While most people associate Italian explorer Christopher Columbus with the discovery of the giant landmass that we know today as North America, it’s believed that it was actually Vikings who first landed on the continent. Specifically, 11th-century Norse explorer Leif Erikson has been credited with sailing to Newfoundland and Labrador, along with establishing the first settlements in an area referred to as Vinland, a full 500 years before Columbus even set foot on a ship.
While not nearly as widely popular as Columbus, Erikson does still get his own holiday to mark his contributions to exploration and, on October 9, the United States officially celebrates Leif Erikson Day by way of observance (it’s not a federal holiday, unlike Columbus Day). The day is celebrated without too much fanfare—no, you won’t be getting off work or school for Leif Erikson Day, and there probably won’t be a parade near you—though it’s been traditionally recognized by the current U.S. President with a proclamation about the holiday that extends praise not just to Erikson, but to the Nordic people and to the very spirit and appreciation of exploration. Erikson might not get the full Columbus treatment, but he was unquestionably an interesting guy (his dad was named “Erik the Red,” just for a start), and we’re happy to celebrate Leif Erikson Day with a ship full of fun facts about the Norse explorer.
1. HIS NAME
While Americans officially celebrate “Leif Erikson Day,” the explorer’s name is spelled differently depending on who is chatting about him and where they are doing it. In Old Norse he’s Leifr Eiríksson, in Icelandic he’s Leifur Eiríksson, in Norwegian he’s Leiv Eiriksson, and Wikipedia calls him Leif Ericson, just to mix things up. Since we’re celebrating Leif Erikson Day, we’ll just stick with “Erikson,” though since the name Erikson is a patronymic and not a family name (he’s literally “Erik’s son”), we really should be referring to him just as Leif.
2. HIS BACKGROUND
Sure, Leif is often referred to as being from Norwegian blood, but he was actually born in Iceland (around 970 CE), and both his father and his grandfather spent some serious time in Norway and eventually Greenland. Leif is also considered a Viking, but perhaps we’ll just call him Norse and be done with it.
3. WHY OCTOBER 9?
While the actual date of Leif Erikson Day doesn’t have anything personally to do with Leif, it was picked for the holiday because it’s the anniversary of the day that the ship Restauration arrived in New York from Stavanger, Norway, back in 1825. The arrival of the Restauration marked the beginning of organized immigration from Scandinavia to the USA. The holiday was first recognized by Wisconsin in 1930, eventually becoming a nationally observed holiday in 1964.
4. HIS COOL FAMILY
Leif’s family was totally cool and totally wild. He was the son of Erik the Red, a Viking explorer traditionally credited with founding the first settlements in Greenland, but only after he was banished from Iceland for three years (for helping to start a landslide and killing some guys because he was convinced their father had stolen some magical beans that belonged to him, which sounds like the most terrifying fairy tale ever). Erik’s dad (and Leif’s grandfather) was Thorvald Asvaldsson, who was actually banished from Norway for manslaughter, which is what sent young Erik there in the first place. Leif was, thankfully, never banished from anywhere. Way to break from tradition.
5. NOT THE FIRST
The history surrounding Leif’s discovery of Vinland (and North America) is predictably hazy, with a number of people believing that Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see the continent, even if he never actually landed there.
6. LAUNCHING HIS EXPEDITION
One of the many stories about Leif holds that, obviously intrigued by Bjarni’s tales, he bought Bjarni’s ship off of him and set out in the direction of the mysterious new land. He is believed to have first landed on a rocky island he called “Helluland” (which many believe is Baffin Island), before going on to a second stop that he called “Markland” (presumed to be Labrador), and then venturing to his “Vinland” (whose location has been the subject of much debate).
7. BAD OMENS
Erik the Red was set to join Leif on his first North American expedition, but he left the crew after falling off his horse on the way to board the ship. Erik wasn’t injured, but he took the fall as a bad omen—even if it wasn’t one bad enough to get his son to stop his plan.
8. “LEIF THE LUCKY”
Erik’s bad omens aside, Leif and his crew stayed on in Vinland for a winter, and when they made their return to Greenland in the spring, they picked up yet another group of castaways on the way home. Thus, the punchy nickname “Leif the Lucky” was born. Sorry, papa Erik. (Some stories hold that Leif made his rescue on his way back from a second voyage to North America, but that nickname sticks.)
9. WHERE IS VINLAND?
Good luck with this debate. Some people believe that Vinland is around the Cape Cod area, while others swear it’s in the north of Newfoundland. Still others believe that “Vinland” as a name applies to a wide region, not just one spot. What we do know, however, is that there is a Norse settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland and signs of similar settlements around Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. While Cape Cod doesn’t have the same evidence to back up strangely persistent beliefs that it was actually the site of Vinland, there is a stone wall in Provincetown that has been attributed to Leif’s younger brother, Thorvald. Nice work, kiddo.
10. RELIGIOUS LIFE
Leif got hip to Christianity after a trip to Norway that resulted in his becoming a bit of a consultant to King Olaf Tryggvason, and he quickly tried to convert his family and friends once he landed back in Greenland. His mother, Thjóðhildr, was so into Leif’s religious awakening that she too became a Christian and even built her own church, called Thjóðhild's Church. Erik wasn’t so keen on the idea, and steadfastly stayed with his Norse paganism.
11. THORVALD’S ADVENTURES
Despite some claims that Leif returned to Vinland, it’s generally believed he didn’t—but that he sent out younger brother Thorvald instead (perhaps that’s where that stone wall came from). Two years after Leif’s discovery of North America, Thorvald borrowed his ship and set out to see it for himself. For a couple of years, Thorvald and his men explored the coastal areas, until a “skirmish” with Native Americans reportedly ended in Thorvald’s death. He is believed to be the first European to die and be buried in North America, which is a sad distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.