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The Lost Western Settlement of Greenland, 1342
By Carol S. Francis
Master’s Thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 2011
Abstract: The Western Norse Settlement in Greenland disappeared suddenly, probably in 1342. Research in the area includes medieval sources, archeological studies of the ruins, climatic data from the Greenlandic icecap, oral stories from the Inuit in Greenland and Canada, and possible sightings of ancestors of the Norse in the Canadian Arctic. Feeling threatened both physically by the Thule (ancestors of the Inuit) and a cooling climate, and economically by the Norwegian crown, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Settlement in Greenland, the Western Settlement voluntarily left en masse for the new world, probably in 1342 based on sailing dates.
Introduction: In the early 1340s, something was amiss in the Western Norse Settlement in Greenland. They usually paid their taxes and church tithes with natural goods as they lacked money. While sometimes late to be sure, they usually managed to send walrus tusks and tough walrus skin rope, polar bear skins and other furs, and the valuable white or grey gyrfalcons favored by kings, to pay their bills in Norway. These shipments were rare, but lucrative enough to risk sailing through ice-filled channels to Greenland, and back across the stormy North Atlantic to Bergen. The Western Settlement had not paid its taxes since 1327; this fostered rumors that they had abandoned Christianity for a heathen lifestyle of hunting and fishing. In the early 1340s, church emissary Ivar Baardsson came from Norway to investigate, and to collect the funds due the church.
When he got to Sandnes, the largest farm of the settlement, he found neither heathen nor Christian, and loose cows, sheep, goats, and horses wandering around. Although later accused of only looking at one farm, he saw four smaller farms on the left side of the fjord, and two very large farms on the right side as he arrived. Since these farms lacked smoke coming from their chimneys or signs of activity, Baardsson concluded they were deserted. His crew knew the cattle would not survive a winter in the open, so they slaughtered as many of the animals as they could carry, and returned to the Eastern Settlement totally mystified. Baardsson blamed the Thule, ancestors of the Inuit, for destroying the settlement, but there was no sign of bloodshed or battle.