Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 5:23 EDT

Erik The Red

Known as Erik the Red, Erik Thorvaldsson is remembered in medieval and Icelandic saga sources as having founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. The Icelandic tradition signifies that he was born in Rogaland, Norway. The designation “the Red” probably refers to his hair or his beard color. Leif Ericson, the well-known Icelandic explorer, was Erik’s son.

When Erik the Red’s father was exiled from Norway due to manslaughter, he sailed west from Norway accompanied by his family and settled in Hornstrandir in northwestern Iceland. The Icelanders later exiled Erik for three years due to “some killings” he committed around the year 982.

After marrying Thjodhild, he moved to Haukadal and there he built a farm. The initial confrontation occurred when his thralls started a landslide on the neighboring farm that belonged to Valthjof. Jalthjof’s friend, Eyiolf the Foul, murdered the thralls resulting in Erik killing Eyiolf and Holmgang-Hrafn. Eyiolf’s kinsmen ordered his banishment from Haukadal.

Erik then moved to the island of Oxney. He asked Throgest to keep his setstokkr, inherited ornamented beams of significant mystical value, which his father had brought with him from Norway. When he had completed his new house, he went back to get them, but they “could not be obtained”. Erik then went to Breidabolstad and seized them. These are most likely to have been Thorgest’s setstokkr, even though the sagas aren’t clear at this point.

Although popular history gives credit to Erik as the first person to discover Greenland, the Icelandic sagas support that earlier Norsemen discovered and attempted to settle it before him. Tradition credits Gunnbjorn Ulfsson with the initial sighting of the land-mass. Almost a century before Erik, strong winds had driven Gunnbjorn towards a land he called “Gunnbjarnarsker”. But the accidental nature of his discovery has led to his neglect in the history of Greenland. After Gunnbjorn, Snaebjorn Galti had visited Greenland as well. According to records from that time period, Galti headed the first Norse attempt to colonize Greenland, which resulted in disaster. Erik the Red was the first permanent European to settle there.

In this context, about 982, Erik sailed to a rather mysterious and little-known land. He rounded the southern point of the island, later known as Cape Farewell, and sailed up the western coast. Eventually, he reached a part of the coast that, for the most part, seemed free of ice and consequently had conditions – much like those of Iceland – that promised future prosperity and growth. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he spent the three years of his exile exploring this land.

When he returned to Iceland after his exile had expired, he is said to have brought stories of “Greenland”. Erik intentionally gave the land a more appealing name than “Iceland” in order to lure some potential settlers.

After spending the winter in Iceland, he returned to Greenland in 985 with a large group of colonists and established two colonies on its southwest coast. The eastern and western settlements, both established on the southwest coast, proved to be the only two areas that was appropriate for farming. During the summers, when the weather favored travel, each settlement would send an army of men to hunt in Disko Bay above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable supplies such as seals, ivory from the Walrus tusks, and beached whales.

In the eastern settlement, he built the estate Brattahlio, near present-day Narsarsuaq. He held the title of paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both greatly respected and wealthy. The settlement venture involved 25 ships, 14 of which made the journey with success; of the other 11, some of then turned back, while others disappeared at sea.

The settlement prospered, growing to 5,000 inhabitants spread over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. Groups of immigrants escaping overcrowding in Iceland joined the original group. However, one group of immigrants which arrived in 1002 brought an epidemic that devastated the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik himself. Nevertheless, the colony rebounded and survived until the Little Ice Age made the land insignificant for European life-styles in the 15th century. Raids by pirates, conflict with Inuit moving into the Norse territories, and the colony’s abandonment by Norway became other factors in its decline.

Image Caption: Eric the Red (Eiríkur rauði). Woodcut frontispiece from the 1688 Icelandic publication of Arngrímur Jónsson’s Gronlandia (Greenland). Fiske Icelandic Collection. Credit: Arngrímur Jónsson/Wikipedia

Erik The Red