Eric the Red

Eric the Red (active late 10th century), 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.

Further Reading on Eric the Red

The best primary works in English are Sir W. A. Craigie, The Icelandic Sagas (1913), and Gwyn Jones, ed., Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (1961). Farley Mowat, Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (1965), contains the most readable and logical account of Eric; Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (1968), is the most thorough.