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Eric the Red
active late 10th century
 


Eric the Red, Viking rover and founder of the first Scandinavian settlement in Greenland, was one of the early Viking explorers of North America.
 

 

Born in Norway about 950, Eric Thorvaldsson, who is known as Eric the Red, left that country as a child when his father, Thorvald, was exiled to Iceland. The family settled in the western part of the island, where Greenland could be seen 175 miles away. He married Thorhild, daughter of Jorund Atlisson, and probably as part of her dowry received land at Eriksstadir in Haukadale. His thralls caused a landslide to overwhelm the home of Valthiof and his family, whose kinsman Eyjolf in turn slew the thralls. In retaliation Eric killed Eyjolf and as a result was banished from Haukadale.

Eric retired to an island, leaving with Thorgest his diasposts, which were Viking symbols of authority and had religious significance. On Eric's return Thorgest refused to surrender them so Eric stole them. Knowing he would be pursued, he prepared an ambush for Thorgest in which the pursuer's sons were killed. Thorgest went to court, and the Thorness Thing in 981 outlawed Eric in Iceland and Norway for 3 years.

Having purchased a boat for such a contingency, Eric decided upon a typical Viking voyage of plunder. He had heard about the "Greater Ireland" settlements in Greenland; in the spring of 981 he steered his 100-foot-long ship westward. His was hardly a voyage based on a romantic urge to discover new lands.

Eric landed in the area of Julianehaab, but the group arrived too late to reap a full reward, for the Irish settlers had left. The first winter was spent at Eric's Island near the middle of the "eastern settlements," and the next spring he proceeded to Eriksfjord. During subsequent summers explorations were made on the western side of the island as far north as Snaefells; the Davis Strait was crossed to Baffin Island, then abundant with game. Eric returned to Iceland in 985 convinced that Greenland, more clement than now, was better adapted for stock raising than Iceland.

The next year Eric set out to found a settlement in Greenland. About 14 ships out of 25 arrived with about 350 colonists, plus livestock and gear. They settled on the eastern shore. Each sea captain claimed a fjord to which he gave his name, Eric dwelling at Brattahlid in Eriksfjord. Here he lived like a jarl (lord) with his wife and four children. The latter included sons Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein and an illegitimate daughter, Freydis. All four explored North America.

Leif brought Christianity to Greenland in 998, but Eric remained true to his pagan gods. He became estranged from his wife, who accepted the new faith and built at Brattahlid the first church in Greenland. In 999 at odds with both wife and son Leif, Eric attempted unsuccessfully a trip to Leif's Vinland with his son Thorstein the Unlucky. They failed to reach Newfoundland, but as the doughty Eric said, "We were more cheerful when we put out of the fjord in the summer; but at least we are still alive, and it might have been worse." He is last mentioned in the sagas in 1005.
 


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Erik the Red (950–c. 1003) founded the first Nordic settlement in Greenland. Born in the Jæren district of Rogaland, Norway as the son of Þorvaldr Ásvaldsson (Thorvald Asvaldsson), he therefore also appears, patronymically, as Erik Thorvaldsson (or as Eiríkr Þorvaldsson). The appellation "the Red" most likely refers to his hair colour.


Exiles

Erik the Red's parents had to flee Norway because of "some killings" as The Saga of Eric the Red recounts. The family settled in western Iceland. The Icelanders later sentenced Erik to a three-year exile for several murders around the year 982. According to The Saga of Eirik the Red, his neighbour Thorgest borrowed a shovel and when it did not come back to Erik, he sought an explanation. When Thorgest refused to return it, Erik stole the shovel back. In the ensuing chase, he killed Thorgest. A second crime laid at Erik's door occurred when he insisted upon revenge for the deaths of his slaves who had "accidentally started a landslide" on Valthjof's farm. Valthjof murderously punished the slaves for this misfortune. Erik did not take kindly to this and so slew Valthjof. The Icelanders eventually convicted Erik of these murders and banished him from Iceland. This event led him and a group of followers to travel to the lands nearly 500 miles west of Iceland.


Discoveries

Even though popular history credits Erik as the first person to find Greenland, earlier Norsemen both discovered and tried to settle it before him. Tradition credits Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (also known as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson) with the first sighting of the land-mass. Nearly a century earlier, strong winds had driven Gunnbjörn towards a land he called "Gunnbjarnarsker" ("Gunnbjörn's skerries"). But the accidental nature of Gunnbjörn's discovery has led to his neglect in the history of Greenland. After Gunnbjörn, Snaebjörn Galti had also visited Greenland. According to records from the time, Galti headed the first Norse attempt to colonize Greenland, an attempt that ended in disaster. Erik the Red was the first permanent European settler.

In this context, about 982, Erik sailed to a somewhat mysterious and little-known land. He rounded the southern tip of the island (later known as Cape Farewell) and sailed up the western coast. He eventually reached a part of the coast that, for the most part, seemed ice-free and consequently had conditions—similar to those of Iceland—that promised growth and future prosperity. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he spent his three years of exile exploring this land. He named this land "Greenland" because he wanted to attract other people to it. The first winter he spent on the island of Eiriksey, the second winter he passed in Eiriksholmar (close to Hvarfsgnipa). In the final summer he explored as far north as Snaefell and in to Hrafnsfjord.

When Erik returned to Iceland after his term of banishment had expired, he brought with him stories of "Greenland". Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than "Iceland" in order to lure potential settlers. He explained, "people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name". Ultimately, though, he did this to gain favour among people, as he knew that the success of any settlement in Greenland would need the support of as many people as possible. His salesmanship proved successful, as many people (especially "those Vikings living on poor land in Iceland" and those that had suffered a "recent famine") became convinced that Greenland held great opportunity.

After spending the winter in Iceland, Erik returned to Greenland in 985 with a large number of colonists and established two colonies on its southwest coast: the Eastern Settlement or Eystribyggð, in modern-day Qaqortoq, and the Western Settlement or Vestribyggð, close to present-day Nuuk. (Eventually, a Middle Settlement grew up, but many people suggest this settlement formed part of the Western Settlement.) The Eastern and Western Settlements, both established on the southwest coast, proved the only two areas suitable for farming. During the summers, when the weather conditions favoured travel more, each settlement would send an army of men to hunt in Disko Bay above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seals (used for rope), ivory from tusks, and beached whales (if they had good luck). In these expeditions, they probably encountered the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who had not yet moved into southern Greenland.


Eystribyggð

In Eystribyggð, Erik built the estate Brattahlíð, near present-day Narsarsuaq, for himself. He held the title of paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both greatly respected and wealthy. The settlement venture involved twenty-five ships, fourteen of which made the journey successfully; of the other eleven, some turned back, while others disappeared at sea.

The settlement flourished, growing to 5000 inhabitants spread over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. Groups of immigrants escaping overcrowding in Iceland joined the original party. However, one group of immigrants which arrived in 1002 brought with it an epidemic that ravaged 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 marginal for European life-styles in the 15th century (shortly before Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Canary Islands in 1492). Pirate raids, conflict with Inuit moving into the Norse territories, and the colony's abandonment by Norway became other factors in its decline.


Erik's descendants

History records that Erik and his wife Þjóðhildr (Thjodhildr) had four children: a daughter, Freydís, and three sons, the explorer Leif Eiríksson, Þorvald (Thorvald) and Þorsteinn (Thorstein). Erik himself remained a follower of Norse paganism, unlike his son Leif and Leif's wife, who built the first Christian church in the Americas on their farm. (Despite speculation, it seems unlikely that Leif pioneered the introduction of Christianity to Greenland.)

While not the first to sight the North American continent, Leif Erikson became the first Viking to explore the land of Vinland (part of North America in modern-day Newfoundland). Leif invited his father on the voyage, but according to legend Erik fell off his horse on his way to the ship and took this as a bad sign, leaving his son to continue without his company. Erik died the winter after his son's departure. Leif was unaware of his father's death until he got back to Greenland.


Norse settlement in Greenland

For much of the time that the Norse survived in Greenland, they had a very tough life that demanded finding a balance between maintaining population-levels and finding enough food and supplies to survive. Most of the time they had just enough supplies to continue their societies. Despite the Norse settlers' constant struggle, at Norse Greenland's peak at c. 1126 the inhabitants numbered between 2000 and 4000. The Eastern Settlement had around "190 small farms, 12 parish churches, a cathedral, an Augustinian monastery and a Benedictine nunnery". Even though smaller than the Eastern Settlement, the Western Settlement still had "90 farms and four churches", while the smallest Middle Settlement had only around "20 farms". Despite enjoying what some might consider a reasonable amount of time on Greenland in conjunction with varying times of successes and failures, the Norse settlement in Greenland did not last more than 500 years. Jared Diamond gives a rationale for this, as have others. He presents a five-step process that explains the collapse of civilizations and offers Greenland as an example of this process.

The Norse had found a "virgin" piece of land that they altered in ways they believed would bring the greatest reward but which in fact damaged their environment. Then too, they had become separated from their kin in Europe for so long that most of their friendships and alliances had fallen away, hurting some of their trading and eventual protection; political changes in Europe hastened this process. Perhaps more significantly, a change in climate in the North Atlantic led to an increase in sea-ice, making communication with Europe difficult, and favouring migrations of the Inuit from northern Greenland to the south and to regular contact with the Norse, leading to violence between the races. Finally, and most importantly, the Norse failed to adapt fully to their surroundings. They clung too much to familiar ways of living that proved ultimately unsuitable in Greenland.

Despite the apparent failure of the Norse Greenland colonies, they mark one of the great achievements in Norse expansion and exploration.

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008