In this new ‘oral map’ interpretation of The Vinland Sagas – The Norse Discovery of America (Magnusson & Palsson translation, Penguin Books, 1965) I put forth the theory that southwest coast Barachois (pronounced ‘barrasway’), Newfoundland is mapped/described in detail in The Vinland Sagas three times. Twice in the Eiriksson family’s Greenlanders’ Saga (‘Leif explores Vinland’ and ‘Karlsefni in Vinland’) and once in Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Eirik’s Saga (‘Karlsefni goes south’).
First, before looking close-up at the Norse in North America, please change bearings by turning your compass left, one quarter turn. Before setting out, get familiar with the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gaspe peninsula running ‘north/south’. From there, here’s thirty-two (32) clues from The Vinland Sagas describing the shorelines and slopes of Barachois Brook and Barachois Pond, Newfoundland. all the way inland to the Norse settlement they called “Hop”.
Leif explores Vinland – Greenlanders’ Saga
Clue #1: “Leif Eiriksson and his men sailed into the sound that lay between the island and the headland jutting out to the north.”
– Returning first to “set foot” where Bjarni Herjolfsson last visited Helluland (at Green Gardens, Newfoundland), Leif Eiriksson sails across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon, Quebec, then east to Les Iles de la Madeleine, and north into “the sound” – the Cabot Strait.
Clues #2 and #3: “They steered a westerly course round the headland. There was extensive shallows there.”
– A “westerly” course around “the headland” ahead (the island of Newfoundland) and into St. George’s Bay, ends with what locals call a ‘barrasway’ – a sandbar, with a freshwater lake behind it that lifts with the saltwater tide. The word ‘barrasway’ comes from ‘barachois’ – the name given to the site by the French.
Clues #4, #5 and #6: “And at low tide their ship was left high and dry, with the sea almost out of sight. They ran ashore to a place where a river flowed out of a lake.”
– In Farley Mowat’s novel Farfarers, he writes “Hop is an old Norse name for – a body of water cut off from the sea by sand or gravel bars – behind which vessels may shelter.” A shorter version of this translation is Magnusson & Paulsson’s ‘Tidal Lake’. Mowat’s translation fits the translation of ‘barachois’ best; both descriptions fit to a tee the sandbar and tidal lake found deep inside Newfoundland’s St. George’s Bay.
The likelihood is Leif Eiriksson anchored his ship behind the ‘barachois’, and sought shelter inland from the rough Newfoundland coastal weather. Next to the sandbar and the tidal lake is – as described in The Vinland Sagas – a river (Barachois Brook) flowing out of a lake above it (Barachois Pond). Zoom in on the map below to take a close-up look.
Clues #7 and #8: “As soon as the tide had refloated the ship they took a boat and rowed out to it and brought it up the river into the lake where they anchored it. They decided to winter there.”
– This is one of The Sagas passages where the Norse use grammar tricks to keep a site’s location secret from others, enemies and pirates – here the subject of the sentence (the boat) is used ambiguously on purpose. The creative placement of the subsequent pronouns (“it” for both the boat and ship) misleads one into searching in vain for a river mouth big enough for a Viking ship.
Clues #9, #10 and #11: “The country seemed to them so kind, that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock; there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all. There was bigger salmon than they had ever seen.”
– Besides the warming trend that changed the climate for the warmer from 950 – 1100 AD, and opened up North America for temporary Norse exploration, the ‘micro-climate’ found at Barachois Brook and Pond is quite exquisite, for Newfoundland. A farmer is attempting to market garden there today. A satisfied camper describes his lakeside campsite as “probably the closest thing to BC (warm weather) BC that you’ll find in Eastern Canada“.
Second to turning one’s compass a quarter turn, another key fact in locating any Vinland site is the presence of “wild (self-sowing) wheat”. At Barachois Brook ‘spartina patens’ (marsh hay cordgrass) is in enough abundance that livestock brought to the site would survive a Canadian winter on this natural fodder.
Atlantic Sturgeon are also abundant in ‘brackish’ waters like the ‘barrasway’ and Barachois Brook estuary, and are ‘anadromous’ like salmon (live in saltwater, spawn in fresh). Above all sturgeons would have been highly sought for their very high-priced black caviar – also fished, processed and preserved on Norse missions east to the Caspian Sea and Black Sea.
Karlsefni in Vinland – Greenlanders’ Saga
Clues #12, #13 and #14: “The rest of us are to go into the wood and make a clearing. There, where we can keep our cattle when the Skraelings come out of the forest.”
– This passage recounts the history of Thorfinn Karlsefni in North America, but takes place within the Eiriksson family’s Greenlanders’ Saga. Here Karlsefni explores and maps the west coastline of Newfoundland, after of mapping from L’Anse au meadows to Trout River and The Tablelands.
“Into the wood” describes the valley there created when the Long Range Mountains retreat east after Lewis Hills, and reappear after St. George’s Bay. The “clearing” the Norse camp (later named Hop). This valley has amongst Newfoundland’s most fertile soil, and a climate warm enough to grow watercress at the mouth of Barachois Brook, and support small-scale market gardening.
As stated in 2014 on Lavalhallalujah, The “Skraelings” of The Vinland Sagas – by my interpretation – are both the aboriginal peoples encountered by the Norse in North America, and unique landmark rock formations and mountain faces sailed and rowed past along the way to Vinland. The mountains and shoreline rock formations are used as characters and objects in cleaver double-entendre historical stories, doubling as maps for settlers (farmers and traders) heading to Baffin Island, Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland, Les Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec and eastern Ontario.
Here, The Skraelings “come out of the forest” where a mountain rock face emerge from the evergreens across from Karlsefni’s longphort on Barachois Pond. Marsh hay cordgrass (spartina patens) would also grow aplenty on the spring thaw floodplains up at the headwaters entering the Pond.
Clues #15, #16, #17 and #18: “Soon Thorfinn Karlsefni and his men had plenty of good supplies, for a fine rorqual was driven ashore. The livestock were put out to grass. They made use of all the natural resources of the country that were available, grapes and game of all kinds.”
– Humpback and other “rorqual” species of whales frequent the waters off west coast Newfoundland. In this passage there is again reference to livestock foddered (salt hay cordgrass present). And, for the first time in The Vinland Sagas the mention of grapes (planted on the first expedition by Leif Eiriksson?). “Game of all kinds” is another clue, with many foxes, lynx, bears and other furbearing animals “in the wood” available by trapping or trade with the Beothuk.
Karlsefni goes south – Eirik’s Saga
Clues #19, #20 and #21: “They came to a river that flowed down into a lake and from the lake into the sea. There were extensive sandbars outside the river mouth. Karlsefni and his men sailed into the estuary and named the place Hop.”
– This passage/oral map is from Thorfinn Karlsefni’s oral history of the same site, told as part of his later Eirik’s Saga. Note the finer knowledge of the site and more detail in the story telling. The sequence of objects spoken of – river, lake, sandbars, river mouth, estuary – if followed correctly, brings the navigator past the tidal mouth of the barrasway, to the tidal entrance of Barachois Brook – the correct way up the river to the settlement.
Clues #22, #23 and #24: “Here they found wild wheat growing in fields on all the low ground and grape vines on all the higher ground. In the woods was a great number of animals of all kinds.”
– This description matches almost word for word the same in the Eiriksson’s Greenlanders’ Saga describing Karlsefni’s arrival at “the clearing”, except there is extra detail here with the grapes being found on higher ground (the slope leading up to the lake). The surrounding forest would have also abounded in otter, marten and beaver (pelts).
Clue #23 – close up: “Here they found… grape vines on all the higher ground.”
– A zoomed-in look at the slope between Barachois Brook and Barachois Pond reveals curious ‘vineyard-like’ rows in the landscape, atop mounds (for drainage) – perhaps evidence of a vineyard there in 1010 AD? – Could the soil, temperature, sun and rainfall (terroire) on these slopes have been just right back then for wine-worthy grapes? Take a look for yourself.
Clues #25 and #26: “They dug trenches at the high-tide mark, and when the tide went out there were halibut trapped in the trenches.”
– Assuming the Norse anchored their ships in the large tidal lake behind the barachois, and loaded and unloaded them there – rowing boats up and down Barachois Brook – this passage of Eirik’s Saga describes the entrance into Barachois Pond. “Where a river runs out of a lake”, where trenches look like they’ve been dug in the riverbanks to dock boats, and where an island looks suspiciously like a giant halibut. No?
Clues #27, #28 and #29: “Karlsefni and his men built their settlement by the lakeside; some of the houses were close to the lake, and others were farther away. There was no snow at all and all the livestock were able to fend for themselves.”
– With the Norse docking their sea-going vessels inside the tidal lake, they no doubt also built a small settlement down by the docks, “close to the lake”. Wild wheat (spartina patens) fodder would have been in abundance on both saltwater and spring thaw floodplains. And as recently as a winter in the 1990s there was “no snow at all” along the west coast of Newfoundland. There was also a warming trend from 950 – 1100 AD and “no snow” may also creatively refer to the evergreen trees that line the Brook.
Clues #30, #31 and #32: “They stayed there for a fortnight, enjoying themselves and noticing nothing untoward.”
– As interpreted in 2014, it sounds like the Norse used the word “day” to map the distance across one (1) large body of water – be that a sea, a strait, a lake, bay or major river width. They used the word “week” (7 days) to describe a major river’s length (the St. Lawrence, des Prairies and Ottawa Rivers). In this passage the Norse use the word “fortnight” (8 days) to creatively map the route up Barachois Brook (7 days) and across Barachois Pond (+1 day) to their settlement.
Lastly, Norse creativity masks the site’s bounty (natural resources), cleaverly concealing fresh wild watercress to eat (“enjoy!”), just inside the estuary. “Nothing untoward” sounds like instructions to sail forward up Barachois Brook – seeing nothing coming “toward” you but evergreens – until the mountains appear behind Barachois Pond, whereupon, congratulations, you’ve reached the settlement of “Hop”.
When Farley Mowat passed through Barachois, Newfoundland researching his novel The Farfarers, little did he know he was right there at “Hop”. In the novel he transcribes local eyewitness accounts of two man-made stone cairns that once stood visible from St. George’s Bay atop Steel Mountain – just a few kilometres “south” down the coastline from Barachois Brook.
The locals’ descriptions of the since-dismantled cairns match perfectly with passages from Eirik’s Saga’s oral mapping of west coast Newfoundland – where the Skraeling leader breaks an axe over a fellow Skraeling’s head. If one of the cairns was shorter than the other, or had fallen down, then that makes thirty-three (33!) clues pointing to Barachois, Newfoundland as the Leif Eiriksson’s and Thorfinn Karlsefni’s “Hop”.
Zoom in on the map below to take a look around Barachois, Newfoundland.
Here are Hop’s ‘barasway’/sandbar, tidal lake and estuary, by drone!
“There were extensive sandbars outside the river mouth” = Sandy Point:
“They came to a river that flowed down into a lake and from the lake into the sea” = Stephenville Crossing:
“Karlsefni and his men sailed into the estuary” = Barachois Brook:
Thanks for your time,
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© Donald Wiedman 2015