According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Norsemen from Iceland first settled Greenland in the 980s. Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði), having been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, is said to have explored the uninhabited southwestern coast of Greenland during the three years of his banishment. He made plans to entice settlers to the area, even purposefully choosing the name Greenland to attract potential colonists, saying “that people would be more eager to go there because the land had a good name”. The inner reaches of one long fjord, named Eiriksfjord after him, was where he eventually established his estate Brattahlid. He issued tracts of land to his followers.
According to the Icelandic sagas (“Eirik the Red’s Saga” and the “Saga of the Greenlanders”), the Norse started to explore lands to the west of Greenland only a few years after the Greenland settlements were established. In 985 while sailing from Iceland to Greenland with a migration fleet consisting of 400-700 settlers and 25 other ships (14 of which completed the journey), a merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course, and after three days sailing he sighted land west of the fleet. Bjarni was only interested in finding his father’s farm, but he described his discovery to Leif Ericson who explored the area in more detail and planted a small settlement fifteen years later.
The sagas describe three separate areas discovered during this exploration: Helluland, which means “land of the flat stones”; Markland, “the land of forests”, definitely of interest to settlers in Greenland where there were few trees; and Vinland, “the land of wine” (or as suggested by modern linguists “the land of meadows”), found somewhere south of Markland. It was in Vinland that the settlement described in the sagas was founded. All four of Erik the Red’s children visited the North American continent: his sons Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein and their sister Freydis. Thorvald died there.
Settlements in continental North America aimed to exploit natural resources such as furs and in particular lumber, which was in short supply in Greenland. It is unclear why the short-term settlements did not become permanent, though it was in part because of hostile relations with the indigenous peoples, referred to as Skrælings by the Norse. Nevertheless, it appears that sporadic voyages to Markland for forages, timber, and trade with the locals could have lasted as long as 400 years.
Leif Erikson in your backyard
In honor of Oct. 9, Leif Erikson day, go visit a monument near you!
When evidence of Leif Erikson’s achievement as the first European to reach the shores of North America was discovered in the mid-1800s, memorials, statues and busts were established across North America, and here are our favorites!
The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va. features a Leif Erikson statue, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (American sculptor, 1870-1945) circa 1938.
Evidence of continuing trips includes the Maine Penny, a Norwegian coin from King Olaf Kyrre’s reign (1066-1080), suggesting an exchange between the Norse and the Skrælingar late in or after the 11th century; and an entry in the Icelandic Annals from 1347 which refers to a small Greenlandic vessel with a crew of eighteen that arrived in Iceland while attempting to return to Greenland from Markland with a load of timber.