Erik the Red

Explorer

Medieval

Quick Facts:

Erik the Red was the first European to land on and settle in Greenland.

Name: Erik Thorvaldsson

Birth/Death: 950 CE - 1004 CE

Nationality: Norseman

Birthplace: Norway

Erik the Red

Erik the Red

Erik the Red (Eiríkur rauði). Woodcut frontispiece from the 1688 Icelandic publication of Arngrímur Jónsson's Gronlandia (Greenland). Fiske Icelandic Collection.

Early Life

It was his flowing red hair that turned Erik Thorvaldson into Erik the Red. Born in 950 BCE, Erik was the son of Thorvald Asvaldson (Osvaldson) and grandson of Osvald. It was Osvald who started a not-so-honorable family tradition when he was accused of murder. His son (and Erik’s father), Thorvald, was exiled from Norway in the aftermath of a killing when Erik was about ten years old; they went to a place called Hornstrands in northern Iceland. At the time, Iceland was already well settled. When Thorvald died, Erik married a woman named Thjodhild and moved from northern Iceland to an area called Hawkdale. There he cleared land and built a home he dubbed Eriksstead. Life was good until Erik’s slaves caused an accidental landslide that crushed a neighbor’s house, and the neighbor’s relative killed the hapless slaves. In revenge—and following family tradition—Erik killed the man, known as Eyolf the Filthy and another man, Raven the Fighter. Eyolf’s relatives prosecuted Erik for the killing and he was banished from Hawkdale. In frustration, Erik seized control of two small islands at the mouth of the fjord and on one he built a second farm, also calling it Eriksstead.

While on his isolated island property, Erik agreed to loan a neighbor named Thorgest some decorative timbers needed for construction of a house. When he sought the return of his valuable timbers, Thorgest refused to give them back. Erik engaged in a fight with his new neighbors, ultimately resulting in the deaths of some of Thorgest’s family members, most likely two of his sons. A court session was called to judge the guilt or innocence of the parties involved. Erik and Thorgest each had his supporters, and there was a huge crowd attending the judgment. In the event he was found guilty, Erik had prepared a ship for a quick get-away. Sure enough, the judgment came back against him, but rather than make use of his get-away ship, his friends successfully hid him from his pursuers.

Voyages

In 982 BCE, Erik decided to start fresh somewhere else and sailed away for the lands west of Iceland. These lands had first been sighted by sailor Gunnbjorn Ulfsson who had been blown off course during a voyage. This wasn’t as dangerous as it might have been because Viking ships of the time were marvels of technology and the Norsemen, like Erik, were brave, hardy folk, strong enough to cross the North Atlantic in open boats. There were two different types of ship, the longship, which was used primarily for warfare, and the knorr, a ship used for trade and commerce. On vessels like these, the Vikings were able to navigate the waters of the North Atlantic 500 years before the first voyage of Christopher Columbus.

During the winter of 982 CE – 983 CE, Erik the Red spent his time on an island located off the coast of Greenland which he named Eiriksey. This name translates to “Erik’s Island.” In the spring of 983 CE, he headed to a neighboring fjord, or inlet, which he also named after himself, dubbing it Eiriksfjord. During the summer, Erik and his men explored uninhabited lands to the west and gave names to the different tracts they visited, all starting with “Erik.” He spent the following winter of 983 CE – 984 CE on the southern tip of Greenland. That spring he sailed back up the east coast, only to return to Eiriksey the following winter. Shortly thereafter, Erik’s exile ended and he sailed back around Cape Farewell to return to Iceland in the summer of 985 CE. In total, Erik the Red had sailed over six thousand miles in only four sailing seasons, making it one of the greatest maritime feats achieved during the medieval period.

The next spring, 986 BCE, Erik and his neighbor Thorgest once again became embroiled in a bitter fight. Losing again to Thorgest, Erik managed to declare a truce with his former neighbor. That summer Erik sailed from Iceland to establish a colony in the new land he had found. It was Erik who called the new land Greenland, hoping to lure more people with the attractive name. He made claims of vast natural resources and plentiful game. Seals, whales, walrus, bears and abundant fish were all part of the riches awaiting the potential colonists. Writers of the time claimed that twenty-five ships left Iceland that summer, all bound for Greenland. Navigating using a marked stone to measure the position of the sun from the horizon, they were able to follow a latitude line straight toward the east coast of southern Greenland. Unfortunately, only fourteen of those ships reached their destination; some were driven back to Iceland by weather and some were wrecked. The ships transported over four hundred people along with household goods and domesticated animals. On this second voyage, Erik the Red made a home for himself and his family at Brattahlid, located in Eiriksfjord. The territory known as the Western Settlement was located approximately one-hundred and eighty miles farther north up the coast. A string of smaller settlements were spread out between the Eastern and Western Settlements.

Legacy

Erik the Red is honored for his discovery and settlement of Greenland. Erik’s son, the famed explorer Leifr Eiriksson, would go on to become the first European to arrive in North America.