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Erik the Red: The Explorer Who Tamed Greenland

5 min read

Early life couldn’t have been easy for Erik the Red – he certainly didn’t live a glamorous youth before becoming one of the Arctic’s most famous explorers.

Born Erik Thorvaldsson in Rogaland, Norway, he and his family were forced to leave their home country when his father was exiled for committing manslaughter.

Sailing west, they settled in Iceland, where Erik would grow from a boy into a man and where Erik the Red's saga would eventually earn him an exile or two by his own bad deeds.

Most of what we know about Erik today has been passed down over hundreds of years as Nordic and Icelandic folklore such as the Grænlendinga Saga.


Who Was Erik the Red?

Born around 950 AD, Erik earned his moniker as a young man, thanks to his fiery red hair and red beard as well as his bold nature, and fiery temper.

After the death of his father, Erik married Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and relocated his small family from northern Iceland to an area Erik named Eriksstead.

All was well until around 980 AD, when an altercation with a neighbor resulted in the murder of Erik’s servants and, in turn, Erik’s killing of the two men responsible. The last man standing, he was banished and moved his family to the Icelandic island of Oxney.

That wasn’t the end of his troubles, though, not by a long shot - conflict resolution continued to plague Erik. Just two short years later, another altercation resulted in a brawl in which two sons of a man whom Erik had a disagreement with were murdered. Erik was banished for three years.

Erik the Red decided that was enough of Iceland for him, as the story goes, so Erik left and sailed west.

A century before, explorer Gunnbjörn Ulfsson had returned from journeying west of Iceland, telling tales of a large landmass in the cold waters. Around 983 AD, Erik finally reached southern Greenland now known as Tunulliarfik, Greenland.

He spent the next two years exploring the western and northern regions of the island he called The Green Land.

What did Erik the Red discover?

According to Icelandic sagas, it was during his exile from Iceland that Erik discovered Greenland. Erik the Red is credited with discovering Greenland and being the first permanent European settler in the country.

As if that weren’t enough Arctic exploration street cred, Erik also raised remarkable progeny.

Erik's son Leif Eriksson, also known as Leif the Lucky, is believed by some to be the first European to land on the North American continent (before even Christopher Columbus).

Leif is credited as the first Viking to lead ships to Eastern North America, making the family legendary amongst famous explorers.

Early Greenland Exploration

According to the Saga of Erik the Red, the intrepid explorer spent his first winter on the island of Eiriksey and his second in Eiriksholmar. Before Erik returned to Iceland, he explored as far north as Snaefell in the summer.


With his three-year term of exile complete, he sailed home to spread the word about the opportunity this “Greenland" would afford his compatriots.

Erik named the country Greenland hoping it would attract settlers and by 985 AD, he’d convinced more than 400 people to join him in settling this great new land to colonize Greenland and start a new country.

Of the 25 ships that set out from Iceland, only 14 arrived in Greenland – the rest turned back or were lost at sea.

These early people of Greenland established two colonies in the areas best suited for farming: the eastern settlement Eystribyggð and western settlement Vestribyggð. Each of these large settlements numbered between 2,500 and 5,000 people and smaller settlements dotted the landscape between them.

Greenland’s People

In Greenland Erik lived like royalty and enjoyed the title of paramount chieftain. Alongside his wife and four children, including three sons, he surely enjoyed a far better quality of life than he had as a ne’er-do-well who was always on the run.


The family lived in their estate and enjoyed great wealth. Over the years, new community members made the trek from Iceland, often in an attempt to escape its overcrowding.

Tragically, in 1002 AD, one such group brought with them a disease that ravaged the colony. Believed to have survived the scourge, Erik died a few years later (accounts vary as to the actual cause of his death).

Discover Greenland Yourself

Greenland’s inviting fjord landscape and lush summer valleys drew Erik “home,” just as they draw thousands of adventure travelers today.

But don’t take our word for it – see for yourself on expeditions such as Greenland Adventure: Explore by Seas, Land and Air or Essential Greenland: Southern Coasts and Disko Bay.

Photos courtesy of and Quark passengers.

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