Early life couldn’t have been easy for Erik the Red – he certainly didn’t live a glamorous youth before becoming one of the Arctic’s most famous explorers. Born Erik Thorvaldsson in Rogaland, Norway, he and his family were forced to leave their home country when his father was exiled for committing manslaughter. Sailing west, they settled in Iceland, where the boy would grow into a man and eventually earn an exile or two by his own bad deeds.
Most of what we know about Erik today has been passed down over hundreds of years as Nordic and Icelandic folklore. But we do know that over 1,000 years ago, the ferocious explorer was the first to settle wild Greenland and, in fact, was the person who gave the spectacular Arctic island its name.
As if that weren’t enough arctic exploration street cred, Erik also raised remarkable progeny. His son Leif Erikson is believed by some to be the first European to land in North America (before even Christopher Columbus), making the family legendary amongst famous explorers.
Who Was Erik the Red?
Born around 950 AD, Erik would earn his moniker as a young man, thanks to his fiery hair and beard as well as his bold nature. After the death of his father, Erik married Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and relocated his small family from northern Iceland to an area he called Eriksstead. All was well until around 980 AD, when an altercation with a neighbor resulted in the murder of Erik’s servants and, in turn, Erik’s killing of the two men responsible. The last man standing, he was banished and moved his family to the Icelandic island of Oxney.
That wasn’t the end of his troubles, though, not by a long shot. Just two short years later, another altercation resulted in a brawl in which two sons of a man whom Erik had a disagreement with were murdered. Erik was banished for three years.
That was enough of Iceland for him, as the story goes.
A century before, explorer Gunnbjörn Ulfsson had returned from journeying west of Iceland, telling tales of a large landmass in the cold waters. Around 983 AD, Erik finally reached what is now known as Tunulliarfik. He spent the next two years exploring the western and northern regions of the island he called The Green Land.
Early Greenland Exploration
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, the intrepid explorer spent his first winter on the island of Eiriksey and his second in Eiriksholmar. Before returning to Iceland, he visited as far north as Snaefell in the summer.
With his three-year term of exile complete, he sailed home to spread the word about the opportunity this “Greenland” would afford his compatriots. By 985 AD, he’d convinced more than 400 people to join him in settling this great new land.
Of the 25 ships that set out from Iceland, only 14 arrived in Greenland – the rest turned back or were lost at sea. These early people of Greenland established two colonies in the areas best suited for farming: Eystribyggð in the east and Vestribyggð in the west. Each of these large settlements numbered between 2,500 and 5,000 people. Smaller settlements dotted the landscape between them.
In this new land he’d settled, Erik lived like royalty and enjoyed the title of paramount chieftain. Alongside his wife and four children, he surely enjoyed a far better quality of life than he had as a ne’er-do-well who was always on the run. The family lived in their estate and enjoyed great wealth.
Over the years, new community members made the trek from Iceland, often in an attempt to escape its overcrowding. Tragically, in 1002 AD, one such group brought with them a disease that ravaged the colony. Believed to have survived the scourge, Erik died a few years later (accounts vary as to his actual cause of death).
Greenland’s stunning fjords and lush summer valleys drew Erik “home,” just as they draw thousands of adventure travelers today. But don’t take our word for it – see for yourself!
Photos courtesy of encyclopedia.com and Quark passengers