The First Euro-Americans
Norse Settlers in the New World

Volume I, Chapter 2


The earliest European colony in what would later be called the New World was established in Greenland about 1000 years ago by Norse settlers. Although Europeans had forgotten these settlements by the time of Columbus, the Greenland colony exhibits in microcosm a major theme in Euro-American history: the effort to preserve an Old World culture on the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The Greenland settlements lasted more than four centuries, then apparently succumbed to a problem that affects the United States today: a shortage of fuel. In describing the many sources used to investigate Norse civilization the essay provides an introduction to the complexity and challenge of reconstructing the past.


Roughly a thousand years ago Europeans from Norway began settling Greenland, a rugged island on the edge of the New World. Their early contacts with North America did not lead to massive immigration by other Europeans; the distinction of starting that movement was left to Christopher Columbus. But the Norse settlers did establish dozens of communities in this remote land, communities where life was as intense and varied as in any European town. Few records survive from these early societies, but we know enough to recognize that the story of the Norse settlements is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of European contact with America and anticipates, in some ways, the later history of European colonization. In order to understand this unique society, we will review the five centuries of Norse experience in Greenland, but let us first try to imagine the reality of these distant times by picturing a day in the settlements.

The year is 1150 a.d. In a small Greenland farmhouse a Norse family is beginning the day. The father, first to rise, leaves his bed of skins and steps to the firepit in the center of the room. Taking embers from a small hole beside the pit, he lights the fire. Although the room is chilly, he makes only a small blaze, for wood is precious in Greenland. To light the windowless room he touches a flaming twig to the seal oil in a small soapstone lamp.

His wife is now awake, nursing their four-month-old infant; she hears the other children beginning to stir. The father goes outside to check the late spring weather and is pleased with what he sees. Above the mountains the sun is just rising. Looking down over green sloping fields to the calm fjord below, he notices a few small patches of fog, but otherwise the air is dear. It will be a warm day.

From where he stands he can see green pastures, farmhouses, and a stone church. In the water perhaps a mile away a neighbor is heading out to sea to fish from a small wood boat. He hears the sea gulls' piercing cries and a bell sounding matins in the cathedral a few miles away. From the great manor at Brattahlid, where Eric the Red once lived, he can hear the sharp ring of a blacksmith's hammer.

Along the west coast of Greenland for several hundred miles are farmsteads like his own where other colonists are beginning the day. Some will go to the fields; some will fish or hunt along the shore. Directly across the open sea on the Labrador coast, some three days' sail to the west, Norse workers are felling trees to replenish Greenland's scant supply.