with "considerable sheer," and a narrow, wedge-shaped stern with
carvings on it. The witness, J.P. Hammond, said that the strongly-built, obviously very
old boat "agreed closely" with a real Viking boat he had seen on display.
In 1898 Olaf Oleson, a farmer near Kensington, Minnesota, claimed to have uncovered
a large, flat stone while pulling tree-stumps. The "Kensington Stone" is inscribed
with runic characters, and has been the subject of raging controversy for nearly
one hundred years. Many authorities have pronounced it a hoax, while others attest to its
authenticity as an artifact. The stone's inscription reads:
"8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vineland throughout the West.
We had camp beside 2 skerries one day's journey north of this stone. We were out
fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVE MARIA,
Deliver from evil! Have 10 men by the sea to look after our ship, 14 days journey from
this island. Year 1362."
Is it possible that the Knutson party searched in vain for the lost Greenlanders along
the eastern coast of North America, working northward, eventually entering Hudson
Bay? At the mouth of the Nelson River (both the bay and the river appear on the Gemma
Frisius globe of 1537, 73 years before Henry Hudson sailed the area), a boat party
of 30 men leave a skeleton crew aboard the knorr and journey inland in a rowing boat,
proceeding upriver into the Lake Winnipeg system, then down the Red River into present
There, 10 of the party are killed and scalped by hostile natives, The survivors, fearing
for their own lives, chisel a message on a large flat stone at an island stopover.
Perhaps because of shorthandedness, their boat is wrecked, stranded, or just too
heavy to handle, and has to be abandoned.
They proceed on foot, eventually making contact with friendly aboriginals. Accepting
that without the boat, they have no hope of returning to the waiting ship in Hudson
Bay, the Scandinavians resign themselves to remaining with the Indians. They marry
Indian women and teach the rudiments of Christianity. If this indeed approximates what
took place, it would account for the Mandan enigma.
Meanwhile with winter closing in, the men on the waiting sailing vessel reluctantly
return to Norway under command of Nicholas of Lynn. There is no record of Paul Knutson
ever returning to Europe, so he may have been with the marooned boat party.