Then and Now

Fact, fancy & folklore


In the mid-1980s, Don D’Amato put a number of his stories together for his students at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School. He was happy to note that they were well-received and hopes that you will enjoy them as well. The first of this series was titled “Fact, Fancy & Folklore.”

Historians know that the Indians inhabited Rhode Island for many centuries before European explorers came, but they can’t agree upon who was the first of these adventurers to reach Rhode Island shores. Was it the Vikings, Miguel Corte-Real, Verrazzano or Adrian Block. It becomes difficult at times to separate fact from fancy and folklore.

We know that the Vikings, or Norsemen, were great seamen and that in their small open boats they were able to brave the stormy North Atlantic to reach Iceland. According to the Viking Sagas, the Viking leader, Bjarne, in 985 A.D. set out from Iceland to Greenland. A great storm blew him off course, and he claims to have sighted land. Apparently, even Vikings have fears, for he didn’t land because of “great wild beasts and wild men that lurked in the forest.” While much of Bjarne’s story is plausible, there is no proof that he reached America.

About 15 years later, Leif Erickson left Greenland and sailed westward. He claims that he sailed into a sheltered bay in an area where the leaves were in their autumn glory. Upon landing, he and his men found no sign of human life. Within a short time, Erickson organized scouting parties and began to explore the land away from the beach. When they reassembled later in the day, they noticed that Tyrker, a German sailor in their service, was missing. Cold fear of the unknown struck the small band and many were ready to abandon the venture and return to Greenland. Erickson, however, demanded a search. After calling Tyrker’s name and going further and further away from the shore, they were answered with a muffled shout. Soon, Tyrker came bounding out of the woods yelling and carrying his shield. Quickly, the Vikings formed a defense unit. It seemed that some wild creature had attacked their mate as Tyrker appeared to be covered with blood. They thought he had lost his senses, as he was babbling words that were incomprehensible. Soon, they realized he had reverted back to his German tongue and was telling them that he had found some grapes. Most Norsemen had relatively little knowledge of grapes, as they were from lands too far north for the cultivation of the fruit. Tyrker, born in a section of Germany known for its vineyards, was thrilled with the discovery. The small crew found large quantities of grapes and, under Tyrker’s direction, picked and dried them. These dried grapes, or raisins, plus timber were taken back to Greenland as proof that Erickson and his Vikings discovered a new land they called “Vinland.”

Two years later, Thorwald, Leif’s brother, landed in the same area. He and his men fought with “skraelings,” or natives, who were armed with bows and arrows. Thorwald was killed and his men fled in panic. In 1007, Thorfinn (the Hopeful) took three ships to the new land. Along with the warriors were six women, some cattle and iron tools. This was the most serious attempt of the Vikings to colonize the “new world.” The first winter was very harsh and the Vikings were saved from starvation by food left for them by the “skraelings.” Later, however, these skraelings attacked them with such ferocity that the Vikings fled. Discouraged, they sailed back to Greenland and this was the last serious attempt by the Norsemen to make a permanent settlement in Vinland.

Most scholars believe that Leif Erickson’s Vinland was America. The description of the autumn leaves, the raisins and the “skraelings armed with bows and arrows are good indications that in sailing west from Greenland they reached America. The assertion that the area they reached was Rhode Island is open to speculation. The Norwegian scholar’s belief that Erickson landed at Mount Hope Bay is based on the claim that the Indian word for the area, Montaup, is taken from the Viking word “hop,” which means “bay.” This obviously is a rather slim thread upon which to base a theory. Other scholars are of the opinion that the Vikings may have landed at Saunderstown, and this is based upon the discovery of a battle axe there in 1880. This axe is about 11 inches across, weighs about 10 pounds and has a large spike on one end. While no one has been able to accurately date this weapon, many believe it was left here as a result of the fighting between the Indians and the Vikings.

The story of the Vikings, the Old Stone Mill and other explorers will be continued in this column.


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