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CHAPTER 1: The First Warriors

The Encounter With The Vikings (4 pages)

The Skraelings

Viking ships, circa 1000

Viking ships, circa 1000
(Click image to enlarge)

According to the first European explorers, all the various peoples scattered across America had warlike traditions. The oldest known accounts, the Icelandic sagas, recount the mostly conflictual encounters between the Vikings and the natives around the year 1000 A.D. Long believed to be simply legends, the tales that make up the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eric the Red were confirmed a few decades ago by important archeological discoveries, especially that of a Viking settlement in l'Anse aux Meadows at the tip of Newfoundland's northern peninsula. It would seem indeed that this was the Vinland of the sagas.

To what group did the indigenous warriors who were audacious enough to attack Viking colonies belong? Some indications would lead one to believe that they were Inuit, and others, that they were Amerindians. The Scandinavians called them Skraelings, a word which encompassed all indigenous peoples without distinction. The Saga of Eric the Red described the natives as short in stature, dressed in skins, with dark complexions and stiff hair, large eyes and prominent cheekbones. Were these natives inhabiting Vinland (today's Newfoundland and part of astern Quebec) around the year 1000 the ancestors of the Beothuks and Algonquins of the historical period?

According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, a Viking attack on nine natives, whom they had found lying under their three boats made of skins, marked the first exchange between the two peoples. Only one of the Skraelings escaped the massacre and managed to flee. In general, the Vikings took no prisoners unless they had some purpose in mind. One of their most formidable practices was the strandhogg, or a kind of raid that they conducted on coastal villages in order to seize livestock and food. They also carried off young girls and strong children to sell them as slaves. Other inhabitants who did not succeed in fleeing were often massacred on the spot. It was possibly a strandhogg to which the nine Skraelings fell victim. Shortly thereafter, other indigenous people came in "large numbers of boats made of skin" to attack the Viking ship. They were armed with bows which they used skillfully, killing Thorvald, the Viking leader, with an arrow. Despite this confrontation, the Vikings remained another two years in Vinland before returning to Greenland.

Additional Images (Click image to enlarge)

  • Reconstructed earth and timber house at l’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland