Erik the Red: Bold Scandinavian Explorer

Erik the Red
Public Domain

Erik Thorvaldson (also spelled Eric or Eirik Torvaldsson; in Norwegian, Eirik Raude). As the son of Thorvald, he was known as Erik Thorvaldson until he was dubbed "the Red" for his red hair.

Notable Accomplishment

Founding the first European settlement on Greenland.



Places of Residence and Influence


Important Dates

Born: c. 950

Died: 1003


Much of what scholars understand about Erik's life comes from Eirik the Red's Saga, an epic tale written by an unknown author in the mid-13th century. 

Erik was born in Norway to a man named Thorvald and his wife and was thus known as Erik Thorvaldsson. He was given the name "Erik the Red" because of his red hair; although later sources attribute the moniker to his fiery temper, there is no clear evidence of this. When Erik was still a child, his father was convicted of manslaughter and exiled from Norway. Thorvald went to Iceland and took Erik with him.

Thorvald and his son lived in western Iceland. Not long after Thorvald died, Erik married a woman named Thjodhild, whose father, Jorund, may have provided the land that Erik and his bride settled on in Haukadale (Hawkdale). It was while he was living at this homestead, which Erik named Eriksstadr (Erik's farm), that his thralls (servants) caused a landslide that damaged the farm belonging to his neighbor Valthjof. A kinsman of Valthjof, Eyjolf the Foul, killed the thralls. In retaliation, Erik killed Eyjolf and at least one other man.

Rather than escalate a blood feud, Eyjolf's family instituted legal proceedings against Erik for these killings. Erik was found guilty of manslaughter and banished from Hawkdale. He then took up residence further north (according to Eirik's Saga, "He occupied then Brokey and Eyxney, and dwelt at Tradir, in Sudrey, the first winter.") 

While building a new homestead, Erik lent what were apparently valuable pillars for seat-stocks to his neighbor, Thorgest. When he was ready to claim their return, Thorgest refused to give them up. Erik took possession of the pillars himself, and Thorgest gave chase; fighting ensued, and several men were killed, including two sons of Thorgest. Once again legal proceedings took place, and once again Erik was banished from his home for manslaughter.

Frustrated with these legal wranglings, Erik turned his eyes westward. The edges of what turned out to be an enormous island were visible from the mountaintops of western Iceland, and the Norwegian Gunnbjörn Ulfsson had sailed near the island some years earlier, though if he'd made landfall it's not recorded. There was no doubt that there was some kind of land there, and Erik determined to explore it himself and determine whether or not it could be settled. He set sail with his household and some livestock in 982.

The direct approach to the island was unsuccessful, due to drift ice, so Erik's party continued on around the southern tip until they came to present-day Julianehab. According to Eirik's Saga, the expedition spent three years on the island; Erik roved far and wide and named all the places he came to. They didn't encounter any other people. They then went back to Iceland to convince others to return to the land and establish a settlement. Erik called the place Greenland because, he said, "men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name."

Erik succeeded in convincing many colonists to join him on a second expedition. 25 ships set sail, but only 14 ships and about 350 people landed safely. They did establish a settlement, and by about the year 1000 there were approximately 1,000 Scandinavian colonists there. Unfortunately, an epidemic in 1002 reduced their number considerably, and eventually, Erik's colony died out. However, other Norse settlements would survive until the 1400s, when communications mysteriously ceased for more than a century.

Erik's son Leif would lead an expedition to America around the turn of the millennium.

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Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "Erik the Red: Bold Scandinavian Explorer." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, February 16). Erik the Red: Bold Scandinavian Explorer. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Erik the Red: Bold Scandinavian Explorer." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 7, 2022).