Leif Erikson: First European in North America

Statue of Leif Erikson, Reykjavik
Statue of Leif Erikson, Reykjavik.

 Stuart Cox /Getty Images

Leif Erikson, sometimes spelled Eriksson, is believed to have been the first European to discover and explore the North American continent. A Norse adventurer, Erikson made his way to Vinland, on the coast of what is now Newfoundland, and may have gone even further into the North American interior.

Leif Erikson Fast Facts

  • Born: About 970 c.e., in Iceland
  • Died: About 1020 c.e., in Greenland
  • Parents: Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red) and Thjodhild
  • Known For: Founded a settlement in what is now Newfoundland, making him the first European to set foot in North America.

Early Years

Leif Erikson was born around 970 c.e., most likely in Iceland, a son of the famed explorer Erik the Red—hence, the patronymic Erikson. His mother was named Thjodhild; she is believed to have been the daughter of a Jorund Atlason, whose family may have had Irish origins. Leif had a sister, Freydis, and two brothers, Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr.

Statue of Leif Erickson at Eriksstadir, Iceland
Statue of Leif Erickson at Eriksstadir, Iceland.  Draper White / Photolibrary / Getty Images Plus

Young Leif grew up in a family that embraced exploration and the Viking way of life. His paternal grandfather, Thorvald Asvaldsson, had been exiled from Norway for killing a man, and subsequently fled to Iceland. Erikson's father then got in trouble in Iceland for murder, around the time Leif was about twelve years old. Since they were as far west at that point as they could possibly go, Erik the Red decided it was time to hit the water and set sail. There were rumors that land had been sighted far to the distant west; Erik took his ships and discovered the place he would call Greenland. Allegedly, he gave it that name because it sounded appealing and would entice farmers and other settlers to relocate there.

Erik the Red, like most adventurers, took his family with him, so Erikson and his mother and siblings ended up being pioneers in Greenland, along with several hundred wealthy farmers who wanted to colonize the land.

Exploration and Discovery

Some time in his late twenties or early thirties, Erikson became a sworn hirdman, or companion, of Olaf Tryggvason, the King of Norway. However, on his way to Norway from Greenland, Erikson got blown off course, according to the Norse sagas, and ended up in the Hebrides islands, just off the coast of Scotland. After spending a season there, he returned to Norway and joined King Olaf's retinue.

Viking actor in typical attire in front of longboat replica, L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland
Leif Erikson settled a colony at what is now L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images Plus

Olaf Tryggvason was instrumental in converting the Norse people to Christianity. He is said to have erected the first Christian church in Norway and often converted people with threats of violence if they failed to comply. Tryggvason encouraged Erikson to be baptized as a Christian, and then tasked him with spreading the new religion around Greenland.

According to The Saga of Erik the Red, which is the only real source material for Erikson's journeys, during his travel from Norway to Greenland, Erikson may have again been blown off course in a storm. This time, he found himself in a strange land that a merchant, Bjarni Herjólfsson, had once claimed existed to the west, although no one had ever explored it. In other accounts of the story, such as The Saga of the Greenlanders, Erikson deliberately set out to find this new land, some 2,200 miles away, after hearing Bjarni Herjólfsson's story of an uninhabited place that he'd seen from a distance while at sea, but never set foot upon.

[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; some trunks so large that they were used in house-building.

After discovering wild grapes in abundance, Erikson decided to call this new place Vinland, and built a settlement with his men, which was eventually named Leifsbudir. After spending a winter there, he returned to Greenland with a ship full of bounty, and brought a fleet of several hundred settlers to Vinland with him on his way back. Over the following years, additional settlements were built as the population expanded. Archaeologists believe that a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, discovered in Newfoundland in the early 1960s, may be Leifsbudir.

Legacy

Leif Erikson, by all accounts, set foot in North America some five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Norse colonization continued in Vinland, but didn't last long. In 1004 c.e. Erikson's brother Thorvaldr came to Vinland but caused problems when he and his men attacked a group of indigenous people; Thorvaldr was killed by an arrow, and hostilities continued for another year or so, until the Norse vacated the area. Trade voyages continued into Vinland for another four centuries.

Viking Dwelling at L'anse Aux Meadows
Viking Dwelling at L'anse Aux Meadows.  UpdogDesigns / iStock / Getty Images

Erikson himself returned to Greenland; when his father Erik died, he became chieftain of Greenland. He is believed to have died there sometime between 1019 and 1025 c.e.

Today, statues of Leif Erikson can be found in Iceland and Greenland, as well as in numerous North American areas which have high concentrations of people of Nordic descent. Erikson's likeness appears in Chicago, Minnesota, and Boston, and in the United States, October 9 is officially designated as Leif Erikson Day.

Sources

  • Groeneveld, Emma. “Leif Erikson.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 23 July 2019, www.ancient.eu/Leif_Erikson/.
  • Parks Canada Agency, and Government of Canada. “L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site.” Parks Canada Agency, Government of Canada, 23 May 2019, www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows.
  • “The Saga of Erik the Red.” Translated by J. Sephton, Sagadb.org, www.sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en. Translated in 1880 from original Icelandic 'Eiríks saga rauða'.
  • “Turning Over a New Leif.” Leif Erikson International Foundation - Shilshole Project, www.leiferikson.org/Shilshole.htm.