Since the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1960, the picture began to emerge that the Norse (I hesitate to say "viking" because that is a verb, not a noun) beat Christopher Columbus in discovering North America by up to half a millennium. However, L'Anse aux Meadows was not a long-term settlement, and doubt had been cropping up about whether or not the Norse reached further inland (the uber-controversial Kensington Runestone brings to mind.)

We know that the Norse who discovered America were of the Greenlandic or Icelandic branch(es), separate from the mainland Scandinavians. So in this alternate history scenario, those Icelandic or Greenlandic Norsemen made a long-lasting, permanent empire (at least 500 years long) out of any piece of North America east of the River Mississippi, intermarrying the Natives who lived there and even fusing the two (fundamental) cultures together, creating a Native American ethnicity somewhere close to this propaganda portrait by Theodore de Bry:

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The question isn't whether or not this is possible, but what point of departure do I need to make this possible?

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    $\begingroup$ Viking (noun) Vi·​king | \ ˈvī-kiŋ: 1a : one of the pirate Norsemen plundering the coasts of Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries. It may be a verb in some other language, but in English it's a noun. Anyway, to better judge suitable departure points (PoD), can you briefly explain the nature of your empire? If modern-day U.S. tribal reservations is an adequate end-point, then your PoD is +/- Columbus. If the empire need not survive until today, it could be much earlier. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 24 at 6:53
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    $\begingroup$ Viking was what the raiding parties did. Not all Norse went Viking, most were Farmers. Viking was an occupation for young guys out to prove their physical prowess. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Mar 24 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ They were never isolated from Scandinavia. On the contrary, they traded regularly with Scandinavia and intermarried. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 24 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP More to the point the sagas say Erik the Red (father Leif Eriksson) was born in Norway, so, no, not that separate from the main land. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 24 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy Yup. The Norse verb "viking" is exactly the root of the English noun "Viking", but as JBH points out, in English Viking is a noun, not a verb. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Mar 24 at 21:43

The main problem with the Scandinavian attempts to colonize continental North America is that they were never serious about it; there were never more than a one or two hundred Scandinavians in North America, excluding Greenland of course. You don't take a continent with a two hundred people.

In 986 CE, a Scandinavian merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson sailed from Norway towards Iceland to visit his father, who had a farm there. Arriving in Iceland, he found out that his father had left for Greenland with Erik the Red; as a consequence, Bjarni Herjólfsson left from Iceland towards Greenland.

En route from Iceland to Greenland, Bjarni's ship was blown off course by a storm and arrived on the shores of a lush verdant land well west of Greenland. After repairing his ship, he sailed north, and spent some time looking for Greenland, for neither he nor any of his crew had ever been there. Eventually they found Herjolfsnes, a Scandinavian settlement in Greenland, and Bjarni was reunited with his father.

Word spread about the land seen by Bjarni, the Greenlanders being most interested in the reported abundance of timber. Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, armed an expedition to go look for Bjarni's land; this would have been around 988 CE.

Point of departure: The expedition really ought to have been led by Erik the Red himself, not by his son Leif. In real history, Erik suffered a riding accident, so that he was unable to go exploring. Had the expedition included Erik the Red, with his strong personal authority, the attempt to move west would have been treated more seriously.

Leif and his men overwintered in a fertile and green country, full of vines and grapes, which they called Vinland. It is possible that the archaeological discoveries at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland may be the remains of Leif's camp, Leifsbúðir. When spring came, Leif and his men left and returned to Greenland with a cargo of grapes.

Point of departure: The expedition, instead of one ship and 35 men, has three ships and 100 men, brought from Iceland and Norway in addition to Greenland. Instead of visiting over winter and leaving, two ships and 70 men remain in Vinland and fortify the camp, and one ship is sent back to Greenland, Iceland, and Norway to drum up colonists desirous of settling in a new, green, fertile land.

In real history, Leif never returned to America. Instead, his brother Thorwald came for a visit in 1004 CE. He promptly initiated a deadly conflict with the natives, as if he wanted the colonization efforts to fail. He was followed by Thorfinn Karlsefni who led the only real attempt by Norsemen to colonize the New World.

Point of departure: instead of a pitiful and half-hearted attempt with two hundred people, the Norse come with a thousand people in 20 ships, mostly from Norway and Iceland. Their settlement holds off the natives, and thrives...

If one man had not fallen off his horse, if the Norsemen would have shown a minimum of diplomacy, and if the colonization attempt had been just a little more serious, a Norse empire in the west could have arisen to rival their success in the east, where the Rurikids created what would later be the Russian Empire.

Hat tip to Mark Olson for finding the perfect motivation factor for a sustained attempt at colonization: the Norse settlers in Newfoundland find the Grand Banks; a fishing a fish-processing industry emerges, anchoring the colonists in the newly found land.

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    $\begingroup$ Greenland is considered part of North America, as much a part as Newfoundland or Hispaniola or Manhattan, thus there were thousands of Norse in North America for 500 years. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Mar 24 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding: Continental North America it is then. Edited. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 24 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Good start, but I think you need to go a step further. For something like this to succeed there has to be motivation that is either economic or ideological powerful enough to keep immigrants flowing in by the thousands. May I suggest fish? Let one of the expeditions find the Grand Banks. All Vikings were fishermen and the fish would provide a large and easy food supply and drying them might be a workable export to pay for the imports they'd need. $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Mar 24 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkOlson: Added, with attribution. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 24 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast: Actually they were primarily traders and mercenary soldiers. The rape, pillage and plunder part was more or less opportunistic; with serious powers they traded, or they offered their services as soldiers, while with weaker states they had a more strongly assertive relationship. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 25 at 14:17

Might seem a little obvious but

Don't get attacked by the Natives

It seems there were a couple of key interactions which, if they didn't end in violence, would have meant a prolonged settlement:

  • Thorvald: History is muddy so no one is quite sure what happened but this first interaction between Natives and the explorers ended badly with the Norse killing all but one of the group they encountered. The one who escaped returned with an overwhelming force.

  • Freydís: The driving force behind this next expedition it seemed she was a little more successful, actually trading with the Natives. Again history is muddy so the exact why is difficult to determine but Natives attacked again and drove them back.

Because accounts of the time are so vague it gives you more or less free reign to say these attacks were misunderstandings and, in your world, simply just don't happen. To go a little deeper perhaps we could suppose Thorvald was just more prone to violence than Leif (his brother who had first landed there) and ifin fact several he hadn't been the one to make first contact then we could say this meeting goes well and the Natives are less suspicious.

Once they had a foothold in the Americas that settlement would thrive. Greenland hadn't turned out to be the lush fields most had imagined so would be happy to move on to somewhere with trees and wild game. These trees would also prove key for trade with Greenland which was sorely lacking in pretty much anything that grows.

This aren't the only interactions between the two peoples but it seems these first impressions were prophetic.

Link to a more storified video on the history


This is more a way to help Alexp's and Lio's ideas than something viable by itself.

The main reason there was no sustained colonization effort is the travel connection Greenland became almost uninhabitable, at least to Norse trying to maintain the typical Norse lifestyle. Greenland did no mesh well with Norse agriculture or livestock, once the little ice age set in this miss-match turned into outright famine. Greenland lacked the strong soil and high turnover forests the Norse were used to so they ended up depleting both, and a Norse civilization that can't farm, cook, or build boats is doomed.

Since the colonies will be cut off they need to be self sustaining pretty quickly which means you need a lot of people fast, But even that is iffy, the little ice age would have hit them as well, they are in for a hard time. The further south and hte bigger the settlements you can get them the better.

But there is one other thing you can do as an alternative or to help colonies along, have the Greenland colonists adopt a a more sustainable lifestyle. Maybe a disease hit the cattle early one causing a switch to sheep (which are not nearly as hard on the soil) and fish. If they start burning coal instead of wood for cooking they would not have depleted their timber supplies as quickly, this is tricky however is you can't cook with coal like you can wood, you really need ovens, coal smoke mixing with food is not pleasant. They could later adopt timber protection laws the way iceland did. If the greenland colonies had survived even in a weakened state there would have been sustained trade and a flow of further colonists with North America, that could bolster a larger colony like AlexP recommends. As technology improved this would lead to more and more travel and trade with the locals, to the point later European colonization would have been nearly impossible.

Addendum: Recent evidence shows the greenlanders did slowly switch to a seal based diet instead of beef and dairy based but never fish, having this happen earlier may help but they also need to diversify, seal populations were hit hard by the little ice age so having a diet focused on one creature has such vulnerability, having them invent/import net type fishing would be a big help.

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    $\begingroup$ The Norse society in Greenland might not need to be altered so drastically. Just having them trade with the Inuit as they started arriving in the south instead of figuring out that "they bleed well when poked" and never having them stop eating fish, (for some reason they stopped that shortly after arrival) would drastically increase their chances of survival. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Mar 24 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ They stopped because they considered fish poor people food, that was part of the problem beef was the most desirable meat but cows are really hard on soil. They made a lot of money trading walrus ivory and did not have great focus on sustainability. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 24 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Could you point me to a source for that poor people's food reasoning? As far as I'm aware there are several theories concerning the end of fish consumption, but no concrete evidence. The norse starved next to ponds and rivers where fish can be cought with bare hands. (this is not intended as criticism, I'm just interested in the history of Normannic Greenland) $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Mar 25 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDyingOfLight I'm glad you asked the very person who's work I was referencing has changed slightly, Evidence form Igaliku shows the norse were hunting seals extensively but still shows very little evidence of fishing, They still were heavily focused on beef dairy and imports but no as much as previously believed. researchgate.net/profile/Magdalena_Schmid/publication/… $\endgroup$ – John Mar 25 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ Trading with the Inuit requires a drastic change in the norse mindset or a drastic change in the inuit technology. The norse treated the inuit as savages because of the difference in technology, since greenland did not have much of a manufacturing base they would not have had much to trade. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 25 at 14:04

*Clarification - by point of departure I understand departure from our timeline, not some place ships could leave from.

Mound Builders.

Instead of contact only with the hunter / gatherers of the far north, the Vikings come into contact with the sophisticated culture of the Mound Builders at their outpost in Vinland around the year 1000. The Mound Builders have copper technology, agriculture, long distance trade routes and enough surplus population to build the mounds that are their legacy. Perhaps the Mound Builders are there to trade; they encounter the Vikings and recognize an opportunity. As do the Vikings.

The Mound Builders invite the Vikings to visit their lands further south and strike up a productive interaction - just as they appreciated the opportunities offered by France and Ireland (and Italy) the visiting Norsemen find these lands more pleasant than the far north. Additionally the Mound Builders are more civilized and physically more attractive to the Norse than the Inuit were. The Norse are treated respectfully and well by the civilized Mound Builder people. The native Americans realize they have a lot to learn from the vikings and proceed to learn it from the original vikings they encounter as well as those Norsemen who follow, settle, and begin to interbreed over the ensuing 150 years.

Within 2 generations, the coastal Indians who have learned Norse metalworking and shipbuilding tech (and who have begun to breed horses!) have conquered their neighbors and imposed a "Pax Romana" on the formerly squabbling groups of the interior and southerly coast. Population increases during the following prosperity.

  • $\begingroup$ The Mound Building culture was a few thousands kilometers, and then overland, from Newfoundland. The odds the Norse would have gone for a hike for no particular reason that long are minimal, and the closest they could get in longships was present-day Montreal. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 25 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention that the Mound Builders were WEST of the Mississippi. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 26 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey - I am sure you mean EAST of the Mississipi; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mound_Builders#/media/…. In any case, the proposition here is that just as in Imperial Rome one might encounter a trader with Chinese goods and deduce that China exists (and perhaps prompt an expedition to find it), some of the Mound Builder elite encounter a trader with Viking goods and go looking for the source. $\endgroup$ – Willk Mar 26 at 13:56

You need to make the settlement profitable. There are a few products that would make the colonies profitable and, due to this profit, attract more norsemen.

1)Slaves - Norses took part on the muslim slave trade, buying and selling slaves to the muslims. If the norse started selling americans to the muslims, doing a reverse atlantic slave trade, they would profit.

2)Timber - That was what they reported in their journeys in Vinland. Timber is useful to shipbuilding, weapowmaking and furnitures.

3)Furs - The source of Hudson's Bay Company and Quebec's wealth. In the middle ages the european market for furs would be small but the greeks from Byzantium, the arabs in the mediterranean and the traders in Sarmakand could become intersted in high quality furs.

4)Whale Oil - Whale oil is a fuel and lubricant. Whale hunting brought the portuguese all the way to north america in the early age of sail.

The norse would travel from Vinland to Denmark and then to Novgorod. From there they would follow the russian rivers all the way to Constantinople, Northern Persia and the Silk Road.

So, the point of departure would be that the first expedition went with more man, defeated the natives and started selling them as slaves in Alexandria and Fez. Some natives allied with the norse, and, due to these alliances they would discover the furs and increase the flux of slaves.


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