History of Vikings in Newfoundland and Labrador
If you’re looking to find your way back in time, you can do so at the tip of the Northern Peninsula at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Here, you’ll find the earliest evidence of Europeans in North America in the form of the remains of a Norse settlement. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, L’Anse aux Meadows is sure to impress anyone who makes it a destination on their Newfoundland and Labrador adventure.
The site was located by archeologists in the 1960's using material from the Vinland Sagas, which was a document written in the 13th century from the 300 years of oral history passed down through generations.
The first known Europeans to set foot in Newfoundland and Labrador, and indeed the Western world, were the Norse of Scandinavia who landed here about a thousand years ago. Erik the Red, an explorer exiled from his home in Norway, had gathered groups of people to follow him on an exploration for new land. Unfortunately, not all that attempted the journey made it successfully, and one group in particular drifted south in a storm. They spotted mysterious land along the way, noting that it couldn’t have been the land they had set out for originally, and continued to get back on course to eventually land in their destination, Greenland. Upon arrival, word was spread about the land that had been spotted along the misguided travels of one of the groups, but this new discovery didn’t immediately interest the Greenland colonists, as they had just arrived and were still establishing themselves.
A return trip to the aforementioned land was not inspired until nearly a decade later, when Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, went to explore what had been previously glimpsed. While populations in Greenland were increasing, habitable land was not. Leif knew that this would inspire discontent, and this became one of his main motivations to explore new land further.
On his journey, Leif passed several lands with different landscapes that he called “Helluland” and “Markland” (likely Baffin Island and Southern Labrador). Eventually he reached a land that he referred to as “Vinland”. The area itself is hard to pinpoint due to contradictions between verbal/written descriptions and sailing directions but is very likely the general area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from New Brunswick to the Island of Newfoundland. There were grassy meadows, rivers flowing with salmon, and enough resources to live there through winter.
L’Anse aux Meadows
Known for being farmers, colonists and explorers, the Norse used L’Anse aux Meadows primarily as a base camp. One of the theories goes that the distinctive coastline made it an easy port to find and return to. After arriving, they proceeded to set about building “stofas” (Viking communal houses), in typical Greenland Norse fashion, with sod-walls and peaked roofs of timber and sod. With resources like timber and furs being so plentiful in this newly explored land, trade was established between Vinland and Greenland. Journeys to and from Greenland eventually brought other family members, resources, and livestock to the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows as well.
In order to promote colonization of his new land, Leif convinced Greenlanders that Vinland’s timber was better, more accessible, and more plentiful than timber from Norway. Suffering from overpopulation and plague, the resources from L’Anse aux Meadows helped Greenland to get back on their feet at one of their weakest points.
During their visits to L'Anse Aux Meadows, the Norse likely would have had contact with Indigenous groups who had been inhabiting the Northern Peninsula of the island. Most likely these people were Beothuk ancestors. Archeological traces of the Maritime Archaic First Nation, Groswater Pre-Inuit, Dorset Pre-Inuit, Intermediate First Nation and Beothuk ancestors have been found there too.The first Indigenous inhabitants of the Northern Peninsula date as far back as 5500 years ago.
The Norse are said to have occupied this land for a total of approximately 10 years over the course of a 30-year time period, but despite Leif’s best efforts, their time was not followed by successful settlement. Archaeological evidence found at L’Anse aux Meadows suggests that while the habitation was used as a seasonal camp, the land was eventually abandoned. However, the importance of L’Anse aux Meadows remains that it is the only place where actual evidence of Vikings that withstands scientific scrutiny has been found.
Today, you can try blacksmithing or weaving at the Viking encampment and talk to characters who will bring the Viking history to life. In the evenings, gather around the skáli (kitchen) and hear heroic and tragic tales of Thor, Loki, Erik the Red, and more from the Sagas. Just two kilometres down the road from L'Anse aux Meadows is Norstead, a recreated Viking port of trade. Although not a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, here you can challenge yourself with a traditional Norse game, learn to throw an axe, spin yarn, or take a pottery lesson. You can also step aboard Snorri; a replica of the Viking ship that retraced Erikson's course from Greenland to L’Anse aux Meadows.