Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Case of the Butternuts

Where Was the Viking’s Vinland?

The climax of my book The Far Traveler is the story of the Viking expedition to North America led by 19-year-old Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Leif Eiriksson discovered the land he named Vinland, or “Wine Land,” in about 999, when he was blown off course on his way home to Greenland after visiting the king of Norway. But Leif never returned to explore this fabulous new land.

His sister-in-law did. Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her first husband, Leif’s younger brother Thorstein, tried to sail to Vinland soon after Leif came home. They ran into storms and were forced back to Greenland. Thorsteinn died, and Gudrid gave up her dream for a while.

Then Thorfinn Karlsefni came to Greenland. Karlsefni was a merchant from Iceland. He wanted to trade for walrus tusks, white falcons, and polar bear skins. Instead, he met Gudrid and fell in love. Gudrid convinced him to go to Vinland. She owned one ship; she hired a crew of Greenlanders. The other two ships were manned by Icelanders, led by Karlsefni.

A Viking Colony
They crossed the North Atlantic. They sailed south along shore, past mountains and marvelous beaches. They spent the first winter beside a fjord with fierce currents.

Next summer, they sailed south to a wide tidal lagoon. They named it Hóp (pronounced “Hope”), which means “Lagoon.” There Gudrun gave birth to her son Snorri. Hóp had tall trees and a river full of fish. Wild grapes grew abundantly there. It was a richer land than Greenland or Iceland—a good place for a Viking colony.

But soon strangers came to the Vikings’ camp. They were delighted by the taste of milk. They traded furs for strips of red wool cloth. They had never seen an axe—and they wanted one. A fight broke out. The strangers fought with stone-tipped arrows. The Vikings had axes and swords, but they were vastly outnumbered. They abandoned Hóp. 

Only one of their ships made it back to Greenland. Gudrid, Karlsefni, and little Snorri sailed on to Iceland, where they built a new home.

Where Was Vinland?
Their story was written down about 200 years later in the Icelandic sagas. One version was written by Gudrid’s great-great grandson. Another is linked to her seven-greats granddaughter. 

Two hundred years is a long time. Some of the story was exaggerated. Some was forgotten. But some of it is true. 

In the 1960s, archaeologists found three Viking longhouses on the tip of Newfoundland, at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. Each house is big enough for one ship’s crew. Fire-starters made of jasper rock show the Vikings came from both Iceland and Greenland. A spindle whorl proves a Viking woman was with them. Spinning wool into yarn was women’s work in Viking times. 

But grapes have never grown in Newfoundland. Why would Leif name this place Wine Land? And where was Hóp, the lagoon with tall trees, fish, grapes, and fierce natives? 

The Clue of the Butternuts
Three butternuts gave archaeologist Birgitta Wallace the answer.

Wallace was in charge of the dig at L’Anse aux Meadows from 1975 to 2000. Her workers dug a five-foot-deep trench 200 feet into the bog beside the Viking houses. She sent all the wood and seeds they found to a botanist. She said, “Look for what doesn’t belong here, what’s not here now.” 
The botanist told her, “It’s all what you’d imagine. Except what are those butternuts doing there?”

In three different spots the workers had turned up butternuts. The nuts were in the same layer of soil as rusty nails and chips of wood from a repaired Viking ship.

Butternuts have never grown in Newfoundland. The closest trees are 800 miles south. The nuts couldn’t have floated north. The shore currents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence run the other direction. The only way they could have reached the bog when they did is by Viking ship. The Vikings could have collected butternuts in New Brunswick, New England, or near Quebec. Wallace thinks the Miramichi River valley in New Brunswick has the best claim to being the place Gudrid and Karlsefni named Hóp.

The river’s mouth forms a great tidal lagoon. Its banks are lush with tall butternut trees. Where butternuts grow, grapes are also found. A thousand years ago, the Miramichi River had the richest salmon run in eastern North America. And, because of the fish, the valley was home to the largest population of Native Americans in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Could the Vikings have explored farther south? Yes. A replica Viking ship sailed all the way to the Amazon in the summer of 1991. But until we find another longhouse or lost spindle whorl—or clue like the butternuts—we can’t say exactly where Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband went when they came to America a thousand years ago.

Links & Photos:
The picture of the butternut and of archaeologists excavating the bog at L'Anse aux Meadows come from the website, Canadian Mysteries, 

The other photos were taken by Charles Fergus in 2006 while I was researching The Far Traveler.

You can also learn more about the Viking archaeological site on the official Parks Canada L'Anse aux Meadows website,

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy's usual clarity makes sense of this controversial subject. Thanks.