Eric the Red - George Upton

This book records the stories of Eric the Red and his son Lief Ericson, the Norsemen credited with discovering North America in the 11th century. The adventures of other Norsemen, such as Thorwald, Thorfinn, and Finnboge, whose stories are related in the Nordic sagas are also told, along with other Pre-Columbian Nordic explorers.

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[Book Cover] from Eric the Red by George Upton
In Viking Days.


[Title Page] from Eric the Red by George Upton
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Translator's Preface

This present volume, devoted to the history of voyages of discovery said to have been made to America before the time of Columbus, serves as a proper introduction to the biographical sketches of Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro, contained in this series a fitting prelude to the thrilling trilogy of the three great explorers who discovered the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, and South America as far south as Chili and Peru.

It embraces the discovery of Greenland by Erik the Red; the expedition of Biorn, son of Hjerulf, who first saw the east coast of North America but made no landing upon it; the highly interesting voyage of Leif the Lucky, son of Erik, to the New England coasts in the vicinity of Cape Cod and Rhode Island; the expeditions of Thorwald, Thorstein, Thorfinn, and the inhuman Freydisa, to the same region; the somewhat mythical story of Madoc, the Welsh prince, who, if the story be true, must have gone as far south as Florida; the still more mythical adventures of the brothers Zeno of Venice; and the interview of Columbus with the Bishop of Skalholt in 1477, fifteen years before he sailed in search of the East Indies and found the West Indies.

There is now but little doubt that the Northmen were the first to reach the American continent, that they discovered Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or Markland, and Vineland or the region adjacent to Cape Cod, and that they may have sailed as far to the south as New York. The sagas of Iceland, the poems of the Skalds, and the documents collected and printed by the Northern Antiquarian Society of Denmark bear incontrovertible testimony to the truth of these discoveries. When we come, however, to the alleged expedition of Madoc, the Welsh prince, we at once find ourselves in a region of immemorial dispute. The evidence on Madoc's side is purely circumstantial. The tradition, however, which is three centuries old, has been accorded a place in history. It originated with the Welsh bards, but their sources of belief, or registers, are unknown. The strongest argument in its favor is the statement made by two or three different authorities that "white" Indians, or Indians lighter than their fellows, were found in this country in the seventeenth century, who spoke the Welsh, or a language resembling it, and were descendants of the Welsh who came with Madoc and never went back to Wales. No such Indians, however, have been known during the last century and no mention of the tradition is made by contemporaries. The question, however, will always be an open one. It has stout defenders as well as opponents. In spite of the many objections raised against it, it may be true, but, in the meantime, as the years go by and no original records or registers of the Welsh bards are discovered, the probabilities grow more and more cloudy.

The narrative of the Zeno brothers has some able champions, while others, equally able, denounce it as a fiction, devised to strip Columbus of his honors. If it be true, the discoveries of these Venetians exceed in importance and extent those of Columbus, for they must have traversed the whole Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico and penetrated Mexico and Yucatan. The first knowledge of the countries said to have been visited by the Zeno brothers was furnished by a fisherman, which of itself is a suspicious fact, considering the abilities of that class in fiction. The letter left by Nicolo, eldest of the brothers, makes allusion to so many islands which must have sunk to the bottom of the sea if they ever existed, abounds in so many historical discrepancies, and so mixes up Dxdalus, Icarus, and other classic fabulous names, in the frozen region, as to tax belief in its truthfulness. The existence of this letter and other papers and of the map upon which the alleged voyages are traced, is a strong argument, but even then the question arises whether they may not have been fabricated for a purpose. Even the stoutest advocates of the Zenos do not accept the whole of their story, and acknowledge much of it to be fabulous. If it be untrue, however, Nicolo Zeno must have had a lively imagination.

Our story closes with an interview said to have taken place in 1477 between an Icelandic bishop and Columbus. It is a clearly established fact (Columbus himself mentions it in a letter to his son), that Columbus did go to Iceland from England, though the date is usually stated as 1467, and of course it is possible he may have sought for information about the discoveries of the Northmen among monastery archives. He may have heard there of the voyages of Leif and Biorn and of the beautiful regions of Markland and Vineland, far away to the west. It would only be natural, for at that time he was seeking information from books and scientists and scholars, but I do not recall in any history or biography this particular interview with the Icelandic bishop, which closes this volume. Be this as it may, it is a logical finish to the story of the old Vikings, the Welsh prince, and the Venetian mariners, and leads up appropriately and interestingly to the stories of Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro, comprised in this series of Life Sketches.

For the sake of making the narrative as complete as possible within the prescribed limits of the Life Stories Series, the translator has added an Appendix containing brief descriptions of the alleged Chinese and Arabic voyages and other matter shedding additional light upon the voyages of the Northmen, as well as a portion of an ancient ballad which is curious for its references to Vineland. It is a fascinating story, the adventures of the old Norse Vi-kings in their search for the great Western world a thousand years ago, and almost five hundred years before Columbus landed on San Salvador. The history of the early discoveries in America is contained in the two Sagas of Erik the Red and Thorfinn Karlsefne. The former is a part of the MSS. called "Codex Flateyensis" a collection of histories transcribed from older MSS. between 1387 and 1395. The latter was written about the close of the thirteenth century. The former is preserved in the Royal Library of Denmark and the latter in the library of the Copenhagen University. The Royal Society of Northern Antiquarians has also printed all the evidence it could procure, not only from the old archives but from the investigations of the first Icelandic scholars and runologists, in a quarto volume written in Icelandic, Danish, and Latin, under the title of Antiquitates American: sive Scriptores Septentrionales Rerum anti-Columbiniarum in America. Edidit Societas Regia Antiquariorum Septentrionalium. Hafniae, 1837.

G. P. U.

CHICAGO, July, 1911.

[Contents, page 1 of 2] from Eric the Red by George Upton
[Contents, page 2 of 2] from Eric the Red by George Upton
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The following is a chronological statement of the principal events connected with this narrative:

499    Alleged Chinese Explorations.
982    Discovery of Greenland by Erik the Red.
983    Visit of Hjerulf to Greenland.
985    Biorn's Expedition to the South.
1000    Leif the Lucky's Discovery of New England.
1002    Thorwald's Expedition to Vineland.
1004    Thorwald's Death in Vineland.
1005    Thorstein's Expedition Fails.
1007    Thorfinn Karlsefne's Expedition.
1011    Freydisa's and Partners' Expedition.
1170    Expedition of Madoc, the Welsh Prince.
1266    Arctic Expeditions.
1380    Voyage of the Brothers Zeno.
1476    Columbus' Interview with the Icelandic Bishop.
1486    Johann of Kolmo's Expedition to Hudson Straits.