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Greenland Collection

History Archive - Greenland Collection

Greenland is a large continental island, the greater portion of which lies within the Arctic Circle, while the whole is arctic in character. In the beginning of the 10th century the Norwegian Gunnbjorn, son of Ulf Kraka, is reported to have found some islands to the west of Iceland, and he may have seen, without landing upon it, the southern part of the east coast of Greenland.

In 982 the Norwegian Eric the Red sailed from Iceland to find the land which Gunnbjorn had seen, and he spent three years on its south-western coasts exploring the country. On his return to Iceland in 985 he called the land Greenland in order to make people more willing to go there, and reported so favorably on its possibilities that he had no difficulty in obtaining followers. In 986 he started again from Iceland with 25 ships, but only 14 of them reached Greenland, where a colony was founded on the south-west coast, in the present Julianehaab district. Eric built his house at Brattalid, near the inner end of the fjord Tunugdliarfik, just north of the present Julianehaab.

Other settlers followed and in a few years two colonies had been formed, one called osterbygd in the present district of Julianehaab comprising later about 190 farms, and another called Vesterbygd farther north on the west coast in the present district of Godthaab, comprising later about 90 farms. Numerous ruins in the various fjords of these two districts indicate now where these colonies were. Wooden coffins, with skeletons wrapped in coarse hairy cloth, and both pagan and Christian tombstones with runic inscriptions have been found. On a voyage from Norway to Greenland Leif Ericsson (son of Eric the Red) discovered America in the year 1000, and a few years later Torfinn Karlsefne sailed with three ships and about 150 men, from Greenland to Nova Scotia to form a colony, but returned three years later (see Vinland).

When the Norsemen came to Greenland they found various remains indicating, as the old sagas say, that there had been people of a similar kind as those they met with in Vinland, in America, whom they called Skraeling (the meaning of the word is uncertain, it means possibly weak people); but the sagas do not report that they actually met the natives then. But somewhat later they have probably met with the Eskimo farther north on the west coast in the neighbourhood of Disco Bay, where the Norsemen went to catch seals, walrus, &c. The Norse colonists penetrated on these fishing expeditions at least to 73° N., where a small runic stone from the 14th century has been found. On a voyage in 1267 they penetrated even still farther north into the Melville Bay.

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Christianity was introduced by Leif Ericsson at the instance of Olaf Trygvasson, king of Norway, in 1000 and following years. In the beginning of the 12th century Greenland got its own bishop, who resided at Garolar, near the present Eskimo station Igoliko, on an isthmus between two fjords, Igaliksfjord (the old Einarsfjord) and Tunugdliarfik (the old Eriksfjord), inside the present colony Julianehaab. The Norse colonies had twelve churches, one monastery and one nunnery in the osterbygd, and four churches in the Vesterbygd. Greenland, like Iceland, had a republican organization up to the years 1247 to 1261, when the Greenlanders were induced to swear allegiance to the king of Norway. Greenland belonged to the Norwegian crown till 1814, when, at the dissolution of the union between Denmark and Norway, neither it nor Iceland and the Faeroes were mentioned, and they, therefore, were kept by the Danish king and thus came to Denmark. The settlements were called respectively oster Bygd (or eastern settlement) and Vester (western) Bygd, both being now known to be on the south and west coast (in the districts of Julianehaab and Godthaab respectively), though for long the view was persistently held that the first was on the east coast, and numerous expeditions have been sent in search of these "lost colonies" and their imaginary survivors. These settlements at the height of their prosperity are estimated to have had 10,000 inhabitants, which, however, is an over-estimate, the number having probably been nearer one-half or one-third of that number. The last bishop appointed to Greenland died in 1540, but long before that date those appointed had never reached their sees; the last bishop who resided in Greenland died there in 1377. After the middle of the 14th century very little is heard of the settlements, and their communication with the motherland, Norway, evidently gradually ceased. This may have been due in great part to the fact that the shipping and trade of Greenland became a monopoly of the king of Norway, who kept only one ship sailing at long intervals (of years) to Greenland; at the same time the shipping and trade of Norway came more and more in the hands of the Hanseatic League, which took no interest in Greenland. The last ship that is known to have visited the Norse colony in Greenland returned to Norway in 1410. With no support from home the settlements seem to have decayed rapidly. It has been supposed that they were destroyed by attacks of the Eskimo, who about this period seem to have become more numerous and to have extended southwards along the coast from the north. This seems a less feasible explanation; it is more probable that the Norse settlers intermarried with the Eskimo and were gradually absorbed. About the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century it would appear that all Norse colonization had practically disappeared. When in 1585 John Davis visited it there was no sign of any people save the Eskimo, among whose traditions are a few directly relating to the old Norsemen, and several traces of Norse influence.[40] For more than two hundred years Greenland seems to have been neglected, almost forgotten. It was visited by whalers, chiefly Dutch, but nothing in the form of permanent European settlements was established until the year 1721, when the first missionary, the Norwegian clergyman Hans Egede, landed, and established a settlement near Godthaab. Amid many hardships and discouragements he persevered; and at the present day the native race is civilized and Christianized. Many of the colonists of the 18th century were convicts and other offenders; and in 1750 the trade became a monopoly in the hands of a private company. In 1733-1734 there was a dreadful epidemic of smallpox, which destroyed a great number of the people. In 1774 the trade ceased to be profitable as a private monopoly, and to prevent it being abandoned the government took it over. Julianehaab was founded in the following year. In 1807-1814, owing to the war, communication was cut off with Norway and Denmark; but subsequently the colony prospered in a languid fashion.


It is not connected with any portion of Europe or America except by suboceanic ridges; but in the extreme north it is separated only by a narrow strait from Ellesmere Land in the archipelago of the American continent. It is bounded on the east by the North Atlantic, the Norwegian and Greenland Seas - Jan Mayen, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and the Shetlands being the only lands between it and Norway. Denmark Strait is the sea between it and Iceland, and the northern Norwegian Sea or Greenland Sea separates it from Spitsbergen.

On the west Davis Strait and Baffin Bay separate it from Baffin Land. The so-called bay narrows northward into the strait successively known as Smith Sound, Kane Basin, Kennedy Channel and Robeson Channel. A submarine ridge, about 300 fathoms deep at its deepest, unites Greenland with Iceland (across Denmark Strait), the Faeroes and Scotland. A similar submarine ridge unites it with the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Land, across Davis Strait.

Two large islands (with others smaller) lie probably off the north coast, being apparently divided from it by very narrow channels which are not yet explored. If they be reckoned as integral parts of Greenland, then the north coast, fronting the polar sea, culminates about 83° 40' N. Cape Farewell, the most southerly point (also on a small island), is in 59° 45' N. The extreme length of Greenland may therefore be set down at about 1650 m., while its extreme breadth, which occurs about 77° 30' N., is approximately 800 m. The area is estimated at 827,275 sq. m. Greenland is a Danish colony, inasmuch as the west coast and also the southern east coast belong to the Danish crown. The scattered settlements of Europeans on the southern parts of the coasts are Danish, and the trade is a monopoly of the Danish government.

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The southern and south-western coasts have been known, as will be mentioned later, since the 10th century, when Norse settlers appeared there, and the names of many famous arctic explorers have been associated with the exploration of Greenland. The communication between the Norse settlements in Greenland and the motherland Norway was broken off at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, and the Norsemen's knowledge about their distant colony was gradually more or less forgotten. The south and west coast of Greenland was then re-discovered by John Davis in July 1585, though previous explorers, as Cortereal, Frobisher and others, had seen it, and at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century the work of Davis (1586-1588). Hudson (1610) and Baffin (1616) in the western seas afforded some knowledge of the west coast. This was added to by later explorers and by whalers and sealers. Among explorers who in the 19th century were specially connected with the north-west coast may be mentioned E. A. Inglefield (1852) who sailed into Smith's Sound,[1] Elisha Kent Kane (1853-1855)[2] who worked northward through Smith Sound into Kane Basin, and Charles Francis Hall (1871) who explored the strait (Kennedy Channel and Robeson Channel) to the north of this.

The northern east coast was sighted by Hudson (1607) in about 73° 30' N. (C. Hold with Hope), and during the 17th century and later this northern coast was probably visited by many Dutch whalers. The first who gave more accurate information was the Scottish whaler, Captain William Scoresby, jun. (1822), who, with his father, explored the coast between 69° and 75° N., and gave the first fairly trustworthy map of it.[4] Captains Edward Sabine and Clavering (1823) visited the coast between 72° 5' and 75° 12' N. and met the only Eskimo ever seen in this part of Greenland. The second German polar expedition in 1870, under Carl Christian Koldewey[5] (1837-1908), reached 77° N. (Cape Bismarck); and the duke of Orleans, in 1905, ascertained that this point was on an island (the Dove Bay of the German expedition being in reality a strait) and penetrated farther north, to about 78° 16'. From this point the north-east coast remained unexplored, though a sight was reported in 1670 by a whaler named Lambert, and again in 1775 as far north as 79° by Daines Barrington, until a Danish expedition under Mylius Erichsen in 1906-1908 explored it, discovering North-East Foreland, the easternmost point (see Polar Regions and map). The southern part of the east coast was first explored by the Dane Wilhelm August Graah (1829-1830) between Cape Farewell and 65° 16' N.[6] In 1883-1885 the Danes G. Holm and T. V. Garde carefully explored and mapped the coast from Cape Farewell to Angmagssalik, in 66° N.[7] F. Nansen and his companions also travelled along a part of this coast in 1888.[8] A. E. Nordenskiold, in the "Sophia," landed near Angmagssalik, in 65° 36' N., in 1883.[9] Captain C. Ryder, in 1891-1892, explored and mapped the large Scoresby Sound, or, more correctly, Scoresby Fjord.[10] Lieutenant G. Amdrup, in 1899, explored the coast from Angmagssalik north to 67° 22' N.[11] A part of this coast, about 67° N., had also been seen by Nansen in 1882.[12] In 1899 Professor A. G. Nathorst explored the land between Franz Josef Fjord and Scoresby Fjord, where the large King Oscar Fjord, connecting Davy's Sound with Franz Joseph Fjord, was discovered.[13] In 1900 Lieutenant Amdrup explored the still unknown east coast from 690 10' N. south to 67° N.[14]

From the work of explorers in the north-west it had been possible to infer the approximate latitude of the northward termination of Greenland long before it was definitely known. Towards the close of the 19th century several explorers gave attention to this question. Lieutenant (afterwards Admiral) L. A. Beaumont (1876), of the Nares Expedition, explored the coast north-east of Robeson Channel to 82° 20' N.[15] In 1882 Lieut. J. B. Lockwood and Sergeant (afterwards Captain) D. L. Brainard, of the U.S. expedition to Lady Franklin Bay,[16] explored the north-west coast beyond Beaumont's farthest to a promontory in 83° 24' N. and 40° 46' E. and they saw to the north-east Cape Washington, in about 83° 38' N. and 39° 30' E., the most northerly point of land till then observed. In July 1892 R. E. Peary and E. Astrup, crossing by land from Inglefield Gulf, Smith Sound, discovered Independence Bay on the north-east coast in 81° 37' N. and 34° 5' W.[17] In May 1895 it was revisited by Peary, who supposed this bay to be a sound communicating with Victoria Inlet on the north-west coast. To the north Heilprin Land and Melville Land were seen stretching northwards, but the probability seemed to be that the coast soon trended north-west. In 1901 Peary rounded the north point, and penetrated as far north as 83° 50' N. The scanty exploration of the great ice-cap, or inland ice, which may be asserted to cover the whole of the interior of Greenland, has been prosecuted chiefly from the west coast. In 1751 Lars Dalager, a Danish trader, took some steps in this direction from Frederikshaab. In 1870 Nordenskiold and Berggren walked 35 m. inland from the head of Aulatsivik Fjord (near Disco Bay) to an elevation of 2200 ft. The Danish captain Jens Arnold Dietrich Jensen reached, in 1878, the Jensen Nunataks (5400 ft. above the sea), about 45 m. from the western margin, in 62° 50' N.[18] Nordenskiold penetrated in 1883 about 70 m. inland in 68° 20' N., and two Lapps of his expedition went still farther on skis, to a point nearly under 45° W. at an elevation of 6600 ft. Peary and Maigaard reached in 1886 about 100 m. inland, a height of 7500 ft. in 69° 30' N. Nansen with five companions in 1888 made the first complete crossing of the inland ice, working from the east coast to the west, about 64° 25' N., and reached a height of 8922 ft. Peary and Astrup, as already indicated, crossed in 1892 the northern part of the inland ice between 78° and 82° N., reaching a height of about 8000 ft., and determined the northern termination of the ice-covering. Peary made very nearly the same journey again in 1895. Captain T. V. Garde explored in 1893 the interior of the inland ice between 61° and 62° N. near its southern termination, and he reached a height of 7080 ft. about 60 m. from the margin.[19]


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As to the discovery of Greenland by the Norsemen and its early history see Konrad Maurer's excellent paper, "Geschichte der Entdeckung Ostgronlands" in the report of Die zweite deutsche Nordpolarfahrt 1869-1870 (Leipzig, 1874), vol. i.; G. Storm, Studies on the "Vineland" Voyages (Copenhagen, 1889); Extraits des Memoires de la Societe Royale des Antiquaires du Nord (1888); K. J. V. Steenstrup, "Om osterbygden," Meddelelser om Gronland, part ix. (1882), pp. 1-51; Finnur Jonsson, "Gronlands gamle Topografi efter Kilderne" in Meddelelser om Gronland, part xx. (1899), pp. 265-329; Joseph Fischer, The Discoveries of the Norsemen in America, translated from German by B. H. Soulsby (London, 1903). As to the general literature on Greenland, a number of the more important modern works have been noticed in footnotes. The often-quoted Meddelelser om Gronland is of especial value; it is published in parts (Copenhagen) since 1879, and is chiefly written in Danish, but each part has a summary in French. In part xiii. there is a most valuable list of literature about Greenland up to 1880. See also Geographical Journal, passim.

Amongst other important books on Greenland may be mentioned: Hans Egede, Description of Greenland (London, 1745); Crantz, History of Greenland (2 vols., London, 1820); Gronlands historiske Mindesmerker (3 vols., Copenhagen, 1838-1845); H. Rink, Danish Greenland (London, 1877); H. Rink, Tales of the Eskimo (London, 1875); (see also same, "Eskimo Tribes" in Meddelelser om Gronland, part xi.); Johnstrup, Giesecke's Mineralogiske Reise i Gronland (Copenhagen, 1878).

1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 12. pg. 542-548.

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