How America Was Found and Lost

THE first recorded glimpse of this continent of ours was caught by a Norwegian skipper while he was fumbling for Greenland in a blinding fog and sighted land on his larboard, where no land was supposed to be. That earliest dawning of America on the pages of history was in the year 985 or 986. Even four or five hundred years earlier still, the Chinese may have visited the Pacific Coast, and St. Brandon and his Irish monks the Atlantic Coast of this continent. But the written story of the western half of the world begins with the Sagas, those folk tales of the Norse.

After the little Norse colony up in Greenland had puzzled 14 or 15 years over the report that Bjarni Herjólfsson brought them, a son of Eric the Red, Eric's son, took Bjarni's big rowboat and, in the year 1000, pulled away from that treeless land to cut timber on the strange shore in the southwest where trees grew. The craft in which Leif Ericsson navigated the North Atlantic unaided by compass or chart, probably drew no more than four feet of water. With only one mast, it had the auxiliary power of perhaps 32 oars, each 20 feet long, and it was wide open to all the storms that beat upon its crew of 35.

The land to which Leif came has been variously localized all the way from Nova Scotia down to New York. It is certain that it was far enough south for the wild grape to grow, because a German in the crew got drunk on its juice and gave Leif the happy idea of bestowing upon his primeval shore the name of Vineland; an ironical christening for a country destined to prohibition!

Various are the supposed relics of the Norsemen that archeologists have venerated and poets sung: Dighton Rock in Massachusetts, whose inscription was first credited to the Phoenicians, and then to the Norse, but now is regarded as more probably Indian; the "skeleton in armor," found in neighboring Fall River, but now identified as that of a red man; the much pictured stone tower at Newport in Rhode Island, which turned out to be only the remnant of a windmill built in 1675. Still other traces of the Northmen have been proclaimed all the way from Cape Cod to Puget Sound. History coldly doubts if those bold but simple woodchoppers and fur traders of 900 years ago left behind them more enduring structures than may be found in any abandoned logging camp.

Skeptical visitors sometimes smile at the conceited Bostonians for boasting in bronze that their town was specially discovered before the rest of America. That statue of Leif was piously unveiled in the latter part of the 19th century by Prof Horsford and his disciples, who also set up on the bank of the Charles, in Newton, a tower to mark the site of the Norse metropolis, the vanished city of Norumbega. Still, in the age when the yellow-haired sea Kings of Scandinavia were erecting their rude thrones in Ireland, France, England, Sicily and in Russia, colonizing Iceland and Greenland, and restlessly wandering over the uncharted Atlantic, who can say they did not visit the Hub of the Universe? Or that they did?

Leif himself passed only one Winter in the land he had found, but two of his brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law went on voyages to it in the course of a dozen years. Leif did not see an inhabitant while he was in the country, but Brother Thorwald, who came in 1002, discovered nine "Skrallings" hiding under their canoes, and his "iron-armed and stalwart crew" killed eight of them as if they were wild beasts. Unluckily for him, the ninth got away and swiftly brought back a mob of avengers, who let fly an arrow that went straight to its mark in the breast of Thorwald. Thus the white man first met the red.

Next Brother Thorstein sailed to recover the body of Thorwald, but he himself died before he got clear of Greenland. Thereupon his pretty widow, Gudrid, promptly remarried and coaxed her new groom, Thorfinn Karlsefin, to go on a wedding tour to Vineland in 1007. And the first white child born in the New World blessed their union. Unhappily the Norse had started a fight with a people gifted with a long memory, and they retreated homeward, after three years and the loss of many men.

A tiger-hearted sister of Leif ventured in 1011 where her brothers and a sister-in-law had failed, and she was joined by a party from Iceland. Having the larger and better boat, the Icelanders arrived in advance of the Greenlanders, and Sister Freydis was furious when she found them installed in the camp that Brother Leif had built. She drove them out and finally egged on her party to kill every man of them. Only the women of the Icelanders were spared, and Freydis herself, seizing an axe, laid open the heads of all five.

The female of the species again proved herself fiercer than the male, when hostile Indians swarmed upon the Norse, who had been giving them for their furs ever narrower and narrower strips of red cloth, until the strips were "no wider than a finger." The attackers advance with a huge bladder or inflated skin, which they exploded with such a terrifying bang as to put to flight the defenders of the camp. Only the amazon of the Vikings, sword in hand, stood her ground, and she cowed the foe by facing them with her breasts bared to their arrows and tomahawks.

Vain were all the efforts of the Norse to plant themselves in the New World. The white man had met the red with force and violence and scorned him as an inferior. Until he should acquire the secret of firearms he would remain on only an equal footing with the aborigine and could not hold his own in a land strange to him.

With Leif Ericsson spurning his "wicked sister," on her return to Greenland in the stolen boat of the murdered Icelanders, the Sagas closed the drama of Vineland. The drop curtain was lowered upon the American state for 500 years.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 3, 1927, p. 14