Thorvald Eiriksson: The Lesser Known Brother of Leif Erikson

The story of Thorvald Eiriksson is incomplete without talking about the Icelandic Saga. Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the saga is a collection of histories describing Norsemen’s settlement of Iceland and Greenland in the 10th and 11th centuries. Although many historians have claimed that the sagas are unreliable.

Eirik Thorvaldsson, commonly known as Eirik the Red, was a Norseman who was banished from Norway for allegedly committing murder and other crimes. He settled in Iceland with his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, to avoid murder charges. There he married Thjodhild and bore three sons, Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein, and a daughter Freydis.

But he was once again involved in a dispute and declared an outlaw. In response to this, he departed Iceland and arrived at the coast of Greenland.

However, he sailed south searching for habitable areas. After two years of his exploration, he returned back to tell of his discoveries, giving Greenland its name as a way to attract prospective sellers. (Contrary to popular belief, Eirik the Red did not name the new land Greenland, he only claimed so to fool people into settling there).

He later went back to colonize Greenland, and his expedition prospered well. After his exile had expired, he returned to Iceland and established a colony where he governed until he died in 1003.

Thorvald Eiriksson and His Expeditions

There are not many source materials regarding Thorvald Eiriksson except the two Vinland sagas- the Greenland Saga and the saga of Erik the Red.

These stories were written down approximately 250 years after the settlement of Greenland and are open to several interpretations. Although both materials differ in details, they claim that Thorvald Eiriksson was part of an expedition to explore Vinland.

Thorvald Eiriksson was the (probably illegitimate) son of Eirik the Red and brother of Leif Erikson.  He led the second expedition to explore Vinland and was the first European to die in North America.

In the year 1000, his elder brother Leif Erikson learned about the expedition led by one Bjarni Herjolsson and his crew, who discovered three lands by chance during their voyage to Greenland, although they never set foot on the lands themselves.

He bought Bjarni’s ship and sailed to the lands to explore them. He returned home after he explored the West, naming the territories he discovered during his adventure- Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. There he established a base called Leifsbudir, where they spent the winter and then sailed back to Greenland the following spring with a cargo of timber and grapes.

Thus the name Vinland is attributed to the discovery of grapevines for making wine upon the arrival of Leif Erikson in North America. Within two years, after hearing of the success of his brother’s expedition, Thorvald sought to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps with his own expedition.

He aimed to further explore the new Vinland discovered by his brother by ship, using Leifbudir as his base. Together with his group of Vikings of about thirty persons, including his sister Freydis, they sailed on their journey.

At a certain point, they made landfall at a point of land which stretched out and covered all over the wood. He planned to settle and dwell on the land, but sadly, his plan did not work out.

The Death of Thorvald Eiriksson

Many claim Thorvald Eiriksson was allegedly killed by Native Americans in combat on the Gurnet in about 1004. Others say he died in a skirmish with Aboriginal people somewhere in the North of the Vinland base. They couldn’t be further from the fact.

An attack by nine Native Americans truncated Thorvald Eiriksson’s plan to settle in Vinland called the Skrealings. In the saga of Eirik the Red, it is claimed that an ox charged from behind Thorvald’s group of Vikings as they were trading with the Native Americans, which frightened the natives. As a result, they opened fire with bows and arrows, killing Thorvald Eiriksson.

In another record, it was established that Thorvald Eiriksson was merely unloading his longboat upon arrival and was shot in the back by a Native American hiding in the bushes. However, we cannot say for sure which account is more reliable.

But during the attack and combat with the Native Americans, all but one were killed in the brief encounter. When the Norsemen later encamped on a nearby cape, they were attacked by the injured tribe of Native Americans.

After the skraelings had been driven off, Thorvald  Eiriksson collapsed, having been pierced by an arrow under his arm “I have gotten a wound under the arm,” said he.

Thorvald was reportedly the only casualty of the encounter as his company managed to defend their ships and retreat. When he knew he wouldn’t survive the mortal wound, he asked his men to bury him in the land where he had hoped he would settle.

As a Christian, he also instructed them to place a cross on his head and feet declaring the place to be called Krossaness forever in all time to come. The men did as they were told and returned back to Greenland. Today, Thorvald is often remembered as the first European known to have died in the New World.

The End of the Vinland Settlement

The third youngest Eiriksson brother, Thorstein, attempted to retrieve the body of his brother Thorvald. Unfortunately, he fell ill and died before his party could reach Vinland. However, his wife, Gudrid Thorbjorns, was very persistent and managed to organize another expedition to the newfound land.

Upon the death of her husband, she remarried Thorfinn Karlsefni, and by the following spring, she managed to convince him to return to Vinland.

When they reached the Viking establishment, they were met with the grapes and wheat which they had brought before. The relations and trade with the natives they met there remained peaceful at first.

However, it was short-lived. According to the saga of Erik the Red, things took a turn for the worse when a Norse broke loose of its confines and charged into the native’s camp.

Karlsefni and his crew were forced to retreat when they realized that though the land was good, there would always be terror hovering around them. Then they made ready to move away. But after less than ten years, the Vinland settlement was abandoned. This saw the end of the Vinland settlement.

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