When I first read that it was Leif Eriksson Day on October 9th, my first thought was, who was Leif Erikson(also spelled Erikson)? And when I read about him, my next thought was, isn’t it so weirdly coincidental that Leif Erikson Day falls so close to Columbus Day? Well, anyway read on to find out more Leif Erikson – the Viking who “discovered” America(?).
So many questions in that first paragraph above; and while my research shows that the answers are not conclusive, they are certainly interesting, and show us how history can be different from what we learn in text books or know by popular knowledge/belief.
Note: I use both known spellings of his patronymic last name throughout alternately – Erikson and Eriksson.
Note that this is a post written simply because I found this information truly interesting and wanted to share it with my readers; also because reading about Erikson reminded me of my personal favorite explorer, Shackleton. And TBH, I was also reminded of the Outlander series that I binge watched last year!
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Leif Eriksson – The Viking Who “Discovered” America?
The Early Years
Leif Eriksson (also spelled Erikson or Ericson), believed to have been the first European to discover and explore the North American continent, was born most likely around 970 c.e. in Iceland. His father was the famed Erik the Red(thus Erik-son), and his mother was Thjodhild (likely of Irish origins).
Around 980 c.e, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for murder and sailed westward with his family to a land he had heard of, which he later called Greenland. Interestingly, Erik the Red followed in the footsteps of his own father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, who had been exiled from Norway for manslaughter, and had then fled to Iceland years ago.
The Exploring Years
When Leif Erikson was around 20 or 30 years old, he became a loyal of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. Under the king’s command, he sailed back to Greenland with the intention of converting its people to Christianity. Here is where accounts point to differing views of his landing in North America.
Discovery By Accident
Some accounts state that Leif Erikson was blown off course on his return, and ended up farther west – in the Americas. He later returned to Greenland and worked on his original mission from the king.
A Voyage to Strange New Lands
Another account states of his intentional voyage to the new land after hearing about it from Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjolfsson. The trader had miscalculated on an earlier voyage to Greenland ending far enough west; he was possibly the first European to sight North America, but he did not set foot on it. Erikson later bought Herjolfsson’s ship, and with a crew of 35 men, he retraced the trader’s route in reverse.
Based on accounts in The Saga of the Greenlanders, they landed in a icy flat land (in present-day Canada). Leif Erikson said of the same, “now will I give the land a name, and call it Helluland.”(Ch. 3, Greenlanders Saga). He and his crew sailed further south, to a land rich in timber; this lead Leif to name it aptly as Markland (Norse for woodland). They finally set up base further southwest in what is most likely modern Newfoundland; Erikson christened this as Vinland (or Wineland) because of the abundance of grapes there. (Ch. 4, Greenlander’s Saga)
The Saga of Erik the Red also talks about Leif Erikson’s landing in Vinland, as in the below passage
[Erikson] was tossed about a long time out at sea, and lighted upon lands of which before he had no expectation. There were fields of wild wheat, and the vine-tree in full growth. There were also the trees which were called maples; and they gathered of all this certain tokens; (Ch.5, The Saga of Erik the Red)
Leif Eriksson and his crew spent a few months in Vinland; they returned to Greenland with a cargo full of much needed timber, and grapes as well. When Erik the Red died, Erikson succeeded his father as chief of the Greenland settlement. Erikson is believed to have died around 1025 c.e., based on accounts that show his son was the chief at that time.
Leif Erikson never returned to North America himself after that first voyage. But he had paved the way for others; and Vikings sailed west to Vinland for a while later.
In 1960, Norwegian husband-wife team of explorer Helge Ingstad and archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad discovered archaeological remains of Norse buildings in Newfoundland dating from 1000 c.e., the same time as Erikson L’Anse aux Meadows is now recognized as a World Heritage Site, and it has been suggested that this site is Vinland.
While I remarked upon that weird coincidence of the closeness of Columbus Day and Leif Erikson Day, it is just that: coincidence! In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation that declared October 9 to be Leif Erikson Day in his honor. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the 1825 arrival in New York of the ship Restauration; this carried the first organized band of Norwegian immigrants to the United States.
h/t and resources for further reading
- The Saga of Erik the Red (sagadb)
- History of Medieval Greenland (a timeline created by Marc Carlson)
- The Troubling History of the Fight to Honor Leif Erikson—Not Columbus—as the Man Who ‘Discovered America’ (Time.com)
- 500 Years Before Columbus, Viking Explorer Leif Erikson Was Likely The First European To Set Foot In The Americas (All That’s Interesting)
- Coming to America: Who Was First? (NPR)
- Leif Erikson (BBC)
- Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day? (National Geographic)
- Leif Erikson (Wikipedia)
- 15 Facts (MentalFloss)
A Little More For You
And Now, the End of This Post
Dear reader, did you know about Leif Erikson? What are your thoughts on the Vikings? Any other explorers that inspired you? Do let me know