Lost Viking Settlements: 2. The Western Frontier (Part 1)

Ragnarök on the Viking Western Frontier.

Last Updated 05 December 2018.

This is the next part in a series on Lost Viking Settlements. Part 1 is the introduction. Warning, to avoid a really long read, this article comes in two parts!

Today, I can’t imagine going anywhere without Google Maps on my smart phone. How did they manage in the past? Only a few maps existed. Most people did not go far anyway. Nor would they know anything about the world outside their village. They would rely on passing merchants and travellers to tell spectacular stories about faraway lands.

Cape Spear, Newfoundland after 2011 storm. (Source: Flickr / Alan Schmierer).

One such tale was eventually written down. The story goes how Icelandic sailors on their way home are blown off course by Atlantic storms. They notice an unknown land on the horizon and describe their sightings back home. Eagerly, brave adventurers set out to find this land. They sail into the unknown and end up at the Viking Western Frontier.

Who Sails West?

Imagine yourself sailing on a large Viking ship. Perhaps you are from Iceland or Norway. Or, of Norse-Gaelic descent from the British Isles. Is your extended family travelling with you? Or are you a farmer without land and were you promised a better life yonder? Or perhaps you are Irish, or Anglo-Saxon, Scottish, a slave with no choice to follow the family from Iceland onwards.1 Or a lonesome adventurer, a young couple just married, or a criminal seeking to avoid punishment. Whatever your motivation, you are leaving the world you know and its society with safe boundaries.

You spend your evenings on the ship listening to someone who recounts the ancient tales of the elders. How a man called Naddod sails from the Faroe Islands to Norway. Bad weather blows him off course, too, and he ends up on the shores of an island he calls Snowland. Then, long after, a man called Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson sails in search of this island he calls Iceland and he settles down in 868.2 A new community comes together and adapts the social structures reminiscent of home. Chieftains divide the land among them. The Althing is established with a set of laws called the Grágás. These laws reflect the familiar Norwegian legal system.3

Within a century after Naddod’s arrival, the people have flocked here and the land is divided. The Age of Settlement ends. Iceland is an independent country even if it depends heavily on Norway for many things. This is where you live and breathe before you get on that ship to Greenland.

Eirik ‘the Red’ Thorvaldsson (950–c. 1003)

A voice from the benches near you, recalls a story of blood, murder and exile. A man called Thorvald Asvaldsson and his son Eirik are held responsible for several killings in Norway and banished. Thorvald pays passage to Iceland for his family and settles down. Eirik gets involved in another murder and they banish him from the valley. Eirik moves again, now to the smaller islands near the coast, but once more gets entangled in a feud and murder. In 982, the Icelanders finally exile him for three years.4

Eirik sails for Greenland. You guess he wasn’t welcome in Norway, but wonder why he never sails to the British Isles or Europe. The storyteller cannot give you a satisfactory explanation, either. Instead, he murmurs of hunters telling Eirik about the lands they found and where they set up camp. These are saucy tales of how the hunters turn on each other and kill one of their own, a man named Snøbjørn Galte Holmsteinsson.5 In the end, Eirik takes an even bigger leap than his father. When Thorvald sails west, he exchanges one known world for another. When Erik sails west, he sails into the unknown. All he knows from the hunters is that there should be rich hunting grounds.

Maps showing the different cultures in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and the Canadian arctic islands in the years 900, 1100, 1300 and 1500. The green colour shows the Dorset Culture, blue the Thule Culture, red Norse Culture, yellow Innu and orange Beothuk. (Source: Wikipedia / Masae)

Eirik scouts the unknown island and its opportunities. He sees and perhaps establishes the first outlines of new settlements. One deep into the northern fjords where the sea and land provide rich hunting grounds. Another further down south and the largest on the point closest to Iceland for easy access of the ships. When his banishment ends in 986, Eirik sails to Iceland. He delivers the pitch of his life to his fellow countrymen about this ‘green land’ and its resources.6

The Voyage

This is where your story begins. You listen to Eirik’s speech. This man, you’ve heard about him before in the Icelandic gossip scene. In your humble opinion, he has a clear anger-management problem. He promises land for all, and pockets full of money from trading opportunities. But the fishermen had talked of walrus hunting and the good money the ivory from the tusks made, long before Eirik’s speech. So you wonder if Eirik is merely going to Greenland to start a new society under his absolute rule.

Yet, your situation, whatever this may be, is dire enough to make you grab your things and head for the ships. You embark on one of the twenty-five in the fleet. You are on one of only fourteen that will arrive at the Eastern Settlement.

The beginning is chaos. Days, weeks and months spent unpacking, settling, getting used to the new surroundings, looking for the best spot to stay and squabbling with your fellow settlers about anything and everything. Meanwhile, Erik quickly establishes the order of society. To your relief, he makes it clear that Greenland is an independent free state.6

You see several hardened travellers get back on a few ships ready to sail onwards. They have taken enough time to acclimatise and get provisions to reach their end destination. Their stories reach you in bits and pieces over time. They follow the coastline around the tip of the land, and then northwards to the fjords where Erik pointed out the Western Settlement. There, too, is good land at Sandnes, destined for a local chieftain. But it takes time before someone takes on that role.7

Establishing a colony

The first years of your life on Greenland are all about survival. There is a famine. The hunters do not catch enough food. The farmers need to build their homes with the little timber there is. And the communities need to take shape. You hear of the extreme winter storms up north and the very short summers, and how your countrymen struggle to keep themselves and their cattle alive.8 The connection to your village is vital for the Western Settlement, but sometimes it’s impossible to reach them and sad tales of loss and death follow.

You realize the circumstances are tough on settlers all across the island. Where you are staying, in the Eastern Settlement, the climate is similar to what you are used to on Iceland. Short, sweet summers and long, cold winters. Less harsh than up north. Ships arrive with timber and metal. New settlers from Iceland bring news from the other side of the world. The ships leave again with the precious Arctic animals you’ve hunted, and of course, the walrus tusks.9 They pay good money when they tell you there are plenty of people who desire luxury commodities.

And all the while, you don’t know what to do with these tusks piling up in your house during the winter months when only a few ships sail. So, you carve them on long nights and sell them to your fellow settlers. Then, you find out in the summer that the traders will take your carvings, too,10 and ponder who will use them in those distant lands.

Leif ‘the Lucky’ Eiriksson (c. 970 – c. 1020)

Growing up in Iceland means you are tough enough to cope with Greenland’s climate. You adapt and the reward is survival. Some settlers continue to look beyond the horizon, such as Bjarni Herjólfsson and Leif, Eirik’s son, is the first to check the truth of Bjarni’s story. Upon his return you hear about HellulandMarkland and Vínland.11 Leif encourages hunters to join him, but your bones are getting old and you content yourself with listening to his tales.

In the 1960s a possible location for Leif’s Vínland is found by archaeologists in Newfoundland. The structures of the buildings are clearly Scandinavian. Though the discovery by the Ingstads is first met with scepticism, radio-carbon dating places the houses firmly in Leif’s time around 950–1050. Further research in the past decades have only led to the general acceptance of L’Anse aux Meadows as a Norse site.12

L’Anse aux Meadows (Source: Wikipedia / Rokker).

Why did Leif establish not just a temporary hunting camp, but build a long house? The lack of evidence of burials and relevant rituals leads one scholar to suggest it might have been a temporary boat repair facility.13 The presence of trees (that are lacking on Greenland) would certainly support this. Even the Saga of the Greenlanders supports it by mentioning Freydis, Leif’s sister, who comes here to collect wood to sell for “profit”. Or was it a small seasonal settlement after all. Not just for boat repair but also to stock the Greenland larder. For the Saga describes how the climate is much more pleasant over here. That there is an abundance of food such as salmon, berries/grapes and game. And the game and wood would have been profitable products back in Greenland.14

Abandoning Newfoundland

So, what leads to the abandonment of the Newfoundland site? The cause can so far not be found in archaeological evidence. A clue can perhaps be found in the Saga. In the end, the Greenlanders leave Vínland as the skraelings become increasingly hostile.15

To be Continued…


  1. Gísli Sigurðsson, ‘The North Atlantic Expansion.’ In: The Viking World Edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 564 [pp. 562–569].  ↩
  2. The Book of Settlements | Landnámabók. Translated by Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006 [reprint]), pp. 71.   ↩
  3. ‘Gray Goose Laws’. See: Laws of Early Iceland: Gràgàs. Edited by A. Dennis, P. Foote and R. Perkins (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2000) or Jesse L. Byocks books about Iceland.   ↩
  4. ‘Eirik the Red’s Saga.’ Translated by Keneva Kunz. In: The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley (London: Allan Lane Publishing, 1997), pp. 654 [pp. 653–674].   ↩
  5. For here, see: The Book of Settlements. (2006 [reprint]), pp. 71–73.   ↩
  6. The Vínland Sagas do not mention Eirik or any other person as the absolute leader of the Greenland settlement. Rather, it seems the power was held among the privileged families as was the custom in Iceland and Norway, too. See: Jette Arneborg, ‘The Norse settlements in Greenland.’ In: The Viking World Edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 592–593 [pp. 588–597].  ↩
  7. Carol S. Francis, ‘The Lost Western Settlement of Greenland, 1342.’ Master Thesis. California State University, Sacramento, 2011, pp. 17, 27.  ↩
  8. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 109–110.  ↩
  9. Studies have now show Greenland likely had a walrus ivory monopoly during the early Middle Ages. See: Karin Frei, Ashley Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Christian Madsen, Jette Arneborg, Robert Frei, Gardar Gudmundsson, Søren Sindbæk, James Woollett, Steven Hartman, Megan Hicks, and Thomas McGovern, ‘Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland.’ In: World Archaeology Volume 47.3 (2015), pp. 4–7, 9–10 [pp. 1–28]. DOI 10.1080/00438243.2015.1025912.
    Bastiaan Star, James H. Barrett, Agata T. Gondek, and Sanne Boessenkool, ‘Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland.’ In: bioRxiv Published 27 March 2018. Last Accessed 20 June 2018.
    Carlos Quiles, ‘Tracking material cultures with ancient DNA: medieval Norse walrus ivory trade, and leather shields from Zanzibar.’ Indo–European.eu Published 28 March 2018. Last Accessed 28 October 2018.  ↩
  10. The Greenlanders not only exported raw ivory, they also made their own ivory objects. See: Else Roesdahl, ‘Fine Belt–Buckles of Walrus Ivory – also Made in Greenland.’ In: Nordic Middle Ages – Artefacts, Landscapes and Society. Essays in Honour of Ingvild Øye on her 70th Birthday. Edited by Irene Baug, Janicke Larsen and Sigrid Samset Mygland (Bergen: University of Berg, 2015), pp. 267 [pp. 267–273].  ↩
  11. ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders.’ (1997), pp. 638–639.   ↩
  12. Unesco, ‘L’Anse aux Meadows Historic Site.’ Unesco World Heritage List. Last Accessed 14 May 2018.  ↩
  13. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (2016), pp. 128–129.  ↩
  14. For Freydis, see: ”The Saga of the Greenlanders.‘ (1997), pp. 649.
    For the climate and food, see: ’The Saga of the Greenlanders.‘ (1997), pp. 638, 642.
    For more on Leif Eriksson, read the Vínland Sagas or see: Birgitta Wallace, ’Leif Eriksson the Lucky.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Last Accessed 21 May 2018.   ↩
  15. ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders.’ (1997), pp. 646–647. See page 648 for the explanation for profits from the ships from Vínland.  ↩

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