First European-Native American Contact

As Thule Inuit culture spread eastward across the Arctic and as Norse settlers established themselves in Greenland, Native Americans for the first time met, traded, and then clashed with Europeans.

Summary of Event

In the latter part of the first millennium, Neo-Eskimos, or Inuit, as they called themselves, spread rapidly from northern Alaska across the Arctic to Greenland Greenland;Inuit and . Innovative Thule culture Inuit were much better adapted to Arctic conditions than their Dorset culture predecessors. Dorset Inuit depended on heavy spears when hunting and hand-pulled their sleds. Thule Inuit developed one form of the bow and arrow and various sizes of stone-pointed harpoons, and they had dogs pull their sleds. To pursue large whales in open waters, Thule Inuit created umiaks, open skin boats holding a crew of eight, and used one-person kayaks to hunt smaller sea mammals that also were pursued by the Dorset. [kw]First European-Native American Contact (11th-12th centuries)
[kw]European-Native American Contact, First (11th-12th centuries)
[kw]Native American Contact, First European- (11th-12th centuries)
Inuit, Thule
Native Americans, European contact with
Greenland;11th-12th cent.: First European-Native American Contact[1420]
North America;11th-12th cent.: First European-Native American Contact[1420]
Expansion and land acquisition;11th-12th cent.: First European-Native American Contact[1420]
Exploration and discovery;11th-12th cent.: First European-Native American Contact[1420]
Erik the Red
Leif Eriksson
Thorvald Eriksson
Thorfinn Karlsefni

Use of kayaks and umiaks in summer and dog sleds in winter permitted Inuit hunters to travel rapidly. Taking advantage of climatic warming from the ninth to the twelfth century that provided open water in the Arctic, Thule Inuit followed whales across the northern coast of Canada, probably reaching northwest Greenland around 1000. Travel by sea;Thule Inuit

Although Greenland is the world’s largest island, only one-sixth of the land is open. Most terrain is covered by an enormous ice cap, thousands of feet deep, with many associated glaciers. The only ice-free areas are along the mountainous coasts. Smaller islands are numerous, and long fjords run far inland. The Inuit preferred to locate on the headlands, islands, and sea ice outside the fjords. Whales, seals, and other marine animals abounded there, providing food and clothing. Caribou hunts drew the Inuit inland during warm weather, but they distrusted the fjords, where even in winter the ice was treacherous. Moving south along the west coast, the Thule Inuit met another group of migrants who had arrived in Greenland at approximately the same time.

Erik the Red Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldson) was the first Norseman to explore Greenland. Born in Norway, he had come to Iceland as a teenager when his father was exiled for manslaughter. Erik himself was banished from Iceland for three years in 982 for a similar crime and decided to sail west and explore land sighted earlier by a ship driven off course in a storm. Unable to approach the forbidding east coast of Greenland, Erik sailed around the southern tip of the island and discovered deep fjords with lush grass meadows at their head. Erik selected for settlement an area of southwest Greenland in which the ice cap is more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) from the coast and the climate is less harsh than elsewhere on the island. It was the only part of the island where farming was possible. During the three years that Erik and his party explored the west coast, they met no other people, though they did find evidence of previous occupants, probably Dorset Inuit. Greenland;Norse settlement of

Erik’s description of the island he named Greenland to stress its attractions excited land-hungry Icelanders. When he sailed back to Greenland in 986, Erik led twenty-five ships. Fourteen vessels carrying some four hundred people arrived and created an eastern settlement in today’s Julianeh �b area (Qaqortoq). By 1003, three other immigrant fleets had landed, bringing the population to about one thousand and establishing a western settlement in today’s Godth �b area (Nuuk, the capital of Greenland). Most of those who came were farmers seeking good grazing land for their cattle and sheep. The grassy meadows along the fjords suited the type of agriculture the settlers had practiced in Iceland. From their animals, they produced meat, milk, cheese, and butter in large quantities. Agriculture;Greenland To these products they added fish, along with seals, walrus, and caribou collected on annual hunts in northern Greenland. The growing season was too short for wheat, and bread was practically unknown. Trade with Norway provided badly needed timber, iron, weapons, and clothing of European style. In exchange, the settlers sent furs and hides, walrus ivory, white falcons and much-admired polar bear skins. During the colony’s peak population of more than four thousand in the thirteenth century, the eastern settlement contained two-hundred fifty farms, supporting twelve parish churches, an Augustinian monastery, a Benedictine nunnery, and a cathedral at Gardar (now Igaliko). The smaller western settlement had ninety farms and four churches.

Norse exploring and hunting voyages ranged north along the Greenland coast and westward to the North American continent. The first contact between Native Americans and Norse, recorded in the Norse sagas, occurred on the coast of North America. In 1001, Leif Eriksson Leif Eriksson (also called Leif the Lucky) sailed for Greenland but instead sailed off course and reached the land he named Vinland Vinland the Good, the Atlantic coast of what is now eastern and northeastern Canada. His brother Thorvald Thorvald Eriksson , continuing Leif’s exploration a few years later, met a party of nine natives and immediately attacked them, killing eight. A counterattack by a larger number of natives caused Thorvald’s death from an arrow wound. Who these natives were is unclear—the Norse applied the contemptuous term Skraelings (possibly meaning “weak” or “sickly”) to both Inuit and North American Indians. The attackers may have been Thule Inuit moving down the coast in pursuit of sea mammals or Algonquian-speaking Indians. In either case, the encounter was predictive of the violence that would mar future Native American-European relations. An attempt to colonize Vinland, led by Thorfinn Karlsefni Thorfinn Karlsefni , enacted a similar history. Although peaceful trading marked his group’s first encounter with Skraelings, attacks by the natives soon forced abandonment of the settlement.

Around 1500, the Norse disappeared, while the Thule Inuit became the ancestors of the present Greenland population. When the climate turned colder after 1200, during a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age, conditions worsened for the Norse. Increasing drift ice along the west coast of Greenland limited the ability of Norsemen to hunt sea mammals. Despite several centuries of contact with the Inuit, the Norse never adopted the superior Arctic hunting techniques of the Thule. Shorter growing seasons meant that grassy meadows no longer supported as many grazing animals as before. Archaeologists note that later graves are shallower than earlier ones, reflecting the difficulty of digging in the frozen ground. Problems in Norway—the black plague and political turmoil—distracted Norwegians and caused abandonment of trade with Greenland. As the ice moved south, the Inuit followed in larger numbers. Their animal-skin-covered boats and their dog sleds and fur clothing perfectly adapted to the colder climate.


Not all encounters between natives and Europeans were violent. Both Inuit legends and Norse sagas describe friendly meetings and trade between the two peoples. Within fifty years of their arrival on Greenland, Norse hunting parties, ranging north, came upon Thule Inuit. Archaeologists find many Norse objects in Neo-Eskimo sites; some might have resulted from raids or may represent loot from abandoned Norse areas, but many most likely came from trade. The quantity of walrus tusks and skins exported to Norway appears too large to come solely from Norse hunts and probably included additions from trading with the Inuit. Possibly the two peoples could have coexisted peacefully in Greenland as the Inuit concentrated on the coast and the Norse preferred interior fjords. Most Norse references to Skraelings Skraelings , however, describe conflicts, and the main theme of Inuit legends about the Norse is how Norsemen were met and conquered.

What ultimately happened to the Norse is not clear from surviving sources. The Inuit may have wiped them out, or, as the climate worsened, the less well-adapted Europeans may have slowly declined in number and died off. Possibly the Norse used their boats to retreat to Iceland or Norway. Some scholars have suggested that the survivors may have joined the English or the Portuguese who became active in North American waters at the end of the fifteenth century. Whatever the reason, the Norse vanished, and Greenland’s future belonged to the Inuit.

Further Reading

  • Barrett, James H., ed. Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003. Presents an analysis of the discovery, exploration, and colonization of the North Atlantic by the Vikings. Bibliography and index.
  • Gad, Finn. The History of Greenland. Vol. 1, Earliest Times to 1700. Translated by Ernst Dupont. London: C. Hurst, 1970. The standard history of Greenland. Provides a succinct account of Dorset and Thule cultures, along with a detailed narrative of the Norse settlements.
  • Ingstad, Helge. Land Under the Pole Star: A Voyage to the Norse Settlements of Greenland and the Saga of the People That Vanished. Translated by Naomi Walford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966. Combines a description of Greenland archaeological sites with a history of the Norse settlements.
  • Jones, Gwyn. The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A careful account of Norse settlements in North America, written for the general reader. The second half of the volume contains translations of the Norse sagas The Greenlanders’s Saga and The Saga of Erik the Red.
  • Jordan, Richard H. “Neo-Eskimo Prehistory of Greenland.” In Arctic, edited by David Damas, Vol. 5 in Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984. Concise history of Thule culture in Greenland based on archaeological evidence.
  • Oswalt, Wendell H. Eskimos and Explorers. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Descriptive account of Norse-Eskimo relations. Includes bibliographic notes and maps.
  • Seaver, Kirsten A. The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, Circa A.D. 1000-1500. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. Questions earlier interpretations of hostile contacts between Inuit and Norse. Suggests that the Norse abandonment of Greenland was probably voluntary, not due to pressure from Eskimos.
  • Wahlgren, Erik. The Vikings and America. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Part of the Ancient Peoples and Places series, looks at the Viking discovery of North America. Bibliography and index.