Recovering a lost chapter in North American history
A journey to Greenland
Rev. Duane Lindberg
It was an exciting adventure to journey to Greenland in August 2022 to explore the remains of the Norse colonies in North America —a lost chapter of American history. I use the word “lost” because American history textbooks either dismiss in silence the 450-year history of the Norse presence in North America (A.D. 985 – 1440) or acknowledge it only with a brief statement like:
“Norse voyagers discover and briefly settle in northeastern North America.”
Statements like this motivated me to go, see, and touch for myself, to document and to understand this lost chapter in American history, which began over 500 years before Christopher Columbus’ famed voyage of rediscovery.
Of course, someone will raise the question, “What does Greenland have to do with America?” This seems like a legitimate criticism. Until recently, I did not realize that Greenland was part of North America. I have learned from geological science that Greenland and half of Iceland are located on the North American tectonic plate.
During my journey to Iceland in 2019, I had the memorable experience of walking beneath the bassalt rock wall at Thingvellir, Iceland, which is the eastern edge of the North American continent. About 4.4 miles to the east, one can see the rock outcropping, which is the western edge of the Eurasian continent. According to geologists, the tectonic plates upholding the two continents are gradually separating. This may account for the frequent volcanic activity in Iceland.
Therefore, from a geological standpoint, Greenland, and part of Iceland are, in fact, part of North America.
As we followed in the wake of the Vikings into the deep fjords of South and West Greenland amid steep mountains, glaciers, and green meadows, we had the awesome opportunity to stand within the rock walls of the Hvalsey Fjord Church, which was built about A.D. 1300. The last recorded service in this church was a wedding on Sept. 16, 1408 (Norse Greenland: selected papers from the Hvalsey Conference 2008, Special Volume 2:5, Foreword).
Archaeologists have located the foundations of 18 stone churches and many smaller chapels built between A.D. 985 and 1400 within the eastern and western Norse settlements in Greenland.
We also visited the ruins of some of the 350 farms that were the economic backbone of the Norse colonies in North America for 450 years. For example, the bishop’s farm at Garðar had a cattle barn that contained stalls for 100 cows. Until the “Little Ice Age,” which began in the mid-13th century, grain crops, including oats and rye, were grown.
The bishop’s farm at Garðar was the largest in the eastern Norse settlement. This was also the location of the cathedral, the ecclesiastical headquarters for the bishop of Greenland and Vinland. There, we saw the foundations of many buildings connected to the bishop’s church, farm, and palace at Garðar.
Arnaldur, the first bishop of Garðar, was a Norwegian. He was consecrated in A.D. 1125–1126. However, Icelandic annals record that Erik Gnupsson of Iceland was bishop of Greenland before Arnaldur. Gnupsson is credited with a missionary journey to Vinland in A.D. 1121–1123 (Den Grønlandske Chronica, Ed. of 1726, page 26).
When the Garðar Cathedral site was excavated, the grave of one of the later bishops—probably Bishop Olaf (1246–1280)—was discovered beneath the floor of the cathedral chancel. His crosier and bishop’s ring had been buried with him when he died. These may be viewed in the National Museum of Denmark (Norse Greenland, page 108).
It was from this eastern settlement in Greenland that Leif Erikson in A.D. 1000 set out to explore the lands to the west, which the Norsemen named Vinland. Archaeologists have located and documented Leif’s base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. This Viking outpost at L’Anse aux Meadows has been reconstructed and is open to the public.
Daily life in the Viking colonies in North America has been recorded in the sagas (Egils Saga and the Grønlenings Saga) as well as in the 160 runic inscriptions, which have been uncovered in Greenland. One of the most treasured runic inscriptions was found on the island of Kingitorssuaq on the west coast of Greenland. It is of special interest to historians because it is an extended text followed by six undeciphered runes dated about A.D. 1333 (Norse Greenland, page 78).
Another runic inscription of a similar date discovered at Kensington, Minn., bears the date of A.D. 1362. Perhaps further investigation may reveal a connection between the sudden disappearance of the Norse colony in West Greenland (Vesterbygd) and the Kensington Rune Stone.
Other documented evidence of the Norse culture in North America are the articles of clothing that have been recovered by archaeologists at the Herjólfsnes churchyard in South Greenland. They are typical of styles that were in vogue in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries (Norse Greenland, page 25).
By A.D. 1450, the Norse colonies, which had existed in North America for 450 years with an estimated average population of 1,400–2,000, had disappeared (Imev, Lisbeth M., Peasants and Prayers, The Inscriptions of Norse Greenland, Studies in Archaeology and History, Volume 25, page 17). The intriguing mystery of their disappearance has stimulated the opinions of many.
Perhaps the most accepted reason for the demise of the Norse colonies in North America is the “Little Ice Age.” This climate phenomenon began in the 13th century. It gradually cooled North America and northern Europe, making it impossible to farm the way they used to.
Trade with Europe had also diminished. At this time, Greenland was a colony of Norway. The devastations of the Black Death (A.D. 1349–1351) made it difficult to maintain regular contact with the colonies. Also, the once coveted exports of Greenland—walrus ivory, Greenland Falcons, and furs—were no longer in great demand.
Another factor is that conflict with the Indigenous people, the Inuit, was a growing problem. When the Norse settled in south Greenland, they were the only people on the island. The Inuit did not enter north Greenland until the A.D. 1200s. So, the Norsemen were the “aborigines” of Greenland. But, as the climate grew colder, the Inuit peoples moved farther south and came into contact with the Norse settlers. Relations were generally peaceful, but oral tradition does tell of episodes of conflict (Rolfsrud, Erling N., White Angakok, pages 80–81).
It is probably the case that, as the climate grew colder, the Norse population was not willing to adopt the hunting/fishing culture of the Inuit. The young chose rather to leave than to make these changes. And so, the story of the Norse colonies in America ends after 450 years.
However, European mariners, cartographers, fishermen, and explorers were aware of the Norse colonies in North America. For example, a map published in England entitled “Old Greenland” uses the Norse terms, “Vesterbygd” (Western settlement) and “Østerbygd” (Eastern settlement). The oldest map of Greenland (the Clavus map of 1466) gives evidence of the Norse colonies (Norse Greenland, page 156).
According to his biographer, Christopher Columbus was aware of the Norse settlements in Greenland and their discovery of lands to the west. In A.D. 1477, Columbus visited Iceland and sailed 300 miles north into the ice-filled waters of Greenland, hoping to find an open passage to the west (B.F. DeCosta, Arctic Exploration, with an account of Nicholas of Lynn’s “Inventio Fortunata,” pages 31-34).
B.F. DeCosta in his treatise, “Arctic Exploration,” states, “It is nevertheless clear that Columbus made a careful examination of the Arctic question. In the course of his studies, he might have had access to the “Inventio Fortunata”* (Norse Greenland, page 31).
Though Columbus was not successful in this adventure, the knowledge he had gained of the Norse discoveries to the west gave him encouragement when he set out from Spain in A.D. 1492 to find the East Indies.
Having been inspired by my study of the Norse adventures in Iceland and Greenland, it was an awesome experience to step through the chancel doorway of the Hvalsey Fjord Church in South Greenland and to imagine attending the wedding service in Latin and old Norse, which echoed within these walls on Sept. 16, 1408.
Yes, it was a tangible reminder of a lost chapter in North American history!
*“Inventio Fortunata” was a report in manuscript form presented by Friar Nicholas of Lynn to the king of Norway (some sources say the report was given to the king of England) in A.D. 1364. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and polar explorer. He is believed to have accompanied the Paul Knutson Expedition sent by the king of Norway in A.D. 1355–1364 to find and return to the Christian faith the Norsemen who had suddenly disappeared from the West Greenland settlement in the 1340s. Only a remnant of the expedition returned to Bergen on Norway’s west coast in 1364.
All photos by Robert Sverre Hauge unless otherwise noted.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.