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The History of Greenland

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: December 17, 1999 (links updated March 16, 2006)

Polar Bear Crest of Greenland     The year 2000 is extremely important to the people of Greenland, as it marks the approximate 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of the first Inuit, and also of Leif Erikkson's journey from Greenland to Canada. Many special ceremonies and projects are underway or planned, and a greatly-increased awareness of the country's history is apparent.

    Greenland was first inhabited about 4,500 years ago. The earliest residents arrived from the west, but either left or died due to periods of exceptionally cold weather and/or poor hunting. Signs of their presence have been found near Maniitsoq. The region seems to have then been uninhabited for about 3,000 years.

Photo of Nuuk, Greenland
Nuuk was established as the Danish colony Godthåb (Good Hope) in 1728 by Danish/ Norwegian missionary Hans Egede. The house in the foregound was built by him.

    The next migration came from the east, following "Erik the Red" Thorwaldsson's exploration of the southern coast of Greenland between 982 and 985 AD. In 986, he led a group of Viking families from Iceland, and settled at Brattahlid, traditionally known as Qassiarsuk (route map). The climate at this time was very warm, much wamer than it is today, and crops were able to do well. It seems likely that the name "Greenland" was given to the country, not just as wishful thinkful, but because it was a climatic fact at that time.

    In 999 or 1000, Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, brought the first Christian missionary to Greenland, from Norway. Shortly after, the first church, Thjódhildurs Church, was built at Brattahlid. It was built beside Erik the Red's farmhouse, at his wife's insistence, and was named after her. As part of the celebrations being held in 2000, the church and farmhouse have been rebuilt, and are being dedicated on July 16, 2000.

    In 1000, Leif Eriksson made his voyage to North America. That voyage is being recreated with a replica of his ship, the Islendingur. It will sail from Brattahlid (Qassiarsuk) on July 15, 2000, and a lengthy series of celebrations are planned upon her arrival in North America.

    The church became extremely powerful in Greenland; in about 1124 a bishop was appointed, and a residence was built at Gardar (Igaliko), near Brattahlid. By most reports, corruption within the church was rampant, and may have ultimately helped destroy the settlements the church was sent to minister to.

Painting on gut skin, showing Inuit and an umiak, Greenland ca. 1884
A strip of gut skin with patched figures of couples and an umiak ("woman's boat"). Collected in East Greenland 1884-85.

    At about the same time that the Norseman were settling the south of Greenland, the present Greenlanders, the Inuit, arrived and settled further to the north (some sources state that they arrived as late as 1200 AD).

The ruins of Hvalsey Church, Greenland
Hvalsey Church. The ruins are one of the best-preserved signs of Middle Age settlements in Greenland.

    The mild climatic period was fairly short-lived in geologic terms - by about 1200 AD, the ever-increasing cold was making life extremely difficult, and some years no supply ships were able to reach Greenland through the ice-choked seas. During this period, Norway has assumed responsibility for supplying the Norse settlers in Greenland, but as the climate worsened it became a very difficult task.

    By about 1350, the settlements in southwestern Greenland had been abandoned. There is no evidence to prove where the people went to, but one persistent legend says that they went to North America, eventually settling in North Dakota. This legend claims that they were the original Mandan Indians.

    In 1408, a wedding was performed in the Hvalsey Church. This is not only the last known service at Hvalsey, but also the last written record of the Viking presence in the region. It is thought that some settlers remained for another 80-90 years, then were forced to leave by the deteriorating climate as well.

Painting by Hans Zakaeus, showing a meeting between Eskimos and Europeans in Greenland, 1818
A meeting between Eskimos and Europeans. Colour lithograph by Hans Zakæus, 1818-1819.

    Not until 1721 did Europeans return to Greenland, and in 1775, Denmark claimed the island as a closed colony. Although there were no European residents, the merging of Norway and Denmark in the Kalmar Union had resulted in control over Greenland being passed to Denmark.

    The people of Greenland did not fare well under Danish rule, and the standard of living was very low until the Second World War. At that time, the United States built a series of military bases, including Thule AFB.

    In 1953, a constitutional change made Greenland an integral part of Denmark rather than being a colony. Danish financial assistance increased substantially, and the country modernized quickly. Life expectancy rose, the population doubled due both immigration and an increased birthrate, and modern technology was introduced into most aspects of life, from medicine to transportation and comunications.

Sled Dog Races at Ilulissat, Greenland
The annual spring sled dog races at Ilulissat bring history and culture to life.

    In the 1970s, concerns began to be expressly that Greenland's culture was being lost, and pressure began to build for establishment of a Home Rule government. That was accomplished in 1979. The new legislature was given power over everything except foreign affairs, defense and the judiciary, which are still controlled from Copenhagen, although in practise Greenland's opinions are given a great deal of consideration when setting policy.

    In modern Greenland, culture and history are very visible parts of everyday life, from colourful clothing to sled dog races. For tourists, the range of historical and cultural attractions is enormous, ranging from accommodations such as the unique Hotel Arctic to natural history tours by dogteam.

    As well as the rebuilding of Thjódhildurs Church, many Inuit and Viking sites are being preserved or restored by the coordinated efforts of the National Museum of Greenland (Nunatta Katersugaasivia) and the local museums in Nanortalik, Narsaq and Qaqortoq. The National Museum of Denmark has submitted a proposal to UNESCO to have almost 3,000 square kilometers of Narsaq and Qaqortoq designated as a World Heritage Site. This area encompasses sites ranging from Inuit and Viking settlements to colonial buildings. Plans for establishing "ruin-parks" to both make access easier and protect the most important sites better, promise to provide ever-increasing possibilities to see Greenland's past.

The graphics, and some of the material in this article, are from This is Greenland '99, and are used here with the permission of the publishers, the Government of Greenland.