Viking Settlement and the Mandans

Investigation will reveal the fact that settlement has not only flowed around physical obstacles, following the lines of least resistance, but that the location of the Indian tribes has been influential in determining the lines and character of the advance. The student of aboriginal conditions learns also that the buffalo trail became the Indian trail, that these lines were followed by the white hunter and trader, that the trails widened into roads, the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads. [Frederick Jackson Turner]

A substantial body of physical evidence uncovered during this century has confirmed the migration of Eurasian tribal groups westward across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Archaeologists and other scientists working together during the last few decades have discovered inscriptions of ancient origin throughout the northern and southern hemispheres, written in what some experts believe are "European and Mediterranean languages in alphabets that date from 2,500 years ago." Such findings are viewed by some scientists as evidence of the presence and permanent settlement by "Celts, Basques, Libyans, and even Egyptians" in the Western hemisphere. Other evidence pointed to in support of this conclusion includes, for example, a strong resemblance in physical appearance of members of the Algonquian -speaking tribes of North America to that of southern European and Mediterranean peoples. Tales of migration across the ocean in their distant past was also integral to the oral history of the Algonquians.

Findings throughout the coastal areas of the Americas continue to add to the body of evidence; the scientific community, however, remains somewhat divided and skeptical. One archaeologist who has remained unconvinced is Brian Fagan:

A small group of archaeologists is devoting their careers to the search [for the origins ... of the first Americans]. Many are cautious scholars. Others are gripped by profound convictions that cause them to espouse extravagant viewpoints in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A gathering of scholars studying the first Americans is never dull, for controversy invariably erupts, sometimes veiled in carefully studied politeness and firm dogma, sometimes dissolving into academic shouting matches. Very often the arguments are more remarkable for their vehemence than their scientific substance.

What is now beyond question is that people of northern European origin established settlements and explored the coastal areas of North America. Norsemen, or Vikings, reached and colonized Iceland, then pushed westward to found new settlements on the coastal regions of Greenland. From these bases, Viking explorers in the eleventh century crossed the Davis Strait to the North American continent, traveled south and eventually founded a small community at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The remains of this settlement were uncovered in the early 1960s by Norwegian archaeologist and historian Helge Instad. Although the Viking explorers were few in number and had little permanent impact on the history of the Americas or the tribal societies with whom they came in contact, one cannot help but admire their incredible sense of adventure and fearless pursuit of the unknown. Moreover, their journeys did result in one very probable legacy -- the creation of a mixed race called the Mandans, who for hundreds of years thereafter occupied the northern plains west of the Great Lakes.

Viking expeditions made their way along the eastern coast of North America and also explored the northern waterways of Canada, reaching the western shore of Hudson Bay and continuing inland and southward to Lake Winnipeg. Under circumstances lost to the recorded annals of history, some of these Vikings were apparently captured and adopted into the Mandan tribe. European explorers of the seventeenth century described the Mandans as a race unique in the Americas, the people said to have mixed hair colorings and many being fair skinned and blue eyed. The culture and history of the Mandans was later introduced to European-Americans in great detail by the Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin, who devoted his life to acquiring an understanding of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Catlin lived among the Mandan for a time during the 1830s, when the tribe was already in decline. Attacks by other tribes, particularly the Sioux, had reduced their numbers considerably. Eventually they would suffer virtual extinction as a result of contracting European diseases against which they had no built-up immunities or resistance. Catlin described them with great affection and left a puzzling account for modern scientists:

The Mandans are not a warlike people. They seldom, if ever, carry war into their enemies' country, but when invaded, show their valor and courage to be equal to that of any people on earth. Being a small tribe, and unable to contend on the wide prairies with the Sioux and other roaming tribes, who are ten times more numerous, they have very judiciously located themselves in a permanent village, which is strongly fortified. By this means they have advanced further in the arts of manufacture; have supplied their lodges more abundantly with the comforts, and even luxuries, of life than any Indian nation I know of.

Interestingly, the case of the Mandans illustrates an important principle; namely, that the historical development of groups proceeds along very similar paths, although strongly influenced by the natural environment and the presence of other groups. We see in the Americas the same pattern of conflict between those tribes who are settled in long-term communities and those who continue to live off of game animals and are dominated by warrior-hunter subgroups. An additional dimension to this drama is added by the strategic decision by the Mandan to fortify themselves in one location in order to better resist the onslaught of numerically superior tribes.

In addition to his observations on how the Mandan were organized as a societal group, Catlin goes on to describe their very European-like appearance:

A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexion, and various colors of hair, which he sees in a crowd about him and is at once disposed to exclaim that "these are not Indians." There are a great many of these people whose complexions appear light. Among the women, particularly, there are many whose skins are almost white; with hazel, gray, and blue eyes.

Why this diversity of complexion I cannot tell, nor can they themselves account for it. Their traditions, so far as I have yet learned them, afford us no information of their having had any knowledge of white men before the visit of Lewis and Clark made to their village ...

Evidence supporting the probable Viking origins of the distinctive Mandan appearance and cultural advances over other indigenous tribes was unearthed at the end of the nineteenth century. A large stone engraved with Norse writing was discovered in western Minnesota in 1898 that described the fate of a small party of Vikings who ventured into the area in 1362 and were attacked by indigenous warriors. Some members of this Viking group are thought to have been captured and integrated into the Mandan tribe. The details of this story may never be known, but the explanation provided is certainly within the realm of plausibility.