- Curious Peoples
- Leif Erikson
The Viking Who Beat Columbus to America
Leif Erikson, or Leif “the Lucky,” was a Norse Viking and explorer, and arguably the first European to set foot on the North American continent. He and his crew established a settlement known as Vinland, where they lived throughout the winter around 1000 AD. Leif’s extraordinary reputation primarily originates from the Icelandic Vinland Sagas of the 13th century AD, specifically the independently written works of The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga.
Statue of Leif Erikson. Leif Erikson Park, Duluth, Minnesota.
Leif Erikson was the middle son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Although the exact time and place of Leif’s birth are unknown, it is thought to have been around 970 AD in the recently colonized Iceland. Leif’s grandfather, Thorvald Asvaldsson, had been expelled from Norway for manslaughter, which was relatively common at the time, and he resided in Iceland with his son Erik. When Erik was also banished from Iceland for killing Eyiolf the Foul, he embarked on a journey westward with his family and became the first permanent settler of Greenland.
As a Viking chief, Leif was a skilled seafaring navigator. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Erikson’s imagination was sparked by tales of Bjarni Herjólfsson, who described catching a glimpse of an unexplored land from the deck of his ship but not landing on it. Intrigued, Erikson set sail to see what he could find.
Erikson’s crew left Greenland in the summer of 999 AD, but they were blown off course and landed in Norway. There he spent some time serving the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, who converted Erikson to Christianity. The Viking planned to return and preach his new religion in Greenland but was blown off course again.
Christian Krohg. Leif Erikson discovering America, 1893.
The Sagas tell of Erikson’s visits to Helluland (Land of Flat Rocks) and Markland (Land of the Forests) before he established a settlement at Vinland (Land of Wine). Helluland is speculated to be modern-day Cape Chidley in Canada, and Markland is probably the central coast of Labrador. Scholars continue to debate the location of Erikson’s settlement Vinland, which he named for its vines and grapes.
Map of the Greenland-Vinland Voyage. By Finn Bjørklid (CC BY-SA).
In the 1960s, a Viking settlement was discovered at the tip of L’Anse aux Meadows in northwestern Newfoundland, lifting the Vinland Sagas’ stories from the pages of books into archaeological reality. Many scholars believe that this is the settlement spoken of in the Sagas.
After spending one winter in Vinland, Erikson and his men sailed home to Iceland. Although it is unlikely that he returned to North America, Erikson did lend his ship to his younger brother, Thorvald, and sent him out again. Thorvald is thought to have settled in the Cape Cod area until he was killed in a skirmish with Indigenous Americans. Thorvald Erikson was likely the first European to die and be buried in North America.
Leif Erikson spent the remainder of his life in Greenland as a chieftain. He is credited with bringing Christianity to the people of Greenland, leading conversion efforts. His mother converted and built the first church in Greenland. Leif Erikson fathered two sons, and the younger, named Thorkell, succeeded him as chieftain.
The archaeological evidence of a Norse presence in America has forced Christopher Columbus to share the limelight with Leif Erikson, the Viking who probably arrived in North America about 500 years earlier. Leif Erikson Day is celebrated on October 9th in the United States.
“I will go anywhere, provided it be forward.” —David Livingstone
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” —Jacques Yves Cousteau
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” —Edmund Hillary
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