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Canada’s Norse Interregnum

In the second instalment of an ongoing Quillette series, historian Greg Koabel describes how Leif Erikson ended up in Newfoundland

· 26 min read
Canada’s Norse Interregnum
Leif Erikson Discovers America, by Norwegian painter Hans Dahl (1849–1937).

What follows is the second instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized project adapted from transcripts of Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name, which began airing in 2020.

In the first instalment of this series, I breezed through several thousand years of history. From here on out, we’ll be gradually easing the throttle back, and moving through time at a more reasonable speed.

The focus this time will (mostly) be on a span of about 350 years, from the 11th century to the 14th century, and will be situated mostly in the Canadian Arctic, with one or two detours further south. While the initial waves of migration that populated Canada were completed when the last ice-age glaciers receded from the Canadian Shield, the Arctic continued to host significant movements (and displacements) of people well into Europe’s medieval period.

The first people to make their homes in the Canadian Arctic arrived in around 2500 BC. They probably weren’t holdovers from the old Beringian land bridge connecting Asia with modern Alaska, but rather a coastal people who’d more recently migrated from north-eastern Siberia. Their specialization in hunting sea mammals gave them the technology and sea-faring knowledge they needed to cross the narrow Bering Strait.

Although the Arctic environment is (and was) harsh, these hunters seem to have moved quickly across the north, reaching Greenland within a few hundred years. Like the earliest migrants to the Americas, they benefited from a lack of competition, and prey animals that had not learned to fear human technology.

By around 1500 BC, these initial migrants were displaced by a second wave, spurred on by a warmer climate that made the Arctic more hospitable. This second wave had a more diverse subsistence tool-kit. In addition to hunting Arctic sea mammals, these newcomers ranged further inland to exploit the caribou herds of the subarctic. This meant greater contact with the long established societies we met in the last instalment—the Athabascans in the west, and the Algonquins on the Canadian Shield.

In fact, this was a period of upheaval on the Atlantic coast, especially Labrador and Newfoundland. The Algonquin speakers in those areas gave way to the new arrivals, though how this actually happened is a bit uncertain. There’s little evidence of any interaction between these groups, which suggests that the Algonquins may have abandoned Newfoundland and other coastal regions before the arrival of the Arctic migrants.

But while there is no evidence of direct interaction in this region, there is plenty of evidence that the newcomers influenced life more generally. They appear to have brought a new technology with them from Asia, the bow and arrow. The weapon was quickly adopted by neighbouring peoples, eventually spreading across the continent.

Canadian Museum of Nature map of north-eastern Canada

Readers may have noticed that I haven’t attached a name to these newcomers yet. In part, this is due to confusion and uncertainty among archaeologists: It’s unclear how the successive waves of Siberian or Alaskan migrants were related to one another. There does seem to be a consensus, however, that these groups do not have descendants that survive in today’s Canadian Arctic.

The last of these early groups are known as the Dorset people (named after an archaeological site on Dorset Island, just off the south-west tip of Baffin Island). By around 500 BC, the Dorset people had established themselves in the Canadian Arctic, from northern Quebec and even Labrador, up to the farthest reaches of Ellesmere Island. They also established a presence on the north-west coast of Greenland, where there were well stocked walrus hunting grounds—and, even more importantly, a cache of workable metal iron deposited by a meteor.

Aside from a few communities to the south, the Dorset people largely abandoned the caribou hunting of their predecessors, and focused their efforts on sea mammals. In particular, they built houses out of snow, allowing them to live close to the ice packs where seals lived. (The word “igloo,” which often gets used in this context, actually originates with an Inuit word, iglu, which can describe a house built of any material, not just snow.)

By around 1000 AD, the Dorset people were thriving, aided by a global rise in temperatures that became known, in the European context, as the Medieval Warm Period. This period saw greater uniformity in Dorset tools and ceremonial objects (such as walrus ivory carvings), suggesting internal trade networks. Trade also seemed to be active with their neighbours to the south, especially the Algonquin-speakers on the Atlantic coast.

Wikimedia Commons map indicating extent of Dorset, Norse, and Thule (Inuit) movement, 900 AD–1500 AD.

At this point—around a thousand years ago—a new potential trading partner emerged from the open ocean to the east—the Norse.

We’re going to be spending a lot of time with the Norse migrants of the medieval period, despite the fact that their presence in the Canadian story was relatively brief. So I want to explain my thinking about why this topic is worth lingering on.

The arrival of the Norse introduces the first documentary historical evidence in Canada’s history (although, admittedly, it is fragmentary, limited, and mostly produced fairly late in the period of Norse involvement in Canada). But despite these limitations, these new forms of evidence are welcome additions to the archaeology and oral traditions we’ve been using thus far to reconstruct the Canadian world.

I’m also choosing to highlight the Norse story because it fits into one of the broader themes of this series: The history of Canada is, in some ways, a history of interactions between different cultures. And for the next 350 years or so, the North Atlantic will play host to a series of encounters among Scandinavians, Dorset people, and Maritime Algonquin-speakers (not to mention a new wave of Arctic dwellers from Alaska that we’ll get to in a moment). In other words, this is not just a story of Europeans meeting Americans, but of several inter-related migrations and encounters that would leave a lasting influence on Canada long after the Norse headed back home.

So who exactly were the Norse, and what were they doing in Canada?

To answer that, we’re going to have to backtrack a bit. To vastly over-simplify: In the late eighth century and early ninth century, the people of Scandinavia (popularly known as the Vikings) spread violence and chaos across Europe. The reasons for this sudden intrusion on the European scene are still disputed by historians. Possibly it was a response to the encroaching power of Charlemagne, threatening Denmark; or perhaps Norse expansionism was driven by over-population at home.

Most important for us, was the transformation of Scandinavian society, especially in Norway, from a collection of loosely affiliated chieftains, into a centralized monarchy. This was a disruptive process, which displaced many local chieftains who had no interest in serving under a king. The search for land and wealth pushed many of them toward raids and conquest, particularly at the expense of the weak and divided peoples of the British Isles. After the newly emergent Scandinavian kings turned from plunderers to conventional players in European power politics, a handful of Norse still yearned for their own lands. Many of them lived in England or Ireland, where they had gone to fight for property and wealth.

Life in the British Isles was dangerous: What had been won by the sword had to be perpetually defended by the sword. And the old problem of over-powerful monarchs still remained. The kings in Norway claimed authority, and so, too, did the Anglo-Saxon kings, who now saw the benefits of unity. What were needed was new lands, over which no king had dominion, and which (they hoped) had no pre-existing population that would be hostile to newcomers.

Luckily, the Norse in Ireland had a tip on lands that fit the bill exactly. Prior to the Norse invasions, the Christian monks of Ireland had also been interested in new lands that were removed from known civilization—not for the purpose of colonization, but for spiritual contemplation. What better way to achieve the monastic ideal of removing oneself from worldly realms than by finding a secluded island on the edge of the earth?

In the eighth century, it seems that a few monks succeeded in this project. They established religious retreats in the Faroe Islands, and even Iceland (becoming the first humans to live there). The Norse were intrigued.

By 825, independent groups of Norse farmers had laid claim to lands in Shetland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and the Faroe Islands. But the big breakthrough came in the 870s, when Iceland was discovered. Or re-discovered, I should say. The first Norse who arrived found evidence of the Irish monks who’d preceded them. But where those first arrivals had just been looking for a quiet place to contemplate the divine, the Norse were looking to exploit the land.

Despite their reputation for violence, the Norse were first and foremost farmers. The fjords of their native Norway were not especially well suited to large scale horticulture, so their experience lay more in livestock. The Icelandic voyagers were looking for pastureland for their cattle, or (as was seen as slightly less prestigious) flocks of sheep.

Wikimedia Commons map of Iceland showing rivers, lowland areas (in green), highland areas (in brown), and glaciers (white). 

Their timing was impeccable. In 871, just before the Norse arrived in force, Iceland had one of the periodic volcanic eruptions the island is known for, covering the land in ash, and promoting fertility. The next 10 or 20 years were a bonanza. Groups of families travelled together, then lived together as they cleared the forests along Iceland’s river valleys. After a few years of hard work, they split into individual households and enjoyed the rich pastureland they’d created.

By the 880s, the best lowland territory had all been claimed, and new arrivals started pushing upriver, seeking out pastures in the highlands, which were less fertile, but still capable of supporting decent sheep populations.

By the 890s, around 20 years into the settlement of Iceland, a distinct form of social organization was emerging—which is the important point to focus on, since this is not, after all, a series on the history of Iceland. The social and economic patterns that played out in the early days of Icelandic settlement were studied by the island’s later residents. And some of them hoped to repeat the process in brand new lands further afield.

What was it about this settlement pattern that made it so attractive? In essence, the earliest arrivals became a de facto aristocracy, purely by virtue of the fact that they got there first. They got the best pick of the new lands, and usually laid claim to far more than they could farm themselves. Of course, “laying claim” was not really a well-defined legal process, as this was virgin frontier. The natural law of use-it-or-lose-it applied. The original settlers therefore encouraged new tenants to come help them farm their extensive new properties before someone else made a claim.

The established settlers also had leverage over later arrivals. Migrants were hesitant to bring livestock with them to Iceland, as they often didn’t know how long it would take them to find land and then clear it. As a result, many borrowed cattle or sheep from the existing settlers, or bought them at exorbitant prices.

This had two consequences for Icelandic society.

First, it established an informal aristocracy that dominated political life on the island. Power and land were increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few families. In 930, this arrangement was formalized with the creation of the Althing, an assembly that hashed out laws and settled disputes. Out of a total population of 60,000, around 4,000 land-owners had a voice at the Althing, which met every June.

In theory, this was one of the earliest examples of the parliaments that would one day spread across Europe. But in practice, the Althing more often acted as a venue for the top chieftains to resolve disputes among their lesser neighbours. The laws the Althing produced were often deliberately harsh, in order to encourage the use of the chieftains as informal agents of reconciliation instead. Iceland—which had transitioned from a wilderness to a stratified society in a matter of 60 years—set a model for how to rise from adventurer to landed nobility in a single lifetime.

The second consequence of this process, which I mentioned earlier, is that the new society in Iceland produced the same problems as those in the Norse kingdoms: If you weren’t one of the initial settlers, it was very difficult to get ahead in life. All the best land was already taken, and those who held it had created legal and political structures to ensure they continued to hold it. For many, the whole point of coming to Iceland had been to avoid being ruled by an overbearing king. Yet that’s more or less the society they found in the early 10th century.

One of these disgruntled farmers was Erik the Red. He probably arrived in Iceland as a boy sometime in the 960s, almost a century after its initial settlement. Erik’s father had been exiled from Norway for murder, and sought refuge in Iceland. As latecomers, Erik and his father were not especially wealthy or prominent members of society.

It didn’t help that Erik took after his father, and killed one of his neighbours in a property dispute. The Althing laid down a sentence of a three-year exile for the unruly farmer.

Always the maverick, Erik decided to treat this as an opportunity rather than a punishment. It was clear that he would never be a great man in Icelandic society. So he resolved to find a new Iceland. And, as its first residents, he imagined, he and his family would be at the top of the social pyramid.

Summer in the Greenland coast circa the year 1000, by Danish artist Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893).

From 985 to 992, Erik discovered and explored Greenland, a massive island around 1,200 km from Iceland at the nearest point. Almost all of Greenland’s territory is covered by a massive ice sheet, but some coastal fjords were capable of supporting Norse-style livestock farming. In this Erik lucked out, as the Earth was just entering the aforementioned Medieval Warm Period, making Greenland more hospitable than it would be in later centuries.

In his seven years of exploration, Erik found two regions of coastline that looked promising for settlement. The best land would eventually become known as the Eastern Settlement (which, confusingly, was located on the west side of Greenland’s southern tip). About 500 km further up the west coast, near modern day Nuuk, Erik found another likely spot, a series of well protected bays that cut deep inland. This would become the Western Settlement. The lands there were not as well-suited to agriculture, but the Western Settlement did provide better access to plentiful walrus hunting grounds further up the coast. Ivory would prove to be a valuable export commodity in Norse Greenland.

Best of all, these lands were uninhabited, which meant that migrants would be free to lay claim to property on a first come first serve basis. Unbeknownst to Erik, the Dorset people occupied the extreme north-western corner of Greenland, but the great length of the western coast of Greenland meant the two peoples would initially remain ignorant of one another.

His surveying work complete, Erik returned to Iceland in 992, his term of exile having long since expired. But the intrepid captain had no intention of re-joining Icelandic society. Instead, he spread tales of the new lands he had discovered, and sparked dreams of repeating the settlement process there. This was an appealing message to men who, like him, were dissatisfied with the lack of social mobility in Iceland.

Twenty-five ships full of Norse settlers joined him in his quest—though, in an early indication of how hazardous North Atlantic travel could be, only 14 of them made it to Greenland. Floating ice and frequent storms made the sea a dangerous place.

Despite the dangers, it didn’t take long to populate both the Eastern and Western settlements. Erik ensured that the best lands in both locations went to him and his progeny. And in less than 10 years, vast new opportunities for settlement would appear.

A map of Norse settlements on the west coast of Greenland, with each dot representing a Norse site holding between one and 60 individual ruins, from Norse Greenland Dietary Economy ca. AD 980–ca. AD 1450, by Jette Arneborg, Niels Lynnerup, Jan Heinemeier, Jeppe Møhl, Niels Rud, and Árný E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir. 

Those opportunities likely stemmed from the exploitation of the walrus hunting grounds at Disko Bay, just over 500 km north of the Western Settlement, which Norse referred to it as “Nordsetur.” Hunting parties spent the summer stalking walruses on pack ice, before retreating home ahead of the harsh winter. Importantly for us, along the way to Nordsetur, the strait between Greenland and Baffin Island in what is now Canada shrinks to its narrowest point. In the course of the frequent northern journeys, someone may have been blown off course and sighted new land—we’ll never know precisely how the Greenlanders became interested in further western exploration. Certainly, the new settlements had not yet reached the saturation point that had driven the settlers out of Iceland in search of new lands in the first place.

However the Norse discovered the existence of Baffin Island, by the year 1000, Erik the Red was ready to once again take advantage of fresh lands to colonize. But as the Greenland colonies were still less than a decade old, Erik himself decided to stay put and ensure that the settlement of the new areas in Greenland went according to plan. In his absence, he worried, a rival settler might establish his own family as the dominant force in Greenland.

Instead, Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, captained a voyage of exploration. His route followed the path of the walrus hunters up the west coast of Greenland until the strait to Baffin Island narrowed. There he cut across the sea to Canada.

Erikson and his crew were not impressed with their first taste of the Americas. Baffin Island was a land of rock and snow that offered none of the potential for pastureland that Greenland had. They named the island Helluland—or Land of Flat Rocks—not a promising start.

Coast of Sam Ford Fjord, in northeast Baffin Island.

But undeterred, Leif pressed on southwards. After following the coast of Baffin Island, then crossing the Hudson Strait that divided it from continental North America, the Norse explorers found a more encouraging coastline—modern-day Labrador. Erikson named it Markland, and he was impressed with the mighty forests that reached out to the rocky shore. Wood was a precious commodity back home, as Greenland had no forests. The settlers had to make do with the driftwood that occasionally washed up on shore, or imports from Europe.

Finally, Leif Erikson discovered a third, even more promising land. This, he named Vinland, modern day Newfoundland. The Strait of Belle Isle, which divides Labrador from the northern tip of Newfoundland, would have been of particular interest to the explorers. At its narrowest, the strait is just 15 km wide, creating a bottleneck where the warm current of the St. Lawrence meets the floating ice coming down from Greenland. The result is a nutrient-rich stretch of water that attracted whales and fish in incredible numbers. Harp seals also bred there every spring, before moving on to their summer homes in the Arctic.

A map of early Norse exploration routes, created by Eva Panagiotakopulu.

The Strait of Belle Isle is one of those locations worth keeping in mind, as its resources will play an important role in the early part of Canada’s story. In fact, Canada’s earliest known ceremonial burial took place on the Labrador side of the strait: A few thousand years before plentiful salmon allowed the development of sophisticated hierarchical societies on Canada’s west coast, Indigenous people in Labrador became rich enough to devote time and energy to elaborate burial rituals.

It’s no accident then that the Erikson family decided to establish a base in the area from which to further explore the region. For at least 10 years, the sons and daughters of Erik the Red occupied a settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, the ruins of which still remain at L’Anse aux Meadows.

There is significant evidence that Leif Erikson and his siblings conducted further explorations to the south and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Within the settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows have been found butternuts and grapes, which are not native to Newfoundland, and could only have been found in modern day New Brunswick or Maine.

In fact, an assessment of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows suggests that its primary function was as a base for further exploration, and not the creation of an agricultural colony. The structures the Norse built were far more than temporary shelters, and would not have looked out of place alongside your average house in Iceland. They were also used year-round, which was absolutely essential for further exploration. For ships coming from Greenland, much of the summer sailing window was lost just getting to Newfoundland. The path down from Baffin Island was free of ice only starting in June at the earliest. And in order to get home, any explorers would have to be well on their way by the end of August. Setting out from a base at L’Anse aux Meadows would have allowed for much longer trips.

However, if the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows shared a lot in common with living quarters in Greenland or Iceland, there were also significant differences. Back home, the Norse rarely lived together in villages. Each household tended to have its own farmhouse, surrounded by pastureland for its livestock. At L’Anse aux Meadows however, a community of up to 60 or 70 people lived together in a highly organized collection of buildings.

Parks Canada map showing L’Anse aux Meadows in the context of modern Canadian provincial boundaries.

Members of this community also spent their time a bit differently than their friends and family back in Greenland. Among the various structures at the site, archaeologists have found no evidence of stables, or any other kind of winter shelter for livestock. Without protection from the cold, cattle and sheep would have fared poorly in northern Newfoundland. If the Norse did not bring their animals with them, it’s unlikely that this was a real attempt at colonization.

Instead of featuring stables, the L’Anse aux Meadows houses were accompanied by workshops, both for iron-working and carpentry. The residue indicates that one of the primary functions of these workshops was ship repair—which supports the idea that the purpose of the settlement was to facilitate exploratory voyages south to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine, or west into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

All evidence points to L’Anse aux Meadows being the headquarters for an ambitious project headed by Erik the Red and his family. They were likely the only residents of Greenland who had the resources required to construct such a sophisticated base, not to mention invest so much in a speculative venture for new lands.

It’s worth keeping in mind how new and small the Greenland settlements were at the time: They were less than 10 years old when the Norse first landed in Newfoundland. It’s possible that at any given time, in fact, 10 percent of Greenland’s entire population was at L’Anse aux Meadows.

The perceived importance of the venture is demonstrated by the fact that Leif Erikson himself ran the show at L’Anse aux Meadows until around 1003, when the patriarch, Erik, died. After that, Leif returned to Greenland to rule the roost there, while a series of siblings took turns leading the grand American project.

Considering how committed the first family of Greenland appeared to be to this American dream, it is perhaps surprising that the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was abandoned around 10 years after it was established. The departure appears to have been planned and managed in an orderly fashion, rather than the result of a sudden calamity. Although the Norse would continue to visit the shores of north-eastern Canada for centuries to come, they would never again establish a presence. Norse territorial expansion across the North Atlantic ended at Greenland.

So why did the Eriksons give up, given that the lands they found in the Canadian Maritimes were far more hospitable than the homes they had left in Greenland? The answer lies in a crucial difference between Canada and the previous discoveries in Iceland and Greenland. These new lands were not empty. They were already occupied by various Indigenous populations. The Norse used the single blanket term Skraeling for the people they encountered, but in their wide-ranging explorations they would have met a few different groups.

In Helluland (modern Baffin Island), the Norse would have encountered people of the Dorset culture—sea-mammal hunters, adapted to the Arctic climate. They would have also encountered Dorset communities in Markland (modern day Labrador), in addition to Algonquin-speakers from the Canadian Shield, who moved to the Atlantic seasonally for the exploitation of coastal resources.

In Newfoundland, the residents of L’Anse aux Meadows likely would have met the Beothuk, an Algonquin-speaking population that had crossed over onto the island about 900 years before the arrival of the Norse. Like the Algonquin speakers on the Canadian Shield, the Beothuk followed regular seasonal movements, hunting caribou and other game inland during the winter, and setting up coastal settlements during the summer.

Finally, depending on how far the Norse travelled to the south and west, they would have met other Algonquin-speakers, such as the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

There is little to no direct evidence of how these first interactions between Europeans and Indigenous Canadians played out. However, it appears that the Norse were wary of the peoples they encountered. Like the Europeans that would follow them in five or six centuries, they would have been conscious of the fact that they were far from home and heavily outnumbered. Manpower was simply not something the Greenlanders had to spare. And so the most likely explanation for the abandonment of the project by the Erikson family was a recognition that they would be unable to guarantee the security of any colonizing effort. Claiming vacant land was one thing, but holding it against well-established rivals was something else entirely.

Whether the Norse were dissuaded by the active hostility of the locals, or merely the potential for hostility, is unclear. The Norse sagas describing the American explorations merely state that the effort was abandoned when it became clear that settlers were unable to make the territory safe for themselves. The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was burned almost immediately after it was abandoned, but it is just as likely that this was done by the Norse themselves as part of a deliberate evacuation process, rather than an act of violence by the neighbouring Beothuk.

There is considerable evidence that, for the next 350 years or so, the Greenland Norse conducted trade with various Indigenous groups in what is now Canada. Norse goods from this period have been found as far south as Maine, though few Norse boats travelled beyond Labrador. Norse goods were likely spread through the pre-existing trade networks among Indigenous peoples.

The vast majority of Norse trade was conducted in the far north, where locals were interested in Norse iron, which they received in exchange for furs and walrus ivory. In fact, there is some evidence that the people of the Canadian Arctic carved decorative ivory pieces specifically for a European audience, with some faces and figures displaying European dress or facial features. Some even found their way to wealthy homes in Denmark and Norway.

It would be over-stating things to say that the Norse did a brisk trade, though. The voyage across the Davis Strait separating Greenland from North America was dangerous. And despite the thick forests of Labrador, importing wood from Europe remained the cheaper option. That said, the European objects found in the archaeological sites of the Canadian Arctic span the 11th through 14th centuries, implying a persistent, if not high volume, trade flow.

The fact that this trade was happening in the Arctic would suggest that the Norse were primarily dealing with the Dorset people. But in fact, just after the Norse arrived, a new Arctic power emerged: While we’ve spent most of our time so far on the Norse migration from the east, there was also a migration coming from the west, which would have a far more lasting impact on Canadian history.

These newcomers are known to archaeologists as the Thule people (from the Thule archaeological site on Greenland). But since they were the direct ancestors of the Inuit who currently reside in the Canadian Arctic, I’m going to simplify things a little bit, and refer to them as the Inuit from the outset.

The Inuit emerged from present day Alaska, where by around 0 AD, a society of whaling specialists was already thriving. At the time, they may have been the most technologically advanced whalers in the world.

The secret to their success lay with two innovations. The first was the toggling harpoon. Your basic harpoon was simply a spear with a line attached. Throw enough of these into a large sea mammal like a walrus or a whale, and you can drag it (or more likely, be dragged by it) until it slows down and can be finished off. But the technology had its limitations. If the initial impact of the harpoon did not sink the head deep enough into the whale, the animal could thrash enough to pop it out, especially if the long shaft of the harpoon helped things along by wiggling in the choppy ocean.

The toggling harpoon was an ingenuous response to the problem. The key component was a detachable point at the tip of the harpoon. On impact, it would separate from the rest of the harpoon and twist vertically, digging into the muscle of the animal. The harpoon point would then be much more difficult to remove, allowing hunters to target larger mammals (such as whales) much more efficiently.

The second innovation was part material technology, part system of social organization. Hunting whales on the ocean required a large, mobile platform. And that large, sea-borne platform in turn required a larger crew than your average nuclear family could provide.

The Inuit answer to these problems was the “umiak,” a large boat that could carry up to 20 people. An umiak consisted of walrus or seal skin stretched across a frame made of driftwood or whale-bone. The result was a vessel more than 10 metres long, which was light enough for a relatively small group of men to haul over land. It was the ideal platform from which to hunt whales. But the umiak also served an important domestic function, allowing whole Inuit households to move house quickly.

The umiak therefore facilitated social, as well as economic changes. Inuit communities tended to be much larger than those of the Dorset people (who largely lived in households of nuclear families). Typically, Inuit communities consisted of 30 to 50 people. At any given time, around 10 of them would have been dedicated whalers and amateur warriors. In comparison, Dorset communities would normally only have, at most, 10 members total.

Swedish National Maritime Museums image of umiaks being used for transport in Greenland in the summer of 1875, with kayaks travelling alongside.

The large whale-hunting crews that the umiak required also acted as a catalyst for great systems of social organization. Captains adopted positions of authority, though this hierarchy only seems to have lasted so long as the crew was at sea.

On the whole, the technological and social developments of the Inuit gave them a competitive advantage over their fellow Arctic residents, the Dorset people. These advantages became apparent during the same warming period that made Greenland hospitable to the Norse. At the same time Erik the Red was establishing his colonies, the Inuit began moving out of Alaska. The impetus for their migration appears to have been the break up of the thick ice on Alaska’s northern shore. The bowhead whales that the Inuit hunted moved through the now open Arctic Sea, and met their Atlantic cousins making a similar move from the east.

The Inuit made rapid progress, following the whales across these new areas. By the 1200s, they had supplanted the Dorset people as the dominant force in the Arctic. Their greater ability to hunt on the ocean, and their larger communities easily served to over-match their Dorset competitors. Which means that for the majority of the medieval period, the Norse were interacting with the Inuit.

The Norse continued to use the same term, Skraeling, to refer to these newcomers, while the Inuit referred to the Europeans as Kavdlunait. Oral histories and traditional fables from both sides suggest that the relationship between the two groups was tense, but not necessarily hostile. Betrayals and misunderstandings are recurring themes in these tales, but often only as precursors to co-operation and mutual respect. Sporadic trade likely took place, but probably amid apprehension and fear on both sides.

But if one group was more confident in its position, it was surely the Inuit. By the 12th century, the Inuit had taken over the old Dorset territory in northern Greenland. Some time in the 13th century, the Norse started seeing them at Nordsetur, the prime walrus hunting grounds on Greenland’s west coast. The umiak proved to be a more efficient hunting platform than the Norse longship, and the Europeans were forced to accept that they now shared the territory with a worthy competitor.

By the 14th century, around 250 years after Leif Erikson had first set foot in Newfoundland, the Inuit were expanding toward the Norse settlements in Greenland, and were sighted in the fjords neighbouring the Western Settlement.

But this was not exactly a hostile conquest. In fact, the real enemy that the Norse faced was the changing climate. The warm period that had made Greenland welcoming to livestock was coming to an end. The Western Settlement had always been marginal land, which was really only worth farming due to the proximity of the walruses of Nordsetur. With the dual challenges of hunting competition and a worsening climate, the Western Settlement became untenable. By 1350, the Norse there pulled up stakes and headed home.

Or, at least, headed somewhere. Where they went is not exactly clear. It wasn’t even clear to their neighbours in the Eastern Settlement. After a few years without hearing anything, the Easterners sent a delegation to their sister settlement, only to find the site abandoned.

The better farmland of the Eastern Settlement managed to hold out better against the strain of a cooling climate. Its demise took about a hundred years longer, and was mainly the result of economic changes in Europe rather than the Inuit or the climate.

The first blow, in the early 15th century, was the declining European market for walrus ivory. Greenland had always been dependent on the export of this product, which was harvested from the hunting grounds at Nordsetur. The colonies could not produce their own iron or wood, and so needed the ivory trade to bring in necessary supplies from Europe. Over the first half of the 15th century, the Portuguese began accessing elephant ivory from Africa. The competition drove down prices, severely straining Greenland’s economy.

The second economic blow was a bit counter-intuitive. In the first half of the 15th century, European demand for fish went through the roof. This was largely a product of a population boom as the continent recovered from the Black Death of the previous century. Suddenly, the North Atlantic was full of English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish fishermen.

You might have expected Greenland to benefit from this boom, due to its proximity to the action. But in fact, the fish boom had a detrimental effect on the last surviving settlement. This being the pre-modern world, fishermen quite often moonlighted as raiders, and there is evidence that the Greenland settlement was attacked at least once. More troubling was the fact that the shipping upon which Greenland depended was often targeted. Sailing to and from Greenland became dangerous, and not just because of the increased presence of icebergs.

Iceland, the motherland of the colony, did not offer much help. In fact, Iceland had been drawn into the Hanseatic League, a commercial alliance of northern European ports. Iceland’s commercial interests were now dictated by the Hanseatic powers, who saw no profit in shoring up a failing colony at the end of the earth.

The last documentary evidence we have of Norse Greenland is a record of a wedding that took place there in 1409, though the Eastern Settlement was almost certainly in operation until around 1450. Where the Greenlanders went is a bit of a mystery. Inuit oral tradition suggests that some of the residents joined local Inuit communities. Modern genetic testing indicates that was true in at least a handful of cases. If there was a migration back to Iceland or Norway, it does not appear to have been noted by any observers.

Within a few generations, the Norse experiment in Greenland became a muddled memory. Portuguese explorers “discovered” Greenland in the early 1500s (just over 50 years after the Norse left). The English followed suit in the 1570s, becoming the third European nation to “discover” the island. By this time, the fate of the Greenland Norse was so uncertain that when Denmark decided to re-assert Scandinavian claims on Greenland in the 1690s, they were surprised to find there were no Scandinavians living there.

Ultimately, the Inuit were the great winners of this story. Their technology and society were better adapted to the Arctic climate than those of either the Dorset people or the Norse. Part of their success lay in their ability to adapt to the cooling of the Arctic after the 14th century. The Norse dependency on farmland left them unable to survive in this changing environment. The Inuit, meanwhile, were able to follow the whales, seals, and other sea mammals wherever they went.

We have less direct evidence to explain the Inuit eclipse of the Dorset people, but here, too, adaptability seems to have been key. The Dorset reacted to the changing climate by retreating to their core territories, whereas the Inuit expanded the lands they occupied. They even appear to have borrowed technologies from the Dorset—in particular the use of snow houses, allowing them to live on the ice pack.

We’ll be returning to the Inuit in future installments, with them being firmly established as the dominant power in the far north. We’ll also be returning to those economic forces that spelled the end of the Greenland Norse: The great fish boom would end up driving those English fishermen on to exploits beyond simple piracy.

Next time, before any more Europeans enter the scene, we’ll tackle one last great shift in the Canadian world. This journey will take us south, through the Strait of Belle Isle, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and upriver to the Great Lakes. As the Norse were slowly moving out of Greenland, a revolution was unfolding in southern Ontario. It started as an economic revolution, a shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But it was quickly morphing into a cultural, military, and gender-role revolution as well.

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