From the earliest moments of European contact, Native Americans have played a pivotal role in the Atlantic experience, yet they often have been relegated to the margins of the region’s historical record. The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, Jace Weaver’s sweeping and highly readable survey of history and literature, synthesizes scholarship to place indigenous people of the Americas at the center of our understanding of the Atlantic world. Weaver illuminates their willing and unwilling travels through the region, revealing how they changed the course of world history.
In the following excerpt (pp. 36-38), Weaver tells the story of Leif Erikson and the Vikings’ 11th-century arrival on the North American continent. In this history, Weaver explains how the kidnapping of two Amerindian boys from what is now Newfoundland set the precedent for non-native and indigenous relations in the Atlantic for centuries.
Two Beothuk Boys
Leif Erikson sighted the northern coast of North America in approximately 1000 C.E., calling it Vinland. Shortly thereafter, around 1003, the Vikings founded a settlement in present-day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. They encountered “Red Indians” (as distinguished from the Inuit), whom they called skrælings, an archaic word of uncertain meaning but commonly assumed to mean something like “wretches.” These meetings are recorded in the Icelandic sagas.
According to the Grænlendinga Saga, encounters with the Natives were initially friendly. Despite the language barrier, trade was opened, but the relationship soon turned hostile. In Eirik’s Saga, we learn that Leif’s brother Thorvald was struck in the groin by an arrow in one skirmish with skrælings. As he pulls the arrow out, he poetically and tragically says, “This is a rich country we have found; there is plenty of fat around my entrails.” Then he expires—nobly.
Controversial historian Jayme Sokolow summarizes: “The Vikings treated the Skraelings as they would any other outsiders. When the opportunity arose, they killed the adults and enslaved their children. On other occasions, they traded bolts of red cloth for furs.” After Thorvald Erikson’s death, the Vikings fled. They spotted five Natives, “a bearded man, two women, and two children.” Though the adults manage to escape, Thorfinn Karlsefni and his men captured the boys, whom they took with them. The boys were taught Norse and baptized. Thus in 1009, Indian captives were taken to Norway (and perhaps Iceland).
The names of these boys forcibly orphaned are not recorded, but those of their mother and father are: according to the sagas, the children identified them as Vætild and Ovægir, respectively. Jennings Wise and Vine Deloria Jr. say that the boys were christened Valthof and Vimar.
Continuing conflict with the skrælings convinced Karlsefni of the futility of attempting a permanent settlement in North America. According to Gwyn Jones, “His numbers were small, and their weapons inadequate. They were unwilling to woo and unable to conquer.” The fact that they took the boys and taught them their language is strong evidence that they intended to continue trading with the region’s indigenous people. Valthof and Vimar would be able to serve as interpreters. Such abductions became an established strategy in this regard.
The penultimate chapter of the Grænlendinga Saga begins, “Now there was renewed talk of voyaging to Vinland, for these expeditions were considered a good source of fame and fortune.” Annette Kolodny writes, “Obviously, the potential threat posed by the Native population has not dissuaded some individuals from further expeditions, although there is no longer any suggestion at attempting a permanent colony.” The Vikings “continued visiting the North American coast in search of timber and furs, but after 1300 the climate grew colder and travel became more difficult.” Eventually they ceased entirely. Around 1350, the Vikings abandoned the Western Settlement in Greenland, and by 1500, settlement on that island ceased entirely. By then, however, Greenland’s days as a jumping-off point for North American exploration were long in the past. The last record of a specific voyage to Vinland was that of Bishop Eirik (probably Eirik Gnupsson) in 1121, and we do not even know if he reached it successfully. According to Dutch anthropologist Harald Prins, however, there is “an intriguing historical snippet” about a large canoe that Newfoundlander Natives were putting into port at Lubec in 1153. Prins concludes that, if the incident happened at all, both Natives and canoe most probably came on a Viking knarr.
Years later, circa 1420, Inuit captives were taken to Scandinavia. Their kayaks were displayed in the cathedral at Tromsø, Norway. In 2010, DNA analysis of contemporary Icelanders revealed a strain of mitochrondrial DNA most closely associated with Amerindian populations. This so-called C1 lineage is carried by more than eighty Icelanders, and church records have permitted researchers to trace the specific substrain (or subclade), known as C1e, to four women from shortly before 1700, though they believe it arrived much earlier. C1e has been found only in Iceland and does not match Greenlander or any other Inuit population. Nor does it precisely match any modern Native population. Since mitochondrial DNA is passed down only through the female line, the logical conclusion is that it entered via a woman from some now extinct Amerindian lineage. The Beothuk, the last of whom died in 1829, would seem the likely candidate. Razib Khan, a science writer for Discover, writes, “Perhaps the Europeans had enslaved a native woman, and taken her back to their homeland when they decamped? But more likely to me is the probability that the Norse brought back more than lumber from Markland, since their voyages spanned centuries.” It is certainly possible; grabbing a few North American indigenes quickly became a standard operating procedure of European sailors, and the Vikings certainly had a reputation for being rapacious.
Though Valthof and Vimar may have become the first Amerindian cosmopolitans, the Vikings departed for their homelands and left no continued colonial presence in North America. Their clashes with the Natives and their capture and kidnapping of the two Beothuk boys, however, established the pattern of European interaction with the continent’s indigenes that would be replicated many times over. That information undoubtedly traveled from tribe to tribe beneath the Fall and beyond through trading networks. The seeds of distrust and knowledge of settler violence and indigenous captivity were sown from Newfoundland to Florida. Unfortunately for the next people to be “discovered” by explorers from Europe, they were not part of the trade routes that would have carried word of the “skrælings’” difficulties with such people.
From The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, by Jace Weaver. Copyright © 2014 by Jace Weaver.
- Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, trans., The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (London: Penguin, 1965), 65–67.↩
- Ibid., 102.↩
- Jayme Sokolow, The Great Encounter: Native Peoples and European Settlers in the Americas (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002), 49. I say controversial simply because he was accused of plagiarism.↩
- Magnusson and Pálsson, 102.↩
- Sokolow, 49; Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), 37.↩
- Jennings C. Wise, The Red Man in the New World Drama, rev. and ed. Vine Deloria Jr. (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 7.↩
- Gwyn Jones, The Norse Atlantic Saga, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 135.↩
- Magnusson and Pálsson, 67.↩
- Annette Kolodny, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 69.↩
- Sokolow, 49.↩
- Kolodny, 100.↩
- Razib Khan, “Icelanders Descended from Native Americans?,” http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/11/Icelanders-descended-from-native-americans/ (Nov. 17, 2010; Oct. 16, 2012), 4.↩