05 February 2010

Historical Perspective of the Greenland Vikings(3)

3 - Had the Northmen been more amicable toward the people they initially contacted, a very different early history for North America might have resulted. Instead, the sagas tell us they cheated in trade, killed the natives indiscriminately, and eventually had them so incensed that a state of war existed, making all attempts at settlement impossible. At least that is the presently accepted theory among academics.

By today’s standards, the Northmen were a cruel and savage nationality. The Dark Ages, in which they existed and became a force with which to be reckoned, was a period of eight hundred years of almost continuous warfare. The Northmen were some of the most accomplished warriors of that violent time.

The native tribes they came in contact with seemed to tolerate their presence better when the Northmen came only to trade. Any attempt at permanent settlement - Hop, Straumfjord, and Leifsbudir - always led to violent confrontation.

This situation only existed initially. We know nothing about the remainder of the four hundred years of association between the Northmen and the people we now collectively refer to as Indians. And there most certainly was an association.

Greenlanders referred to the indigenous people of North America as Skraelings, generally thought to be an epithet, but the meaning is not known. We do not know whether Skraeling is a reference to the Tornit (pronounced Dornit) they contacted initially, the Inuit (Eskimo) who followed the Tornit later in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, or includes all the indigenous people they contacted.

Some believe that the Northmen interbred with the Inuit of Baffin Island and other groups of people in the far north, as tall, fair-skinned Inuit were reported by the next influx of explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is not a fanciful contention at all when consideration is given to the fact that women were always in short supply. The lack of sufficient females caused many fights and blood feuds among the Northmen.

Farther south the Northmen contacted ancestors of several other Indian tribes. At some point approximately one thousand years ago the ancestors of Indian tribes we now identify as belonging to the Algonquian and Iroquoian language groups, e.g., Ojibwa, Cree, Huron, Mohawk, Iroquois, etc, began to emerge. Various tribal bands of these people occupied all the land from Hudson Bay, south to Lake Superior, and east to the Canadian Maritimes, the area in which this story takes place. They fought over the hunting grounds and ancestral lands annually, alternately claiming or losing lands as ongoing warfare involved subsequent generations.

We do not know what they called themselves one thousand years ago. It is believed by some that they referred to themselves simply as the People. Most still have a name in their language that translates to the People. I have endeavored to use their names for themselves, if we know it, or a diminutive of that name, throughout this novel.

The two known Norse Greenland colonies prospered into the late fifteenth century. The population eventually swelled to as many as four thousand people at any given time, spread among farms in the areas around these settlements.

At some point late in the fourteenth or early in the fifteenth century, all settlement attempts and trading voyages to Greenland from Iceland and other points to the east were abandoned. Sometime in the middle of the fourteenth century (Western Settlement), and just after the turn of the fifteenth century (Eastern Settlement), the Greenland populations disappeared without a trace.

Perhaps most of the inhabitants of the Greenland settlements had already moved west having migrated to successful settlements already established by other Northmen with the native populations of North America over the ensuing years.

In any case, I maintain they eventually gave up the sea. Like thousands of their compatriots in Europe, they settled ashore. All impetus and desire for undertaking the perilous voyages became a thing of the distant past.

Around 1450, winters became colder in the far north, a lot colder. The ice in the harbors and fjords began remaining well into summer, and then it just remained. Greenland became uninhabitable for the Northmen. The Medieval Warm Period ended. A mini–ice age gripped the Arctic and northern portions of North America for the next four hundred years, into the last half of the nineteenth century.

During the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, a Catholic Prelate voyaged to Greenland, ostensibly to check on his flock. Although a few domestic animals grazed the hillsides, he found no people, living or dead. No ships, supplies, or tools remained. The people and their possessions had simply vanished into the mists of time.

The Icelandic bishop Gisli Oddsson, quoting church records, stated in the sixteenth or seventeenth century (the exact date is unknown) that the Norse Greenlanders joined the natives of America in 1342, giving up Christianity in the process. The record notes a firm date for the migration, not sometime in the fourteenth century.

We know three things for certain if one considers the disappearance of these people objectively: They did not sail to Iceland or Europe; they did not remain on Greenland until they died of hunger or exposure; they did not simply disappear. No, they had been migrating slowly to North America for five hundred years. Assimilation with the indigenous peoples became, over time, the Norse Greenlanders’ only option for survival. It is the only logical answer to the one-thousand-year-old mystery.

Since their assimilation, almost everything the Northmen left behind on this continent has turned to dust, become locked under the permafrost, or disappeared under many feet of debris in the forests and along the seashores of North America.

I have attempted to tell a tale of what might have happened, what could have happened, and considering the options available, what probably did happen to the Norse Greenlanders.

More than 40–generations have elapsed since they came to this continent. Now their very existence, everything they accomplished, has faded from the collective memory of all the peoples they contacted and lived among.

I prefer to believe the four thousand live on however, their genetic makeup diluted by the intervening centuries of time. They are still here, smiling back at us from the faces of the Inuit Greenlanders, Cree, Ojibwa, and Iroquois with whom they joined so long ago.

***
This third installment ends the serialization of the Historical Perspective of the Greenland Vikings that appeared in the first book of Axe of Iron series, The Settlers. The original text with copious endnotes may be viewed on my website  under the Free Stuff button, for those readers with a scholarly interest in this topic.

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