Upernavik's history begins about 4,000 years ago, when groups of hunter/gatherers journeyed along the coasts of Alaska, Canada and finally Greenland. The gateway to Greenland at that time was the narrow strait between the Thule region and Ellesmere Island, which those people presumably crossed in the winter. Having reached the coast of Greenland, they now had two choices: either to go south in search of milder regions, which, however, would mean first crossing the ice-filled Melville Bay, or to go north round Greenland. Archaeology is now able to tell us that both routes were taken. In Northeast Greenland there are relics of these nomads in the form of tent rings and small stone tools. These nomads' tent rings are also found in the rest of Greenland, and this culture has been collectively called the Saqqaq culture in West Greenland and Independence I in Northeast Greenland.
After the disappearance of the Saqqaq people (approx. 1000 B.C.) there was another so-called stone-age culture: the Dorset people (Independence II in Northeast Greenland). These were also nomadic hunter/gatherers, who spread all along the coast of Greenland in their search for good hunting territory.
Sadly, there has been very limited archaeological activity in Upernavik, which means that we know very little about these early stone-age cultures.
The situation is somewhat different as regards the Thule culture: although there have only been two organised digs in the municipal authority, there are still many of the earlier winter houses from the Thule culture visible today. On Upernavik Island itself you can walk to some of these sites, or if you go by boat, you can quickly visit several different ones, all bearing witness to large settlements from the 16- and 1700s. The museum staff have just this summer begun a project to collect data on these sites, entering it in a documentary register.
When you read in various history books that Upernavik was founded in 1772, you should bear in mind these earlier inhabitants. The year 1772 marks the opening of the Danish colonial station among the previously existing Greenlanders and thus the shift to a new society.
There were numerous problems during the founding of Upernavik: the Danish colonists suffered from the cold, and periods of starvation were endured by all - not just the Greenlandic population! The account of the colonist who drowned himself in a seal net beneath the ice one dark winter's day is a good illustration of how far starvation, cold and homesickness could drive the Danes.
Neither is it surprising to hear that the colony was abandoned several times by the Danes, who quite literally fled south.
The end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s were very unstable: the shipping service from the south failed, so there was neither food nor commodities, and the climatic conditions made survival a struggle. In 1823 trade was re-established in the district, initially with a trading station under the colony at Godhavn. Upernavik became an independent colony in 1826.
Traditional hunting made up the commercial base for many years. Seals, birds, whales and fish formed the main element of the local people's food, and various creatures were hunted for their skins in order to make clothing. A highly important quarry was the guillemot, which still breeds on two very large cliffs in the municipal authority. Both the eggs and the bird itself were used as food locally, and thus there was a certain resistance when restrictions on egg collection were imposed in the 1920s. To replace these eggs, attempts were made to fish for Greenland halibut, but although there were very good results in some locations, no further initiatives were taken in that direction. Fishing took off in the early1980s, and now Upernavik can no longer really be called a hunter society, but rather a fishing society.