THE POLAR EXPEDITIONS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTH-WEST PASSAGE, I
In the spring of 1007, three vessels carrying 160 men and some cattle, left Eriksfjord; the object in view was the foundation of a permanent colony. The emigrants after sighting Helluland, Markland, and Vinland, landed in an island, upon which they constructed some barracks and began the work of cultivation. But they must either have laid their plans badly, or have been wanting in foresight, for the winter found them without provisions, and they suffered cruelly from hunger. They had, however, the good sense to regain the continent, where in comparative ease, they could await the end of the winter.
At the beginning of 1008, they set out to seek for Leifsbudir, and settled themselves at Mount-Hope Bay, on the opposite shore to the old settlement of Leif. There, for the first time, some intercourse was held with the natives, called Skrellings in the sagas, and whom, from the manner in which they are portrayed, it is easy to recognize as Esquimaux. The first meeting was peaceable, and barter was carried on with them until the day when the desire of the Esquimaux to acquire iron hatchets, always prudently refused them by the Northmen, drove them to acts of aggression, which decided the new-comers, after three years of residence, to return to their own country, which they did without leaving behind them any lasting trace of their stay in the country.
It will be easily understood that we cannot give any detailed account of all the expeditions, which set out from Greenland, and succeeded each other on the coasts of Labrador and the United States. Those of our readers who wish for circumstantial details, should refer to M. Gabriel Gravier's interesting publication, the most complete work on the subject, and from which we have borrowed all that relates to the Norman expeditions.
The same year as Erik the Red landed in Greenland (983), a certain Hari Marson, being driven out of the ordinary course by storms, was cast upon the shores of a country known by the name of "White man's land," which extended according to Rafn from Chesapeake Bay to Florida.
What is the meaning of this name "White man's land"? Had some compatriots of Marson's already settled there? There is some reason to suppose so even from the words used in the chronicle. We can understand how interesting it would be, to be able to determine the nationality of these first colonists. However, the Sagas have not as yet revealed all their secrets. There are probably, some of them still unknown, and as those which have been successively discovered, have confirmed facts already admitted, there is every reason to hope that our knowledge of Icelandic navigation may become more precise.
Another legend, of which great part is mere romance, but which nevertheless, contains a foundation of truth, relates that a certain Bjorn, who was obliged to quit Iceland in consequence of an unfortunate passion, took refuge in the countries beyond Vinland, where in 1027, he was found by some of his countrymen.
In 1051, during another expedition, an Icelandic woman was killed by some Skrellings, and in 1867, a tomb was exhumed, bearing a runic inscription, and containing bones, and some articles of the toilet, which are now preserved in the museum at Washington. This discovery was made at the exact spot indicated in the Saga which related these events, and which was not itself discovered until 1863.
But the Northmen, established in Iceland and Greenland, were not the only people who frequented the coast of America about the year 1000, which is proved by the name of "Great Ireland," which was given to White man's land. As the history of Madoc-op-Owen proves, the Irish and Welsh founded colonies there, regarding which we have but little information, but vague and uncertain as it is, MM. d'Avezac and Gaffarel agree in recognizing its probability.
Having now said a few words upon the travels and settlements of the Northmen in Labrador, Vinland, and the more southern countries, we must return to the north. The colonies first founded in the neighbourhood of Cape Farewell, had not been slow in stretching along the western coast, which at this period was infinitely less desolate than it is at the present day, as far as northern latitudes, which were not again reached until our own day. Thus at this time they caught seals, walrus, and whales in the bay of Disco; there were 190 towns counted then in Westerbygd and eighty-six in Esterbygd, while at the present day, there are far fewer Danish settlements on these icy shores. These towns were probably only inconsiderable groups of those houses in stone and wood, of which so many ruins have been found from Cape Farewell, as far as Upernavik in about 72° 50'. At the same time numerous runic inscriptions, which have now been deciphered, have given a degree of absolute certainty to facts so long unknown. But how many of these vestiges of the past still remain to be discovered! how many of these valuable evidences of the bravery and spirit of enterprise of the Scandinavian race are for ever buried under the glaciers!