Why is there evidence of (pre-Columbus) Norse presence in North America, but no record of any attempt of permanent settlement?

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    Why do you expect exploration will result in permanent settlement? Oct 16, 2018 at 6:43
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    Because they settled Greenland enroute and claimed it for centuries after.
    – Samid
    Oct 16, 2018 at 6:47
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    And they assimilated in Rus, became court mercenaries in the Eastern Empire, a local ruling class in Northern France, Southern England and bits of Italy, and stagnated into kingdoms in their points of origin. Vinland isn't Greenland, nor Iceland, nor Normandy, nor Constantinople. Oct 16, 2018 at 6:59
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    @Samid I think the point is that there is no compelling reason to believe that they would've wanted to settle everywhere they explored; i.e. you can't assume Greenland was the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, Greenland ultimately ended up a failure despite being closer to Norse civilisation than North America.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 16, 2018 at 7:24
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    I've seen historians address this exact question, so it seems a good question to me. And they in fact did try.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 16, 2018 at 9:39

8 Answers 8


They actually did try, they just failed. The main problem was that all they really discovered was marginal territory for the purposes of Norse culture. Meanwhile they had to compete with other native cultures that were designed and optimized to live in those places.

The base they had to operate out of for North America was Greenland. This itself was probably the most marginal territory of all the Norse domains. Greenland was discovered and colonized during the Medieval warm period, at which point Norse agriculture would have been most productive there. It was all the Greenlanders could do to hold on themselves, and as the climate turned around heading toward the "Little Ice Age", the colonies there shrunk down to only one, which was never heard from again after 1410.

As the climate cooled, the arctic mammal hunting ancestors of the Inuit moved into the territory to the North and West of the Norse colony. The colder weather made the colony's territory much more suitable to Inuit ("Thule") culture than to Norse. That probably didn't help much. This was the flip side of the coin. While all this territory they were finding was marginal for Norse agricultural purposes, it was in fact already inhabited by native cultures who were good at living there.

When European peoples did finally make successful colonies, it was further south where the climate worked better for their agriculture, and after they'd invented force-multiplying things like printing presses and guns. The Climate and population density down there was also a much better environment for the spread of European diseases, which were what really paved the way for the North American colonies.

Of course the Greenland settlements were around for 5 centuries, which as failures go, isn't too bad.

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The Sagas document Norse attempts to settle past Greenland, but none lasting for more than 2 years. All mention bad relations with the natives, but one suspects that could have been overcome with reinforcements the way it was in British North America, if there had been a good supply of those forthcoming. But obviously that wasn't going to be Greenland. The next settlement over, Iceland was doing better, but not that much better.

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    Isn't your last link hinting at a "record" of several "attempts of permanent settlement"? Or what is the difference between "presence" and "settlement"? Oct 16, 2018 at 11:11
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    @LangLangC - Not just hinted, but flat out stated. You could pish-posh the first two small attempts I suppose, but showing up with (allegedly) over 100 people including women and livestock sounds pretty serious to me. I see I didn't make that point explicitly anywhere in the answer. I've added a sentence to that effect right at the top. Thanks for the heads-up.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 16, 2018 at 13:02
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    One of my favorite scenes from the sagas is the Norse serving cow's milk at a feast with natives present, and the natives later thinking the Norse were trying to poison them. Perhaps this was later rewritten with knowledge of lactose intolerance, but maybe it's an accurate report. Oct 16, 2018 at 20:15
  • Is there any Old Norse literature hinting at the discovery and settlement of America? I know they have some stuff pertaining to the settling of Scotland and Iceland..
    – Samid
    Oct 18, 2018 at 5:56
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    @Samid - As mentioned in the last paragraph, the answer to that is "yes". Click the "The Sagas" link there to read a bit more detail about them. There's even more detail about them in the Vinland link at the top of the answer. For fun, I'd also suggest reading up on "Freydis", as her role in the saga is pretty damn badass. (Pregnant and can't run like the men? Guess I'll have to pick up a sword and chase off all the natives myself...)
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 18, 2018 at 8:45

The crucial question here is: what for? Any colonization, to survive must be profitable. Look at the colonization of N America in the modern times. First British colony failed. Second survived but with great difficulty. Until they found some profitable business to do in these colonies (first tobacco later cotton).

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    Important point at the end there: The native farmers had good crops for the climate at the site of the colonies. The colonists...not so much. Also should point out that by the time that second colony came around, they actually managed to stumble across a helpful native that could speak English (!!) and who had no home to go back to due to the rest of his tribe had been wiped out by European diseases. Without that handy disease, its a good bet they would have met the same native resistance that the three Vinland attempts did.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 16, 2018 at 14:30
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    Profitable? Were Norse colonies sending goods and taxes back to Norway? Oct 16, 2018 at 20:01
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    Not sending goods and taxes back, necessarily, but rather improving their own conditions enough to attract new settlers or make it more likely for descendants to stay and leave their own descendants. Oct 16, 2018 at 20:16
  • There are also internal societal struggles, like that which prompted the migration of Protestants to the New World. In the Norse society, like many contemporary ones, it's been not religion, but rather power and wealth. Sons of landlords, the landless young nobles, adventured to establish chiefdoms of their own. And you have a good point that adventurousness alone can get one only so far. Oct 18, 2018 at 13:15

It's important to remember that European style civilization requires tools and materials that in Europe were sourced from widespread trade and specialization. Iron plows, wooden ships, paper, and so on. Iceland was only sustainable because it was able to trade with the mainland for those things, and that remains the case to this day. Greenland, even more so. North America, if they went south far enough and dropped off enough people and tools, could have supported its own European style economy, but the supply chain via Greenland and Iceland was too narrow to get a small colony off the ground, so it failed, and the settlers likely went back to Europe on the last boat. Greenland eventually met the same fate. They made the decision to leave, they took their valuables, and shut the doors on their way out.

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    Colonisation back in those days was a lot like rocket science. To support a small colony, you needed a bigger colony, which needed a bigger colony, etc. all the way back to European trade. As you say, self-sufficiency already required vast lands, resources and population - not something they'd get without a fight. Island was already small enough that the Greenland colonies it supported (with tools etc.) were too small to support other colonies in turn. And both Island and Greenland stayed relatively small because the return on investment for the settlers was pretty small.
    – Luaan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 12:36

The main reason was that the power base of the Norse explorers was too small, and to a lesser degree that they didn’t find easily exploitable resources.

The first Norse expeditions to the North American coast around 1000 AD found wooded areas, rivers with fish and lands suitable for farming, and had the area been uninhabited, they would no doubt have colonized it just like they colonized Greenland a few years earlier. But they found an indigenous population of hunters and gatherers, and the first contacts ended with hostile confrontations with casualties on both sides according to the Icelandic sagas.

The hostility between the Scandinavians and the Indians meant that colonization was impossible, and conquest was out of the question. The expeditions originated from the new Norse colony in Greenland with a total population of just 1,500. To crew just two or three ships with around 100 men required a large part of the adult men in the colony, and losing them would have been disastrous.

Hypothetically Iceland, with a population of 30,000, were perhaps not too far away to be a source of manpower, but were a kind of decentralized republic with no central power, but lots of family feuds. Further away the emerging kingdoms of Norway and Denmark could mobilize quite large fleets and armies, but no sane king would have tried to send them over the North Atlantic just to colonize arable land. They used them to defeat local rivals, plunder England and other easily-reached targets.

Had the Norse expeditions found rich permanent settlements to plunder or trade with, or easily exploited natural resources, such as gold, matters would have been different, and other Scandinavians would have joined the Greenlanders.

Actually the Norse colony on Greenland continued to send expeditions to the coast of Labrador/Newfoundland at least into the 12th century to procure wood, a resource not available in Greenland.

The Norse expeditions to North America can be compared to Columbus expeditions to West India and the following Spanish colonization. The size of Columbus first expedition in 1492 were not much larger than the Norse expeditions: three ships with 88 men. He founded a colony on Hispaniola (La Navidad), that were wiped out in his absence. Columbus second expedition in 1494 were heavily supported by the Spanish crown and composed of 17 ships with 1,500 men. In spite of their superior military technology, and the diseases that soon started to decimate the population on Hispaniola, the new colony was desperately depending on a steady supply of men, weapons and other necessities from Spain for years, and not self supporting for decades. Even the food was imported from Spain for several years! And it took decades for the Spanish crown to turn the investments into solid profits.


Many people would say that the Norse successfully colonized North America for centuries.

It is logical to say that the Norse never attempted to settle in North America.

It is logical to say that the Norse successfully attempted to settle in North America.

But it is illogical to say that the Norse tried and failed to settle in North America.

Where is there undoubted archaeological evidence of short lasting and rather unsuccessful by most standards Norse settlements in North America? As far as I known, only at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, though others might someday be discovered and/or proven to be Norse.

Newfoundland is separated by miles of ocean from the main landmass of North America. Either L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is not considered to be part of North America, or it is considered to be part of North America, in which case other North American islands have to be considered part of North America.

Islands like, for example, Greenland. Newfoundland and Greenland are both connected to North America by the continental shelf, instead of being isolated islands in the open ocean.

The Kennedy Channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island is about 24 to 32 kilometers (14.9 to 19.88 miles) wide. Franklin Island in Kennedy Channel is about 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) from Ellesmere Island, and Hans Island, disputed between Canada and Denmark, is about 18 kilometers (11.18 miles) from Ellesmere Island and about 16 kilometers (9.94 miles) from Greenland.

Ellesmere Island is separated by as little as about 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) from Devon Island, which is separated by as little as about 46 miles (74 kilometers) from Somerset Island, which is separated by the 2 kilometer (1.2 miles) wide Bellot Strait from the Boothia Peninsular which is part of the mainland of North America.

The first settlements in the Americas during the Age of Exploration were on the island of Hispaniola. Hispaniola is about 540 miles (869 kilometers) from the nearest point in the North American mainland in Florida. The shortest distance between two points in Hispaniola and Cuba is about 60 miles (96 Kilometers). There is a point on the island of Cuba only about 150 miles (241 kilometers) from mainland Florida, and another point on Cuba only about 140 miles (225 kilometers) from the mainland in Yucatan.

So anyone who would accept Hispaniola as being part of North America would have to accept Greenland as part of North America.

The Norse settlement in Greenland allegedly began in AD 985. Two Icelanders were married in a Greenland church in 1408 and left Greenland in 1410, and there may have been later visits by Europeans to the Norse Settlement. So the Norse settlement in Greenland lasted at least 425 years, as compared to the 526 years since Europeans first tried to settle in the Americas in the Age of Discovery, or the 230 years that Europeans have settled in Australia.

Or the 420 years since Europeans first settled in New Mexico. Though Europeans first settled in New Mexico 420 years ago in 1598, there have been European settlers in New Mexico for only 408 of those years, 82 years from 1598 to 1680, and 326 years from 1692 to the present. The European colonization of New Mexico was a big failure from 1680 to 1692.

So it seems hard to deny that the Norse settlement in Greenland was in North America, and rather hard to call it an unsuccessful settlement considering how long it lasted.

So the two logical and reasonable alternatives are:

1) To deny that Greenland, Newfoundland, Cuba, Hispaniola and other islands are part of North America, and thus to deny that there were any medieval Norse settlements in North America and also deny that the Spanish had any settlements in North America until Veracruz in 1519.


2) To accept that Greenland, Newfoundland, Cuba, Hispaniola and other islands are part of North America, and thus to accept that the Medieval Norse had a successful colony in Greenland in North America for centuries as well as a short lived colony in Newfoundland in North America, and that the first Spanish settlement in North America was in Hispaniola in 1492.

Added 10-17-2018 And LangLangC has suggested that the Norse Colony in Iceland could also count, since part of Iceland is on the North American Plate.

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    Using this line of argument: why not include the uninterrupted Norse-American colony of Snæland? Oct 17, 2018 at 10:44
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    You must be either a lawyer or a computer programmer. Oct 18, 2018 at 8:05
  • I'll admit the logic in the first sentence of the answer I posted was based on assuming the Island of Greenland is not part of North America, while the Island of Newfoundland is part of North America. I think you're right to look askance at that on logical grounds. However this is exactly how things are looked at these days, so to assume anything else (unless the questioner specifically defined "North America" as that something else) would be more confusing rather than clarifying.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 18, 2018 at 9:15
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    @T.E.D. The funny thing is, even your pictures include Iceland. I think this answer is rather nitpicky, but good at that. It is as much about definitions like "where does Europe end; or is this all Asia?" As the question is quite bare of definitions and research, this A is a nice addition. I do read "on the continental NA mainland" in spirit, but technically, geologically the above is also valid. And interesting as well, as neither Icelanders nor Eastcoast Vikings knew where they were, so to speak, or how we would call and geographically classify those lands. Oct 18, 2018 at 16:22
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    @LangLangC - Honestly, I don't think it would take much convincing to swing me to this answer's PoV about how the term ought to be defined. Heck, as the continental shelf continues to rise after the ice shelves retreated 10,000 years ago, its possible neither one of them will remain islands. However, the question wasn't "What is North America?", so I'm not sure this is the proper venue to be challenging the standard usage of the geographical term in question.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 18, 2018 at 17:00

The Thule and the Norse reached the eastern coastal regions in a similar timeframe. The Thule were from the Alaskan coastal regions. A new theory thinks that they crossed North America on dog sleds in less than five years. This was because their iron trade was disrupted by the Mongolian conquests. We have no direct evidence, but Thule settlement of the region probably involved direct conflict with both the Dorset and Norse peoples. The arrival of the hostile Thule people probably prompted the Norse to seek out other economic opportunities, since this was their interest in the region.

The Thule previously inhabited the Alaskan coastal regions and traded with Asians. Competition for hunting grounds compelled them to adopt a recurve bow (the article says Mongolian, which is probably a mistake), and a type of armor that was modeled after Chinese armor, but made from bone. The bow especially gave them an advantage to the Norse.

History of the Thule Migration- www.cbc.ca


Others have noted that the Norsemen did colonize North America, but those answers have taken a more traditional route for why that didn't pan out (mostly along the lines of "the Norse were not prepared for the cold, they couldn't farm, the Inuit out-competed them, etc). But more recent archaeology has started to question why the Greenlanders would go somewhere inhospitable just to set up agriculture, and how they could survive there for ~300 years if they were so bad at adapting to the local climate. The answer that is becoming more and more prevalent is that the Greenland norse were trading posts for ivory.

The high value that medieval Europe placed on walrus ivory would have provided plenty of incentive to pursue it in Greenland. Craftsmen used ivory in luxury ornaments and apparel, and in objects like the famous Lewis chess set, discovered in Scotland in 1831. In 1327, an 802-kilogram parcel of Greenland tusks was worth a small fortune—the equivalent of roughly 780 cows or 60 tons of dried fish, according to tithing records analyzed in 2010 by University of Oslo archaeologist Christian Keller. "The Norse had found a cornucopia in the North Atlantic, a marine ecosystem just teeming with walruses and other animals," says historian Holm.

Modern research from Cambridge into the ivory trade and improved genetic identification of walrus clades has noticed that almost all ivory of the time (~900 CE - 1200 CE) came from Greenland walruses, and that it sharply ends around 1400 CE. Coincidentally (from the Science article);

Around 1400, the value of ivory in Europe fell as tusks from Russian walrus and African elephants flowed into the continent.

Most of the Norsemen in Greenland probably just left, since there wasn't much left to do in Greenland without the ivory trade.

Despite the signs of crisis at a few Western Settlement sites, those in the Eastern Settlement show no sign of a violent end. Instead, after farmhouses collapsed, remaining settlers scavenged the wood from them, suggesting a slow dwindling of population. The challenge for the average Greenlander to survive drove "a constant emigration" back to Iceland and Europe, Fitzhugh hypothesizes, "which could bring the Eastern [Settlement] to a close peacefully, without starvation or death by Inuit."

Further, the Norse agricultural skills that are so questioned by popular historians don't seem to have been very poor at all. Nor would they be, since the settlements survived for at least 300 years.

Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

To more directly answer your question, the reason they stayed near the coasts was because the only valuable resource in Greenland were walruses - which are only found in the water along predictable migratory routes. The inland simply had nothing useful to them, so they couldn't explore too far. The warm seasons were already busy enough with hunting, farming, construction, felling, and the daily business of life that they simply didn't have time to try to find something further inland.

The British, Spanish, and French colonies in the New World have one thing in common - they had something to sell back to Europe. Furs, wood, gold, precious stones, cotton, timber - you name it, the Americas had it, and settlers could make a living gathering it and selling it. The Norse colonies had ivory, and as soon as the market for that dried up, they didn't have a reason to be there anymore.

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    Your final paragraph suggests that the Norse should have moved further into North America ("you name it, the Americas had it") while not addressing why they didn't.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 20, 2018 at 20:06
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    It was addressed directly above that. There were no resources further inland, you'd have to cross rather a lot of empty hinterlands before you reach the landing places of the other colonies.
    – Knetic
    Oct 20, 2018 at 20:18

To supplement @Alex's answer, let us understand the reason for the later European colonisation of America, which staunchly asserted its place with murder, settling of native land, etc. Sakai gives us a very concise understanding of the motives for it:

The mythology of the white masses holds that those early settlers were the poor of England, convicts and workers, who came to North Amerika in search of "freedom" or "a better way of life". Factually, that's all nonsense. The celebrated Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, for example, didn't even come from England (although they were English). They had years before emigrated as a religious colony to Holland, where they had lived in peace for over a decade. But in Holland these predominately middleclass people had to work as hired labor for others. This was too hard for them, so they came to North Amerika in search of less work and more money.

At first, according to the rules of their faith, they farmed the land in common and shared equally. Soon their greed led them into fighting with each other, slacking off at assigned tasks, etc., until the Colony's leaders had to give in to the settlers' desires and divide up the stolen land (giving "to every family a parcel of land”).(1)

This is typical of the English invasion forces. A study of roughly 10,000 settlers who left Bristol from 1654-85 shows that less than 15% were proletarian. Most were youth from the lower-middle classes; Gentlemen & Professionals 1%; Yeomen & Husbandmen 48%; Artisans & Tradesmen 29%.(2) The typical age was 22-24 years.

In other words, the sons and daughters of the middle class, with experience at agriculture and craft skills, were the ones who thought they had a practical chance in Amerika.

What made North Amerika so desirable to these people? Land. Euro-Amerikan liberals and radicals have rarely dealt with the Land question; we could say that they don't have to deal with it, since their people already have all the land. What lured Europeans to leave their homes and cross the Atlantic was the chance to share in conquering Indian land. At that time there was a crisis in England over land ownership and tenancy due to the rise of capitalism. One scholar of the early invasion comments on this:

Land hunger was rife among all classes. Wealthy clothiers, drapers, and merchants who had done well and wished to set themselves up in land were avidly watching the market, ready to pay almost any price for what was offered. Even prosperous yeomen often could not get the land they desired for their younger sons...It is commonplace to say that land was the greatest inducement the New World had to offer; but it is difficult to overestimate its psychological importance to people in whose minds land had always been identified with security, success and the good things of life.(3) It was these "younger sons", despairing of owning land in their own country, who were willing to gamble on the colonies. The brutal Enclosure Acts and the ending of many hereditary tenancies acted as a further push in the same direction. These were the principal reasons given on the Emigration Lists of 1773-76 for settling in Amerika.(4) So that participating in the settler invasion of North Amerika was a relatively easy way out of the desperate class struggle in England for those seeking a privileged life.*

The class struggle in the earlier Norse society was very different to that in later European society. The demand for land was less in Norse society, simply because there were fewer Norse competing for a largely untouched swath of natural resources across Europe, Greenland and North America.

Norse society was not capitalist and did not cause individuals to compete in the same way that later European society would, and so they did not feel owed North American land nor did they "need" it the same way European colonisers did.

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    Oct 18, 2018 at 15:20

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