John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Precursors of the Cabots


Although John and Sebastian Cabot are universally accredited with the discovery of North America, in the sense of having brought it to the Old World's knowledge, it is a well-established fact that they were preceded by others. These were the Norsemen, who, sailing from Iceland in the latter part of the tenth century, formed a settlement in Greenland that existed for more than four hundred years, and began another, on the northeast coast of our continent, which, short-lived at best, long since passed out of memory.

As a Cabotian proem, therefore, we should first glance at the voyages of the only people who preceded these Venetians. The personalities of the Cabots are so indistinct, so faintly outlined in contemporaneous chronicles, that, it is believed, no excuse need be offered for subordinating them and their adventures to the great continent they discovered. It is, moreover, consonant with the plan of this Heroes of America  series to elucidate particularly the beginnings of whatever region its "hero" may have had his adventures in—as, for example, "Columbus and the West-Indies," "Vespucci and South America," "Cortes and Mexico," "Pizarro and Peru."

The prelude to North America's discovery by the actual heroes of this biography will now be discussed without further remarks of a prefatory nature. It is unfortunate, we must admit at the outset, that no complete records exist, or have ever been found, of either the Northmen's or the Cabots' voyages. Though they occurred five hundred years apart, many years passed away before the chief events of either were chronicled, hence neither story may be accepted as authentic in every detail. The Norse voyages, however, are of absorbing interest, and, says a learned investigator, "in dealing with the subject, we stand, for a great part of the time, on firm historic ground." More than this cannot, with truth, be said of the Cabotian voyages, the vessels engaged in which emerge for but a brief period from their age-long obscurity, their hulls and sails gleaming through mists only partially dissolved, then fade into oblivion again forever.

When the Norse Vikings the "Sons of the Fiords "—sailed in their dragon ships from Norway to Iceland, between the years 870 and 880, they had traversed two-thirds the distance that separates northwestern Europe from Greenland. Two years after the first Icelandic settlement was formed, or in the year 876, a too-venturesome Viking, Gunnbiorn by name, was stranded on the Greenland coast, where his ship was ice-enclosed for a whole winter. He made his way back to Iceland with tidings of a strange, new country; but though the two islands are only two hundred and fifty miles apart (less than half the distance between Iceland and Norway), more than a century slipped by before Greenland was visited again.

This visit will be detailed in the Saga of Eirek the Red, quoted in this chapter, and which has been declared by an accepted authority to be, taken as a whole, "a sober, straightforward, and eminently probable story." The account of the so-called Vinland voyages is based upon two sagas, one of which was probably written between 1305 and 1334, and the other about 1387. The latter is contained in a famous compilation known as the Flateyar Bok, because it once belonged to a man who lived on Flat Island, in one of Iceland's numerous fiords. It was probably copied from a more ancient manuscript since lost, or, at least, not at present known, but which may be concealed in some dwelling that has been buried by volcanic overflow.

Here follows

The Saga of Eirek the Red

There was a man named Thorvald, of goodly lineage. Thorvald and his son Eirek [or Eric] surnamed the Red, were compelled to fly from their home in Norway [984] on account of a homicide committed by them. They settled in Iceland (which at that time had been one hundred and nine years colonized). The father soon died, but Eirek seems to have inherited his quarrelsome spirit, for he became involved with his Icelandic neighbors, the result of which was another homicide, though the last quarrel appears to have originated in an injury unjustly inflicted upon him. He was, however, condemned by the court and outlawed, so he determined to fit a vessel and set out in search of the western land which Gunnbiorn had discovered, and where he had passed the winter of 876.

He and his friends set sail from Snafellsjokul, a mountain on the western coast of Iceland, for the "rocks of Gunnbiorn." At length they found land, and called the place Midjokul. Thence they coasted along the shore in a southerly direction, in order to learn whether it were habitable, and passed the first winter at Eirek'soe, or Eirek's island, the next spring fixing their residence at the head of Eireksfiord, which is thought to have been near the modern Julianeshaab. The fiord was very deep and gloomy, hidden within ice-covered headlands, but at its head the hardy voyagers found a smooth and grassy plain, where "may still be seen the ruins of seventeen houses, built of rough blocks of sandstone, their chinks calked up with clay and gravel." These were the habitations of Eirek and his followers, who during the summer of the same year explored the western part of the country, imposing names on various places. Eirek passed the following winter also in this land, but in the third summer he returned to Iceland. He called the land which he had thus discovered "Greenland," saying that men would be induced to emigrate thither by a name so inviting; but which, as a learned author has well said, is a "flagrant misnomer," and was at the time Eirek applied it.

These events happened fourteen or fifteen years before the Christian religion was established in Iceland, by King Olaf of Norway, in the year moo, so that we may say that the first colony in Greenland, and in America, was founded about the year 985 or 986. In the latter year Eirek went back to Iceland, and with twenty-five vessels set out on his return voyage to Greenland, arriving, however, with only fourteen, eleven having foundered, with all their crews and passengers.

Among the survivors was a sturdy Icelander named Herjulf, kinsman to Ingolf, the first settler of Iceland. Herjulf had a wife named Thorgerd, and a son, Biarni, who was a youth of great promise. This young man was a great voyager, a typical Viking, and passed the winters alternately abroad and at home with his father. He had recently fitted out a vessel in which he sailed to Norway, and there passed the winter, and it was during his absence that Herjulf passed over, with his entire company or family, to Greenland with Eirek the Red. In the same ship with him was a Christian from the Hebrides. Herjulf fixed his residence at Herjulf-ness, where he was a man of great authority, while Eirek the Red sat down at Brattahlid. He was chief in authority there, and all were subject to his will. His sons were Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein, and he had also a daughter named Freydis. She was married to one Thorvard, who was weak-minded, and whom she is said to have chosen for the sake of his money.

[Illustration] from John and Sebastion Cabot by Frederick Ober


Now, some time in the summer succeeding to the sailing of Eirek and Herjulf from Iceland, the latter's son Biarni reached the port of Eyrar, from which his father had recently departed for Greenland. When he learned of what had taken place during his absence he was unwilling to disembark, and when asked what course he intended to pursue, replied: "I shall do as I have been accustomed, and spend the winter with my father. Hence, if you, sailors, are willing to accompany me thither, we will proceed to Greenland together."

They professed their willingness; though, as Biarni admitted, their course seemed somewhat foolish and hazardous, inasmuch as none of them had ever crossed the Greenland ocean. Nevertheless, after they had refitted their vessel they put to sea again, and soon were out of sight of land. A thick fog fell about them, and for many, many days they sped before a strong northeasterly wind, they knew not whither, seeing neither sun nor stars. At length, the light of day being once more visible, they were able to discern the face of heaven, and sailing one day farther they were gladdened by the sight of land. It was not mountainous, but covered with trees, and without glaciers or fiords, so Biarni knew it could not be Greenland. He turned his ship's prow northward again and sailed out to sea, though there was much clamor from the crew, on account of leaving behind them such a fair and pleasant land. But Biarni would not tarry, even for wood and water, of which they were in great need; but kept on for ten or twelve days, at the end of which time he sighted the ice-covered promontory on or near which Herjulf, his father, dwelt. Then Biarni betook himself to his father's house, and having soon relinquished a seafaring life, he remained with his father as long as he lived, and after his death took possession of his estate.

It was during this cruise of Biarni, when the Icelander, driven out of his true course by the winds, several times approached the coast of a country far south of Greenland, that, in all probability, continental America was first sighted by white men, in or about the year 986. The Northmen did not apprehend the true significance of their discovery, nor indeed were they aware that they had made one; for of cosmographical knowledge they had very little, and respecting any portion of the world outside Europe they had no conception whatever. But Leif, son of Eirek, had his curiosity aroused by Biarni Herjulfson's report of the strange country, and bought his dragon-ship of him, with a view to sailing thither. Years passed away, however, before he undertook that voyage southward, and in the year 999 we find him at the court of King Olaf of Norway, by whom he was converted to Christianity. He and his pagan crew were baptized, and on their return to Greenland the next year took with them Christian preachers, who converted nearly all the people to their faith—all except old Eirek the Red, who remained a pagan to the end of his days, then not far away.

Soon after Leif had reached Greenland with his ship and crew, he projected the expedition to the land which Biarni had seen, and requested his father to become the leader. Old Eirek excused himself on the score of his age, saying that he could ill support the fatigues and dangers of a voyage; but finally yielded to his son's importunities, and rode down from his house, on horseback, to the shore, near which the vessel lay. On the way down his horse stumbled, and Eirek was thrown, thereby receiving an injury to one of his feet. This he took as a bad omen, and said: "Fortune will not permit me to discover more lands than this which we inhabit. I will proceed no farther with you." So he returned to the settlement, called Brattahlid, while Leif, with thirty-five companions, went on board their vessel. Among them, it was said, was a man known as a Turk, from a south country, who was probably a German.

They set sail and made directly for the country last seen by Biarni, where they cast anchor and put out a boat. It was a barren land, and may have been the coast of Labrador, for above them frowned frozen heights, between which and the sea were great flat rocks. Then said Leif: "We will not do as Biarni did, who never set foot on shore. I will give a name to this land, and will call it 'Helluland'—the region of broad stones." They put to sea again, and anon came to another land, which was low, level, and well covered with trees. On this account Leif the son of Eirek named it "Markland"—land of woods; and then re-embarked and sailed on again.

This last may have been either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, or a land yet farther southward from their place of departure, as Cape Ann or Cape Cod (now so called); but after two days more of sailing, with a brisk northeast wind, they touched upon an island lying opposite to the northeasterly part of the main. Here they landed and found the air delightful, while the grass was so fragrant that the dew upon it was deliciously sweet to the taste. They did not stop here, but returning to the ship sailed through a bay which lay between the island and a promontory running towards the northeast, which they passed, directing their course westward. In this bay, when the tide was low, there were shallows left of great extent, and the water poured out as from a lake. When the tide rose the men took their small boat and rowed up the river and into the lake, on the shore of which they disembarked and erected temporary huts for habitations.

Having subsequently determined to remain here during the winter (of 100001), they put up buildings of a more permanent character, and subsisted upon the salmon they found in the lake and river, which were abundant, and of greater size than any they had seen before. So great was the goodness of the land, they conceived that cattle would be able to find provender all winter, as no intense cold was experienced like that to which they were accustomed in their own country, the grass did not seem to wither much, and during the shortest days of winter the sun remained above the horizon from half-past seven in the morning till half-past four in the afternoon.

Various localities have been assigned as the site of this first camp, or temporary settlement, in North America by white men, but hardly any two agree; and in truth it would be idle to speculate upon this subject, since no authentic remains have been discovered by which it can be identified. The length of their shortest winter day was no criterion, since it might have applied to almost any locality between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Neither can any evidence be derived from the seasonal characteristics, for though the first winter the Northmen experienced on the eastern coast of North America was remarkably mild, the next one, in or near the same locality, was extremely severe.

Their dwellings completed, Leif said to his companions: "I propose that our company be divided into two parties, for I desire to explore the country; each one of these parties shall go exploring and remain at home alternately; but let neither party go so far that it cannot return the same evening; neither let its members separate one from another." It was so arranged, and Leif himself, on alternate days, went out exploring, and remained at home. He was a leader born, a strong man, of large stature, of dignified aspect, wise and moderate in all things.

It happened one evening that one of the company was missing, and this was Tyrker, the German, or south-country man. Leif felt much concerned, for Tyrker had lived with him and his father many years, and he had grown very fond of him. Wherefore Leif severely blamed his comrades, and went himself, with twelve others, to seek the man. When they had gone but a short distance from the dwellings, Tyrker met them, to their no small pleasure; but Leif soon perceived that he had not his usual manner. He was naturally of open countenance, his eyes constantly rolling, his face emaciated, his body spare, his stature short.

Then said Leif to him, "Why have you stayed out so late, my friend, and separated yourself from your companions?" For some time Tyrker gave no answer, except in German, but he rolled his eyes (as usual) and twisted his mouth. His companions could not understand what he said, but after a time he spoke in the Norse tongue and said:

"I have not been very far, but I have something new to tell you; I have found vines and grapes!"

"Is this true?" asked Leif.

"Yes, indeed it is," answered Tyrker, "for I was brought up in a land where vines and grapes were in abundance."

"Then there are two matters to be attended to on alternate days to gather grapes and to fell timber, with which we may load the ship," said Leif; and the task was at once commenced. It is said that their long-boat was filled with grapes. And now, having felled timber to load their ship, and the spring coming on, they made ready for their departure. Before he left, Leif gave the land a name expressive of its good produce, calling it Vinland—land of wine.

The company then put to sea, having a fair wind, and at length came within sight of Greenland and its icy mountains. As they approached the coast one of the crew asked Lief, "Why do you steer the ship in that quarter, directly in the teeth of the wind?" Leif answered: "I guide the helm and look out at the same time. Tell me if you see anything." All denied that they saw anything of importance. Then said Leif, "I am not sure whether it is a ship or a rock which I see in the distance"; but they all presently saw it and pronounced it a rock. Leif, however, had so much sharper eyes than the others that he saw men upon the rock, and said, "I am desirous of striving even against the wind, so that we may reach those yonder; perchance they may have need of our assistance." So they made for the rock, furled their sails, cast anchor, and put out the small boat which they carried with them. When near to the rock Tyrker demanded who was the captain of the band of castaways, and one answered that his name was Thorer, and that he was by birth a Norwegian. He then asked, "What is the name of your captain," and Leif answered him. "Are you the son of Eirek the Red, of Brattahlid?" Leif told him that he was, and added, "I offer you all a place in my ship, and I will also take as much of your goods as my ship will carry," and they gratefully accepted his offer. The vessel then sailed up to Eireksfiord, until they reached Brattahlid, where they disembarked. Then Leif offered to Thorer, his wife, and three of his men, a residence with him, and he showed hospitality to all the others, as well the sailors of Thorer as his own. There were fifteen persons thus preserved by Leif, and from that time forth he was known as "Leif the Lucky."

A Viking War-ship


This expedition contributed both to the wealth and honor of Leif. In the following winter a disease attacked the company of Thorer, to which the man himself and many of his companions fell victims. Eirek the Red also died during that winter (which was probably that of 1001-1002). . . . There was much talk of Leif's expedition, and Thorvald, his brother, considered that the lands had been too little explored. Then said Leif to Thorvald, "Go, brother, take my ship to Vinland"; and Thorvald did so, taking with him thirty companions. They passed the winter (of 1002-1003) at Leifsbooths, the name given by them to the dwellings erected by Leif in Vinland, where, their vessel being drawn ashore, they supported themselves by catching fish.

In the ensuing spring and summer Thorvald coasted the western shores, but found no habitations of men, except in an island far west, where was seen a single wooden shed. The next summer, Thorvald, with a portion of his company, coasted the eastern shore, and passed around the land to the northward. They were then driven by a storm against a neck of land, when the ship was stranded and the keel damaged. They remained here for some time to repair the ship, and Thorvald said to his companions: "Now let us fix up the keel on this neck of land, and call the place 'Kialarness'"—keel promontory. Having done this, they sailed along the coast, leaving that neck to the eastward, and entered the mouths of the neighboring bays, until they came to a certain promontory which was covered with wood. Here they cast anchor and went ashore. Then said Thorvald, "This is a pleasant place, and here should I like to fix my habitation."

They afterwards, having returned to their ship, perceived on the sandy shore of a bay within the promontory three small boats made of skins (that is, canoes) and under each one were three men. They seized all of these except one, who escaped with his canoe, and killed all those they captured. Having returned to the promontory, they looked around and saw in the inner bay several elevations, which they considered to be habitations. They were soon afterwards overcome by such a heavy sleep that none of them was able to keep watch; but they were aroused by a loud voice, which said: "Awake, Thorvald, and all thy company, if you wish to preserve your lives; embark at once and make the best of your way from the land!"

Then an innumerable multitude of canoes was seen coming from the inner bay, by which Thorvald's party was immediately attacked. Then said Thorvald: "Let us raise bulwarks above the sides of the ship, and defend ourselves as well as we are able; though we can avail little against this multitude. So it was done. The Skraelings cast their weapons at them for some time, then precipitously retired. Thorvald inquired what wounds his men had received. They denied that any of them had been wounded; but Thorvald said: "I have received a wound under my arm from an arrow, which, flying between the ship's side and the edge of my shield, fastened itself in my armpit. Here is the arrow. It will cause my death! Now it is my advice that you prepare to return home as quickly as possible; but me you shall carry to yonder promontory, which seems to me a pleasant place to dwell in. Perhaps the words which fell from my lips shall prove true, and I shall indeed abide there for a while. There bury me, and place a cross at my head and another at my feet, and call that place forever more Krossaness"—cross-promontory.

Then Thorvald expired. Everything was done according to his directions, and those who had gone with him on this expedition, having joined their companions at Leifsbooths, informed them of all that had happened. They passed the following winter [the third of their absence, 1003-1004] at this place and there prepared quantities of grapes to carry home. Early the following spring they set sail for Greenland, and arrived safely at Eireksfiord, having much melancholy intelligence to convey to Leif Erikson: