Died At Age: 50
Born in: Iceland
Famous as: First European to reach North America
father: Erik the Red
siblings: Freydís Eiríksdóttir, Thorstein Eiriksson, Thorvald Eiriksson
children: Thorgils Leif, Thorkell Leif
Died on: 1020
Leif Erikson was an Icelandic explorer who became the first European to reach North America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Son of Erik the Red, who was the founder of the European settlement in Greenland, much of Leif Erikson’s life is generated by the two sagas, Saga of the Erik the Red and Groenlendinga Saga. Though the two contain different accounts of Erikson’s voyage to North America and subsequent finding of Vinland, they agree on the point that Erikson found America, much before Christopher Columbus did. Erikson had sailed from Greenland to Norway where he was converted to Christianity by the Norwegian King. It was on his journey back that he was blown off and consequently discovered North America. The other legend states that Erikson, upon hearing the presence of a land west to Greenland by an Icelandic trader, set forth his sails to discover the same. Whatever be the case, he became the first European to set his foot in the country. After having wintered over in Vinland, he sailed back to Greenland never to return to the North American shores. Erikson spent much of his later life spreading Christianity
Childhood & Early Life
Leif Erikson was born in 970 AD to Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild in Iceland. He had three siblings, brothers Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, and a sister, Freydis.
His father was banished from Iceland which led him to travel westwards. It was during this travel that senior Erik discovered an area that he named Greenland. In 986 AD, he established the first permanent settlement in Greenland.
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It is believed that Leif Erikson along with his crew sailed from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD. Under the guidance of Norwegian King, Olaf Tryggvason, he converted to Christianity. Following his conversion, he was commissioned by the king to introduce the religion of Christianity to other natives of Greenland.
His journey back homewards is highly speculative. According to some sources, Erikson was blown off course while travelling back to Greenland. He discovered a dry land finally on the North America continent and named it Vinland due to its general fertility and the abundance of grapes growing there. The region is now known as Nova Scotia.
According to the Groenlendinga saga, Erikson probably had heard about Vinland from an Icelandic trader, Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course fourteen years before. However, Herjólfsson did not set his foot on the land.
It is said that Erikson purposely went on an expedition to the land in the west as described by the Icelandic trader. His father was due to join the crew of thirty-five men who had planned to set sail but dropped out after falling down from a horse. Considering the fall as a bad omen, Erikson reversed his route to avoid any mishap.
It is believed that Erikson first landed in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland. Going further, he landed at a forested area which he named Markland. Two more days of sail took the crew to a place that seemed luscious and fertile. With winters approaching, the crew encamped therein and explored the region. During these explorations, Tyrker discovered a region full of vines and grapes which Erikson finally named Vinland.
At Vinland, Erikson built a small settlement which was later known by the name Leifsbúðir (Leif's Booths). After spending the winter there, he along with his crew members set sail to return to Greenland. The legend further states that on his voyage back, Erikson rescued two men who were shipwrecked, thus earning the title Leif the Lucky.
Upon returning to Greenland at his family estate in Brattahlio, Erikson dutifully completed the task entrusted by Norwegian king of spreading Christianity. He started preaching the religion to Greenlanders and successfully converted them. His mother was one of the first converts who went on to build a church by her name, Thjóðhild's Church.
It is believed that Erikson’s successful expedition encouraged other Norse men to follow his footsteps. His brother, Thorvald along with other Norse men, travelled to Vinland. However, if the sagas are to be believed, a fight occurred between Norse men and indigenous people which resulted in hostilities and killing.
Following the hostility and violence, no permanent Norse settlement was found in Vinland, though Norse men often sailed to Markland for forages, timber and trade. These trade journeys continued for centuries thereafter.
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Erikson was last mentioned alive in 1019. It is assumed that he passed on his chieftaincy to his son Thorkell in 1025.
Erikson’s major contribution has been as the first European discoverer of North America. He not just became the first Norse explorer to reach the North American shores but also established the first Norse settlement in Vinland (today’s Nova Scotia). The site referred to as L'Anse aux Meadows, is at the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.
Personal Life & Legacy
It is believed that while on his journey from Greenland to Norway, Erikson was blown off course to Hebrides, where he eventually ended up staying for much of the summer. It was during his stay therein that he fell in love with a noblewoman Thorgunna. They were blessed with a son, Thorgils. Thorkell is his other son, but not from Thorgunna.
Though nothing concrete is known of Erikson’s death, he is believed to have died between 1019 and 1025. Following his death, his son Thorkell took over his chieftaincy.
In 1960s, a research was carried out by the Norwegian couple, Helge Ingstad an explorer and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad an archaeologist. They claimed that the Norse settlement was in most probability located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The site is known as L'Anse aux Meadows. It has been labelled the oldest European settlement in North America, and more than 2,000 Viking objects have been recovered from it.
The discovery of Erikson’s historic expedition to North America did much to reconstitute the identity of Nordic Americans and Nordic immigrants. The discovery gave a boost to them about their self-perception.
The United States of America acknowledged Erikson’ contribution as an explorer by constructing statues of him at various places including, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago.
October 9th is celebrated as the Leif Erikson Day every year. While celebrations were limited to Wisconsin earlier, in 1964 the United State Congress authorized and requested nation-wide celebrations.
This European explorer discovered North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus did in 1492.