From the beginning of the 9th century to about AD 1100, the Scandinavians fanned out away from their homelands of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, populating western Russia and Ukraine in the east, and to the west making homes in France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and eventually Greenland. Although typically recognized as Vikings invading foreign shores, those who settled these far-flung lands were not the stereotypical Norse pirates or marauders, rather they were outcasts and stressed farmers, and even refugees fleeing lands overwhelmed by self-appointed kings whose idea of reformed government stifled the freeman ideology. Surely lands were stolen by Vikings, though most of the Norse population expanding beyond Scandinavia consisted of simple folk, not warriors.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feat made by Norse expansionists was the successful invasion and occupation of Britain (England, Scotland, eastern Ireland, but not Wales). Free access to the British Isles–including her small island peripheries–enabled the Norse to build staging grounds for broader expansion. Strikes against France mostly hailed from the British Isles, a major staging area being the Isle of Man, same with continued invasions against England, Scotland and Ireland. Within a handful of generations, maybe two to three, the Norse expanded beyond the British Isles to Iceland. According to the written sources, Iceland was filled up by AD 930, not even 100 years after its recorded discovery in 870. Around 865, Alfred the Great pushed the Norse invaders north to Northumbria, negotiating a treaty with the Scandinavians and establishing the Danelaw. The Danelaw became a physical and socio-political border in the north of Britain, where those residing north of the border were held under sway of the Danish laws, and those south resided within the jurisdiction of the West Saxon and Mercian laws. With Alfred's military successes against the "Danes" (that is, the people of Scandinavia), those Scandinavians living in West Saxon or Mercian lands were violently pushed out. It comes as no surprise many left the British Isles in search for safer lands, and by 870 they found those lands in Iceland.
NEW LANDS, LAWS AND VENTURES
Settling Iceland was like rebooting a civilization. The Norse first enjoyed Iceland as it reminded them of of their Scandinavian homes, particularly along the Norwegian coastal fjords. There the Norse established a new society, new laws, and a completely new government. I will not cover details regarding the settlement of Iceland because I am currently covering the topic in another thread. But I will say that Iceland became an new independent colony. Eventually, when the Icelanders ran into resource trouble, the country became a distant branch of a Scandinavian kingdom, ownership traded between Norway and Denmark. The Icelandic sagas vouch for a peculiar love-hate relationship between Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia, particularly Norway; and this simply goes to show that the Icelanders never truly severed ties with their Scandinavian ancestry.
By the time Iceland was "completely full" (AD 930, according to Landnámabók), the Viking Age was losing its momentum. Most of the raiding had already slowed or stopped, and from the second half of the 10th century, the Norse were mostly expanding to new lands instead of pirating and pilfering. Widespread víking (the act of raiding by sea) was replaced with the act of landnam, the task of claiming real estate through specific regulations in areas deemed unpopulated. Although víking was slowing, the wave of migrations away from Scandinavia were just beginning. Harald Fairhair had established his new kingdom along the western fjords of Norway, killing or driving away locals who strictly believed in the old ways, the ways of inherited land as opposed to state-owned land.
And it was this process, this progression for better or worse, that led one stubborn man named Eirík to leave Iceland and eventually establish a new colony far to the west known as the Green Land.
THE GREEN LAND
Many rumors circle the reason Greenland was named so, most of them revolving around the idea that Eirík the Red named the land only to attract settlers. Let me put these rumors to rest. Greenland was not named as false advertising, it was named after its rolling pastures. Greenland was (and still is) very green, especially in the south where the Gulf Stream carries warm air to the coastline.
Eirík the Red (Eirík Ţorvaldsson) was not a nice feller, but he wasn't a monster either. As a child he moved with his family from Norway to Iceland because his father (Ţorvald) killed some folk. Raised on a farmstead in western Iceland, Eirík grew up to be his father's son. In or around 982, Eirík was involved in a domestic engineering dispute with his neighbor, Valthjof. According to records and sagas, Eirík's slaves caused a landslide of sorts on Valthjof's property. Valthof's friend, Eyjolf the Foul, took it upon himself to settle the matter by killing Eirík's slaves. Eirík then retaliated by slaying Eyjolf and his mate. Eyjolf's kin demanded punishment by law against Eirík, and thus he was found guilty of manslaughter and outlawed for three years.
As an outlaw, Eirík Ţorvaldsson was required to leave the district (or all of Iceland, depending on the severity of the conviction) for the sum of three years. If seen in the district (or Iceland) during his exile, Eirík could be killed on sight and his kin could not demand retribution by blood or law. So, in that time Eirík Ţorvaldsson sailed away from Iceland into the North Sea, following oral accounts of western lands. Eventually he made landfall at Greenland. Once his exile expired he returned to Iceland and subsided for a few years. Restless, Eirík planned and executed one of the largest organized exoduses made by a Norseman; he packed his things and, along with a score of ships, made way for Greenland in 985.
Most people don't realize that Greenland is in fact part of North America. The land is expansive, and on a flattened map it looks easily twice the size of Australia. The thing is, more than 90% of Greenland is frozen in glacier and only the coastal regions are occupied by man. Less than a quarter of the ships leaving Iceland for Greenland actually made it to the new land. Many were lost in the turbulent North Sea, the actual numbers will never be known. But Eirík and at least ten other families reached Greenland and established settlements. The initial settlement is what we historians call the Eastern Settlement, because it's easier than calling it by its Norse name, Eystribyggđ. (Eystribyggđ more or less translates to Island Settlement, where ey is "island" and byggja is "settlement." The central striđ can mean a number of things, but I put my money on the nominative striđr, which means "strong, tough." Therefore, in essence, Eystribyggđ means "the island settlement that is strong.")
The earliest archaeological evidence pointing to Scandinavian inhabitants comes from a small isle a few nautical miles south of the mainland's southern tip, which fits perfectly with the Norse Eystribyggđ. And although the original landnam of Iceland occurred a century before, the process of land-taking probably hadn't changed much when Eirík established his first building and claimed the neighboring lands. Lo and behold, Eirík's movement to Greenland, and the success of the early Eastern Settlement brought more and more settlers!
THE GREEN GLACIER
Life in Greenland was drastically different from that of Iceland, and the early settlers had to adapt quickly or die. Scandinavians were never top-notch farmers, but they always managed to work the environments in which the lived, yielding enough crops to brew and make various porridge. They mostly subsisted on dairy and small meats, like fish and veal, some goat and lamb here and there. And in Iceland the climate allowed for summer pasturing of livestock, whereas Greenlanders had to keep theirs in byres year-round.
Life was hard in Iceland and even harder in Greenland. Despite the brutal hardships of living on one of the largest glaciers in the world, the population of the Eastern Settlement reached as high as 18,000 by the 14th century. More and more people, namely from Iceland, moved to Greenland over the course of a few generations.
It's hard to say with any certainty when, but as early as 985–once the Eastern Settlement was strong–the Scandis moved up the coastline westward, establishing a distant, far-flung settlement simply known by historians as the Western Settlement. The Western Settlement grew as the Eastern Settlement did, but it never reached the potential as its forebear. All evidence points to it primarily functioning as a summer camp for hunters. though archaeologists say the population briefly swelled to 8-10 thousand. However, by the 14th century, the Western Settlement was abandoned and the Eastern Settlement was struggling to survive. By the time the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, Greenland's settlements were vanished, ghost towns.
Just as Britain and her peripheries housed staging grounds for more raids and expansion, Greenland became something akin, if only briefly. Around AD 1000, Greenlanders set sail to the west, eventually locating Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland. And this expedition of discovery was helmed by none other than Leif Eiríksson, the second oldest son of Eirík the Red.
The details are fuzzy at best, and what remaining sources describing the voyages and settlement of Newfoundland and beyond are suspect, especially considering only two sagas remain telling the tale and they were written more than 200 years after the voyages took place. In spite of the suspicious primary documentation, the foundation of a Scandinavian-style home was found at the northern finger of Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows in 1960. Quick excavations in the same year uncovered several more structures of the same style in a small area. After a few years of excavating and research, a mixed team made up of North American and Scandinavian archaeologists discovered a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows! Norse Greenlanders had in fact attempted to settle North American lands west of Greenland in the medieval era!
Once this information became available to scholars, every North American medieval historian tried to locate Leif Eiríksson's Vínland, though none succeeded. The debate regarding the expanse of Leif's settlement is still argued today, an academic debate I have personally invested in for the past several years. There's no refuting the Norse Greenlanders made it to Newfoundland. Did they make it past Newfoundland? If so, how far did they penetrate the continent? No one knows the answers, and the sad truth is that we may never know.