- In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American anxiety of discovery by Annette Kolodny
The presence of “Northmen” in the annals of North American history has often been shadowy, more subject to romance than rigorous investigation, Annette Kolodny demonstrates in this wide-ranging study of early European encounters with the Americas. Yet the experiences of the Norse in Vinland and related sites, circa AD 1000, deserve attention because they illuminate under-recognized dimensions of “contacts” between Indigenous peoples and would-be colonizers. They also suggest how contemporary mythologies have mobilized this past for cultural and political purposes, turning actual mariners and settlers into “plastic Viking[s]” (204): figures that could be molded into suitable, often heroic, forms by later residents of the United States, who worried intensely about origins, race and the legitimacy of their claims to place.
Kolodny approaches the topic through literary studies, but draws upon interdisciplinary methods to combine textual analyses with findings of archaeology, ethnohistory, and Native studies. Following an introduction about controversies surrounding the concept of “prehistory” in the Americas, the book focuses on three aspects of Norse history, mythologizing and indigenous contacts. The first conducts close readings of Icelandic sagas, notably The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik the Red’s Saga, probing their internal narrative structures and possible historical referents. This section hones in on passages that narrate encounters with “Skraelings,” as the Norse characterized Indigenous peoples of Atlantic North America, and the presence of violence in these uncertain initial encounters. It also hypothesizes about which part of the Atlantic coastline may have been the location of Vinland (from Canadian maritime areas to sites further south), putting the sagas in conversation with archaeological and environmental assessments. As Kolodny notes, these sagas transformed over time because of natural morphing during oral storytelling, as well as editorial emendations by scribes who recorded them, sometimes at great temporal removes from the actual events.
The second section examines how historians, antiquarians, literary luminaries and the public in the nineteenth-century United States cultivated fascination with Norse antecedents. Particularly during the American Romantic period, as commentators sought historicity for the young republic on par with Europe’s heritage, interest in these early Norse explorations spiked. Attention frequently fixated on material remnants that seemed to bespeak evidence of Norse presence. In southern New England, for example, human remains and burial items unearthed in Fall River, Massachusetts, became widely interpreted as Viking. Similarly, a round stone tower in Newport, Rhode Island, became interpreted as structural proof of Viking habitations. (Modern archaeological and historical investigations largely debunk those claims.) Kolodny situates these fascinations with origin stories within growing Anglo-American anxiety about a rising tide of immigrants from southern Europe, often denigrated as inferior to those of Anglo-Saxon descent, and concludes that playing up Norse “discoveries” satisfied nativist desires for primacy in the US nation, and in the rapidly changing region of New England specifically. Thus the Norse, and particularly Leif Eiriksson, challenged Columbus’s perch on the historical and mythic pedestal. As the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair developed public representations of American origins, these dueling narratives unfolded on a major stage.
The book’s third section journeys across the Native Northeast to assess how Indigenous communities’ often closely held traditions may provide additional reflections on early Norse/Native encounters. Here the study ponders sources such as petroglyphs (inscriptions/incisions on rocks) that may convey Indigenous views of the earliest European settlements, as well as tribal oral traditions that relate accounts of contacts with “strangers.” Altogether, Kolodny finds that these oral traditions (from modern-day culture-keepers in communities including the Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Western Abenaki) are difficult to judge as firm evidence that these communities remember Norse encounters. The evolving quality of oral accounts in response to shifting circumstances and narrative needs, and the possible conflation of multiple European encounters, perhaps makes these sources less useful for providing details about the Norse specifically...