Norse Vinland and Later European Colonies

How near did the Norse come to succeeding in the Vinland landnåm? Was this one of history's near-misses? Was a Norse North America felled by the bad luck of Thorvald's wound or Freydis' temper? There are no final answers for questions like these, but perhaps we can get a feeling for the basic probabilities by […] briefly considering the later landnåms of the 17th century.[…]

However, it is hard to give tip the post-hoc assumption that any European settlement in North America could not be anything but successful. A closer look at the early fortunes of Jamestown, Plymouth, and two 16th century French settlements near Quebec may correct this perceptual distortion. The badly-administered Jamestown colony proved a persistent population sink. As late as 1667 a Mr. Garroway remarked to the House of Commons that the consumption of people by Virginia was so great that the colony needed a new supply of settlers annually to survive. Indeed, records indicate he was not far wrong; 6,048 of 7,289 settlers arriving between December 1606 and February 1627 (83%) perished-most within their first year.

The comparatively well-organized Plymouth colony fared far better in the long run, but mortality in the first winter neared 50 per cent. The colony at Stadacona founded by Cartier in 1534 failed completely after the first year, while Robertval lost one-third of his settlers in their first winter (1541) at Cap Rouge and his settlement was abandoned by 1543. Unlike the Norse, these later colonists arrived in large shiploads with substantial quantities of supplies and could expect the regular arrival of further bulk cargoes from Europe.

The excavations at Martin's Hundred have provided dramatic evidence of the disastrous impact of Native American military action against a settlement far larger, more tightly nucleated, and better-defended than any Norse farmstead. Thus the examples of the two-best-known 17th century English settlements and 16th century French attempts may suggest that sheer weight of numbers and the backing of increasingly powerful mercantile states were at least as important factors in the eventual success of European settlements as technological advantage and pioneering resourcefulness.


This brief and inevitably superficial overview of the process of the Norse expansion across the North Atlantic and preliminary analysis of its demographic and ecological characteristics may serve to provide a perspective on the Vinland landnåm and its failure. With this perspective, we can begin to identify the factors that produced the swift and final demise of the Vinland colony.

These must include:

  1. the distance of Vinland from the ship-producing Scandinavian homeland, and the consequent limitation on the numbers of ocean-going ships available for further colonization in 11th century Greenland;
  2. the absence of a significant Norse military advantage over the Skraeling, coupled with Norse vulnerability to Skraeling raids during the critical landnåm phase;
  3. the apparently rapid stabilization of settlement and population in Greenland, the Greenland colony's relative poverty, the conservatism of its rulers, and its eventual extinction; and
  4. the widespread transition from Viking period patterns of demographic, economic, and cultural expansion in Atlantic Scandinavia to a later medieval pattern of declining ocean-going capacity, adaptation to local resources, demographic stability or decline, and generally waning prosperity.

Finally, some of the general concepts of biogeography and the analogy of the 16th-17th century European landnåm may suggest that the Vinland colony's chances of success were never very high.

Source: Thomas H. McGovern, "The Vinland Adventure: A North Atlantic Perspective," North America Archaeologist 2 (1981): 300-302.

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