Vinland the Good
People have long speculated about Norse contact with North America. There are several manuscripts that describe the discovery of a new land named Vinland. Many maps of Vinland depict parts of Massachusetts around Nantucket. These maps are speculations based on information from the Vinland Sagas. However, there does not appear to be any concrete archaeological evidence supporting the Massachusetts location. Rather, the only solid evidence that has been found of Norse settlement in North America is located in Newfoundland. Therefore, one must conclude that Newfoundland is most likely the Vinland mentioned in the Sagas.

There are three main manuscript sources concerning the Vinland voyages. The oldest is the Flatey Book, which was written around 1200 AD. The second is the Saga of Erik the Red (composed in the mid 1200s) and third is the Saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni (from the early 1300s). These last two sources are very similar, and will here be referred to collectively as the Vinland Sagas. These sagas describe the discovery of new land, and the first expeditions there. The Sagas revolve around several main characters. Erik the Red was born about 985 in Norway. He is famous for being the one to name and colonize Greenland. Leif Eriksson was the first explorer to land in Vinland (around 1003) and he died about 1025. Thorvald Eriksson was the second explorer to land in Vinland. He spent three winters there. He was killed by natives in 1007.

The Vinland Sagas name Bjarni Heriulfsson as the one who first spotted land in 986 AD. He had set off to winter with his father in Greenland, and due to fog and poor weather he drifted off course. Here he spotted a new land, presumed by modern scholars to be North America. Once Leif Eriksson hears of Bjarni’s discovery, he sets off to find this land. The first place he finds is full of ice and rocks. He calls this place Helluland. The next place he finds is level and wooded. He calls this place Markland. They then come to an island and make booths (shelters) there. This land would be known as Vinland. This land was so named because Leif’s German companion, Tyrker, found grapes there. Later, Leif’s brother Thorvald would go to Vinland. He took 30 men and wintered at Leif’s booths. He stayed for a few years before being killed by natives and was buried at Crossness. Thorvald’s brother Thorstein (and wife Gudrid) then set off for Vinland to recover Thorvald’s body. However, they never made it to Vinland. This is the basic story that historians have to work with.

Many historians have been interested in finding out just where it was that Leif landed. The manuscripts offered several clues. The writer of the Vinland Sagas states that the days in Vinland were more equal in length than in Greenland or Iceland. Calculations by Captain R. L. Phythian, U.S.N., have shown that this point must be at the northern tip of Newfoundland or somewhat south of it. The Sagas also describe the island they wintered on: “there came no frost in the winters, and the grass withered but little.” Both these clues, however, seem to suggest that No Mans Land was Leif’s and Thorvald’s winter headquarters. If one consults a map it seems entirely possible that Newfoundland was really Vinland. Compare the attached medieval map to a modern map. Notice on the old map the narrow strip of land named “Promonterium Winlandia.” This narrow strip of land is similar to the one seen on Newfoundland. It appears that all the evidence points towards Newfoundland as the true location of Vinland. However, one must question the authenticity and reliability of this map. This is a copy of a late 16th century map originally drawn by Sigurdur Stefansson. This copy was drawn in 1670 by Bishop Thord Thorlaksson. This map gives a rough geographic sketch based on information from the Vinland Sagas. There are, however, a few specifics which indicate this map may be a fairly reliable source. For example, the actual distance from Greenland to Newfoundland in nautical miles is very close to the distance indicated by the Stefansson map (622 miles and 640 miles respectively). There is another map drawn by Hans Poulsen Resen in 1605, and it has been suggested that both this map and the Steffansson were based on an older source which is now lost. Other historians, such as Gray, believe Stefansson’s map indicates that Cape Cod was Vinland. Cape Cod also has a promontory that sticks up as the old map indicates, however the latitudes and distances are not accurate. Gray explains this by saying the latitude of Ireland is also off by about three to four degrees, and “we cannot, perhaps, expect too great accuracy in latitude in the southern part of the map.” This suggestion implies that the map may not be reliable at all. Gray gives no other support for his argument that Vinland was located at Cape Cod, except to say there may be secret, “undeciphered Icelandic manuscripts reposing in the Vatican” that might give a more accurate account. The unreliability of these maps leaves the scholar with only one option left with which to prove the location of Vinland – and that is archaeology.

There is only one place in North America with definitive archaeological evidence for Norse settlement. This is at L’ Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Here archaeologists found the remnants of large turf buildings. This site provided “unquestionable evidence for a brief Norse presence” in North America. These remains were excavated and several interesting finds were made. Archaeologists found an ember pit in one of the houses. This pit is unlike anything found in Native or Eskimo sites in Newfoundland. However, it is strikingly similar to finds in Iceland and Greenland. C-14 dating places these finds abound 1080 AD, plus or minus 70 years. This is roughly the time the Vinland Sagas point to (early 1000s). Even more interesting are four collapsed cairns found about 300 yards west of the house site. The cairns would have been beautifully silhouetted from the site, but not noticeable from the sea. This corresponds to finds in Scandinavia where the Norse placed cairns above their farms. If this location in Newfoundland is in fact the Vinland of the Sagas, then Baffin Island would be "Helluland", and Labrador would be "Markland". However, some scholars would argue that this area was not Vinland, but only a "transit station" and the real Vinland was actually farther south. Only archaeological evidence could prove this theory.

There have been many finds which were supposed to prove Norse settlement in America. Unfortunately, many of these finds turned out to be fakes. For example, a man in Minnesota found a rune stone (known as the Kensington Rune stone). He claimed this was proof the Norse made it as far inland as Minnesota. This is not totally inconceivable, given the Viking affinity for water travel and the Great Lakes being so near by. However, scholars familiar with runic script have been able to prove that this stone was probably produced in the 1800s. Another such stone surfaced on No Mans Land island. This would be wonderful evidence for the location of Leif's booths. However, there is no reason to believe that this inscription had been made anytime before the 19th century. There is only one true artifact found south of the Newfoundland site, and that is a Norwegian coin. This coin dates to 1066-80 and was found in Maine. Scholars generally agree, however, that this coin probably reached Maine through trade. An important find at L'Anse aux Meadows was that of a Norse spindle-whorl. This was a round piece of stone used to spin wool. These items are distinctively Norse, and the native population would have had no use for them. This find shows that there were probably women living at this site who had access to wool. It would seem that this site in Newfoundland is the only provable Norse settlement in Pre-Columbian America. Yet, so many scholars would profess that Leif's booths existed in Massachusetts. Frederick J. Pohl sets up a list of eighteen geographical references from the Sagas. He believes twelve of these clues fit Cape Cod, and only six indicate Newfoundland. However, Pohl also cites certain hoaxes, such as the Kensington Runestone and the Newport Tower, as being factual evidence for medieval Norse settlement. Reliance on these faulty artifacts casts much doubt on his arguments. There are, however, other theories about the naming of Vinland. The sagas describe the land as having little frost in the winter, and being laden with grapes. It is very unlikely that it was warm enough for grapes to grow in Newfoundland. It has been suggested that when Leif named this new land he followed in his father's footsteps. Just as Erik had named his new land Greenland in hopes of attracting settlers, perhaps Leif's Vinland was just such a device.

In conclusion, there are scholars who will still cling to the idea that Vinland is located somewhere south of Boston. Based on saga information, this may be possible. But, one must also consider the possibility of Leif using the saga as a propaganda device. If this was the case, the geographical information in the sagas is not very reliable. Leif could have claimed any number of things to get people to go to Vinland. The writer’s claims that there was no frost in winter and grapes grew there are somewhat suspect. The only archaeological evidence that has been found suggests Newfoundland is “Vinland.” All other artifacts found in inland America have been hoaxes. Perhaps someday there will be hard evidence found for Norse settlement of No Mans Land, but until then it must be concluded that Newfoundland is probably the Vinland of the Sagas.


Edward F. Gray. Leif Erkisson: Discoverer of America A.D. 1003. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) “Translations of the Vinland Sagas” p.39
Helge Ingstad. Translated by Erik J. Friis. Westward to Vinland. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1969)
Robert McGhee. “Contact between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence” (American Antiquity: Society for American Archaeology, 1984)
Thomas H. McGovern, “The Archaeology of the Norse Atlantic”, (Annual Review \ of Anthropology, 1990)
Dougas R. McManis. “The Traditions of Vinland”. (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1969)
Else Roesdahl, The Vikings. (England: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1987