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The Mysterious End of the Western Settlement January 18, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Imagine a Mary Celeste incident – an empty apparently abandoned ship – but extended instead to an entire land. At least one such account comes down to us and that is the abandonment of the Western Settlement in Greenland, one of the most mysterious events in European – or is it North American? – history. For those who do not spend many imaginary hours in medieval Greenland (ahem) then it is necessary to understand that there were two Greenland ‘towns’, the Western and the Eastern Settlement, loose commonwealth’s of farms. The Western Settlement had a population of between 500 and 1000 at this date: though we don’t know what havoc the Black Death had wrought here. The following visit probably took place in 1348 or 1349.

In the Western Settlement stands a large church named Stensnes Church. That church was for a time the cathedral and the bishop’s seat. Now the Skraelings [Inuit] have destroyed all of the Western Settlement; there are left some horses, goats, cattle, and sheep, all feral, and no people either Christian or heathen. All the foregoing was told us by Ivar Bárdason Greenlander, who was the superintendent of the Bishop’s establishment at Gardar in Greenland for many years, that he had seen all this, and he was one of those who had been appointed by the lawman to go to the Western Settlement against the Skraelings, in order to drive the Skraelings out of the Western Settlement, and when they arrived there, they found nobody, either Christians or heathens, only some wild cattle and sheep and they slaughtered the wild cattle and sheep for food, as much as the ships would carry, and then sailed home therewith themselves, and the aforementioned Ivar was along (Seaver’s translation 104).

What happened here? How was it that a four hundred year old community just vanished? There is a consensus that life in Greenland was getting worse: colder, shorter summers, longer colder winters. But that might have forced the Greenlanders to flee to Iceland or Norway. It does not explain though how these people suddenly vanished in this way. The author’s explanation is that the Skraelings, the local Inuits, did away with the community.  But it is almost inconceivable that there were enough Skraeling warriors in all of Greenland to risk an operation like this, unless the Black Death had been exceptionally cruel. And such an operation just does not seem typical of Inuit culture, that operated naturally in small hunting bands.

The wanw Norwegian-American historian Kirsten Seaver has an intriguing solution to this problem. She suggests the Westerners feared Ivar’s visitation and when they saw ships with armed men ran for hiding places. Another possibility is that the Western Settlement had decided that they could no longer survive in Greenland but that they had decided to evacuate the land westwards not eastwards and had headed off for North America, to attempt Vinland all over again. They could have left some animals behind, hoping to come back and get them. According to this hypothesis Bárdason’s trip may have been triggered by the rumour that something had or was about to happen. Any other suggestions?: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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22 Jan 2013: Celeste Culpepper writes: the folks that the Greenland settlers first met were of the Dorset culture and, so far as we can tell, everyone got along. (There used to be references to “blue-eyed Eskimos” who presumably were products of friendly interaction. These references have faded and I don’t know how Norse DNA could be differentiated from that of modern Scandinavians, but…) But the Dorset were wiped out by the Thule people who arose somewhere around the Aleutians and who rampaged east right across the Arctic for half a millennium or so, taking out everyone who got in their way. They reached Greenland in the 13th Century and are named after the first archaeological notice of their remains in Thule, western Greenland. The Thule were ancestral to the Inuit, but drawing comparisons between these two sets of people is like drawing comparisons between,say, ancient Romans and modern Italians. Which is to say, the DNA may be there but the culture is very different. Anyhow, the Thule were aggressive, warlike, and quite capable of taking out the small Western Settlement. Count follows the same argument and goes into more detail: I don’t really see that there’s any mystery here at all. You say there were between 500 and 1,000 people in the Western Settlement. Since the effects of the Black Death on them are unknown, and since it never reached Iceland, let’s assume it didn’t affect them at all, so there were maybe 750 settlers, including women. children, and the elderly. So let’s be generous and say that they could probably muster about 250 adult males who truly competent warriors. History records that, thanks to the “Little Ice Age”, conditions had been worsening in the Norse settlements, to the point where they suffered famines so severe that the sick and elderly were thrown off cliffs! And the skeletons unearthed from these hard times reveal that, despite such desperate measures, the entire population were severely malnourished. This was partly due to Norse farming and woodcutting, which respectively overtaxed the already poor soil, and made matters worse by causing loss of topsoil. Meanwhile, the Inuit, who had previously occupied territories too far North to be a problem, were forced by the worsening climate to move South. They are known to have been having a lean time of it as well. However, since their culture was far better suited to that type of environment, they may have been hunting less successfully than before, but they were almost certainly doing better at this than the Viking were at farming. So, the Inuit were hungry, but the Norsemen were positively ill. Inuit cultural history is very bloody. Inter-tribal raiding was going on constantly, usually on a small scale. However, if two tribes really hated each other, the stronger tribe would go all-out and, if possible, utterly wipe out their rivals in a genocidal massacre. Also, it wasn’t unheard of for tribes who normally merely tolerated each other to form temporary confederacies for the purpose of defeating a mutual enemy. We also know that, as the account you quote clearly states, the chap who discovered that the Western Settlement had vanished went there with the specific intention of defeating the local Inuit population, something the settlers couldn’t manage to do by themselves. So they were struggling to survive in the first place, plus they had to fight a war of attrition against natives better adapted to the climate than they were, with nowhere to re-supply themselves from except one other settlement that wasn’t doing too well either, and places a very long way away indeed. And they’d already admitted that they didn’t have the manpower to decisively defeat their foes without outside help. So presumably they had little hope of standing up to a full-scale Inuit attack by all the warriors they could muster, as opposed to petty but constant skirmishes and raids. You claim that it’s absurd to imagine that however many Inuit there happened to be in Greenland, they could possibly have put together an army capable of routing a few hundred Vikings who weren’t very well, and who had already begged for help because the best they could do was to hold the Inuit off from day to day. I think it’s absurd to imagine that the solution is anything other than obvious one. The Inuit caught on that the Vikings weren’t all that strong, and if a few tribes pooled their resources, they could crush them once and for all. The Vikings wouldn’t have expected an attack on that scale from despised primitives who had thus far only shown the ability to organise small raiding-parties, so it would have come as a total surprise, especially as the entire Inuit army would have consisted of hunters who were pretty good at being stealthy. How big a force of Inuit would it have taken to overwhelm maybe at best 300 very surprised Norsemen who were in terrible physical condition, and may not even have had time to put on their armour? I rest my case! Southern Man adds to this: there are Inuit tales, orally transmitted, that describe fights with the Norse in Greenland. I’d believe them. GOPartisan writes in: DB, this may be of interest:  My guess is a visiting ship took the last survivors, with no time for them to pack, to Iceland or wherever was the next port of call. KR wonders about an Indian solution: I was reading about Scandinavian mythology online in regard to proposed Norman origins, (Danes and Norwegians have differing opinions) which indirectly led me to stumble upon a recent article about the lost colony of Greenland [nb east settlement], here:  Which had an interesting response from the person “Myron David,” who is working with others in translations of the Lenape (Native American/Norse?) history, here:  I am linking a page describing the translation of a part of Lenape history that mentions Norse, and shows an interesting comparison of the Lenape language, in the history, to Old Norse.  This being the first I have seen of it myself, and not having researched credentials herein mentioned, I can offer no opinion on its veracity. But, I suggest that you keep in mind that the Native American people are proud of their own heritage/s, and would have no need nor desire to arbitrarily link their ancestors with any white men. I see no reason that they would try to “fake” some link to Norsemen. So, I do believe that Mr. Myron David is sincere’ Thanks KR, Count, GOPartisan and Celeste!