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Erik the Red

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Eric the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson's Gronlandia. Note anachronistic details in his weapons and armor.

Erik the Red ( 950–c. 1003) ( Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði; Icelandic: Eiríkur rauði; Norwegian: Eirik Raude; Faroese: Eirikur (hin) reyði) 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.


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.


Even though popular history credits Erik as the founder of 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, with Erik the Red being the first permanent European settler.

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.

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 favored 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.


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), or Quebec. 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.

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 favoring 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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