Bloody First Contact — When Vikings Clashed with Natives in the New World

Vikings settled in North America in the 10th and 11th Centuries. Shortly after arriving, the Norse warriors were clashing with local tribes. It would be the first time Europeans would fight against Aboriginals.

“Almost as soon as the Norsemen hauled their long boats onto the beaches, fighting broke out with the local natives.”

MANY POINT TO the Jamestown Massacre of 1622 as the first clash between European settlers and native North Americans.

A harbinger of centuries of bloodshed yet to come, the incident saw a body of unarmed Powhatan warriors infiltrate the wooden palisade of England’s struggling Virginia colony only to launch a pre-meditated surprise attack on the settlers using what tools and weapons the raiders could lay their hands on. Nearly 350 colonists were killed in the ensuing battle.

And while the attack ushered in 300 years of almost ceaseless violence between the white settlers and natives, it wasn’t the first occasion in which Europeans met North American aboriginals on the battlefield. More than five centuries prior to Columbus’ voyage of discovery, a party of Vikings under the leadership of Thorvald Eiriksson established small a colony in modern day Newfoundland.

Thorvald, the son of Erik the Red and brother of Lief Eiriksson, landed in the New World sometime around 985 CE. The 50-member party eventually set up a fortified camp on the large island. Yet almost as soon as the Norsemen hauled their long boats onto the beaches, fighting broke out with the local natives.

In an early encounter, Eiriksson himself was struck by an arrow. His injuries would prove fatal.

“I have been wounded under my arm. An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow, and this wound will cause my death,” one contemporary account records the Viking leader as saying. [1] Eight natives were also killed in the engagement.

The small band of Europeans continued to fight the local population for the duration of their stay. The Vikings dubbed their enemies Skraelings, which means either “barbarian” or “foreigner” in the old Norse tongue. It could have also meant “weak” or “sickly” or even “false friend”. [2] The inhabitants were most likely Inuit.

Lanse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada is the site of a recreated Viking settlement. The replica village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A larger settlement was planted in Newfoundland in 1010 by the Viking leader Thorfinn Karlsefni. Nearly 150 Norsemen including families established a colony near the previous settlement at what is today known as L’Anse aux Meadows. During their three years in Newfoundland, the party faced the constant threat of attack by Skraeling warriors. So great was the danger posed by the aboriginals, Karlsefni forbid his men from trading swords or armour locals on the few occasions that a truce could be negotiated.

It seemed even the smallest provocation could touch off a battle. According to Viking accounts, one native raid was precipitated when a bull escaped from captivity in the Norse camp. Native warriors were terrified by the animal, the likes of which they had never seen, and attacked the settlement. Two Vikings were killed in the ensuing melee.

“Despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants,” recorded one Norseman. [3] The colony was eventually abandoned. Europeans would not settle again anywhere in North American until the late 15th century.


If you’d like to receive alerts about the latest articles and posts, click on the link in the upper right margin marked “FOLLOW THIS BLOG”. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.

6 comments for “Bloody First Contact — When Vikings Clashed with Natives in the New World

  1. Pève Valson
    31 July, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    May I ask you your source for this info plz ?!

    • admin
      2 August, 2014 at 1:43 am

      Check the foot notes.

      • Li Hang
        26 June, 2015 at 4:41 am

        I don’t see any foot notes and I looked all over the page.

        • Li Hang
          26 June, 2015 at 4:43 am

          SORRY – cancel that last comment, they are IN the text! Well, that’s not FOOT notes.

  2. bon johnson
    19 July, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    This settlement (tip of Newfoundland) was likely one of many! There are excavations of suspected Viking sites on Baffin Island which the Vikings knew of and called Helluland (land of the flat stones) It would seem they did not realize it wasn’t connected to the mainland, which is why they never discovered the Hudson Bay and made it inland. The coastal aboriginals were usually very warlike, but the further inland settlers went, the more open to trade and friendly they became. only God knows how different history would be if they had made it into the Hudsons Bay and linked up with the peaceful, swampy ground- cree and other plains type tribes… they might have stayed!

  3. Ole Aagaard
    17 September, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    There were not enough Vikings as they came from the settlements in Greenland which entire Norse population never exceeded 7,000 the voyage from Greenland to America was treacherous and it is not know how many ships were lost every summer.

Leave a Reply