Who Was Erik the Red?
As a child, Erik the Red left his native Norway for western Iceland with his father. When Erik was exiled from Iceland circa 980, he decided to explore the land to the west (Greenland). He sailed in 982 but was unable to approach the coast because of drift ice. The party rounded the tip of Greenland and settled in an area near Julianehåb. Erik returned to Iceland in 986 and formed a colony. One of Erik the Red's four children was Leif Eriksson.
Most of what is known about Erik Thorvaldsson, or Erik the Red, comes from Nordic and Icelandic sagas. He is believed to have been born in 950 in Rogaland on the southwestern tip of Norway. At age 10, Erik’s father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was exiled for manslaughter, a method of conflict resolution that would become something of a family custom. Asvaldsson settled the family in northwestern Iceland, in the Hornstrandir region.
Legend has it that Erik grew up brazen and volatile, which, when coupled with his flowing red hair and beard, earned him the nickname “Erik the Red.” Sometime after his father died, Erik married Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and moved from northern Iceland and settled in Haukadale, which he called Eriksstead.
A Life of Conflict
Life was good for the family until about 980 when several of Erik’s thralls (servants) accidentally triggered a landslide that crushed his neighbor Valthjof’s house. A kinsman of Valthjof, Eyiolf the Foul, killed Erik’s thralls. In retaliation, Erik killed Eydjiolf and Holmgang-Hrafn, a sometime “enforcer” for the clan. Eyiolf’s kinsmen then demanded Erik be banished from Haukadale, and he moved his family north to the island of Oxney, in the Breioafjord of Iceland.
Around 982, Erik the Red entrusted his setstokkr (large beams with Viking symbols that held mystical value in Nordic pagan religion) to Thorgest, a fellow settler. Later, when he went to reclaim the beams, Thorgest refused to relinquish them. Erik took them and made his way back to his settlement. Fearing retaliation, Erik set up an ambush for Thorgest and his clan. A massive brawl erupted, and two of Thorgest’s sons were killed. The village court met, and once again Erik was banished for manslaughter, this time for three years.
Sailing to Greenland
Having had enough, Erik the Red decided to leave Iceland altogether. He had heard of a large landmass due west of Iceland, discovered nearly 100 years earlier by Norwegian sailor Gunnbjörn Ulfsson. The journey covered approximately 900 nautical miles of open ocean, but the danger was mitigated by the Viking ships’ advanced design and Erik’s superior navigation skills.
Between 982 and 983, Erik the Red rounded the southernmost tip of the large landmass, finally arriving at a fjord now known as Tunulliarfik. From this base, Erik spent the next two years exploring west and north, assigning names to places he visited with derivatives of his name. He believed the land he explored was suitable for raising livestock and named it Greenland, hoping it would sound more enticing to would-be settlers.
Establishing Continuous Settlements
In 985, Erik the Red’s exile sentence had expired and he returned to Iceland. He convinced several hundred people that Greenland held great promise and set out with 25 ships and more than 400 people. Several ships had to turn back or were lost, but 14 arrived, and soon the pilgrims established two colonies, the Eastern Settlement (or Eystribyggð) and the Western Settlement (or Vestribyggð), with a number of small settlements between them. Here, Erik the Red lived like a lord with his wife and four children, sons Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein and daughter Freydis. The settlements are said to have survived a deadly epidemic but never grew to more than 2,500–5,000 people. The colonies eventually died out around the time of Columbus.
Legend states that Erik died soon after the turn of the millennium, possibly due to complications from injuries sustained after falling off a horse.
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