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The Vikings as Explorers and Settlers

As impressive as the Vikings’
accomplishments as raiders and warriors
were, their accomplishments as explorers
and settlers were equally magnificent.
The Vikings ventured far from their
homelands in Scandinavia and became
the first Europeans to discover Greenland
A map of Viking explorations and settlements by Pinpin
and even North America (which they
called “Vinland”) – roughly 500 years
before Christopher Columbus. Along the way, they became the first people to establish sizable
settlements in Iceland and other North Atlantic islands, and also colonized the territories their
warriors conquered throughout northern Europe. These explorations and settlements have had
a decisive impact upon these places that persists even today.
The Vikings’ motivations for faring so far
across the globe and founding new
settlements in the lands they reached
were as varied as the individuals who
undertook these tremendous projects. But
a few motives stand out as being
especially strong and generally
applicable. In places that the Vikings were
the first sizable group to explore and/or
settle, these were the quest for fame,
A map showing Viking settlements in more detail by Max
prestige, and honor; the desire for the
level of personal freedom that one can
only find in a sparsely-populated area with
no pre-established government; and the ability to take advantage of virgin natural resources.
In places where the Vikings conquered existing populations, they were driven by political
ambitions, the desire for wealth through tribute and the control of trade, and, as in newlyinhabited lands, the ability to make a name for oneself.[1]
The Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands were the first largely uninhabited lands in the North Atlantic Ocean that the
Vikings reached in the main, westward part of their expansion. The Faroes, which jut out
abruptly from the ocean, are located about halfway between northern Scotland and eastern

An Irish monk, writing in 825, says that they had been inhabited by Irish monks for generations,
but that these holy men left the islands
when the pagan Norse settled in, a feat
treated as already accomplished by that
point. The Norse named the islands the
Færeyjar, “Sheep Islands.” The islands
were treeless, so the settlers built their
Funningsfjørður by Vincent van Zeijst
homes out of turf and rock. The islands’
economy was heavily dependent on
livestock and harvesting the products of
the sea, particularly fish, whales, and birds.[2]
As with the Faroes, legend has it that a
few Irish monks already lived in Iceland
prior to the Vikings’ arrival. This is
certainly plausible, especially since it
seems that the Norse already knew of
Iceland’s existence prior to their first trip
there.[3] In any case, if they were there
before the Norse arrived, they left soon
after, presumably because they didn’t
want their hallowed solitude disrupted –
especially not by pagans.[4]
The first Viking party to Iceland set foot on
Ingólfr Arnarson, the legendary first settler of Iceland (Johan
Peter Raadsig, 1850)
its shores in about 860. It was exploratory
in nature, and no one stayed around to
settle. The island was given its name by a member of that party named Floki (Flóki
Vilgerðarson), who was dismayed by the harshness of the winter.[5]
Norse settlement of Iceland began in about 870.[6] Around half of the settlers seem to have
come from the region of Norway around Bergen, with their chief motivation having been to
escape the draconian rule of King Harald Fairhair. The other half came from other parts of
Scandinavia and the British Isles.[7] By 920 or 930, all of the land suitable for farming had been
settled, and by the middle of the tenth century, Iceland had tens of thousands of inhabitants. [8]
The original population of Iceland seems to have had a significant Celtic admixture, so a
number of Celts must have accompanied the Vikings as spouses, slaves, or in some other
capacity. There were Christians among the original settlers, and the proportion of Christianity
relative to paganism increased over time, with the official conversion in 999 or 1000 being a
watershed year in the process.[9]


Although Iceland remained a free state for centuries, Norway exerted a significant cultural and
political influence over it, surely due to the significant number of Norwegians amongst the early
settlers. In the mid-thirteenth century, well after the end of the Viking Age, Iceland formally
submitted to Norwegian rule.[10]
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.[11]
Erik was a Norwegian by birth, but was
outlawed in his native land “because of
Scoresby Sund by Hannes Grobe
some killings,” as the sagas put it.[12] 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.[13]
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.[14] 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.[15]
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.[16]
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.[17]
Farmsteads were fairly dispersed so that everyone would have enough land to graze their
herds and make hay for winter.[18]
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. [19] 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
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.[21]
North America
The first Vikings to see North America
were (again, according to the sagas) a
man named Bjarni Herjolfsson and his
crew, who were blown off course while
attempting to reach Greenland. They
never stepped ashore, though, and turned
back to Greenland when the weather
Shortly after Greenland was settled –
A reconstructed Norse house in L’Anse Aux Meadows (photo
by D. Gordon E. Robertson)
sometime in the late tenth century – Erik’s
son, Leif Eriksson “the Lucky,” was so
moved by Bjarni’s story that he decided to set sail for this westward land. He may have been
particularly interested in finding wood and other resources that were lacking in Greenland’s
harsh climate.[23]
Leif and his crew first stepped foot on North America at a place they called Helluland, “Flat
Stone Land,” a desolate land of mountains and glaciers. This was probably Baffin Island off the
northeastern coast of Canada. From there, Leif and his crew sailed south, and came to
Markland (“Forest Land”), probably the Labrador coast. Two more days of sailing southwest
brought them to Vínland, “Vine Land.” “Vinland” seems to have encompassed modern-day
Newfoundland to New Brunswick – basically the coastal areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence
in eastern Canada. Leif and his crew overwintered in Vinland before returning to Greenland in
the spring. In the following years, others retraced his route and attempted to settle in this new
land, but all were driven out by the natives after having stayed no more than a few years.[24]
Despite the briefness of their stay, the Vikings who reached North America have left traces of
their presence in the archaeological record. Two Viking sites have been discovered on
Newfoundland: one at L’Anse Aux Meadows near the island’s northern tip, and one further
south and west. It’s highly likely that the Vikings attempted to settle elsewhere along the
northeastern coast of North America. But if so, all traces of their settlements have vanished
with the arrival of other Europeans many centuries later, who would have settled in many of
the same areas.[25]
Intriguingly, a late Viking Age Norwegian coin has been found in an Indian settlement in the
present-day US state of Maine. It could have gotten there as a result of Vikings attempting to
settle in the area, or it could have been the product of trade between that Indian group and
others further north. Thus, it doesn’t provide conclusive evidence that the Vikings made it that
far south.[26]
The British Isles

The Vikings didn’t just explore and settle new territories. They also settled in the lands in
Europe that they conquered through warfare.
In such cases, it was sometimes just the warriors
themselves who settled down, began working the land,
and took wives from among the native population. At
other times, whole families moved from Scandinavia to
the newly-conquered territories. In the British Isles, for
example, the Scandinavian genetic contribution to some
areas is evenly split between men and women, whereas
in other places it’s overwhelmingly male.[27]
Viking rulers in conquered territories largely adapted to
what was expected of a ruler in those lands rather than
simply imposing Scandinavian customs on the populace.
Viking rulers in non-Norse lands often maintained good
Vikings invading England (from a 12threlations with the Christian Church, used written
century manuscript)
documents in governance, and even minted coins. Their
Viking followers did likewise, to the point that
archaeologists often find it nearly impossible to distinguish the graves of Vikings from the
graves of non-Vikings in Viking-controlled territories.[28]
The Viking conquest with the deepest and longest impact was that of the British Isles.[29] The
Scandinavians who migrated to England, Scotland, and Ireland forever changed the character
of those countries. Perhaps this should be unsurprising given the sheer extent of Viking rule in
these places. By the late ninth century, the Norse controlled virtually all of England besides
Wessex, and large swaths of Scotland and Ireland as well.[30]
Even after the English regained control of the country in the mid-tenth century, many
Scandinavian settlers remained, and had a large influence on England’s culture, as loanwords,
place-names, law codes, and other lines of evidence indicate. The modern English language,
for example, has no less than 600 loanwords from Old Norse, including such common words
as “cast,” “knife,” “take,” “window,” “egg,” “ill,” and “die.”[31]
The Vikings settled northern Scotland especially heavily, mostly due to the fact that it was both
close to Norway and a convenient jumping-off point for raids in England and Ireland.[32] The
Norse found and conquered lots of already-thriving settlements there in the ninth century,
subjugating the local populations.[33]
The level of Norse influence upon the people of Scotland and its islands was so great that
today, Shetlanders have 44 percent Scandinavian DNA, the Orkneys’ inhabitants have 30
percent, and those who live in the Western Isles have 15 percent.[34] The inhabitants of the
Orkney and Shetland Islands spoke Norn, a dialect of Old Norse, until the nineteenth
The influence didn’t just go one way, however. The Norse adapted to the local customs,


including becoming Christians.[36]
Over the course of the ninth century, as the Vikings settled in Ireland, they became more and
more integrated into Irish society. They fought wars on behalf of Irish leaders, intermarried with
the Irish, adopted Christianity, and so forth. The Irish had no particular tradition of trade with
the outside world, and relied on the enterprising and well-connected Vikings to perform this
activity on their behalf so that they could enjoy the fruits of interaction with international
While Viking settlements in Ireland were confined to trade towns – the Irish made a point to
keep them out of the rest of the country – those trade towns had a great impact on the
contemporary and subsequent character of the country. One of them, Dublin, is now Ireland’s
capital city.[38]
Continental Western Europe
As Viking raids became more common, local kingdoms turned to granting lands at the mouths
of rivers to Norse chieftains in exchange for protecting them and becoming Christians.[39] The
region of Normandy in France was given to the Viking chieftain Rollo in exchange for his
protection of the Franks. A similar arrangement was made with the Danes Harald and Rorik
with Walcheren, an island in Frisia. The Norse who settled these lands under their chieftains
became assimilated into Frankish culture over time.[40]
Scandinavians also founded the Rurikid dynasty that ruled Russia from the ninth to the
sixteenth century. They were called the “Rus,” and it is from them that “Russia” acquired its
current name.[41] Although the Russian population remained mostly Slavonic, the ruling class
descended from the initial Viking conquerors.[42]
Want to learn more about Viking explorations and settlements, and the Vikings in general? My
list of The 10 Best Books on the Vikings will surely prove helpful to you.

Brink, Stefan. 2012. Who Were The Vikings? In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink
and Neil Price. p. 4.

Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 69-70.


Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 77.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 70.




Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 77.


Ibid. p. 78.






Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 70.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 269.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 74.


Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 80.




Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 272.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 60.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 74-75.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 262.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 75.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 60.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 75.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 63-64.


Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 82-83.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 67-68.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 76-77.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 67-68.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 275-276.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 57.


Ibid. p. 52-53.


Ibid. p. 52.


Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 72-73.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 245.


Ibid. p. 211.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 59-64.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 57.


Ibid. p. 59-60.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 65.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 225.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 25.


Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 196.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 29.


Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 45-50.


Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 97.


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