Who Was Leif Erikson and When Did Discover America?

In Scandinavian history, the Viking age is said to have been the period from the earliest record raids by skilled Norsemen in 793 until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. During this period, the Viking rulers profoundly impacted the early medieval history of regions such as the British Isles, Scandinavia, Kievan Rus’, and France.

During the Viking Age, several Norsemen known as Vikings undertook colonization, large-scale raiding, trading, and conquest across all parts of Europe and eventually made it to North America. The Vikings voyaged by sea from their original homelands in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, then settled in different places like Normandy, Iceland, Ireland, the British Isles, the Baltic coast, and Greenland. They also settled and further established trade routes along the Volga and Dnieper routes in Eastern Europe, where they were identified as Varangians. As they settled, they founded several earldoms and kingdoms in different parts of Europe and unified the Norse homelands into larger kingdoms. Viking leaders were naturally drawn to the already existing monasteries overseas and the rapid growth of wealthy towns. They also saw weak kingdoms as an opportunity for conquest and colonization. Among the most popular Viking leaders that had a profound impact on the early medieval history, economic and social development of Europe was Leif Erikson.

Leif Erikson

Who was Leif Erikson?

Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, who is believed to have founded the first Norse settlement, which is presently known as Greenland. He was popularly known as Leif the Lucky. Most people believe that he was the first European to have set foot in North America, nearly 500 years before Christian Columbus, who arrived in 1942. In 1000 AD, he sailed to Norway, where he was converted to Christianity by King Olaf I. When in Norway, he got a son with Thorgunna, the daughter of a local chief. They named him Thorgils. After about a year, King Olaf I sent Leif back to Greenland on a mission to spread Christianity among the already existing Norse settlers there.

On his journey back to Greenland, he found himself in between Baffin Island and Labrador. Upon arrival, he and his Viking crew set up a camp in that region, and as they explored the area, Leif named it ‘Vinland’ because they discovered several grapes and berries that sustained their livelihood at the time. During their stay, they came across valuable timber cargo from Markland and came across several exciting discoveries. Following multiple clashes with hostile natives, Leif never returned to the North American shores.

When he got to Greenland, he told his brother Thorvald about Vinland. Thorvald saw it as an opportunity for settlement and establishing a new kingdom, so he led another Viking expedition to Vinland. However, he died in a skirmish near the Viking base due to hostile clashes between the local Native American population and the Norsemen. Leif, on the other hand, decided to spread Christianity in Greenland and settle there permanently. His father saw Christianity as a threat and a null concept, but his mother converted successfully and supported him by building Greenland’s first Christian Church at Brattahild.

He greatly influenced the identity of Nordic Americans and all Nordic immigrants in Europe, which is seen in how he is commemorated. Towards the late 19th century, he was recognized and celebrated as the first European explorer of the new world when honoring the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of Norwegian immigrants into the United States. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared October 9 as ‘Leif Erikson Day’ following recognition and approval from Congress.

Leif Erikson Facts

  1. Leif Erikson was a Christian Missionary

Initially, his father sent him to Norway so that he can work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard, where he converted to Christianity. Thereafter, King Olaf sent him on a special mission which was to preach Christianity to the people of Greenland. Through his missionary activities, he contributed to the building and activation of the first Christian Church in Greenland.

  1. There are several statues in his honor in different parts of the world

The first is a Leif Erikson statue found in Boston, which was the first to be erected in 1887. Since then, more statues were set up in Chicago, Milwaukee, Newfoundland, Iceland, and Norway. There is also another at his birthplace in Reykjavik.

  1. He inspired European Explorers and informed their navigation tactics

European explorers, starting with Christopher Columbus in 1942, came across the New World, which was inhabited by a group of sophisticated peoples. This led to the scramble and partition of different regions fueled by religious passions alongside the quest for power and wealth. The European explorers at the time were heavily inspired and influenced by Leif Erikson’s journey when they crossed the Atlantic.

  1. He had a crazy and aggressive half-sister

Leif had a half-sister known as Freydis. When Leif had taken over the chieftaincy of his father, his half-sister undertook a voyage to the new land with 2 other brothers and her husband, and they settled in Vinland. One day she claimed that the two brothers had beaten her up and needed to be executed. She, her husband, and a few neighbors came together and wanted to execute the two men. However, considering Freydis’s murderous nature, she grabbed an axe and killed so many unarmed women. When Erikson heard about that, he barely knew how to punish her.

  1. He set up a colony in the Northern part of America

He was among the first Europeans who established a colony in Vinland, which is currently coastal North America. He heard the tales of Vinland from Bjarni Herjólfsson, a merchant who saw the place but never made landfall in the region. So, he bought the same ship that Njarni used to see whether he would discover the same place, which he did. Also, he rescued a castaway, which influenced his nickname as ‘Leif the Lucky’.

Leif Erikson

Conclusion

There is great uncertainty about the exact location of Leif Erikson’s arrival in North America and the specific dates of his landing. This has somewhat sparked debate on the location of Vinland, but most archaeologists and researchers have identified it as a spot along the northern Atlantic coast. In 1960, archaeologists discovered little evidence of the primary base camp of the 11th century Viking exploration, which was in L’Anse aux Meadows. They further identified that Leif could have been trying to find that particular area but was blown off towards the Newfound land, which he named Vinland.