Sunday, February 23, 2020

1009 – Nor’easter Drives Karlsefni Expedition South

With more than 100 in its crew, the settlement fleet led by Thorfinn Karlsefni came under a powerful storm from the northeast. It bore the Norse ships far south of the winter settlement Thorfinn’s brother-in-law Leif Eriksson had set up ten years before. Leif himself had followed directions from Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had been blown off course and discovered a land west of Greenland while rescuing others lost in that storm. These same seemingly ill winds proved lucky as they took Thorfinn miles beyond lands where scuffles with locals before had ended in numerous deaths on both sides.

The wayward Norse finally found land, though it would take months more of exploration to determine where they were. First they established a base and made contact with locals who were happy to trade furs for Norse cloth and fresh milk from the cows they had brought. Eventually expeditions found that they were on the southern side of a great bay and, three hundred miles west, a large freshwater river that promised even more possibilities inland. The colony prospered, though Thorfinn had little choice: many settlers agreed they had gone too far south to effectively evacuate the colony in case of trouble.

Instead, trouble struck at home as Norse growing seasons turned shorter. Thorfinnsland proved to be a welcome new home, bringing thousands of settlers who established trading posts along the great river and the coast. Settlers marked their names with runes as they went and even built a great tower for defense on the islands of another bay southward that they called Newport. Traders explored even farther south, coming upon warm waters from a muddy river far bigger than the one in the north. There they met wealthy new trade partners who themselves had canoes rivaling Norse longboats. Peoples along this Misi zipi River built pyramid mounds in grand cities with tens of thousands of people fed by expansive maize fields. Their pottery and copperwork made valuable good that the Norse merchants traded for iron tools to enormous profit.

Disease among the traders plagued them, and ultimately both the Norse settlers and the Mississippians declined. North Atlantic trade did continue, although it paled in comparison to European expeditions to the gold-rich south and around Africa to the Far East. Hungry for more iron than what merchants could bring, deposits discovered north of the Great Lakes became valuable mining territory. Wars broke out over the iron pits until the coming of Deganawida, the Great Peacemaker. He built a confederacy that ended ritual cannibalism and organized a balance of local rule by chiefs to a national council that governed the whole. Five nations joined together to form what was known as the Haudenosaunee, though European traders called it the “Iroquois Confederacy” since all of the member tribes spoke related languages.

The Iroquois expanded rapidly across the Ohio Valley thanks to their power in numbers, the iron supply, and firearms supplied by European traders in exchange for valuable beaver pelts. Leaders agreed that, just as they controlled ironworks, they must come to control guns as well. Expeditions of young men were sent to Europe to determine its secrets. In addition to industrial espionage on gunpowder, the spies came to study with early chemists at universities in Spain, France, and England, bringing back cutting edge theory on gas law and metallurgy. After seeing the patents of Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont for steam-powered water pumps that could drain flooded mines, the Iroquois began creating and implementing their own engines.

It was not long before these engines were put to work doing other tasks like weaving cloth and milling timber. Mobile engines could not only move themselves but also haul goods across long distances to drastically cut travel time and cost. Soon the Iroquois found themselves attracting attention from Europeans eager to copy their successes. They invested their wealth in maintaining their borders, such as river fleets protecting their rights to what the French traders called the St. Lawrence and Mississippi. The confederationo welcomed more tribes into the fold to promote a wide frontier that would keep their homelands safe.

Balancing British, French, and Spanish empires against one another, the Iroquois laid claim to all lands west of French Thorfinnsland and the Appalachians above the 37 degrees north latitude. Louisiana would fall into British hands as European wars weakened French colonialism, causing strife with the Iroquois over river rights. Ultimately, the British would capitulate when the Shawnee General Tecumseh led Iroquois forces to seize New Orleans, granting Louisiana independence. Another war in the West over gold deposits in California with Mexico would affirm Iroquois rule to the Pacific.

Today the Iroquois Confederacy serves as the foremost economy in the world, rivaled by the German-led European Union and Japanese Empire. Each depends on one another for trade, although they readily, and often correctly, accuse one another of ongoing industrial espionage.


In reality, according to the sagas, Thorfinn’s colony ended after his bull frightened the locals and sparked a battle that prompted the Norse to flee back to Greenland.

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