Erik The Red and Leif Eriksson


Erik The Red

Erik the Red was born in Norway near the town of Stavanger. His father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, became involved in a blood feud and killed a man. As was usual for the time, he was sentenced to exile in Iceland, which had first been settled by the Norwegians starting in the 870s. The family moved to a remote part of western Iceland. After he was grown and married, Erik moved to another part of Iceland where he too became involved in a blood feud and killed two of his enemy's sons. As punishment, he was banished overseas for a period of three years.

Erik had heard about the voyages of a man named Gunnbjörn Ulfsson who had found a group of small islands west of Iceland and said that he had seen a much larger land beyond that. Erik announced that he was going in search of Ulfsson's land. With a group of retainers he sailed due west from the peninsula called Snaefellsnes in the year 982. He sighted Gunnbjörn's Skerries, thought to be off Cape Dan in eastern Greenland near the modern town of Angmagssalik, and then touched land on the shore of eastern Greenland at a place he named Midjökull (Middle Glacier).

Because of the way the currents flow, eastern Greenland has a much harsher environment than western Greenland, and Erik did not linger where he first landed. He sailed south down the coast and rounded the southern tip at Cape Farewell. He landed along the southwest coast at an area that was to become known as the Eastern Settlement (Eystribygd, in the region of modern Julianehâb or Qaqortoq). He spent the winter on an island he named "Erik's Island." The next spring (983) he sailed up the nearby fjord that he also named after himself. The next winter he spent on the southern tip of Greenland and then sailed up the east coast in the spring of 984. He returned to spend the following winter on Erik's Island.

By this time, the term of Erik's banishment from Iceland was complete. He sailed around the southern tip of Greenland and returned safely to Breidafjörd in Iceland in the summer of 985. On his return, the blood feud with his neighbors started up again. Erik then began to promote the colonization of his new found land, calling it "Greenland," thinking that would make it more appealing. He left Iceland in 986 with 14 ships that carried 400-500 people as well as domestic animals and household goods.

Erik settled at a place he named Brattahlid (now a trading station named Qagssiarssuk) at the head of Erik's Fjord, which became the center of the Eastern Settlement. The Western Settlement (around present-day Godthâb or Nuuk) was about 180 miles farther up the coast. There was a smaller settlement between the Eastern and Western Settlements.

In the year 999 Erik's son, Leif Eriksson, pioneered the first direct route to Norway from Greenland. While in Norway, Leif converted to Christianity and brought back the first missionary with him to Greenland. This did not please Erik, who remained true to the old Viking religion. When Leif made his trip to Vinland in 1001 or 1002, Erik wanted to go with him but fell off his horse on the way to the ship and injured his leg.

Erik died sometime during the winter of 1003-1004. Ironically, he was buried on the grounds of what became the Christian cathedral at Brattahlid. He left behind three sons--Leif, Thorvald, and Thorsteinn--and an illegitimate daughter named Freydis, noted for her disputatious manner. She married a man named Thorvard, and they became the richest but least popular couple in the Greenland settlement.

The Norse Greenland settlements prospered for a while, but then they were afflicted by a changing climatic pattern that made the weather much colder and no longer suitable for European farming practices. The increased ice in the ocean also made communication with Iceland more difficult. The last recorded voyage between Iceland and Greenland was made in 1410, although it is probable that there were some later trips. The Inuit advancing from the north are thought to have overwhelmed the Western Settlement around 1350. The last Norsemen in the Eastern Settlement probably disappeared sometime in the early 16th century. By the time saw the coast of Greenland in 1576, the former European population had disappeared.


Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson was born in Iceland in the late 970s. He was the son of Erik the Red  who founded the Norse settlement in Greenland. Eriksson moved with his family to Greenland in 985 or 986, settling at a place called Brattahlid on the southwest corner of the island along the Eiriksfjord.

Eriksson is said in the Icelandic sagas to be "tall and strong and very impressive in appearance. He was a shrewd man and always moderate in behavior."

In the Icelandic saga called Erik the Red's Saga, written sometime after 1250, Eriksson is credited with bringing Christianity to Greenland and with being the first European to see North America. This version is no longer accepted as true. Greater weight is now given to the more complicated series of events related in the Greenlanders' Saga, written in about 1200.

According to this saga, North America was first sighted by Bjarni Herjolfsson who was driven off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland in 985 or 986. However, he did not go ashore. Eriksson, who was the first Norseman to make the direct voyage from Norway to Greenland, decided to follow up on Herjolfsson's sightings and sailed west.

Eriksson left Greenland with a crew of 35 in 1001. He landed first at a place that he named Helluland, "the Land of Flat Stone," which is thought to be on the southern end of Baffin Island. From there he went to "Markland" (Forest Land) which is considered to be somewhere on the coast of Labrador. He then landed on an unnamed island, which is possibly Belle Isle in the Strait of Belle Isle that separates Labrador from the island of Newfoundland. "There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted."

Eriksson and his companions reached Vinland (the land of the vine or Wineland or, possibly, pastureland) in the fall of 1001. They landed at the mouth of a river on the west of a large peninsula of land pointing north. They followed the river upstream to a lake. This was the only geographical description given of Vinland, but the astronomical readings show that it was south of Greenland. From the description given, the site could be that of L'Anse aux Meadows on the northeastern tip of Newfoundland, where remains of a Norse settlement were found in the 1960s. The expedition spent the winter in Vinland and built several dwellings at a place they named Leifrsbudir (Leif's Booths). They then returned to Greenland in the spring of 1002 with a supply of timber and "grapes."

The year following Eriksson's voyage, in 1003, his brother Thorvald returned to Leifrsbudir. He spent the winter of 1003-1004 there. The next spring and summer he went exploring in Vinland, which he found to be beautiful and well-wooded. He went back to Leifrsbudir to spend the winter of 1004-1005 and then headed north to Markland the following spring. There, the Norsemen encountered and clashed with a group of Native Americans, whom they called "Skraelings." Thorvald was killed by an arrow. His crew went back to Leifsbudir to spend the winter and then sailed back to Greenland in 1006.