Erik the Red

From Academic Kids

Erik the Red (9501003; old Icelandic: Eiríkr Rauði; Norwegian; Eirik Raude; sometimes Eric the Red), so-called because of his red hair and beard (perhaps even because of his surly temper) was the founder of the first Nordic settlement in Greenland (long before it had been named Greenland, it had perhaps been inhabited by the Dorset people). Born in the Jaeder district of south-west Norway, he was the son of Þorvaldr Ásvaldsson (Thorvald Asvaldsson), and was therefore also called, patronymically, Erik Torvaldsson (or Eiríkr Þorvaldsson).

In about 960, Erik's father was forced to flee Norway because of "some killings," as The Saga of Eric the Red recounts. The family settled in a Norse colony on the coast of Iceland. However, like father like son, Erik was exiled from Iceland for several murders around the year 982. According to The Saga of Eric the Red, his neighbor Thorgest had borrowed a few wooden bench boards and when they had not been returned to Erik, he sought out an explaination. Embarrassed by Erik's visit, Throgest began a fight, during which Erik killed Thorgest's two sons. The second murder Erik was held accountable for had occurred when Erik 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 was convicted of these murders and was forced into exile from Iceland. This event led him and a group of follwers to travel to the lands nearly 500 miles west of Iceland- lands that had supposedly been explored by Gunnjborn. Nearly a century earlier, Gunnbjorn had been swayed by harsh winds towards a land he called "Gunnbjarnarsker" ("Gunnbjörn's skerries"). Gunnbjorn's accidental discovery pushed him aside in the history of Greenland and Erik the Red has been dubbed the genuine discoverer.

Erik traveled southward from the tip of the island, soon to be called Cape Farewell and continued downward after having been discouraged to have found an area that was apparently too "formidable and uninviting." Eventually he reached a land with fair conditions similar to those of Norway that promised growth and prosperity. According to The Saga of Erik the Red, he spent his three years of exile exploring the coast of this land. When Erik returned to Iceland after his term of banishment, he brought with him stories of "Groenland" (Greenland). Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than Iceland to lure potential settlers. He explained, "men would be much more eager to go there if the land had an attractive name." His salesmanship proved successful as many people (especially "those Vikings living on poor land in Iceland" and those that had suffered a "recent famine") were convinced that Greenland held great opportunity. In 985, after spedning a winter back in Iceland, Erik returned to Greenland with a large number of colonists and established two colonies on its west coast: the Eastern Settlement, which he named Eystribyggð and the Western Settlement, Vestribyggð (around Nuuk). The Eastern and Western Settlements, which were actually situated in the north and the south, proved to be the only two areas suitable for farming. During the summer when the weather conditions were more conducive to travel, each settlement would send a band of men to hunt in Disko Bay for food and other valuable commodities such as seal (used for rope), ivory from tusks, and beached whales if they happened to be so lucky.

In Eystribyggð, he built the estate Brattahlíð, near what is now Narsarsuaq, for himself. His title was that of paramount chieftain of Greenland and there Erik was 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 were lost at sea.

The settlement flourished, growing to over 3000 inhabitants; the original party was joined by groups of immigrants escaping overcrowding in Iceland. However, one group of immigrants that arrived in 1002 brought with it an epidemic that decimated the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik in the winter of 1003. Nevertheless, the colony was able to bounce back and survived until the Little Ice Age finally wiped it out in the 15th century, shortly before Christopher Columbus made his fateful journey.

As far as is known, Erik and his wife, Þjóðhildr (Thorhild), had four children. He had a daughter, Freydís, as well as three sons, the explorer Leif Eiríksson (Leif the Lucky), Þorvald (Throvald) and Þorsteinn (Thorstein). He was a pagan, unlike his son Leif and wife who built the first Christian church in the Americas on their farm (though it has been speculated, it is unlikely that Leif was the first to bring Christianity to Greenland). His son Leif was the first Viking to explore the land of Vinland (North America). 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. He may have been converted by his wife Þjóðhildr while on his deathbed.

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