Way back when, the Vikings spent a few centuries exploring and colonizing parts of Greenland. For anyone who wants to learn more about some of the first Norse settlers in North America, we’ve assembled a brief timeline of the Vikings and America. Read on to learn more.
According to old Icelandic sagas, the first Norse settlers arrived in Greenland sometime around 980. Historians can’t corroborate the claims these sagas make via written records, but most find no reason to doubt the information they provide.
At the head of this colonization effort was a brave explorer who just wanted a place to call home. Erik the Red, whose nickname was bestowed on him on account of his fiery red hair and beard, was once a normal man who resided in Hornstrandir, Iceland, for much of his life. However, he got into a feud with his neighbor that ended in bloodshed and earned him a three-year exile from Iceland.
During his exile, he explored the southwestern coast of Greenland, where he eventually established his estate. Soon after, two settlements—an eastern settlement at the southwestern tip of Greenland and a western settlement on the west coast—formed. Erik wasn’t the first Norseman to settle Greenland, but many historians credit him as the first successful one.
For quite a few centuries, the Viking settlements in Greenland flourished. Settlers farmed, hunted, and exported goods such as walrus ivory, fur, rope, hide, sheep, blubber, and “unicorn horns,” or narwhal tusks. There’s also evidence that they traded with native people, the Beothuk and the Thule, though records imply some bad blood with the latter.
Unfortunately, these settlements didn’t last. The most widely accepted explanation of their decline is that the Little Ice Age complicated farming and travel. Ivory—one of the main exports at the time—had also lost economic value, which could have made it hard for settlers to obtain overseas goods necessary for survival.
Before the two settlements fell, the Vikings went on many expeditions through Greenland. Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, led the charge on many of these expeditions. When a merchant, Bjarni Herjólfsson, was blown off course while sailing from Iceland to Greenland with a migration fleet, he discovered unfamiliar territory, which he described to Leif upon his return. Lief and a few others (his brothers, Thorvald and Thorsten; and Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni) then embarked on a series of explorations, during which they found three new areas: Helluland, land of the flat stones; Markland, land of forests; and Vinland, land of wine. Leif later planted a settlement in Vinland.
Of course, this brief timeline of the Vikings and America doesn’t cover the entirety of the Vikings’ time in Greenland. However, we hope it has provided a basic understanding that you can use as a starting point in your exploration of Norse Greenland history.
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