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Erik the Red

c. 950-1004

Icelandic Explorer

First European to land on Greenland, Erik the Red gave that forbidding island its somewhat deceptive name, and founded a European colony there that would remain operative for more than three centuries. His son, Leif Eriksson, launched an even more ambitious expedition from Greenland, to what became known as the New World. The two men rank as the greatest Viking explorers.

Not long after Erik was born, near the Norwegian town of Stavanger, his family had to leave their home and move hundreds of miles west. His father, Thorvald Asvaldsson (Erik's surname was Thorvaldson) had become involved in a blood feud, and had killed a man. As punishment, he and his family were banished to Iceland, which had been settled by Vikings in the 870s.

Growing up in a remote area of western Iceland no doubt helped Erik learn the survival skills that would later stand him in good stead. He did not, however, learn from his father's mistakes: after he grew up, married, and moved to another part of the island, he too became involved in a blood feud, and killed two men. He was therefore banished from Iceland—itself originally a place of banishment—for three years.

Having heard tales of islands to the west of Iceland, and of a larger island beyond those, Erik set sail with a group of other men in 982. After passing the islands, Gunnbjörn's Skerries, he landed on eastern Greenland. The effects of the currents' flow made the island's eastern portion less hospitable than the western half, and Erik soon sailed around the southern tip of Greenland at Cape Farewell before landing on the southwestern coast. There he founded what came to be known as the Eastern Settlement, modern-day Julianehåb or Qaqortoq.

Erik wintered at a place he named Erik's Island; then in the spring of 983 he sailed up what came to be known as Erik's Fjord. After another winter on Greenland's southern tip, he sailed up the eastern coast before spending the winter of 984-985 on Erik's Island. His period of banishment ended, he returned to Iceland. His reappearance seemed to spark the blood feuds again, but this time he appears to have learned from past mistakes, and began promoting colonization of the newly discovered land as a way of getting away from the violence in Iceland. In order to make his discovery sound more hospitable, he gave the large island the somewhat deceptive name of "Greenland."

In 986, Erik set sail for Greenland with 14 ships and nearly 500 people, along with their animals and belongings. He and his family took up residence in the Eastern Settlement, while other colonists established the Western Settlement (near modern-day Godthåb or Nuuk) and another one between the two larger colonies.

By then Erik had three sons, Leif, Thorvald, and Thorsteinn, as well as an illegitimate daughter, Freydis, who married a man named Thorvard. Though Leif was destined to become the most famous of Erik's children, all would play a role in later Norse expeditions to North America.

Set in his ways, the father maintained his belief in the old Norse gods, and took issue with Leif's conversion to Christianity, which occurred around 999. But in 1001 or 1002, when Leif set off for Vinland, as he called North America, it stirred the spirit of adventure in Erik, who hoped to go with him. On his way to the ship, however, Erik fell off his horse, and the resulting leg injury prevented him from making the trip.

Erik died in the winter of 1003-1004, but the settlements he had founded outlasted him by many years. Changing climatic conditions, however, eventually threatened Europeans' livelihood from fishing, and increased ice made ocean travel more difficult. Finally in 1350 the last settlers gave up to the Inuit, Greenland's native inhabitants. It would be more than 200 years before Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594) in 1576 became the next European to set foot on Greenland.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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Erik the Red

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