Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America: Part 1 – Erik the Red


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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For eons, the Americas were a pristine no man’s land.  Around 12,000 BC, humans first stepped onto the North American continent. But who were they?

The Clovis people
 Beringia Land Bridge. This animation illustrates the flooding of the Bering Land Bridge over the last 18,000. (Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Beringia Land Bridge. This animation illustrates the flooding of the Bering Land Bridge over the last 18,000. (Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

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Approximately 14,000 years ago, humans walked across the Bering Strait from Siberia into Alaska. They were the Clovis people.

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, named after distinct stone tools found at sites near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s. This culture appears at the end of the last glacial period,  roughly  around 13,200.

The Clovis people spent the next few thousand years migrating from Alaska to the south and east across North America, and then into South America.

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Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa, These are from the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist collection.
Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa, These are from the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist collection.

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The manufacture of “Clovis points” and distinctive bone and ivory tools characterize the culture of the Clovis people. They are the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas: the Folsom tradition, Gainey, Suwannee-Simpson, Plainview-Goshen, Cumberland, and Redstone.

At the same time as the Clovis people began leaving behind tools, human bones and other evidence of their presence in the northwest, humans were leaving similar items along the New England coastline in the Northeastern United States. It puzzled the historians. They wondered how the Clovis people could trek from both Alaska and New England at the same time?

The answer – two different cultures discovered America: one crossing the frozen Bering Strait, on foot; and the other traveling from Europe to America’s east coast by boat.

Gunnbjørn Ulfsson

Gunnbjørn Ulfsson (circa 10th century), also known as Gunnbjørn Ulf-Krakuson, a Norwegian, was the first European to sight North America. Blown off course while sailing from Norway to Iceland, GunnbjørnUlfsson and his crew sighted islands which he called “Gunnbjarnarsker”  (Gunnbjörn’s Skerries) lying close off the coast of Greenland. They did not land on any of those islands. However, Gunnbjørn reported this find.

The exact date of this event is not recorded in the Nordic sagas. Various sources cite dates ranging from 876 to 932, but these must remain little more than guesses, but the early 10th century is more likely than earlier.

Around 978, Snaebjörn Galti (c. 910 – 978) made the first purposeful visit to Gunnbjørn’s islands. According to records from the time, this first Norse attempt to colonize Greenland ended in disaster.

Historians consider Eric the Red, the Viking rover, who soon followed Galti’s attempt, as the first permanent European settler in Greenland.

Eric the Red

According to medieval and Icelandic sagas Erik Thorvaldsson (Eiríkr Þorvaldsson) was born in the Jaeren district of Rogaland in Norway around 950.

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Erik the Red, the fierce red-haired Viking discovered Greenland about AD 982. (Source: lookandlearn.com)
Erik the Red, the fierce red-haired Viking discovered Greenland about AD 982. (Source: lookandlearn.com)

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He is best known as Erik the Red (Eiríkr hinn rauði). The appellation “the Red” most likely refers to the color of his hair and beard and perhaps also because of his fiery temper.

Erik’s father Thorvald Asvaldsson (Þorvald Ásvaldsson) was banished from Norway for manslaughter. Thorvald sailed West from Norway with his family and settled in Hornstrandir in northwestern Iceland, 175 miles away from Greenland.

Erik married Thorhild (Thjóðhildr), daughter of Jorund Atlisson, and as part of her dowry received land at Eriksstadir in Haukadal where he built a farm.

Around the year 980, the thralls (serfs or slaves) of Erik caused a landslide on the neighboring farm belonging to Valthjof. The landslide buried the home of Valthjof along with him and his family. Eyiolf the Foul, a kinsman of Valthjof in turn killed the thralls. Eric retaliated by killing Eyjolf and Holmgang-Hrafn. Eyjolf’s kinsmen demanded the banishment of Erik from Haukadal.

The Vikings cherished the ornamental beams which were symbols of Viking authority and had religious, mystical, and political significance known as the setstokkr. Erik had inherited his setstokkr which his father had brought with him from Norway. After giving this setstokkr to his friend Thorgest (Þórgestr) to look after, Erik and Thorhild moved to the isle of Öxney off the western Icelandic coast.

After building his new house, Erik went back to Haukadal to get his setstokkr. Thorgest refused to give them back. An infuriated Erik went to Breidabolstad and stole Thorgest’s own setstokkr instead.

Thorgest gave chase. Erik prepared an ambush. In the ensuing skirmish, Erik slew both sons of Thorgest and a few other men.

Thorgest approached the court.

In 981, the thing (Þing), assembly of Thorness resolved the dispute. Erik was banished from both Iceland and Norway, for three years.

Colonizing Greenland

Erik the Red had heard about the “Greater Ireland” settlements in Greenland, a small, unprotected Irish settlement in Greenland.

In the spring of 981 he traveled westward in his 100-foot-long ship. It was not a romantic voyage with the urge to discover new lands. It was rather a typical Viking voyage of plunder.

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An illustration by Carl Rasmussen of Erik the Red on a Viking longboat as he and his men from Norway first land on what became Greenland in 982 AD (MansellGetty Images)
An illustration by Carl Rasmussen of Erik the Red on a Viking longboat as he and his men from Norway first land on what became Greenland in 982 AD (MansellGetty Images)

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Erik’s party landed near Julianehåb. They arrived too late to reap the reward, for the Irish settlers had already left and mere arctic desolation greeted them.

They spent the first winter on the island of Eiriksey. In spring, he proceeded to Eriksfjord (Eiríksfjǫrðr). They spent the second winter in Eiriksholmar, close to Hvarfsgnipa.

According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Erik spent his three years of exile exploring this land. In the last summer, they explored as far north as Snaefell and into Hrafnsfjord. They even crossed the Davis Strait and reached Baffin Island, then abundant with game.

Erik was much impressed with the resources he found in the land. He was convinced that the new land was better adapted than Iceland for raising stock.

In 985, Erik returned to Iceland after the expiry of his exile period. He wanted to found a colony in the new land he had found. He knew that the success of any settlement in the new land would need the support of as many people as possible.

Erik had great powers of persuasion. He was always boasting and praising the new land he had returned from. To lure potential settlers, Erik on purpose called the land “Greenland” which was a more appealing name than “Iceland”. Many Vikings, especially those living on impoverished lands in Iceland and those that had been victims of a recent famine became convinced that Greenland held great opportunity.

The following year Erik set out from Iceland leading a fleet of 25 ships on course for Greenland. On board were around 500 men and women, various livestock, provisions and gear required to found the settlement in Greenland.

Of the 25 ships only 14 made it to the eastern shore of Greenland – of the other 11, some sank while others turned back to Iceland.

Each sea-captain claimed a fjord to which he gave his name.

Erik the Red and his wife Thorhild took the best fjord. They called it Eriksfjord (Eiríksfjǫrðr). They built the farm Brattahlið near its head (in present-day Qassiarsuk). Here, Erik lived like a Jarl (lord) with his wife and four children: Leif Erikson, Thorvald (Þorvaldr) Eiriksson, Thorstein (Þorsteinn) Eiriksson, and an illegitimate daughter, Freydis Eiríkssdóttir.

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A farm house in Greenland (Source: bestof.fjordnorway.com)
A farm-house in Greenland (Source: bestof.fjordnorway.com)

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Along one side of Eriksfjord was much good pasture. The farm Brattahlið lay on one of the most fertile plains in Greenland. Another large green valley lay behind it.

Erik the Red held the title of the paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both much respected, and wealthy.

Both the Eastern Settlement (the area around present-day Qaqortoq, formerly Julianehåb) and the Western Settlement (around Nuuk or Godthåb, the capital and largest city of Greenland) were presumably established soon.

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The Eastern Settlement, Greenland (Source: archaeology.about.com)
The Eastern Settlement, Greenland (Source: archaeology.about.com)

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The Eastern Settlement was about 300 miles south of the Western Settlement. Located near the mouth of Eiriksfjord in the area of Qaqortog, the Eastern Settlement had about 200 farmsteads and supporting facilities.

During the summers, when the weather favored travel, each fjord-based settlement would send an army of men to hunt in Iss Vagr above the Arctic Circle. They hunted  food and other valuable commodities such as seals, Walrus tusks and meat from beached whales. In these expeditions, they first met the Inuit people or Skræling.

The settlement flourished, growing to 5000 inhabitants spread over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. Groups of people escaping overcrowding in Iceland migrated to Greenland.

In 1002, a group of immigrants brought with it an epidemic that ravaged the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik the Red.

The Norse colony in Greenland lasted for almost 500 years.

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Next → Part 2 – Leif Erikson

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