The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SPRING 2004











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Source of the Norse in Ungava

by George E. Sollish

Today it is little disputed that the Norse reached North America long before Columbus. Whether they were the first Europeans to do so, whether they found this continent on their own, or merely followed Irish monks vainly seeking meditative peace is still the subject of argument.

Helge Ingstad’s 1961 discovery of a Norse settlement outside L’Anse aux Meadows at Newfoundland’s northern tip gave the long-standing speculation regarding the location of Vinland a benchmark on the ground. Nevertheless, the Vinland of the extant sagas and the L’Anse aux Meadows site are not easily reconciled and a cottage industry remains active advocating other sites anywhere from Florida to, incredibly, Ungava Bay on the south side of Hudson Strait west of Labrador and even the western shore of Hudson Bay.

Without new and conclusive documentary evidence we will probably never know Vinland’s true location or extent. The ravages of four centuries of coastal development careless of archeological niceties have probably long-since destroyed any evidence  on the ground. Unless, of course, it really was north of L’Anse aux Meadows.    

Personally, I think advocates of a northern Vinland are, to tell an old joke, looking for it ‘where the light is better’ rather than where it was lost. Vinland’s most likely location was on the eastern seaboard somewhere between Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, and the best explanation for the site at L’Anse aux Meadows is that it represents a waystation  not mentioned in either of the surviving sagas (or to credit another possibility, mentioned in a way we can no longer interpret properly).    

Disregarding the ‘Vinland industry’ that has wandering Norsemen as far west as Alaska and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, there is substantial documentary and physical evidence that Norse Greenlanders did opportunistically exploit the proximity of the continent for trade goods such as ivory and falcons and for the timber so sadly lacking on their own great island. It also seems reasonable to believe that the Canadian north, untroubled by the pervasive coastal development of the south, still hides important evidence of the unrecorded travels of these ordinary hunters and traders. Their graves and campsites may never be found, but in the arctic backcountry of northern Quebec a more substantial token of their commerce may have already been uncovered along the Payne. And like the L’Anse aux Meadows site far to the south, despite its remote location the Payne Lake site may represent only a waystation, not the Norsemen’s ultimate destination.     


The interior of Ungava is a land of modest hills, thousands of small ponds and lakes, and billions of mosquitoes. Several of the larger lakes communicate with the sea, and by exploiting these waterways, it is possible to cross the peninsula by small boat. One of these inland waterways reaches the centre of the peninsula at 55-mile-long Payne Lake by way of the Arnaud River from Payne Bay, the northernmost of two substantial inlets on Ungava Bay’s west coast (the other is Leaf Bay). In 1964 and 1965 Thomas Lee excavated a series of structures on the south shore of the lake. By Lee’s interpretation, among the structures were the remains of two buildings built of heavy stone blocks and with square corners, one 16 x 12 feet and the other 16 x 46 feet with ‘a European style wall fireplace’ that reminded him of a church. He also found structures he described as a stone dam 37 feet long and adjacent to it, a stone causeway 27 feet long and 8 feet wide.

Shoreline structures on the Arnaud River and Payne Bay - the so-called ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and the great ‘beacon cairns’ on the nearby     coast of Ungava Bay - further fueled his claim that the Greenlanders migrated to northern Quebec in the 14th century. This notion is unsupportable, and in Lee’s later years he was isolated from the archaeological community. Now, Thomas Lee was a large man with an even larger wounded pride, and he gave little reason for anyone to reconsider his work; yet his field work was good and we still lack a satisfying explanation for what he found.

In the Greenlander’s eyes L’Anse aux Meadows must have compared very favorably with their native settlements in all regards save the remoteness of its location and possibly aboriginal friction. A permanent settlement is at least conceivable there. The same cannot be said for central Ungava. If Lee’s discoveries are indeed Norse they represent considerable energy expended in one of the least attractive locations in North America.

Taking a page from those ‘Johnnies-come-lately’ the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company who faced similar conditions in similarly unattractive places, one possibility is trade. It could be that the Payne Lake remains are those of a trading post that once served a more widespread commerce pushing west into Hudson Bay.

Would the annual ejection of ice from the Hudson Bay system, the strong outflow in Hudson Strait, or the local prevailing winds separately or in combination present a significant problem of navigation to a Norse knorr westbound in Hudson Strait in a typical year? If so, there might have been a compelling reason for hypothetical Norse traders to pioneer and exploit a trans-Ungava trade route passing through Payne Lake.

Could the significant investment in infrastructure at Payne Lake and elsewhere that a trans-Ungava trade route would have required be justified by any reasonable estimate of the trade it might have carried? It can be safely said on the basis of the Lee sites that, if such a trade route did exist, it would have had an eastern terminus a Payne Bay.

I believe Payne Bay was not only accessible to the Norse, but was visited routinely (if not frequently). The reasons are less clear, but the ivory trade and the unique opportunity for the Norse to leverage their ability to transport timber may have motivated them. Neither would seem to require a trading post in the interior, however, so the mystery at Payne Lake remains.  

 George Sollish is an amateur historian with a keen interest in the mysterious travels of the Norse in northern Quebec. He lives in Syracuse NY.

 Spring 2004         Outfit 116 

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