Thorvald Erikson, first known European to be killed in North America

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Thorvald Erikson was the son of Erik the Red and brother of Leif Erikson.

The only sources available regarding Thorvald Erikson are the two Vinland sagas; the Greenland Saga and the Saga of Erik the Red. Although the two sagas differ in various detail, according to both sagas Thorvald was part of an expedition for the exploration of Vinland and became the first known European to be killed in North America by its indigenous people.

Thorvald Erikson (Old Norse: Þōrvaldr Eirikssonr; Icelandic: Þorvaldur Eiríksson)

The Greenland Saga describes the voyage made by Bjarni Herjolfsson, and the subsequent voyages of Leif Eriksson, his brother Thorvald Eiriksson, his sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir, and the Icelandic merchant Thorfinn Karsefni.  These Viking explorers were the first known Europeans to discover and attempt to settle North America.

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The Saga also describes the first known hostilities between the Norse and Skraelings, the Norse term for the native peoples they had come into contact with.
<read more: Norse Contact with Native Americans before the Viking Age.>

Thorvald’s story begins in the footsteps of his brother, Leif Erikson.

Probable route of travel from Greenland to Vinland
Probable route of travel from Greenland to Vinland

The Vinland sagas tell us that Thorvald’s brother Leif Erikson had led an expedition and established a foothold in Vinland by constructing some large houses at a site he called Leifsbúðir (Leif’s Booths). 
Leifsbúðir is believed to have been located at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

L'Anse aux Meadows. Viking Site Replica © Parks Canada
L’Anse aux Meadows. Viking Site Replica © Parks Canada

Upon Leif Erikson‘s return from his Vinland expedition back to the Greenland settlement that was founded by their father Erik the Red, he rescued some Norsemen led by a man named Thorir that were shipwrecked and stranded on a rocky skerry.

When he finally returned to Greenland, Leif learned that his father, Erik the Red, had died shortly after he departed on his expedition to Vinland.

It was during this time that Thorvald felt that his brother had not explored the new lands enough and asked his brother if he could borrow his ship on an expedition to Vinland.

Leif agreed to let his brother Thorvald borrow a ship and use his houses (borrow, not keep) at Leifsbúðir in Vinland, but first he was to take the ship and make a trip to the skerry to fetch the wood (timber) that Thorir (the castaway he rescued) had left behind when he became shipwrecked.

Thorvald completed this task and then made ready for his voyage to Vinland with 30 men. When their ship was ready, they put to sea. Nothing is told of their voyage until they came to Leif’s settlement (Leifsbúðir) in Vinland.

At Leifsbúðir, they laid up their ship and spent a pleasant winter catching fish for their support.

In the following spring, Thorvald had some of the men take the ship’s long boat round the western part of the land and explore during the summer.

Vintage wooden Viking boat on the lake
Vintage wooden Viking boat on the lake

The land they seen was fair and woody with a short distance of white sands between the woods and the sea. They noted that there were many islands and much shallow water in this area. During their exploration, they found neither dwellings of men nor beasts, except upon an island to the westward, where they found a ‘corn-shed’ made of wood. They found no other works made by men anywhere else and eventually returned to Leifsbúðir in the Autumn where they stayed for another winter.

winter

The next summer, Thorvald sailed eastward with the ship and went around the land to the northward.  While exploring they were hit by a heavy storm while at sea which drove them on shore where the keel broke off from their ship.

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Thorvald and his crew remained there a long time repairing their ship.  Thorvald named the place “Keelness” (Kjalarness), because it was upon that ness was where they repaired their keel.

After fixing their ship they sailed around the eastern shores of the land and into the mouths of the firths, which lay nearest to a point of land which stretched out and was covered all over with woods. They landed their ship there and Thorvald went up to explore the country with all his companions.

Upon this location, Thorvald said: “Here it is beautiful, and here would I like to raise my dwelling.”

As they made their way back to their ship, they saw upon the sands within the promontory three elevations and went thither to investigate where they saw there three skin boats with three skraeling men (Indigenous People, Native American, Inuit) in each of the skin boats.

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Thorvald and his men captured the Skraelings, except one who got away with his boat. They decided to kill the eight skraeling men they captured and went back to the cape. Once there, they looked around and saw some heights inside of the frith and assumed that these were the dwellings of the local inhabitants.

longhouse

After exploring the area, a great drowsiness overcame the Norsemen to a point that they could no longer keep awake and they all fell asleep.  (As to what happened and why they suddenly became overwhelmingly tired is a mystery lost to history)

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Suddenly came a shout which woke the sleeping Norsemen up: “Wake thou! Thorvald! and all thy companions, if thou wilt preserve life, and return thou to thy ship, with all thy men, and leave the land without delay.”

They rushed out from the interior of the frith to find an innumerable crowd of skin boats manned by skraelings coming towards them.

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Thorvald said then: “We will put out the battle-skreen (defensive shield wall aboard ship) and defend ourselves as well as we can, but fight little against them.”

The Skrælings shot arrows at them for a time, but then ran away as fast as they could afterwards. After the incursion, Thorvald asked his men if any of them had received any wounds and they answered that no one was wounded.  He then informed them that an arrow had found its way between the edge of the ship and his shield and has struck him under his arm, mortally wounding him.

Circa 1004, Thorvald, Scandinavian explorer, who was the son of Erik the Red and brother of Leif Eriksson. He was mortally wounded in battle in what is now known as Newfoundland. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Circa 1004, Thorvald, Scandinavian explorer, who was the son of Erik the Red and brother of Leif Eriksson. He was mortally wounded in battle in what is now known as Newfoundland. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

He told his men to get ready to instantly depart, but to first to bury him in that cape which he thought best to build his dwelling.

He died of his wound and they buried him there in the cape which he wanted to settle and set up crosses at his head and feet and named the place ‘Krossaness‘.

Now that Thorvald had died and was buried, his men returned to their companions that had remained at Leifsbúðir and told them what had happened.  They wintered and then in the spring, gathered grapes and vines to load aboard their ship and sailed back to Eriksfjord, Greenland to tell Leif what had happened to his brother.

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Sources:

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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