Leif Erikson's foray into North America began over a thousand years ago—long before Columbus's 1492 journey. Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.
1. LEIF ERIKSON’S STORY IS CHRONICLED IN THE ICELANDIC SAGAS.
Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas were a set of around 40 historical narratives about the bygone Age of Vikings. Nobody knows who authored them; it’s likely that the stories came from Iceland’s rich oral tradition, passed along verbally from one generation to the next until someone committed them to paper. Like Homer’s The Iliad, the sagas seem to mix fiction and fact. However, there is archaeological evidence to back up some of the historic claims they make. Two sagas—titled The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders—retell the adventures of a Viking named Leif Erikson. Both works agree that he traveled west of Greenland around 1000 CE. Then, he reportedly founded a settlement in present-day North America. The two accounts diverge on specifics, but both agree that Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans—if not the first European—to ever tread on the continent.
2. AMERICANS HAVE AN ODD WAY OF PRONOUNCING HIS NAME.
In Iceland and Scandinavia, the name Leif is usually pronounced “Layf” and rhymes with the English word safe (or like “life,” depending on the region). Yet, in America, people often say “Leef” instead. If you grew up with Nicktoons, you might remember Spongebob Squarepants raving about “Leef” Erikson Day in a season two episode.
The spelling of Leif's name is also all over the place. In the Old Norse Language, “Leif Erikson” is spelled Leifr Eiríksson. But in Nynorsk—a younger version of Norwegian writing—it’s spelled Leiv Eiriksson. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To complicate things even further, some writers favor alternate spellings like Ericson, Eriksson, and Erikson. In the U.S., the most widely-used version is Leif Erikson, so we’ll just go with that.
3. AN IRISH MONK MIGHT’VE BEATEN LEIF TO AMERICA BY A FEW HUNDRED YEARS.
Saint Brendan the Navigator was a well-traveled Irish abbot who died around 577 CE. Tales of his deeds remained popular after he died, and in the 9th century, his legend was bolstered by a Latin-language biography called The Voyage of St. Brendan.
Some portions of the book seem a bit far-fetched. According to The Voyage of St. Brendan, Brendan and a small crew took a leather-bound wooden sailboat and launched it from the Dingle Peninsula. They went westward in search of the Garden of Eden—and, according to the book at least, he found it: Brendan landed on a beautiful island, stayed for a time, and then left when an angel told him to go back home. The story is probably just a religious folktale, but there are those who think it’s based on a real, transatlantic voyage Brendan made (it's been suggested that the paradise he found was either a Bahaman Island or North America’s eastern seaboard).
In 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to test whether or not the Irish abbot could have actually made the journey. Using historical records, he built a 36-foot duplicate of the type of ship Brendan would have used, and on May 17, he and his four-man crew went to the Dingle Peninsula and set sail. Following a long pit stop in Iceland, they made it to Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This seemingly proves that 6th-century Irishmen did have the technology to cross the Atlantic, but it doesn’t mean Brendan—or any of his contemporaries—actually made the trip.
4. LEIF’S DAD WAS GREENLAND’S ORIGINAL COLONIZER.
Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red, had crimson hair and a rough childhood. He was born in Norway, but when his father committed manslaughter there, the family was banished to Iceland, where Erik would go on to marry a rich woman and have four children—including a son he named Leif. Unfortunately, Erik killed a neighbor in a skirmish and was temporarily exiled. Instead of going back to Norway, Erik went west, settling in a huge, uninhabited region that another explorer had sighted a few years earlier. Once his banishment was lifted in the year 985 CE, Erik decided to try and establish a new colony on the island he’d found. Luckily, he was a PR genius. To entice others into moving there, he gave the place an appealing name: Greenland. The strategy worked.
5. HE WAS A CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY.
The sagas have little to say about Leif’s upbringing, but he was probably born in Iceland sometime between 970 and 980 CE and grew up in Greenland. In 999 CE, Erik sent Leif to Norway so that he could work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard. Tryggvason vigorously promoted the Christian religion, and he found an eager convert in Leif.
In 1000 or 1001 CE, the monarch handed his bodyguard a special mission: Preach Christianity in Greenland. Upon returning to his father’s island, Leif spread the gospel—with some difficulty. His mother, Thjodhild, was quick to embrace the new faith. She also insisted that a chapel be built near her Greenland home. On the other hand, Erik the Red refused to give up his Pagan beliefs. So in retaliation, Thjodhild stopped sleeping with him, which—according to one saga—“was a great trial to his temper.”
6. LEIF HAD TWO SONS (THAT WE KNOW OF).
On his voyage to join Olaf Tryggvason, Leif’s crew got a bit lost and landed on the Hebrides near Scotland. Terrible weather forced the men to remain there for a month, and Leif got a lord’s daughter pregnant, then went to Norway and left her behind. But when she gave birth to a son—a boy christened Thorgills Leifson—Leif agreed to raise him. Thorgills’s mother sent him away to live with Leif in Greenland. At some point, Leif had another male child who was called Thorkel.
7. THERE ARE CONFLICTING STORIES ABOUT HOW HE “FOUND” NORTH AMERICA.
In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif parts ways with King Olaf and then discovers the American continent while journeying back to Greenland. (Apparently, he veered off-course.) The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it differently. This text maintains that, one day, a trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson caught sight of the landmass from his ship but didn’t go ashore. Bjarni began telling tales about this strange new place, and Leif, fascinated by the story, bought Bjarni’s vessel and set out to locate the mysterious land with a 35-man crew. Over the course of an adventurous summer, he did just that. And unlike Bjarni, Leif explored the place on foot.
8. BEFORE LEIF REACHED THE MAINLAND, HE PROBABLY STOPPED AT BAFFIN ISLAND.
Baffin, Canada’s biggest island, is 932 miles long and home to lemmings, caribou, and polar bears (and people). It might also be one of the three North American areas that the Icelandic Sagas reference.
When Leif’s men begin their westward journey in The Saga of the Greenlanders, they soon discover an icy countryside filled with large, flat rocks. “Now I will give the land a name, and call it Helluland,” Leif says in the text. Translated from Old Norse, the moniker means “stone-slab land.” Based on the descriptions in the sagas of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red, most historians think Helluland was really Baffin Island. Some Norse artifacts have been found there.
9. LEIF AND THE VIKINGS LEFT A GEOGRAPHIC PUZZLE BEHIND.
After leaving Helluland, the Vikings went south. Their next stop was a timber-filled expanse which received the name Markland, or “land of wood.” The sagas report that Markland was south of Helluland but north of a third area that the Nordics named Vinland. Generally, Markland is thought to have been a portion of Canada’s Labrador coast. Wherever it was, we know that Greenlanders continued to visit the place well into the 1300s. That’s because one document from 1347 mentions a ship that had recently stopped in Markland—though there are no specific details about its location.
The location of Vinland is a total mystery. In the sagas, it’s described as a vast area with a prized commodity: grape vines. Salmon, game animals, and wild grasses were also said to be present. In Vinland, Leif’s party built a settlement, where they spent the winter before journeying back to Greenland. Subsequent Viking forays into Vinland are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. Other texts reveal that the Bishop of Greenland traveled there in 1121 CE.
But at some point, Nordics stopped going to Vinland. Today’s historians argue about where the place once stood, but in 1960, archaeologists found what turned out to be a Viking-made settlement in Newfoundland. The site is named L’Anse aux Meadows—and according to radiometric dating, it was built between 990 and 1030 CE and was occupied for around 10 years. That lines up neatly with the timeline of events in Leif’s story from the Icelandic Sagas.
Is L’Anse aux Meadows the long-lost settlement of Vinland? Maybe. Some experts argue that it was just an offshoot of that legendary colony and would have served as a waystation for seafaring travelers. Others think the site might be Markland rather than any part of Vinland.
10. HE SUCCEEDED HIS FATHER AS GREENLAND’S CHIEFTAIN.
Erik the Red didn’t accompany his son to North America, and he died shortly after Leif returned to Greenland. By then, the island’s population had exploded to around 2400 people. When he became chieftain, Leif put his voyaging years behind him. We don’t know when he died, but it was probably before 1025 CE, when Leif’s son Thorkel succeeded him as chieftain.
11. LEIF HAD A MURDEROUS HALF-SISTER.
In The Saga of the Greenlanders, we’re treated to a disturbing tale about Erik the Red’s daughter, Freydis (who The Saga of Erik the Red tells us was illegitimate). While Leif was presiding as Greenland’s chieftain, she and her husband Thorvard undertook a voyage to the New World with two brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi. For a few months, the couple lived in Vinland, and it was not a pleasant time. One day, Freydis told Thorvard that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her (which the saga says was a lie), and demanded that he kill the men.
Helgi and Finnbogi were living at a separate campsite along with several other Vikings. Thorvard, Freydis, and many of their neighbors headed to the camp, where all the men there were slain. But that didn’t satisfy Freydis, who grabbed an axe and proceeded to massacre the camp’s unarmed women. Upon her return to Greenland, Leif heard about this atrocity but couldn’t bring himself to punish his half-sibling.
Rather bizarrely, The Saga of Erik the Red treats Freydis as a hero for fighting off an attack by native North Americans and never mentions her as a murderer. It’s unknown which saga is closer to the truth.
12. TENSIONS FLARED BETWEEN NATIVE NORTH AMERICANS AND LEIF’S BRETHREN.
In the Arctic Circle, Norse artifacts are sometimes found at Inuit archaeological sites—and vice versa. We know from the sagas that the Vikings didn’t always interact with indigenous residents peacefully. The Vinland settlement was occasionally attacked during their stay by a group of natives—whom the Nordics called “Skraelings.” One one occasion, the indigenous people terrorized the Vikings with catapults and other advanced weapons—but they were ultimately driven off (perhaps thanks partly to Freydis). On another occasion, Leif’s brother Thorvald was killed near the Vinland encampment by an indigenous warrior.
13. THE “COLUMBUS VS. ERIKSON” CULTURE WAR STARTED IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY.
Christopher Columbus didn’t become a household name until Washington Irving published a wildly inaccurate biography of the explorer in 1828. Misleading as the book was, the idea of celebrating Columbus really appealed to Italian immigrants. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison publicly encouraged his fellow Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. At the urging of Italian residents, Colorado adopted Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 1907. Presidents began issuing Columbus Day proclamations in the 1930s, although it wouldn’t become a true federal holiday until 1968.
Not all Americans approved of that version of history. Forty-six years after Irving published his biography of Columbus, Wisconsinite Rasmus Bjorn Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus, which pointed out that Leif Erikson was traversing North America 500 years before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic. Anderson decided that Erik the Red’s famous son needed his own holiday to offset Columbus’s, and settled on October 9 as the perfect date for it: On that day in 1825, a group of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York City, an event that is generally credited as starting organized Scandinavian migration to the United States. At Anderson’s urging, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize Leif Erikson Day in 1929.
14. AMERICAN PRESIDENTS NOW MAKE YEARLY LEIF ERIKSON DAY PROCLAMATIONS.
America Not Discovered By Columbus—and other books like it—gave Leif Erikson a rabid U.S. fanbase. Early on, though, it became clear that some admirers didn’t just like him because he was a great explorer: They liked him because he wasn’t Catholic. The surge of immigrants from places like Poland and Italy led to an anti-Catholic backlash in the States. To many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, honoring Christopher Columbus—an Italian who practiced Catholicism—seemed odious. From their perspective, Leif Erikson looked way more appealing.
Nevertheless, Columbus Day emerged as a federal holiday, and Leif Erikson Day has yet to achieve that distinction. It is, however, customary for the sitting U.S. president to honor Scandinavian-Americans every year on October 9 by way of a proclamation, a tradition that started in 1964.
15. YOU CAN FIND LEIF ERIKSON STATUES ALL OVER THE WORLD.
A Harvard chemist with a passion for Viking lore saw to it that Boston erected one in 1887. In the next few years, Milwaukee and Chicago had set up their own Leif Erikson statues. Others preside over Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. Speaking of Leif’s birthplace, the statue of him in Reykjavík (above) once had its own bodyguards. This sculpture—which weighs a full metric ton—was a gift from the United States. After it went up in 1931, city officials started to worry that drunk pedestrians might try to urinate on it. Night watchmen were stationed by Leif’s metal feet in 1935. The statue continued to receive guarding services until the outbreak of World War II.