Leif Erikson

500 Years Before Columbus, Viking Explorer Leif Erikson Was Likely The First European To Step Foot In The Americas

Published August 23, 2019
Updated August 27, 2019
Published August 23, 2019
Updated August 27, 2019

Why does Columbus get a holiday for sailing to the Carribean when Viking pioneer Leif Erikson allegedly landed in North America centuries before?

Christopher Columbus has become an increasingly controversial figure in recent years. Discussions of his “discovery” of North America must reckon with the brutal slaughter and mistreatment of Native Americans that happened in its wake.

What’s more, it’s become ever more widely known that Columbus never even set foot in North America in the first place. However, evidence suggests that another explorer did.

According to both contemporaneous accounts and archaeological evidence uncovered in the 1960s, many scholars now believe that Viking explorer Leif Erikson reached North America circa 1000 A.D. — which may make him the first European to ever set foot in the New World.

But who was Leif Erikson and did he truly reach North America 500 years before Columbus?

Who Was Leif Erikson?

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Leif Erikson (also spelled Leif Eriksson, Leif Ericson, or Leifr Eiríksson in Old Norse) was born in Iceland around 970-980 A.D. He was nicknamed “Leif the Lucky” by his father, the famous Erik the Red, who established the first Viking colony in Greenland in the 985 A.D. after he was banished from Iceland for murder.

In Greenland, a young Erikson met wealthy farmers and chieftains who were pioneers in this new land. Perhaps that’s how he came to want to sail the Atlantic one summer.

The truth is, historians don’t know about this — or much of Erikson’s life — for certain.

Indeed, understanding the history of the Vikings as a whole is not a straightforward task. Most of the information that historians have gathered on Leif Erikson stems from the 13th-century Vinland Sagas, a collection of tales which tell the story of Erikson’s heritage, beginning with his father, Erik the Red’s story in the eponymous collection Erik the Red’s Saga. This is followed by The Saga of the Greenlanders, but neither document is by any means entirely factual.

Hvalsey Church In Greenland

Wikimedia CommonsHvalsey Church in Greenland. One of the best-preserved remnants from Norse settlements there.

These half-legends are semi-historical accounts and they do corroborate the assertion that Leif Erikson landed in America hundreds of years before Columbus did. But these tales aren’t totally reliable sources either.

A brief segment on the history of Leif Erikson’s alleged expedition to North America.

Rather, the accounts were written down more than 200 years after the events therein were purported to have happened. The documents do suggest, however, that these events did likely occur, were spoken of in stories that were passed down orally, and referred to real people and actual incidents in some respect.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that the archaeological remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in the northernmost tip of Newfoundland were unearthed in 1961. These remnants were right where the stories said the Vikings had settled.

But long before this evidence came to light, the sagas of Leif Erikson’s journeys were the sole documents of his adventures.

The Saga Of The Greenlanders And Erikson’s Journey To North America

Pre-Columbian Vinland Map

Wikimedia CommonsA 15th-century map of Vinland, or Wine Land, in Newfoundland before 1492.

There are two different accounts of Erikson’s arrival in North America. One account described in Erik the Red’s Saga asserts that Erikson was blown off course in the Atlantic while sailing back home to Norway and accidentally landed on American shores.

The Saga of the Greenlanders, meanwhile, explains how the Viking’s voyage to North America was no mistake — Erikson had heard of the unexplored continent from an Icelandic trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson who stumbled on it a decade earlier while miscalculating a voyage to Greenland.

Herjólfsson never disembarked, which would still give Erikson the rightful title of first European to reach North America. In The Saga of the Greenlanders account, Erikson bought Herjólfsson’s ship, organized a 35-person crew, and successfully retraced the trader’s route.

Statue Of Leif Erikson

Wikimedia CommonsLeif, The Discoverer by Anne Whitney in 1887.

Upon crossing the Atlantic, the crew encountered a piece of land covered in stone they aptly named Helluland or “Stone-slab Land,” which was likely Labrador or Baffin Island. They then saw a wooded land they named Markland or “Forest Land,” which was likely Labrador, and finally set up base at Leifsbúdir or “Leif’s Booths” which was probably somewhere on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland.

Skaholt Map

Wikimedia CommonsThis 1590 Skaholt Map shows the Latinized Norse place names in North America. These include the Land of the Risi (a mythical place), Greenland, Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (on the Labrador Peninsula), the Land of the Skrælingjar (unknown), and Vinland in Newfoundland.

The band of Vikings is said to have ventured south where they encountered timber and grapes. Here they named the land “Vinland,” or Wineland. Erikson and his men reportedly spent the whole winter here, luxuriating in the weather, the meadows, and feasting on salmon and grapes.

Summer In The Greenland Coast

Wikimedia CommonsJens Erik Carl Rasmussen’s 19th-century painting Summer In The Greenland Coast Circa Year 1000 depicts how Leif Erikson and his men would’ve lived during their summer in North America.

The saga ends as the Vikings return to Greenland with desperately needed timber and grapes when the season ends.

Erikson never returned to the New World, according to The Saga of the Greenlanders, perhaps because Erikson’s brother Thorwald had been slain in one of the many violent encounters with North America’s indigenous population.

Little is known for sure about Leif Erikson’s later life, although the last mentions of him alive in writing date to 1019 A.D., with his status of chieftain passing to his son in 1025 A.D.

Meanwhile, Erik the Red’s Saga recounts Leif Erikson’s purported discovery in a slightly different way.

Leif Erikson’s Journey According To Erik The Red’s Saga — And The Archaeological Evidence

This saga contradicts much of The Saga of the Greenlanders, most thinly by naming Leifsbúdir Straumfjordr or the “Ford of Currents” instead. It’s possible this is because Erik the Red’s Saga was purposefully written to minimize Leif Erikson’s contributions in favor of his sister-in-law, Gudrid, and her husband Karlsefni.

The pair are presented throughout this saga as spearheading the discovery of the New World on a singular voyage to Vinland. Some attribute this alternate account to a 13th-century movement that prioritized canonizing Bishop Björn Gilsson, who was a direct descendant of the couple, over Erikson’s lineage.

A Page From Erik The Red's Saga

Wikimedia CommonsA page from the 13th-century manuscript of Erik The Red’s Saga. It differs substantially from The Saga of of the Greenlanders.

The couple is written to have established a temporary hub, home to between 70 and 90 people, at Straumfjordr. It’s believed that this base camp was used to deploy further expeditions to other areas in order to collect timber, grapes, furs, and any other valuable or functional materials to bring home to Greenland.

Regardless of whether the hub was named Straumfjordr or Leifsbúdir, it was nonetheless believe to have been situated at the northern tip of Newfoundland where archaeological remnants were discovered 1,000 years later in 1961 by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, his wife, and a team of archaeologists.

According to Ancient Origins, the 1961 discovery consisted of a small chapel dedicated to Erikson’s wife, Thjodhild. It was large enough to hold 20 to 30 people.

During the excavation process in 1960, 144 skeletons were unearthed, as well. Most of the remains indicated these were tall people, which furthered the theory that they might’ve been Scandinavian.

According to the BBC, the Viking-type settlement did correspond thoroughly to the descriptions of Vinland Erikson handed down.

These discoveries serve as strong scientific evidence that these tales were both rooted in some semblance of historical accuracy. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Vikings Landing In America

Wikimedia CommonsHenrietta Elizabeth Marshall’s 1876 painting of the Vikings’ landing on North American shores.

Despite this evidence, Christopher Columbus has been firmly installed in mainstream history and global culture as the figurehead of European discovery and the consequent colonization of North America.

But how did this happen?

Christopher Columbus Day Vs. Leif Erikson Day

By 1907, Colorado became the first state to officially recognize Columbus Day. A few years later, 15 states followed suit. In 1971, it became a federal holiday.

Leif Erikson’s voyage to North America is commemorated with a niche holiday every October 9 and was made a national day of observance in 1954. Because of the highly contentious nature of Columbus Day, the push to celebrate Leif Erikson Day in its stead has in some ways become an alternative for those who feel too queasy to celebrate Columbus.

But this push, too, has unsavory roots in anti-Catholic and anti-Italian sentiment.

Traditional Norse Longhouse In Canada

Wikimedia CommonsA recreation of a traditional Norse longhouse in L’Anse Aux Meadows. Newfoundland, Canada. 2010.

According to National Geographic, by the time Italian Americans celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery in 1892, a sentiment of anti-immigration and paranoia surrounding the Catholic Church had overcome many Americans.

National University of Ireland history professor and author of Discovering Viking America, JoAnne Mancini, said that “Americans who were not Catholic were really paranoid about the Catholic Church” in the 19th century and that conspiracies the Vatican may have actively suppressed Erikson’s accomplishments grew as a result. “The idea that there might be a story where the first Europeans to America are not Southern Europeans” became increasingly popular during this time as Scandinavian immigrants pushed for their own narrative.

Leif Erikson Stamp

Wikimedia CommonsLeif Erikson may not have been commemorated with a national holiday, but he did get his own stamp in 1968.

But the narrative of Columbus’s discovery nonetheless managed to overtake Leif Erikson’s, Mancini believes, because of a longstanding tradition of Italian lobbyists and the notion that Columbus may have actually inspired more European migration to America than Erikson had.

“If you think about the subsequent history of the European conquest of America, that comes from Columbus; it doesn’t come from Leif Erikson,” Mancini elaborated. “It’s interesting that the Vikings were able to cross the Atlantic, but…Columbus had more of an impact in the long run.”

A Painting Of Leif Erikson Spotting America

Wikimedia CommonsChristian Krohg’s 19th-century painting Leif Erikson Discovers North America.

As it stands, this duel of nationalities and cultural pride has virtually ceased in favor of a more pressing battle — whether or not to eradicate a holiday of colonizers in favor of one that recognizes the plight of indigenous Americans.

As such, South Dakota celebrates Native American Day instead of Columbus Day. Hawaii and Alaska don’t celebrate either. New Mexico passed a law to officially recognize Indigenous American Day over Columbus Day this past year.

As the ethnic makeup of American culture continues to evolve, so too does the discourse around how to remember the country’s past.

After learning about Leif Erikson and his likely discovery of America, read about shieldmaidens, the Viking warrior women as fierce as their male counterparts. Then, learn some of the most interesting facts about Vikings.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.