Days of the Discoverers Part 3

"'K'putuswin' means 'let us take council.' They want to have a talk."

He managed to convey his assent to the unseen listeners, and every tree, rock and log sprouted Skroelings. They were quite unlike the natives of Greenland, though of copper-colored complexion.[5] These men--there were no women among them,--were tall and sinewy, and wore their coarse black hair knotted up on the head with a tuft of feathers. They were naked to the waist, and wore fringed breeches of deerskin, and soft shoes embroidered in bright colors. Some had necklaces of bears' claws, beads or shells, but the only weapons seemed to be the bow and arrow and a stone-headed hatchet or club. They stared at the white man half curiously and half threateningly.

Then began the queerest conversation that any one present had ever heard. Thorolf discovered the wild men's language to be so nearly like that learned from the Wind-wife that he could understand it when spoken slowly, and in a halting fashion could make them comprehend him. His companions listened in wonder. Not even Anders had really believed in that language.

At last Thorolf held out his hand, and the leader of the Skroelings came forward in a very gingerly manner and took it. Then walking in single file, toes pointed straight forward, the savages melted into the forest as frost melts in sunshine.

With a broad grin, the first he had worn for some time, Thorolf translated.

"He asked why we came here. I told him, to see the country and trade with his people. He says that white men have come here before, very long ago. I think they were killed and he did not wish to say so. He says that the Sagem, the jarl of his people, lives in a castle over there somewhere. I told him to give the Sagem greeting from our commander, and invite him to visit the place where our ships are. He says that it will not be safe for us to go further into the forest until the Skroelings have heard who we are and what we are doing here."

"That is very good advice," said Anders with a wry face, as he plucked some moss to stanch the wound in his arm. The arrow-head which had made it was a shaped piece of flint bound to the shaft with cords of fine sinew. "We are too few to get into a general fight. Besides, that is not in our orders."

They accordingly went back to the ships, arriving a little before sundown. Knutson was greatly interested.

"You have done well," he said. "A boat was hovering about soon after you left. This may have been a scouting party sent through the forest to cut you off."

All the next day they waited, but nothing happened. On the morning after, a large number of boats appeared rounding the headland to the south. In the largest sat the Sagem, a very old man wrapped in furs. The boats were made of birchbark laced on a wooden framework with fibrous roots, like the toy skiff Mother Elle had made for little Peder.

The Skroelings landed, and advanced with great dignity to meet Knutson, who was equally ceremonious. Nils and Thorolf had all they could do to interpret the old chief's long speech, although many phrases were repeated again and again, which made it easier. Knutson made one in reply, briefer but quite as polite, and brought out beads, little knives, and scarlet cloth from his trading stores. The red cloth and beads were received with eagerness, the knives with interest, and after a young chief had cut himself, with some awe. The Sagem in his turn presented the stranger with skins of the sable, the silver fox and the bear. He and a few of the warriors tasted of the food offered them, and all the white men were asked to a feast in the village the next day.

So friendly were the Skroelings, in fact, that Knutson determined to return to Greenland and see what could be done toward founding a settlement here. He would leave part of the men in winter quarters, with the _Rotge_ as a means of further explorations, or if necessary, of escape. Her captain, Gustav Sigerson, was a cautious, wise and experienced seaman. Anders Amundson, as the best hunter of the expedition, was to stay, with Nils as clerk and Thorolf as interpreter.

Booths were erected, stores landed, and on a brilliant day in late summer some forty Norsemen and Gothlanders on the shore watched the _Gudrid_ slowly fading out of sight.

In talking with the natives Nils and Thorolf observed that their world seemed to be infested with demons--particularly water-fiends. A reason for this appeared in time. Half a dozen men one day took the stern-boat and went a-fishing. They came back white-faced, with a story of a giant squid with arms four times as long as the boat, that had risen out of the sea and tried to pull them under. Only their skill as rowers had saved them. Nils remembered the kraken, of ancient legends, and thought he could see why the Skroelings never ventured out to sea in their frail canoes. This put an end to plans for exploring along the coast.

The winter was colder than they had expected. This land, so much further south than Norway, was bitten by frost as Norway never was. There is something in intense cold which is inhuman. When men are shut up together in exile by it, all that is bad in them is likely to crop out.

It might have been worse but for the fortunate friendliness of the Skroelings. When scurvy appeared in the camp, their first acquaintance, Munumqueh (woodchuck) had his women brew a drink which cured it. He showed the white men also how to make pemmican, the compressed meat ration of native hunters, and how to construct and use a birch canoe, a pair of snowshoes, and a fire-drill. Gustav Sigerson died in the spring, and Nils was chosen captain. He and Munumqueh became great cronies, and exchanged names, Nils being thereafter known to his native friends as the Woodchuck, and bestowing upon Munumqueh the proud name of his grandfather, Nils the Bear-Slayer.

"It will never do for us to sit quiet here until Knutson returns," said Nils when at Midsummer nothing had been seen of the ships. "We shall be at one another's throats or quarreling with the savages." He had been inquiring about the nature of the country, and had learned that westward a great river led to five inland seas, so connected that canoes could go from one to another. Along this chain of waters lived tribes who spoke somewhat the same language and traded with one another. Southward lived a warlike people who sometimes attacked the lake tribes. Beyond the last of the lakes they did not know what the country was like. The waters inland were not troubled with the water-demon so far as they knew. Nils, Anders and Thorolf held a council and decided to explore the wilderness as far as they could go in the _Rotge_. It was nothing more than all their ancestors had done. Often, in their invasions of England, France and other unknown regions Vikings had gone up one river and come down another, and the _Rotge_, for all her iron strength, was no more than a wooden shell when stripped.[6]

They set forth, escorted by a flotilla of small canoes, on a clear summer morning, and found their progress surprisingly easy. Fish, game and berries were plentiful, the villages along the river supplied corn and beans, and though it was not always easy to drag the _Rotge_ around the carrying-places pointed out by their native guides, they did not have to turn back. It was a proud moment when the undefeated crew launched their "water-snake" as the Skroelings called her, on the shining waters of a great inland sea.

The journey had been a far longer one than they expected, and to natives of any other country would have been much more exciting than it was to the Norsemen.[7] They had seen cliffs a thousand feet high, cataracts, rapids, a multitude of wooded islands, narrow valleys where floating misty clouds came and went and the sky looked like a riband. But the precipice above Naero Fiord rises four thousand perpendicular feet, and the water which laps its base is thousands of feet in depth. The Skjaeggedalsfos is loftier than Niagara, and the mist-maidens dance along the perilous pathways of a hundred Norwegian cliffs. Nils and Thorolf agreed that the Wind-wife was right when she said that the country of the Skroelings was like Norway but had no end.

"The trouble is," reflected Nils as he set down the day's happenings on a birch-bark scroll, "that nobody will believe us when we tell how great the land is."

At the end of the fifth and largest lake they found people with some knowledge of the country beyond. It seemed that after crossing the Big Woods one came to great open plains where a ferocious and cruel race of warriors hunted animals as large as the moose, with hoofs and short horns and curly brown fur. This sounded like a cattle country. The lake tribes evidently stood in great fear of the plains people, but in spite of their evident alarm the Norsemen determined to go and see for themselves.[8] Leaving the boat with ten of their company to guard it they struck off southwestward through a country of forests, lakes and streams. After fourteen days they stopped to make camp and go a-fishing, for dried fish would be the most convenient ration for a quick march, and they did not intend to spend much more time in exploring.

It seemed to Nils and Thorolf that some mark or monument should be left to show how far they had really come. A small natural column of dark trap rock was chosen, and while the others fished, or made a seine after the native fashion, Nils marked out an inscription in Runic letters, which are suited to rough work. Not far from the place where they found the stone, and about a day's journey from camp, was a small high island in a little lake, the kind of place usually chosen by Vikings for a first camp. The stone, set in the middle of this island, would be easily seen by any one looking for it, and savages would not see it at all.

When finished it was rafted across to the island and set up, the inscription covering about half of it on both sides. While Nils and several others were thus busy, the remainder of the party were trying the seine. They reached camp after dark to find their booths in ashes, and Nils with his men murdered a little way off, as they had come up from the Rune Stone.[9]


With fury and horror the Norsemen looked upon the destruction. It was all Thorolf and the cooler heads could do to keep the rest from attacking the first Skroelings they saw. But the mischief had been done, without doubt, by the unknown warriors of the plains, who had been perhaps watching their advance. They sadly prepared to return to their boat. But before they went, Thorolf paddled out to the island on two logs, while the others kept guard, and added some lines to the inscription on the stone.

They never saw their Vinland again. Knutson, finding the King fighting hard against the Danes, gave no further thought to the wilderness.

Thorolf and a handful of his men finally reached Bergen; Anders stayed in Greenland. More than five centuries afterward, a Scandinavian farmer, grubbing for stumps in a Minnesota marsh, found overgrown by the roots of a tulip tree a stone with an inscription in Runic letters, took it to learned men and had it translated.

"8 Goths and 22 Norsemen upon journey of discovery from Vinland westward. We had camp by two rocks one day's journey from this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we returned home we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM save us from evil. have ten men by the sea to look after our ship 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362."


[1] Skal or skoal was the Norwegian word used in drinking a health.

[2] The description of the Norse galley is taken from Du Chaillu's "Land of the Midnight Sun," in which the construction of one which was unearthed at Nydam in Jutland is described (Vol. I. 380). The galley "Viking" built in Norway on the model of an actual Viking ship of the early Middle Ages, was taken across the Atlantic in 1893 by a Norwegian crew of fourteen, anchoring in Lake Michigan, after a voyage in which they had no shelter except an awning and cooked their own food as best they could.

[3] The question of the actual whereabouts of Leif Ericsson's booths and Thorfin Karlsefne's later settlement has never been positively decided.

The Knutson expedition to Greenland is an historical fact. It left Norway about 1354 and returned about 1364. It is not positively known that Knutson attempted the rediscovery of Vinland, unless what is known as the Kensington Rune Stone is evidence of it. The writer has adopted the theory that he did take a party southward, landing at Halifax, and left a part of his men there, intending to return with more colonists; that on returning to Norway he found the country in the throes of war and abandoned any thought of further settlement, leaving his men to find their way back as they could.

[4] The Indian phrases and legends referred to as learned by the Wind-wife are Abenaki.

[5] According to historians the region along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes was for a long time inhabited by tribes belonging to the great Ojibway nation. Their territory extended nearly to the western boundary of what is now Minnesota. Southward were the tribes later known as Iroquois.

[6] Accounts of the open galleys of the Northmen agree in describing them as small and light compared with the later decked ships. The open "sea-serpent" of forty-two feet, with her mast unshipped was heavier but not much bigger than the largest Indian carrying-canoes such as were used in the fur-trade, and these were taken from the St. Lawrence through the Great Lakes. Vikings landing in Europe were prepared not only to return by a new route but even to take their boats apart or build new ones if necessary.

[7] Bayard Taylor, visiting the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence immediately after a sojourn in Norway, speaks of his inability to be impressed as others had been, by the height of the cliffs and waterfalls of Canada, although fully appreciating the beauty of the scenery.

[Footnote 8: The Sioux or Dakotas, who occupied the Great Plains, were hereditary enemies of the Ojibways. In the Ojibway language one name for these Plains Indians indicated that they were in the habit of mutilating their victims.]

[9] The monument known as the Kensington Rune Stone was found near Kensington, Minnesota, and is fully described in the reports of the Minnesota Historical Society. It was the subject of many arguments at first. Well known authorities pronounced it a forgery, while other well known authorities declared it genuine. It was pointed out that the language used was not that of the time of Leif Ericsson, but much more modern; but later it was found that the inscription was exactly such as would have been written about the middle of the fourteenth century, when Knutson's expedition was in Greenland. Aside from the obvious lack of motive for a forgery, investigation showed that neither the farmer nor any one who might have been in a position to bury the stone where it was found had any knowledge of Runic writing. Moreover, if the stone had been a forgery it would seem that the forger would have used the name of some well known leader, whereas no name is mentioned. If Knutson had been with the expedition he would certainly have seen to it that his presence was recorded.

Otter Tail Lake, just north of the place where the stone was discovered, was one of the points marking the boundary between the Ojibway and Dakota country. The position of the runes on the stone is precisely what it would be if the inscription had been finished, or nearly finished, as a guide to future exploration, and the account of the massacre added as a warning.

A song commonly sung at the time of the Black Death contains the lines:

"The Black Plague sped over land and sea And swept so many a board.

That will I now most surely believe, It was not with the Lord's will.

Help us God and Mary, Save us all from evil."


We were Prince Henry's gentlemen,-- His gentlemen were we, To dare the gods of Heathendom, Whoever they might be,-- To do our master's sovereign will Upon a trackless sea.

We were Prince Henry's gentlemen, And undismayed we went To fight for Lusitania Wherever we were sent,-- The stars had laid our course for us, And we were well content.

We were Prince Henry's gentlemen, And though our flagship lie Where white the great-winged albatross Came wheeling down the sky, Or black abysses yawned for us, We could not fear to die.

We were Prince Henry's gentlemen,-- Around the Cape of Wrath We sailed our wooden cockleshells-- Great pride the pilot hath To voyage to-day the Indian Sea-- But we marked out his path!

Chapter end

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