Living on the Edge of the World: Viking Settlement in the North Atlantic

Jeff Berger —

Viking shipPreviously I published an article in Wise Guys entitled “Celebrating the Viking Past” that focused on the way Europeans and North Americans have remembered the Viking past. In this follow-up piece, I explain more fully how the Vikings explored the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in this region of the world. Their discovery of North America was only one short episode in the history of Norse exploration and settlements. Those events began during a period of global warming and ended with the onset of a Little Ice Age. It seems incredible now to think about the courage that it took for the Vikings to explore such dangerous and harsh places, without any maps, at a time most of Europe still thought the world was flat. Some of it was pure luck getting blown off course and some of it was the good sense to understand the behavior of migratory birds. But even more impressive was the Norse determination to settle in such inhospitable places that lacked sufficient resources without merchant trading (unless they wanted to live like the Innuits) and were only reachable from Europe by sailing for weeks. In this article, I will explain what happened to those early settlement in Greenland and the ecological damage that occurred there. This story is told in Vikings: The North Atlantic, an anthology of 31 articles edited by William F. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth Ward that was published by the Brookings Institution in 2000 and upon which this article is based.

As is true of all written accounts of Viking exploration, the accounts of what happened prior to the 13th century are based on oral tradition that was recorded in the 13th century in the Icelandic Sagas. However, since those sagas were a mixture of truth and fiction, for a long time the world was skeptical about all of it. The Sagas are not always reliable or consistent with each other, but in many cases they have been supported by relatively recent archeological discoveries.

Discovery of the Faroe Islands and Iceland

The Vikings started out in search of plunder and quickly discovered that wealth could be found in Christian monasteries. Many of the Norwegian voyages originated from the west coast of Norway, Bergen being the largest Norwegian port on the west coast. The Shetland Islands, which the Vikings began to occupy circa 800, are not far from Bergen. The Shetland Islands are at 60°N latitude, the same latitude as the Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland and the northwest tip of the Labrador coast in Canada. Reykjavik, Iceland, sits at about at 64°N. Midway between the Shetland Islands and Iceland is the Faeroe Islands at 62°N.

Atlas of North AtlanticLandnámabók is a medieval Icelandic manuscript that describes in considerable detail the settlement of the Faeroes and Iceland. Landnám is the word that the Norse used to describe the settlement of new lands. The Vikings arrived in the Faeroes in the year 825. According to this document, Naddod was the first Norseman to discover Iceland—by accident as he was blown off course on his way to the Faeroes. Naddod is probably the father of Ann Naddodsdóttir from Shetland and is distantly related to Erik the Red. According to the Sagas, Garðarr Svavarsson is the second person to arrive at Iceland; he was the first to circumnavigate the island. His son later immigrated to Iceland.

In 868, a man name Flóki also went in search of the land that Garðarr Svavarsson found. (Flóki is a character in the History Channel’s Vikings.) Flóki set up a winter camp near the coast. The summer was very good, but Flóki was ill-prepared for the cold winter that followed. Waiting for the spring, Flóki hiked up the highest mountain above his camp. From there, he saw a large fjord full of drift ice. He gave Iceland its name. When Flóki and the other men returned to Norway, Flóki said he believed it to be worthless. Herjolf believed that the land had both good and bad qualities. Thorolf claimed that butter was smeared on every straw on the land that they had found. Despite speaking ill of the land, Flóki later returned to Iceland, settled there, and died there.

The Norsemen found no inhabitants in Iceland, but there was evidence of Irish hermits having been there before. Most of the inhabitable land in Iceland could be found on the coasts and in a number of small plains and valley systems stretching into the interior, where there were birch trees, willows, and plenty of land for pastures. There was also an abundance of fish and seals. To a farmer coming from western or northern Norway, Iceland must have seemed very attractive. It was also a period of global warming. Iceland was free from arctic ice.

Who were these people who came to Iceland and why did they come? According to the Book of Settlements (written in the early 12th century), the first settler, Ingolf, fled Norway as a culprit. However, most of the settlers were probably peaceful farmers. About 400 settlers came to Iceland between 870 and 930, migrating from both Scandinavia and the British Isles. These amalgam of immigrants founded a new society with new laws and rules of conduct that were quite different from Europe.

In the 12th century, most of the leading families in Iceland liked to trace their family histories to Björn Buna, who is thought to have fled from Hebrides. Men of the Buna family are thought to have settled in Iceland in the last decade of the 9th century, replacing men such as Ingolf. However, evidence for any of this is thin.

Discovery of Greenland

Erik the Red statue at Qagssiarssuk, Greenland

Increasingly large populations began to stress the land of Iceland and to create scarcity. Scarcity produced conflict. In 982 something about this conflict caused Erik the Red to be banished from Iceland for three years. Erik eagerly set sail for lands sighted to the west by voyagers driven off course on their way to Iceland. During the next three years he explored the southwest portion of a magnificent country that he called the “green land.”

Some have suggested that Erik the Red contrived this name in order to attract more settlers to join him in this new land, but the name was not inaccurate. The inner fjords were indeed lush with large stands of willows and birch, and the vast uplands of Greenland were in sharp contrast to the barren over-exploited island of Iceland. (Even today those areas are lusher in summer compared with the eastern Canadian Arctic at the same latitude.) Lakes and rivers were filled with fish and migratory harp seals while caribou roamed the uplands.

The extent and duration of the pack ice moving down the east coast was less than it was in the year 2000, making it considerably less menacing. (That is not necessarily true today.) That same southerly current wraps around Cape Farewell and brings warm waters to the western shores. (However, when the earth is cold, that same current brings ice to the southwestern shores.) The entire North Atlantic was well into its Medieval Warm Period and thanks to the fact that Greenland was uninhabited, it had built up considerable “ecological capital.” That capital was about to be spent very quickly.

Before returning to Iceland, Erik carefully chose his own farm which he called Brattahlid, in Erik’s Fjord, in what became known as the Eastern Settlement at 61°N. His discoveries launched Erik up the Icelandic social ladder. Others were excited to join him in this new Landnám, partly for the social status it would bring them. One year after returning to Iceland, Erik led a fleet of 25 ships to Greenland, crossing the turbulent ice-filled ocean (that would later sink the Titanic). Some didn’t make it, but an estimated 400 to 500 people survived the journey, including women, children, and elderly people. Erik became the most powerful chieftain in this new land. Erik directed later settlers about 120 miles north to what became known as the Western Settlement (at 64°N). Although smaller and cooler than the Eastern Settlement and further from Iceland, the Western Settlement was more conveniently closer to Nordsetur around 69-70°N (today known as Disko Bay) hunting grounds, where walrus were found in abundance.

The year 1000 was an exciting year for Norse people everywhere. That was the year that the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, officially converted Norway to Christianity. (He also died later that same year; perhaps it was Odin’s revenge.) He had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Icelanders to accept Christianity. Finally, Gizur the White Teitsson, promised the king that he would convert his fellow Icelanders. Thorgier, the law speaker, spoke for the heathens. At stake was a potential civil war between the Christians and the heathens. After much contemplation, Thorgier conceded that henceforth Christianity would become the law of the land, but that certain heathen practices such as infanticide, would be allowed to continue covertly.

Discovery of America

When news of this religious conversion reached Greenland, Erik’s wife Thjodhild was pleased, because she had already converted to Christianity. She then built a small church on the Brattahlid estate that her heathen husband had built in the Eastern Settlement. Thjodhild’s little church still stands. At the same time that the Norse world was converting to Christianity, Erik’s sons were getting restless Although the details vary between the Greenlanders’ Saga and Eric the Red’s Saga, they both indicate that Leif Eriksson was the first to head for the new lands further west, followed by his brothers Thorvald and Thorstein and sister Freydis. The sagas say that they established an over-winter camp at a place called Leifsbuðr (Leif’s camp), or Straumfjord, which they occupied for almost 10 years. Straumfjord was a gateway for their exploration of a region that they called Vinland. Before those 10 years had ended, Erik died and Leif replaced him as the new chieftain of Greenland, leaving others to continue the exploration of Vinland.

During the 1960s, it was proven that Leifsbuðr or Straumfjord is a place that today is called L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Also, a Norwegian merchant and explorer named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who was married to Gudrid (Thorstein’s widow), organized and led one of the last major attempts to settle in the new territory. His expedition had the most contact with the native Skraeling population. Karlsfeni created an amicable relationship with the Skraeling, but this ended when the Norse killed some of them. Karlsfeni headed home, but not before Gudrid gave birth to Snorri, the first European ever born in North America (for a map of this area, see my “Celebrating the Viking Past”).

These Skraeling were among the millions of Indian descendants who had migrated from northeast Asia long ago when the Bering Sea had become a land bridge to Alaska and had filled up the Americas from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego. The Skraeling that the Norse encountered probably spoke Algonquian. Further north, the Skraeling were Late Dorset Indians, who were exploring both sea and land resources in the Canadian High Arctic and northern Greenland, but may or may not have met the Norsemen. By the time the Norsemen ventured further north in the 13th century, the Thule people had already displaced the Dorset people. The Norsemen called them Skraeling, too. The Thule people were Inuit Eskimos who had migrated across the Canadian Arctic from Alaska. They would eventually displace the Norsemen in Greenland.

Using L’Anse aux Meadows as an over-winter base camp, the Norsemen explored around an area that they called Vinland. There they found grapes, butternuts, walnuts, and timber, which they brought back to L’Anse aux Meadows. In the south, in an area called Hóp (Tidal Pool), they found lumber and grapes. At Hóp they also found lagoons locked off from the sea by sand barriers, shallow bays that they could enter only at high tide, fine meadows, and forests. Unfortunately, they also met Skraeling using skin canoes. Some have speculated that Hóp was in northeastern New Brunswick. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace concluded that the Vinland of the Sagas encompasses all coasts around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including Nova Scotia.

Greenland’s Connection to Europe During the Middle Ages

The Norse population gradually increased until about the year 1300, peaking at about 2000 people. In 1347, a Greenlandic ship with 18 men traveled to Iceland having come from Markland. In addition to Vinland, the Sagas says that the explorers first found Helluland (Land of Flat Rocks) and Markland (Land of Forests). Helluland is now thought to be the south part of Baffin Island, which is tundra, and perhaps the norther part of Labrador, which is a transitionary tundra zona. Labrador is where they could have come to gather needed lumber, but there is no archeological evidence of wood in Greenland having come from North America. Much of the wood used in Greenland was driftwood from Siberia. Much of the trade goods of the Greenlanders consisted of goat skins, ox hides, sealskins, skin rope, and walrus tusks. The same goods were used to pay tithes to the Vatican Church. Because the walrus ivory was unique to Greenland, their tusks were highly prized. Equally valuable when they could catch them were narwhal (who also have tusks) and polar bears. Due to the low population of Greenland, they were not merchants. They would occasionally travel to Iceland, but there is only one record of a Greenlander ship coming to Bergen. Usually the European merchants came to Greenland. But the Greenlanders paid taxes to the Norwegian king.

The Tale of the Greenlanders says that in 1124 a farmer named Sokki Thorisson sought and won the support for the idea of Greenlanders having their own bishop. Loaded with walrus tusks, a polar bear, and skins, Sokki’s son sailed to Norway and the king appointed a Norwegian priest Arnald as the first bishop of the Greenlanders. However, Arnald never went to Greenland, though he did go to Iceland. Bishop Helgi is the first bishop to live in Greenland, in 1210 or 1212. For most of the next 170 years a bishop lived in Greenland. The last bishop, named Alf, died in 1378. Most of the bishops to reside in Greenland came from Norway. (In contrast, Iceland had its own native bishops.) No bishop was a native Greenlander.

Exploration Above the Arctic Circle

There is no written record of the Norse traveling north of their Nordsetur hunting grounds, but there is archeological evidence that they did so, sometime in the 13th century. They made it up to Smith Sound, which is above 77°N. Smith Sound is a very narrow channel that separates northern Greenland from Ellesmere Island. (Both are considered to be part of North America.) To get to Smith Sound requires sailing first Satellite view of the northern hemisphere (1)through Baffin Bay, which is often completely frozen over, as can be seen in the adjacent satellite photo. The far northern tip of Greenland and Ellesmere Island are both at about 83°N, less than 700 miles from the North Pole.

A runic inscription found near Melville Bay (at about 75°N) proves that the Norse had been there. Further north in Smith Sound there is evidence of Norse structures and graves. In addition, hundreds of other Norse artifacts found throughout the territories where Innuits lived. By the 13th century, the Inuits had moved down to Nordsetur, where they began to interact with the Norsemen. Evidently, they learned to communicate and trade with each other, but there was probably conflict, too, especially if they were competing for land and for food. Interestingly, however, there is no evidence that the Norsemen ever learned anything from the Inuit about arctic survival techniques or about how to hunt for whales.

Hundreds of Norse artifacts have been found in places where the Innuits lived, from Nordsetur to Ellesmere Island, and from Baffin Island to as far south as the Ungava peninsula which is bounded by the Hudson Straight and Hudson Bay.  However, it is believed that those artifacts were brought to North America by Innuits.

The Abandonment of Greenland

The last recorded evidence of the Norse living in Greenland was a letter written by an Icelander about a wedding he attended in Greenland in 1412. He also witnessed a man being burned for practicing witchcraft. By the 16th century, it began to occur to Europeans that Greenland might be connected to the New World across the ocean. In 1514-16, a Norwegian bishop tried to organize an expedition to Greenland, but he failed to gain support. Even still, a new non-resident bishop was assigned to Greenland in 1519. Early in the 17th century, three expeditions were sent, but they mistakenly thought that the Eastern Settlement was on the eastern shore. All they found was ice. Finally, in 1721 a Norwegian missionary named Hans Egede arrived in the Western Settlement region, hoping to stop the Greenlanders from being Popish idolaters and convert them to Lutheranism. All he found were pagan Innuits. After some initial suspicion and curiosity, Egede was able to locate many of the abandoned Norse farms, and he learned much from the Innuits about what had happened. Still, he could not find other farms that had become completely buried underneath gravel, which had been washed down from the melting glaciers.

So, what happened to the Norse Greenlanders? There were many factors. I will start with the ecological capital that I mentioned earlier. Removing the trees was suicidal. Over-grazing was suicidal. Once the top soil was gone, there was no way to reverse the trend. Furthermore, the chieftains and the bishops took the best land, leaving the average Norseman to live on the fringes. Increasingly the lay people were forced to live on fish and seal meat. When the Little Ice Age descended upon Greenland in the 13th century, arctic ice may have made it more difficult to travel. Before 1300 the population of the Western Settlement began to decline. At first some of them moved to the Eastern Settlement, but abandonment of the Western Settlement increased the difficulty of travel to Nordsetur. Before long the population of the Eastern Settlement also began to decline. Experts now estimate that the Norsemen lasted until the middle of the 15th century. Experts do not think they were killed. Probably the younger generations were motivated to leave first, resulting in a lower birth rate. Their emigration would ultimately lead to zero population. Other factors were related to Europe itself. When the Crusades ended, Europeans could obtain elephant ivory, which meant that they became less interested in walrus tusks. Increasingly the Greenlanders had less to offer that would compensate for the difficulty of merchants traveling to Greenland. Then the Black Plague hit Europe around 1400. Greenland was insulated from the disease, but when the population of Europe was decimated, global trading was impacted and suddenly land was no longer scarce. All of the reasons that had motivated the settlement of Greenland no longer existed.

The North Atlantic of Today

In the meantime, what happened in Iceland? Iceland did not reach zero population, but it was ecologically devastated, too. In the 19th century, arctic ice was still threatening Iceland. But then the Industrial Revolution arrived in Iceland. The earth began to warm and the economy of Iceland was industrialized. During the Middle Ages, the population of Iceland never exceeded 20,000, but today the population is 338,000. Iceland is now an independent country.

The population of the Faroe Islands is 49,000. It remains part of Denmark, perhaps too small to be successful as an independent nation. Fishing is its largest industry. Unemployment has been low and during the economic crisis of 2008, the Faroe Islands loaned money to Iceland.

The population of Greenland today is 56,000, of whom 90 percent are Innuit. The majority of the population is Lutheran. More than 17,000 people live in Nuuk, the capital city, which has an airport. (Reykjavik is pretty much the only place you can fly to.) There are virtually no roads. Greenland is a semi-autonomous part of Denmark. Shrimp and fishing is the largest industry, but it also has a successful mineral mining industry, especially ruby, which fluctuates as the price of minerals changes. Grants from Denmark supplement the economy. The United States maintains a military base in Greenland. (We need to keep the Rooskies out.)

During the Middle Ages, people didn’t think much about what lay north of Greenland, but people suspected that it was a peninsula of Asia. Of course, that myth was dispelled when people learned that the earth was round, but as recently as the 19th century people had no idea what lay beyond the ice. The airplane hadn’t been invented yet. People universally believed there was a warm ocean at the North Pole, fed by a warm current from Japan up through the Bering Sea. An American shipping expedition in the 1870s resulted in death.

In 1908, Admiral Peary became the first explorer (traveling over 1000 miles on a dog sled) to find the northern most point of Greenland and then subsequently to the North Pole. He also spotted from a distance the northern most point of land anywhere, on neighboring Ellesmere Island, not too far from where the Norse Greenlanders ventured, and died, in the 13th century.


Saphire, a collie, eating out Jeffrey Berger's hand
Jeff Berger and Saphire

Jeff Berger (Author) – Tech writer, public speaker, and engineer. He earned Masters degrees in statistics and operations research from the University of California, Berkeley, and was employed by IBM for more than 30 years. He developed an interest in history and economics during the 1990’s and now wonders if he might have chosen the wrong career.

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