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History and Exploration of Greenland

Updated on April 4, 2014

The first people to know Greenland were probably paleo-Eskimo who reached the island from Canada, at least 3,000 years ago. A second wave of immigration came simultaneously from two directions about 1000 A.D. From America came a new Eskimo group whose culture had originated in Alaska. They reached northwest Greenland across the archipelago north of Canada. At about that time came Europeans from Iceland who had reported sighting islands west of Iceland in 900 A.D.

In 982 the Norwegian navigator Eric the Red sailed from western Iceland to find the land west of Iceland. He stayed three winters in southwest Greenland and then returned for colonists. In 985 two settlements were established—one in the present Julianehaab district and the other in the Godthaab region. By the 13th century these colonies were prospering communities of 2,000 or more people, and from them Norsemen had sailed to the North American continent.

The colonists on Greenland lived in stone houses, hunted and fished, kept goats, cattle, and sheep, and worshiped in churches. They traded regularly with Scandinavia. However, for various reasons—deterioration of the climate, malnutrition, and continuous intermarriage for example—the colony began to fail. Trade gradually ceased, and after 1410, when the last vessel sailed from Norway to Greenland, even communication with Europe ceased.


In 1578, Greenland was rediscovered by Martin Frobisher on a voyage to seek the northwest passage, and the coasts were visited subsequently by many other explorers—notably John Davis, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, and James Hall, who made voyages in 1605 and 1616 on behalf of the Danish king to investigate the lost colonies. They found ruins of farms and churches, graves, and empty fields. Hudson sighted the east coast in 1607, but little real exploration along this inhospitable and virtually uninhabitable coast took place for two centuries—although it must have been seen by whalers operating in the Greenland Sea. In 1721, Hans Egede, a Danish missionary, established a mission and a colony near Godthaab. During the following 200 years, missionaries traveled along the west side of Greenland, teaching the natives.

In the 19th century, exploration of the east coast began, led by the Englishman William Scoresby. In 1894 a Danish colony was established at Angmagssalik on the southeast coast. The northern coast was visited by several English and American explorers. Notable among these were Sir James Ross, who discovered the Thule Eskimo of northwest Greenland in 1818 after they had lost contact with all other peoples, Elisha Kent Kane (1853–1855), Charles F. Hall (1870–1871), and Robert E. Peary.


The inland ice cap remained unknown until 1888, when it was first crossed by Fridtjof Nansen at latitude 64° N. Since then the ice cap has been crossed many times. Ice-cap observing stations were first established by the Alfred L. Wegener Expedition in 1930–1931. Mechanical transport, including aircraft, has helped complete the exploration of north Greenland. In the 1950s, United States personnel based on Thule and British and French parties made mechanized crossings of the ice.

Not until 1921 did Denmark claim sovereignty over all of Greenland. At that time it closed the coast to aliens. Concessions, however, were made to Norwegian and British vessels along parts of the northeast coast. In 1941, when Germany occupied Denmark, Greenland became a temporary U.S. protectorate. The United States established military bases there in World War II, and a decade later an agreement between the United States and Denmark gave America and other NATO countries defensive rights. The United States established two radar stations on the island in the 1980s. At that time it also reduced the size of its air bases and returned some of the land to the Greenlanders. The United States ceded ownership of one of its bases, at Kangerlussuaq (Søndre Strømfjord), to the Greenland government in 1992 in exchange for the right to use it in the future. In 2002 it returned the town of Dundas (Uummannaq), which had been part of the Thule base, to Greenland.

Although the Danish constitution of 1953 declared Greenland to be an integral part of Denmark, agitation for local government resulted in a plan for home rule that came into effect on May 1, 1979 (see above under Government). In 1985 Greenland left the European Economic Community (later, the European Union), although Denmark remained a member and Greenland retained privileged access to the European market. In 2004 Greenland and Danish representatives began negotiations to allow Greenland greater autonomy and a greater share of the royalties from mineral wealth. The development of hydroelectric power and aluminum smelting were also under consideration. As warming temperatures caused some Arctic ice to recede, potential oil and gas deposits in the north became more accessible. This raised a real prospect of economic viability and even led some Greenlanders to call for independence.

In a November 2008 referendum, Greenland's voters overwhelmingly approved greater autonomy leading to eventual independence. New arrangements became effective in June 2009, following approval by the legislatures of Greenland and Denmark. Greenland gained control of potential oil, natural gas, and mineral revenues, with Denmark retaining an influential voice over matters of foreign policy and defense. Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law; Greenlandic became the official language. In the elections of that year the proindependence Inuit Ataqatigiit Party defeated the Social Democratic Siumut Party, which had governed for 30 years. Siumut returned to power after the elections of April 2013. Aleqa Hammond became Greenland's first female prime minister.


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