The red-haired, red-bearded Viking, Eric the Red (Erik Thorvaldsson), may well be the greatest public relations genius the world will ever see. His said, “Men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.” What land was he talking about?
Eric was born in a violent time and place. Vikings never wore horned helmets but they gave us the word berserk – suddenly ripping off your serkr (animal fur tunic) and going on a bloody rampage. Even in that environment, Eric the Red’s father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was so unpredictable that his fellow Vikings banished him. Eric was 10.
The family moved to Iceland, where there was a Norse settlement. Eric grew up and married, but he got into trouble when his thralls (slaves) caused a landslide on his neighbor’s property. The neighbor killed the thralls. Eric retaliated, killing the neighbor’s workers. His punishment? Banishment from Iceland for two years. In 982, Eric was banished again, this time for three years.
That was enough. Eric took his wife and four kids (one of his sons grew up to be explorer Leif Ericsson) and headed out to sea, toward the setting sun. He had heard there was land out there. After a journey of some 900 miles, they came to a forbidding, frozen land where they could not even land their boats. They finally found a place to go ashore. Eric aptly named this land Middle Glacier, saying, “At least we are still alive, and it might have been worse.”
In 986, Eric renamed Middle Glacier, calling it Greenland. He returned to Iceland to tell people how wonderful Greenland was. Some 400 brave souls loaded their belongings and their livestock into 25 boats and followed Eric; 14 made it. They established a small settlement they called Eystribyggo, building houses and barns from of the plentiful stones that covered the ground and settled in with their cattle they had brought with them from Iceland and began raising crops.
Eric may have been a victim of his own success. His recruitment effort worked so well that about 5,000 people came from “overcrowded” Iceland, but one group brought sickness with them. Many of the Greenlanders, including Eric, died. For the next five generations, Eric’s settlement grew steadily, but it could not survive the Little Ice Age of the 15th century.