According to the medieval Icelandic sagas, the founder of the Viking colony in Greenland was Erik the Red, so named because of his fiery red hair and beard. Erik was a Norwegian by birth, but was outlawed in his native land “because of some killings,” as the sagas put it. He fled to Iceland, but soon found himself in trouble there, too. Rumors had been circulating that a Viking explorer had glimpsed a new land west of Iceland, but hadn’t gone ashore. During his years of banishment from Iceland, Erik decided to investigate this new land.
When his sentence as an outlaw was up, Erik returned to Iceland with wondrous tales of this new land. Evidently a gifted marketer, he called the place “Greenland” (Old Norse Grœnland) in an attempt to persuade others to join him in settling it. The name “Greenland” wasn’t an outright lie, since there were a few coastal sections of the southern part of the island that were sufficiently “green” to settle and raise livestock. But it was rather misleading, since most of the land was covered with glaciers and ice fields, and the climate was considerably colder and less hospitable than that of Iceland.
Erik’s persuasion was successful, and in the summer of 985, twenty-five ships set sail for Greenland. But conditions at sea were rough, and only fourteen made it to Greenland. The others either turned back or disappeared.
Those who made it settled in two areas in the southern fjords of the island about 400 miles apart from each other, which came to be called the Eastern and Western Settlements. These areas were otherwise uninhabited, as the Inuit lived farther to the north during that time. Farmsteads were fairly dispersed so that everyone would have enough land to graze their herds and make hay for winter.
Despite how marginal the land was, the sea was teeming with life. Many of the sea creatures of Greenland’s coastal waters – such as walruses, seals, and whales – were highly prized in Europe, as were some of the wild animals who lived on land – foxes, bears, and caribou among them. These animals enabled the Greenland Vikings to make a good living through trade with Europe. This was very fortunate for them, because the meagerness of the land made them particularly dependent on trade with the outside world to obtain basic goods like wood.
Sometime between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the entire Norse population of Greenland mysteriously vanished. While there are various theories that attempt to account for their disappearance, no one really knows what happened to them.