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Beothuk Warrior with extended spear in two-handed grip, Skraelings, The Conquest of America--single figure

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Beothuk Warrior with extended spear in two-handed grip, Skraelings, The Conquest of America


SKRAELING is the name the Norse Greenlanders used for the peoples they encountered in North America, and Greenland.  In the Viking Sagas, it is also used for the peoples of the region known as Vinland whom the Norse encountered during their expeditions there in the early 11th Century.

The word Skraeling is most likely related to the old Norse word “skra”, meaning “dried skin”, which is believed to be in reference to the animal pelts worn by the native Americans.  The term is thought to have been first used by Ari Thorgilsson in his work called “The Book Of The Icelanders”.  The book was written well after the period in which Norse explorers made their first contacts with indigenous Americans.  By the time of the book, Skraeling was probably the common term Norse Greenlanders used for the Thule people, who were the ancestors of the modern Inuit.

The Greenlander’s Saga and the Sago of Erik the Red, which were written in the 13th Century, use this term for the people of the area known as Vinland whom the Norse met in the early 11th Century.  The word has subsequently become well known and has been used in the English language since the 18th Century.

Probably the most likely local inhabitants of the area named as Vinland were the Beothuk, or at least their ancestors.  The meaning of the word Beothuk is obscure, but “people” or “good people” are possibilities.  They lived in villages made up of a number of cone-shaped houses called “Mamateeks”.  Unfortunately, the Beothuk have since vanished, with the last of their tribe believed to have died in the 19th Century.

Ethnologists have recognized what are at least similarities between the Beothuk peoples and other still existing tribes native to North America, like the Algonquin Indians. This helps give us some insight into the Beothuk, their weapons and the way in which they lived.

There was a vast difference in the weapons possessed by the Beothuk and those available to the Vikings.  The most significant variation was the ability of the Vikings to smelt iron in order to create high quality swords and axes, along with iron tipped spears and arrows. The Beothuk were in awe and fear of these iron weapons.  In one saga it tells of “One of the Skraelings had picked up an axe, and after examining it for a moment, he swung it at a man standing beside him, who fell dead at once”.

The vikings had nothing good to say about the people they met.  They referred to these people as poor traders, primitive people who were easily scared.

Norse exploration of the New World began with the initial sighting of North America by an Icelander named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who spotted land after drifting off course on a journey to Greenland in 985.  They speculated amongst themselves as to what land this might be, for Bjarni said he suspected this was not Greenland.  His voyage piqued the interest of later explorers including Leif Eriksson, who would explore and name the areas of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland.  Eriksson laid the groundwork for later colonizing efforts in the generations to come by establishing a foothold on Vinland, when he constructed some "large houses."

There was great discussion of Leif's Vinland voyage, and his brother Thorvald felt they had not explored enough of the land.  Leif then told Thorvald, 'You go to Vinland, brother, and take my ship if you wish, but before you do so I want the ship to make a trip to the skerry to fetch the wood that Thorir had there.”  Thorvald has the first contact with the native population which would come to be known as the Skraelings.  After capturing and killing eight of the natives, they were attacked at their beached ships, which they defended.

'I have been wounded under my arm,' he said. '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.”

Thorfinn Karlsefni was the first Viking explorer to attempt to truly colonize the newly discovered land of Vinland on the same site as his predecessors Thorvald and Leif Eriksson.  According to the Saga of Erik The Red, he set sail with 3 ships and 140 men.  Upon reaching Vinland, their intended destination, they found the now famous grapes and self-sown wheat for which the land was named.  They spent a very hard winter at this site, where they barely survived by fishing, hunting game inland, and gathering eggs on the island.  The following summer they sailed to the island of Hop where they had the first peaceful interactions with the native people, with whom they traded.  Karlsefni forbade his men to trade their swords and spears, so they mainly exchanged their red cloth for pelts.  Afterwards they were able to describe the aboriginal inhabitants in detail, saying:  “They were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.”

Shortly thereafter, the Norsemen were attacked by natives who had been frightened by a bull that broke loose from their encampment.  They were forced to retreat to an easily defensible location and engage their attackers; at the end of the battle two of his men had been slain, while "many of the natives" were killed.  As with anywhere, in this foreign land, Karlsefni and his men realized that despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.

After this adventure, they returned to Greenland.  Their three-year excursion would be the longest lasting known European colony in the New World until Columbus’s voyages nearly 500 years later initiated full-scale European conquest of the Americas.

Released in OCTOBER 2023.