The Vikings
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The Vikings

Tantalizing theories abound about the first European contact with North America - Phoenicians perhaps, or Carthaginians. There's even a fantastical tale about St. Brendan, an Irish monk who, according to folklore, celebrated mass on the back of a whale during his seven year voyage to the frigid, fearsome land across the ocean.

But in reality, the first documented contact between Europeans and North America was with the Norse in AD 1000, who met with either Dorset or Beothuk natives in Labrador.

The Vikings were marauders, feared and loathed in Europe before they sailed west -- first to Iceland, then Greenland. From there they went further still, reaching a small sheltered bay at the end of a great peninsula at the northern tip of what is now Newfoundland. There they built a wayfaring station and a repair depot for their ships. They constructed houses out of sod and used local iron deposits to make their repairs.

But the Vikings were reluctant to trade their weapons for the furs natives brought to them and their penchant for violence soon landed them in trouble with the local inhabitants. They called the natives Skraelings, after the trolls in Scandinavian myth.

The name means small and withered and the Vikings also described them as "ill-favoured men with ugly hair on their heads... they had big eyes and were broad in the cheeks. They hissed like geese."

The Vikings had encountered a small group of these people and then killed them. From that day the Viking settlement became a target and skirmishes between the two groups didn't abate until the Vikings finally left.

It would be five centuries before the next European visitor arrived with John Cabot landing in Newfoundland. There followed a steady stream of Basque, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, French explorers and English colonists.

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