The Norse Discovery and Colonization of Greenland
Outlawed from Iceland for manslaughter in the year 982 AD, Eirikr rauði Þorvaldsson, commonly known as Erik the Red, set sail to the west. He sought haven in the unknown lands that earlier Norse sailors had reported seeing when blown off course in the Western seas. Erik eventually came upon an uninhabited country of impressive mountains and fjords, the lower coastal valleys fertile and green. Returning to Iceland when his term of punishment was over, he set sail once again in 985 with a fleet of twenty-five ships, with plans on colonizing this new land. He named it Greenland, "that people would be more eager to go there because the land had a good name". It was a brutal and perilous voyage with only fourteen Norse ships reaching Greenland, the others either perishing at sea or having turned back.
The Norse Greenland colonists were collected in two main areas, referred to as the Eastern and Western settlements. At their peak, they supported a population of approximately three thousand people distributed among at least four hundred farms.
The climate had been warmer in the early days, or so the skalds said, with harbors and bays often remaining ice-free into the late autumn. The summers were relatively long and mild, and crops and livestock flourished, as did the settlers. Traders from Norway and Iceland frequented the settlements, bringing much-needed wares, exchanging iron, timber, and tools as well as luxuries including nuts, raisins, and wine for Greenland exotica such as polar bear skins, caribou hides, walrus ivory, narwhal tusks, and live falcons. Bold and daring Greenlanders, including Erik the Red’s son, Leif, set off on new voyages, discovering unexplored lands further west, lands abundant with timber, game, and even wild grapes for making wine. Attempts to colonize these new lands, named Helluland, Markland, and Vinland by the Norsemen, but now known as North America, were short-lived due to the hostility of the indigenous population, so-called Skrælingjar, or ‘wild men’.
Time passed – years turned to decades, decades to centuries. Almost four hundred years since Erik the Red first set foot on Greenland, the world around the colonists began to change. There were seasons when crops failed and livestock had to be slaughtered.
The harbors would often freeze the year-round and the Western seas became hazardous and unnavigable. In the later years, few if any traders or merchants sailed into Greenland’s harbors. The people of the settlements began to feel as if the outside world had left them to their fate, alone and forgotten in a land that grew harsh and no longer showed them favor. There was talk of retribution from the old gods, venting their wrath at having been forgotten, replaced by the White Christ. There were visitors, but of another kind; the Thule Inuit, also referred to as Skrælingjar by the Greenlanders. Migrating down from the wild and inhospitable north due to the deteriorating climate, they brought with them fear and uncertainty. As the winters grew colder and the summers shorter, the Skrælingjar became bolder, raiding the outlying farms, pilfering livestock and iron, and possibly kidnapping children as well.
The Western Settlement was abandoned in the early 1300s for reasons unknown. In 1410, a private ship, having landed on Greenland several years earlier after being blown off course, left the Eastern Settlement. And then… silence. The Norse Greenlanders disappeared forever, inexplicably leaving behind them empty homes and farms. To this day, their puzzling disappearance remains a mystery.