In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I’m sure you’re familiar with the singsong mnemonic meant for remembering the year Christopher Columbus stumbled upon islands in the Caribbean. This set off a chain reaction of European exploration that transformed two continents. But did you know Viking explorers actually reached North America 500 years before Columbus? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In this episode, we’re exploring Vikings - how their ships landed in North America half a millennium before other Europeans and why history forgot about it.
Just gotta set the record straight real quick before we get into this one. Christopher Columbus did not “discover” the “New World.” Nor did the Vikings. When these groups arrived from Europe there were already tons of people living and thriving in the quote unquote “New World.” Whole civilizations, advanced civilizations, arguably more advanced even than the festering cities of Europe. You can’t “discover” something that an estimated 60 million people already know about. 60 million. That’s how many indigenous people we think lived in the Americas when Columbus arrived in 1492. To call that a discovery, as if you were the first human there, means you think those 60 million people are something less than human. Which sadly, was exactly the case at the time. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep referring to these exploits as discoveries, it’s incredibly offensive.
Alright, so if Columbus and the Vikings didn’t “discover” the Americas, then who did? This is where history and science blur together in a beautiful union called anthroplogy. I love it. I almost majored in anthropology in college until I hit a little section at the very back of my text book titled “Career Opportunities in Anthropology.” And then it proceeded to say, in a manner of words, there are none. Not kidding, it basically said that. So that dream was crushed.
Anyway, most anthropologists believe the first humans were hunters who walked to North America during the ice age, crossing the Bering Land bridge that appeared between Siberian, Russia and Alaska. Now that area is underwater. It’s called the Bering Strait and it’s only 55 miles wide at its narrowest point. Russia and Alaska are like a stones throw apart so it’s not an unrealistic theory. All that water frozen up in ice, it would have exposed land that is today underwater. It also explains why indigenous people of the Americas share a majority of their DNA with Asian people and even resemble them somewhat physically.
Now, when these people first arrived is a topic of debate. Many anthropologists would say around 14,000 years ago, during the last ice age. Others would tell you that a group arrived even earlier, around 30,000 years ago. The truth is… they have no idea. Regardless, it was well before the arrival of the Vikings in 1000 AD and Columbus who sailed for Spain in 1492.
So, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about Vikings. This one is a doozy. Who were the Vikings? Well, “Viking” is an interesting term. It comes from a medieval Scandinavian word “vikangr” which meant someone who went raiding, essentially a pirate. “Viking” was actually a verb that meant “raiding.” So I guess the verb is “to vike” but I don’t know, I obviously don’t speak old norse.
Today we think of Vikings as a race of people or an ethnic group even like African, Asian, Viking. That’s not the case. Vikings were Scandinavians, norsemen, as they were called then. They mostly came from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. But not all of the people living in those places were Vikings. They were just norsemen. Just white people from way up there in northern Europe. Some of them were even Sami, the indigenous people of that region with darker hair and skin.
The term “Viking” refers specifically to norsemen who took to the sea to rob, pillage, and conquer other areas. Pirates. Vikings were pirates, basically. There are modern day pirates off the coast of Somalia in East Africa but you wouldn’t call all Somali people pirates. So that’s one Viking misconception we needed to get out of the way early on. All Vikings are norsemen but not all norsemen are Vikings
The Viking Age, as it is called, began in 793 when a monastery in northeastern England was attacked by Vikings. After that initial attack, Europe freaks out. The Vikings are terrifying. They have these super advanced ships that could travel 50 miles in one day. They could be lifted by just 10 men and carried up rivers. They have complete dominance of the sea.
The people themselves are super intimidating. Draped in animal skins with metal helmets, they painted their bearded faces red, blue, and black, wielding axes… They didn’t have the horns on their helmets though, that’s a complete myth. That would have actually been really stupid in battle. Can you imagine? Someone swings at you with a club or a sword and it gets stuck in your little horn and rips your helmet off. Just, no, not a thing. They also weren’t as tall as people think. Viking skeletons only get to like 5’8. Which I suppose was tall for the time but today, no.
But they were incredibly daring and brave. These guys were fierce. They worshiped pagan gods - Odin and Thor - and part of their religion was the belief that fallen warriors, only the bravest ones, would go to a place called Valhalla, basically a utopian paradise where they would serve Odin in preparing for the end of the world they called Ragnarok. It was the highest honor. They were so down to die in battle and that made them pretty much fearless.
Some Vikings, called berserkers, fought under the influence of alcohol and drugs, often hallucinogenic mushrooms. These guys just went nuts. They fought without armor, mostly naked, they used their teeth and their nails, they even killed other vikings, just brutal. They were so out of their minds they didn’t even feel pain. This is actually where the term “berserk” comes from, if you’ve ever heard anyone say “going berserk,” which means to act crazy, wild, totally out of control. It sort of reminds me of those news stories about people on bath salts just completely losing their minds and trying eat people. That’s basically a berserker so… yikes.
Vikings are starting to attack more and more, mostly England and France and they tend to hit monasteries. They have a lot of valuables there and they aren’t very well protected like a castle would be. Historically, monasteries didn’t need to be protected. Everyone just left religious places alone, it was like bad juju to attack a monastery. But Vikings are not Christians. They don’t care about monasteries and churches or holy religious anything. This of course made them even more terrifying to their victims. They were godless heathens. Was there anything more frightening than that?
In 845 Vikings attack Paris. The king, Charles II or Charles the Bald as he was called, poor guy, knows he can’t stop them in battle so he pays them a lot of money to make them go away. Well this backfires spectacularly. Now Vikings start just scaring cities into paying them off. They’re basically being bankrolled by the kingdoms of Europe. This is exactly why we don’t negotiate with terrorists. They got so much money this way that 6 times as many British coins from this time period have been found in Scandinavia than in Britain. They are raking it in and with all of that money they are becoming more and more successful and powerful in Northern Europe. They’re building an empire called the North Sea Empire that will eventually be second only to the Holy Roman Empire to the southeast.
By 879 Danish Vikings control half of England and honestly, they’re making it better, which is kind of crazy. When Ivar the Boneless, which is there a more Viking name than Ivar the Boneless? When he conquered modern day York in 866 it was just a bunch of dirty wooden shacks. People were living in filth, covered in fleas and lice. They didn’t bathe. The Vikings bathed daily. Ivar killed the king and started a colony there. They paved the streets, built a bridge over the river, minted their own coins. I know they were “godless heathens” or whatever but they kind of had it figured out. There’s a level of sophistication in that madness which is very interesting.
You can also see this sophistication in the way women were treated. Viking women had way more respect and prestige than anglo saxon women. They were responsible for managing the food for the clan. Which, when you live essentially in the North Pole is a really big deal. You have to be strategic with food when winters are that brutal. If you don’t have enough going into winter, a lot of people are going to die. So because of that, women were much more respected, they were essential, they controlled who ate and who starved.
They also ruled in their own right. Aud the Deep Minded which, pretty sweet name, ruled as a clan chief in Iceland and even received a Viking ship burial which was reserved for only the most prestigious members of society.
So the Danish Vikings are taking over England. The Swedish Vikings are heading east into the Baltic area and even down into the middle east. The Norwegian Vikings are heading west to Ireland. They actually established the city of Dublin. Then they hop in their boats and they go to Iceland. There are no indigenous people in Iceland so it’s pretty ideal. They can just set up shop. They don’t even have to conquer anyone.
In 950 Erik the Red immigrates from Norway to Iceland as a baby. His father basically got kicked out of Norway for murdering someone and they go to Iceland because it’s like a Norwegian Viking colony basically.
He’s called Erik the Red because he has red hair but also a really bad temper. Like father, like son, he murders someone in Iceland and also gets kicked out. He heads west, much like his father before him, and finds himself on an even larger land mass that he calls Greenland. But Greenland is kind of awful. It’s super cold and icy there. It’s not green at all. He calls it Greenland because he wants to trick people back in Iceland into helping him colonize it. I mean, if you lived in a place called Ice-land and were asked to move to a place called Green-land, wouldn’t you be sort of tempted? I guess some were because he returns to Greenland with a crew and they set up a colony there that lasted for 400 years.
In 985 a Viking ship from Greenland gets blown off course. They didn’t have compasses or any navigational tools like that. They just knew how to read the winds and they knew what signs and smells to look for that meant they were nearing land. They just used a lot of seafaring wisdom, I suppose. And they were just stupid brave because of the whole Valhalla thing. So this ship gets blown off course and they spot a landmass way off to the west of Greenland. They manage to make their way back to Greenland and they tell everyone that they saw this new land.
Enter Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red. That’s why his name is Erikson… Erik… Son. Leif wants to find that land. He heads off west with his crew and they eventually stumble upon what is now called Newfoundland in Canada. They call it Vinland though because of all the grape vines. Vikings really liked wine so they were pretty happy about that. They set up a short lived settlement there and, evidence suggests, possibly explored as far south as New York although it’s difficult to tell where they actually traveled and where artifacts just ended up because of trade with the indigenous people. For example, an 11th century norse penny was found at an indigenous site on the coast of Maine. That obviously suggests trade. Did the Vikings themselves ever set foot in Maine. That’s harder to prove.
For the longest time, the only reason we even suspected that they made it to Canada were these 2 Norse sagas, basically like epic poems that were written about the explorations a few centuries later. But it’s really difficult to tell if these are fact or fiction. They are obviously embellished, they even contradict each other. So is it literature or history? It’s not great evidence.
That’s probably part of the reason why Columbus got all the credit when it comes to European exploration of the Americas. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Why did Columbus get all the credit? The answer may surprise you. What it really comes down to is, the descendents of Vikings were not a dominant group in America when that was decided. They were here, of course. My great great grandfather Torvald Torgrimson immigrated from Norway in the 1880s. Not that he was a Viking but a descendent, quite possibly. But Scandinavian immigrants were not a huge group at that time. Italians were though.
Christopher Colombus was Italian. That’s an anglicized version of his name which was actually Cristoforo Colombo. A lot of people don’t realize that because he sailed for Spain but yeah, he was Italian. In the late 1800’s Italians were immigrating to the US by the literal boatload. And they were not highly respected. They faced a lot of unfair discrimination just for being Italian. Americans hated Italian immigrants and treated them like foreign invaders. Italians needed a champion and Christopher Columbus was that champion. Italian immigrants basically realize “Hey, Columbus started all of this. None of these people would be here without Columbus and he was Italian. Italians are actually the OG immigrants. We should be treated with more respect.” In 1907 an Italian immigrant who ran a newspaper in Colorado helped sponsor a bill proposing Columbus Day as a holiday and by 1934 it had become a Federal holiday and they started teaching school children everywhere that Columbus quote discovered America.
It also helped that Columbus’s exploits in the Americas actually led to something. The Vikings gave up on plans of colonizing pretty early on. Both groups faced serious conflict with indigenous groups but the European settlers that followed Columbus had a secret weapon they didn’t even know they had and that was infectious disease. Disease wiped out their adversaries by the millions. They just sat back and tried not to starve. Perhaps the Vikings, who actually, you know, took baths, didn’t carry these diseases.
Now at this point, 1934, when Columbus Day becomes a thing, we still aren’t even sure if the Vikings really made it to the Americas. Remember, it’s still all based on these literary works which, for all we know, could be completely made up. But that’s about to change. In 1960, the remains of a Viking encampment dating back to the year 1000 were discovered on the northern tip of Newfoundland Island. And everyone is like “OMG, maybe those norse sagas were actually true.” It was definitive proof that Vikings reached the Americas well before Columbus.
Interesting sidenote: New evidence based on genetic analysis of sweet potatoes (which are native to the Americas) suggests that Polynesian explorers also beat Columbus. Apparently they reached South America and brought sweet potatoes back to South East Asia and the Pacific Islands, definitely before Columbus but they aren’t sure if it was before the Vikings or not.
So Vikings definitely made it to Canada. There is concrete evidence as of that discovery in the 60s. So, what happened to the Vikings in Europe? Last we checked in, they were thriving and basically taking over everything.
Well, right around the time Leif Erikson landed on Newfoundland Island, a Danish Viking prince named Cnute was crowned king of England. The first Viking King of England. He came from a long line of Viking leaders. One in particular, his grandfather, you’ve actually heard of. His name was Harald Bluetooth. He united Denmark and Norway and bluetooth technology, like what you use to connect to wireless headphones or speakers, is named after him. I guess it has to do with the uniting of things. Denmark and Norway, phone and headphones… yeah I don’t know. But if you look at the bluetooth logo (it’s in your phone, you’ve seen it) it’s actually a rune symbol for H and B on top of each other. HB… Harald Bluetooth. It’s his initials.
So anyway Cnute takes over England. He’s a lot more civil than the Vikings that came before him. He repairs the churches and monasteries that they destroyed. But he’s never really accepted. In the words of William Fitzhugh who wrote the book “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.” Cnute basically too Christian for the Vikings and too Viking for the Christians. He dies, a couple of his sons take over, they die, and then in 1066 a Viking named Harald Hardrada, believing he has a right to the throne, sees an opportunity to take power and gives it a go. But a nobleman named Harald Godwinson challenges Viking Harald and wins. Godwinson takes the throne but, severely weakened by defeating Viking Harald, he gets destroyed soon after by William the Conqueror who comes from Normandy.
This is like real world Game of Thrones like, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Both Haralds die and William wins and he becomes William the first, king of England; he sits on the iron throne… or whatever England’s throne was made out of. Sorry we’re rewatching Game of Thrones right now so everything is Game of Thrones. But this kind of is right?? I mean… William the Conqueror, Battle of Hastings… no?
So Vikings basically die out with the death of Harald Hardrada… or do they? Ready for the twist? Stay with me. William the first came from Normandy in France. He is the ancestor of a Norse chieftain who attacked Paris in the 900s and set up Viking camp in Normandy, land of the norsemen. William is a Viking y’all. I mean not like in practice the Normans assimilated, and were loyal to the French. But his great great, great grandfather definitely was! And get this, every single British monarch since has been directly related to William the first. The late Queen Elizabeth II, for example, was his great x 27 granddaughter. More than 25% of the English population is related to William the first.That includes countless Americans with English ancestry as well.
So, when you consider that, the Vikings never really died out. The Vikings kind of still rule the world. And norsemen really have left their mark in more ways than just bluetooth. The days of the week for example - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday - these are named after Norse gods - Woden, Thor, Freyja. Trial by jury, what our judicial system is based on to this day, that’s a Viking thing. Words like port and starboard, window, give, dream - viking words. Hair combs - thank you Vikings, they really did take their personal hygiene seriously. Last names ending in “son” like Johnson, Wilson, Erikson… also a Viking thing.
Now I’m not trying to glorify Vikings. If you listened to my episode about Blackbeard you know how I feel about that. Vikings were pirates. They did terrible things. But that doesn’t change the fact that they reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. So, let’s go ahead and set that record straight. Sorry Italians.
I’m gonna go ahead and say it, Columbus Day is a silly holiday for a lot of reasons. I mean the man thought he was in India. He rolled up in the wrong hemisphere and this resulted in the destruction of 2 continents full of thriving civilizations. 60 million people cut down to 6 million. Can we just… let Columbus Day go?
The Vikings were also terrible, no doubt about that. They don’t need a holiday either. Leif Erikson day? No thanks. I’d like to propose we stop celebrating conquerors altogether actually, and start focusing on repairing the damage that they caused that’s still sending out shockwaves to this day.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from Smithsonian magazine articles called “Prehistoric Footprints Push Back Timeline of Humans’ Arrival in North America” and another called “The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America,” a History Channel article called “Harald Hardrada: The Last Viking,” another called “10 Things You May Not Know About William the Conqueror,” and a third called “6 Things We Owe to the Vikings,” an Express article called “Queen Elizabeth family tree: How monarch is related to LEGENDARY William the Conqueror”, scandivanivanfacts.com, Encyclopedia Britannica online, an NPR article called “How Columbus Sailed into US History, Thanks to Italians,” and a Short History of podcast episode about Vikings