Erik the Red was running out of places to run to.
He had been exiled from Iceland for murder, so he decided to see what was out there beyond the icy horizon.
Erik Thorvaldson, called “the Red” because of the color of his hair, was born in Norway, but when he was about 10 years old his father was exiled for manslaughter. Father and son ended up in Iceland.
When Erik grew up, he followed his father’s bad example and killed a couple of people himself, and so was exiled from Iceland for three years. During his exile, Erik headed west to look for land that another Norse explorer, Gunnbjorn Ulfsson, had spotted about 80 years earlier.
Erik reached a new land and decided that it might be even better than Iceland, if such a thing were possible. At least it was large and uninhabited, which decreased the chances that he’d run into someone who needed killin’ again.
After his three years of exile were up, Erik went back to Iceland to convince people to join him in making a new settlement. No fool he, he called the land “Greenland” as a bit of consumer fraud to make the new land sound like it was more than just another godforsaken mass of rocks and ice.
In about 985, Erik sailed to Greenland again, this time accompanied by 25 ships full of colonists and supplies. By the time they had navigated the icy waters, the fleet was down to 14 ships. Still, the rough trip proved a good incentive for the 450 people who actually made it to stay.
To avoid overcrowding, they founded two settlements 300 miles apart. Despite communication problems inherent in the days before e-mail, telephones, and Federal Express, Erik was a leader in both communities.
Strangely enough, it didn’t take long for Erik to start feeling like civilization was closing in on him again. In the midst of a 40-something midlife crisis, he started planning another expedition west to look for even more land.
On the way to his ship on launch day, though, he fell off his horse.
Taking it as an omen from the gods, he decided to go wandering no more. But fear not: The days of roving Vikings weren’t over yet. Just as Erik had followed the path of his own father, Lief, Erik’s son, followed Erik’s unfinished path.
Around 1002, Leif Eriksson headed west and landed someplace in North America—most likely Newfoundland, but it’s also quite possible that he got as far south as Massachusetts Bay.